9 Oldest Tarot Card Decks in the World

Throughout their history, tarot cards have combined astrological, Christian, Jewish, and pagan symbolism, imagery that, over time, gave rise to their association with occult mysteries.

Their origins, however, are much humbler: for centuries, they were simply playing cards.

Card games had slowly made their way across the Silk Road from China, becoming popular in Europe in the late 13th century, when the rise of papermaking and woodblock printing made them relatively easy and inexpensive to produce.

The most popular games used a 56-card deck with four suits, not unlike the playing cards of today, but in 1425, an Italian duke commissioned a deck with an extra 22 “trump” cards for a new game called “tarocchi,” and the tarot deck was born.

9. The Thoth Tarot

Year: 1942 (created); 1960 (published)
Country of Origin: The United Kingdom
Artist: Lady Freida Harris
Designer: Alastair Crowley
Medium: Oil paint; mass-produced

The Thoth Tarotphoto source: Open Culture

Almost 75 years after his death, Alastair Crowley’s name is still associated with the occult. A prolific writer, member of several secret societies, and founder of his own religion, Crowley had an enduring fascination with the tarot. From 1938 to 1942, he collaborated with artist Lady Freida Harris, who created oil paintings for each card.

Although the paintings were displayed in London in 1942, the deck wasn’t published until the 1960s after Crowley’s and Harris’s deaths.

Crowley made several changes to the traditional names of the cards. Within the suit cards (the minor arcana), he changed Knights to Princes and Pages to Princesses. Among the trump cards (major arcana), he changed Strength to Lust and Temperance to Art.

Did you know?

The Thoth deck has an art deco style and reflects artistic movements of the early 20th century, such as Futurism, Constructivism, and Rayonism.

8. The Rider-Waite Tarot

Year: 1909
Country of Origin: The United Kingdom
Artist: Pamela Coleman Smith
Designer: AE Waite
Medium: Hand-painted; mass-produced

The Rider-Waite Tarotphoto source: Wikipedia

Also known as Waite-Smith and the Rider-Waite-Smith, this deck was created in 1909 and is arguably the most recognizable tarot deck in existence. Richly colored and beautifully illustrated with lavish symbolism, the cards were published by the Rider company and designed by Pamela Coleman Smith under the direction of AE Waite.

Waite was a Freemason who wrote on a wide number of occult practices such as divination, Kabbalism, and alchemy.

In contrast to earlier decks, coins are now pentacles, and batons are referred to as wands.

Did you know?

The Rider-Waite revived the tradition of illustrating all 78 cards; in most decks since the early 16th century, the “pip cards” (numbered suit cards) are represented only with their symbols; only the 22 “trump cards” (major arcana) are fully illustrated.

7. The Della Rocca-Gumppenberg Tarot

Year: 1835
Country of Origin: Italy
Artist: Carlo Della Rocca
Designer: Carlo Della Rocca
Medium: Copper engraving (later, cheaper woodblock and stencil versions can also be found)

Dellaroca Gumppenberg (Christies)photo source: Christies

A new Tarot deck style was born in 1835 when Ferdinand Gumppenberg, a German printer who had moved to Milan, commissioned a deck from the artist/engraver Carlo Della Rocca. It is possible that Gumppenberg was trying to popularize a newer version of the tarot game known as “tarock,” which was then popular in France.

In this deck, the Magician is portrayed by a cobbler, and the Lover is portrayed as being torn between the love of a woman and duty to his king.

Did you know?

Because the copper engraving allowed more detail than traditional woodblock printing, the deck quickly became known as i tarocchi sopraffini, the super-fine tarot. It is still sometimes referred to as the Sopraffino-Gumppenberg deck.

6. The Etteilla Tarot

Year: 1789
Country of Origin: France
Artist: Multiple
Designer: Jean-Baptiste Alliette, aka “Etteilla”
Medium: Multiple, most commonly chromolithograph in the 19th century

photo source: 

It wasn’t until the late 18th century that tarot cards acquired their current association with the occult. A Frenchman named Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738-1791), writing under the name Etteilla (Alliette spelled backward), began to promote the cards as divination tools and published a pamphlet on how to use the cards to tell fortunes.

Alliette/Etteilla was the first to attribute specific meanings to each card, incorporating beliefs about astronomy and the four elements. Many of his methods continue to be used by tarot practitioners today.

