Before They Were Divination Tools, Tarot Cards Were Playing Cards

Two hand-painted Mamluk playing cards and two Venetian playing cards.

In the English-speaking world, the word ‘tarot’ is most commonly associated with the occult and divination. It is one of the oldest forms of fortune telling, although its origins are somewhat obscure. Now, tarot reader is making a comeback as millennials are increasingly turning to tarot in a bid to help them navigate through the pressures of social media and technology.

The Origins of Tarot

Tarot is known by various other similar names, including Tarock, Tarokk, Taroky, Taroc, Tarok, Tarocchi. The origins of this word are unknown, though one speculation is that it derives from the Arabic word taraha, which means “he rejected, put aside”.

This Arabic connection is seen in the opinion that tarot cards were used originally as playing cards by the Mamluks (who are most notable as a dynasty of Muslim rulers in Egypt during the Middle Ages), which then spread to Western Europe. Some have even claimed that the tarot was invented even further afield, that is to say, in China, and that the Mamluks adopted these cards from them.

A Chinese printed playing card dated c. 1400 AD, Ming Dynasty, found near Turpan, measuring 9.5 by 3.5 cm. (Public Domain)