Alliette designed his own deck especially for fortune telling in 1789; however, most “Etteilla decks” date to the late 1800s.

Did you know?

Alliette himself was influenced by the work of Court de Gébelin, who claimed that tarot cards came from Ancient Egypt. There is no evidence of this, but it has become ingrained in our understanding of Tarot cards, and many people still believe they originated in ancient Egypt.

5. The Tarot de Marseille

Year: c. 1500
Country of Origin: probably Italy; popular in France
Artist: original unknown; however notable artists of specific decks include Jean Noblet (c. 1650) and Jean Dodal (early 1700s)
Designer: Unknown
Medium: woodblock print; sometimes colored by hand or by stencil

photo source: 

Unlike the Visconti decks or the Sola-Busca, the Tarot de Marseille is not an individual deck but a style of Tarot that became popular in the early 1500s and provided the basis for the design of many subsequent decks. It is thought to have developed in Italy in the latter part of the 15th century then migrated to southern France after the French conquered Milan in 1499.

The Tarot de Marseilles reverts to an earlier style in which the “pip” (suit) cards are represented by symbols rather by than illustrated pictures. This tradition carries over to our modern-day playing cards in which we have “face cards” and “number cards.”

Did you know?

The suits of the Tarot de Marseilles became known by their French names: batons (batons), epées (swords), coupes (cups), and deniers (coins). Over time, these became the clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds of our modern playing cards.

4. The Sola Busca Tarot

Year: c. 1490
Country of Origin: Italy
Artist: unknown
Designer: N/A
Medium: metal engraving; some painted by hand

photo source: 

Little is known about the origins of the Sola Busca deck, but it is the oldest known complete set as well as the earliest in which all the “pip cards” are illustrated.

It was created from metal engravings in the late 1400s. A complete painted deck is owned by the Brera Museum in Milan, Italy, while 35 unpainted cards are held by various museums around Europe.

While the Sola Busca follows the same general makeup of other tarot decks, with 22 trumps and 56 suit cards, it is unusual in that it is illustrated with historical and mythological figures from ancient Rome.

Did you know?

Pamela Coleman Smith seems to have been influenced by the Sola Busca deck in particular when she illustrated the Rider-Waite deck some four centuries later.

3. The Charles VI Tarot

Year: late 1400s
Country of Origin: Italy
Artist: unknown
Designer: N/A
Medium: hand-painted with oil paint and gold on heavy paper

The Charles VI Tarotphoto source: 

This deck was originally thought to have been commissioned in 1392 by King Charles VI of France, hence the name. In fact, it probably originated in Northern Italy about 100 years later.

The cards are painted with gold; even if they weren’t made for a king, they were certainly made for a very wealthy client. Unfortunately, only 17 cards of this stunning deck remain.

Did you know?

The Charles VI Tarot is also known as the Estensi Tarot and the Gringonneur Tarot.

2. Visconti Tarot

Year: ca. 1428-1447
Country of Origin: Italy
Artist: Bonifacio Bembo (attributed)
Designer: N/A
Medium: hand-painted with oil paint, gold, and silver on heavy paper

photo source: Yale University Library

This deck is similar to the Visconti-Sforza deck (below) and was commissioned by the same powerful family. The 69 cards that remain of this deck now reside in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

One unusual and fascinating feature of this deck is the inclusion of a female knight and female valet (page) in each suit, in addition to the traditional male figures. It has been suggested that the inclusion of these figures may mean it was intended for use by a woman or women of the court.

Did you know?

The 69 cards left of this deck also include the three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity.

1. Visconti-Sforza Tarot

Year: c. 1425
Country of Origin: Italy
Artist: Bonifacio Bembo (attributed)
Designer: N/A
Medium: hand-painted with oil paint, gold, and silver on heavy paper

photo source:

The Visconto-Sforza are the oldest tarot cards in the world. Thirty-five cards remain of this beautiful deck, which is remarkable when we consider their age and the delicate nature of the paper they were painted on. It is known as the Visconti-Sforza deck after the Duke of Milan, Filippo Visconti, and his son-in-law, Francesco Sforza, who commissioned the deck in 1425.

While woodblock printed cards existed at this time for the masses, this hand-painted set was both costly and unique.

Did you know?

According to tarot historian Gertrude Moakley, the illustrations on this deck were inspired by the traditional costumed characters of medieval Italian carnivals.


Spread the love

Related Post

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *