Is Tarot Ancient?

Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

I presented this paper to the Denver Tarot Meetup a couple years ago. I started thinking about it yesterday, and even though it’s not my best scholarly work, and the topic could be expanded considerably, I think it’s interesting and might be better off on the internet for others to find and be inspired by than sitting all alone on my computer. This was part of a longer topic we called MythBusters: Tarot.
MythBusters: Is Tarot Ancient?
Presented by Joy Vernon to the Denver Tarot Meetup
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
The main problem with this tarot myth is that there are two very different ways to look at this. The first is, “Is the use of richly illustrated cards for divination ancient?” The second is, “Are tarot images ancient?”
Clearly the cards cannot be ancient—cards are made from paper and paper was invented in China in the second century C.E. and was not produced in Europe until the twelfth century. Cards were invented in China and were originally used as money and for gambling—you might think of playing games to win baseball cards. The early Chinese cards were illustrated and divided into three suits, three cards representing people—often Chinese leaders or mythological heroes—and five cards representing the virtures of Chinese philosophy. Cards traveled to Europe via the Mamluk Empire, which is the source of our suit emblems. Tarot originated in Italy in the early fifteenth century as a trick-taking card game: the Major Arcana was added to the deck as trump cards to win hands from other players.
Next we’ll look at whether tarot images are ancient. If tarot images were truly an ancient teaching tool or spiritual story and these ancient images were simply transferred off the oft-postulated gold plaques onto paper cards once paper was invented, then we would see from the first decks a continuity of images that can be traced through history. However, that’s not what we find.
The earliest decks, painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza families in honor of a wedding, utilized common images from the time period in which they were developed. These images are based on sources such as Petrarch’s poem, Il Trionfi, and other common representations of moralistic teachings.
01 Carmina Burana Rota Fortunae02 VS Wheel of Fortune
Left image. Illustration from the Carmina Burana by collected authors. 1230.
Right image. The Wheel of Fortune, painted by Bonifacio Bembo, part of the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck. ca. 1460-1470.
03 Foolishness by Giotto04 VS Fool
Left image. The Seven Vices – Foolishness by Giotto, 1306.
Right image. The Fool, painted by Bonifacio Bembo, part of the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck. ca. 1460-1470.
05 Fra Filippo Lippi Triumph of Time
06 VS Hermit07 The Hermit Musee de Beaux Arts
Top image. The Triumph of Time. Engraving by Fra Filippo Lippi (in question). 15th century.
Bottom left image. The Hermit, painted by Bonifacio Bembo, part of the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck. ca. 1460-1470.
Bottom right image. The Hermit. Musee de Beaux Arts in France. ca. mid to late 16th century.
The Marseilles deck seems to start pulling from older imagery and ancient symbolism. However, due to a lack of consistency in the imagery, there’s no way to prove the exact origins of the images. It is curious to find themes that reach back to earlier mythological times. Were these images copied? Or did the artist simply drift onto them through the collective unconscious? Here we see many similarities in the Strength card to a second century bas-relief of a Greek myth. Below, the Orphic myth of Phanes is surprisingly similar to the World card.
08 The Nymph Cyrene Overpowering a Lion09 Force Jean Noblet
Left image. The nymph Cyrene, overpowering a lion, is crowned by Libya. ca 120-140.
Right image. Force, from the Jean Noblet Tarot. ca 1650. Note the odd crown-like hat which eventually developed into the lemniscate.
10 Phanes11 Le Monde Jean Noblet
Left image. Phanes hatched from the world egg & circled by the zodiac, Greco-Roman bas relief ca 2nd century.
Right image. Le Monde, from the Jean Noblet Tarot. ca 1650. The images of the four winds in the corners of the Greco-Roman bas relief become the symbolic representations of the four Evangelists.
The Orphic myth of Phanes is in turn derived from the mythology of the cult of Mithras.
Mithraic Kronos, representing Boundless Time. ca. 2nd century.
Mithraic Kronos, representing Boundless Time. ca. 2nd century.
From The Mysteries of Mithra by Franz Cumont, 1903:

The statue here reproduced was found in the, mithræum of Ostia before mentioned, where C. Valerius Heracles and his sons dedicated it in the year 190 A.D. This leontocephalous figure is entirely nude, the body being entwined six times by a serpent, the head of which rests on the skull of the god. Four wings decorated with the symbols of the seasons issue from the back. Each hand holds a key, and the right in addition a long scepter, the symbol of authority, A thunderbolt is engraved on the breast. On the base of the statue may be seen the hammer and tongs of Vulcan, the cock and the pine-cone consecrated to Æsculapius (or possibly to the Sun and to Attis), and the wand of Mercury–all characteristic adjuncts of the Mithraic Saturn, and symbolizing the embodiment in him of the powers of all the gods.

But what I found most interesting is that as I explored the images from the cult of Mithras, more and more tarot images appeared. This is the image of the myth of Mithras killing a bull. It has a number of similarities to the Strength card.
Grand Mithraic bas-relief of Heddernheim, Germany. From The Mysteries of Mithra by Franz Valery Marie Cumont, p. 117.
Grand Mithraic bas-relief of Heddernheim, Germany. From The Mysteries of Mithra by Franz Valery Marie Cumont, p. 117.
The illustration caption reads:

In the center Mithra with the two torch-bearers; immediately above, the signs of the Zodiac; immediately above these, Mithra aiming his arrow at the rock; below the bull a group composed of the lion, the cup, and the servant (sic, likely serpent).

Franz Cumont goes on to say:

An allegorical group, often reproduced, in which a lion represented fire, a cup water, a serpent the earth, pictured the struggle of the opposing elements, which were constantly devouring one another and whose perpetual transmutations and infinitely variable combinations provoked all the phenomena of nature.

Here are two other illustrations for comparison:
14 Bull Slaying 215 Bull slaying 3
But what most grabbed my attention was yet another illustration found on a clay cup. The illustration showed the “Bull-slaying” and the “Bull-bearing” and between the two scenes, Mithra’s constant companion the dog.
16 Clay cup found at Lanuvium
17 Le Fou Jean Noblet18 The Fool RWS
Top image. Clay cup found at Lanuvium.
Bottom left image. Le Fou, from the Jean Noblet Tarot. ca 1650.
Bottom right image: The Fool from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck, 1909.
No, I don’t draw the conclusion that the tarot images are a secret repository of the occult knowledge of the intiatory rites of Mithraism. If that were true, then I think our earliest cards, the Visconti-Sforza, would reflect those images instead of reproducing contemporary images and philosophical teachings.
What I do think is that the original designers of the later Marseilles decks thought, I like the symbolism on these pretty illustrated cards but wouldn’t they be much more useful if they incorporated deeper layers of mythological truths? And I think then those designers started seeking out older mythologies to record onto these attractive, easy to handle cards, just as the 18th and 19th century esotericists went one step further with adding qabalistic and astrological layers onto the cards.
Are tarot cards ancient? No, definitely not. Are the tarot images ancient? No, even with the enticing similarities to the symbols of Mithraism, I do not see a continuity of collective imagery—twenty-two consistent images repeated throughout history. Can we map the tarot cards onto the surviving imagery from that cult? Certainly, just as we can map the cards onto Arthurian legends, historical time periods or modern movie plots—the Hero’s Journey, repeated in myth and story, follows a consistent series of plot points. I do see that some Marseilles tarot images appear to reflect ancient knowledge, but that only goes to show that as today we sometimes desire to create and use decks that reflect popular stories, such as the Hobbit, or ancient imagery, such as Egyptian rites, so the people of the seventeenth century also desired to illustrate their the cards with their favorite myths.
Here’s the original handout from the Denver Tarot Meetup presentation.
Cumont, Franz Valery Marie. The Mysteries of Mithra. Chicago: Open Court, 1903. Google Book Search. Web. 29 April 2015.
Dummett, Michael. The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards. New York: George Braziller. 1986.
Huson, Paul. Mystical Origins of the Tarot. Rochester, VT: Destiny. 2004.
Place, Robert. The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination. New York: Tarcher, 2005.
Wirth, Oswald. The Tarot of the Magicians: A Guide to the Symbolism and Application of the Wirth Tarot Deck by its Designer. York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1990.
Online Sources
These are the online sources I cited on June 25, 2013. Not all of the links are currently active.
Carmina Burana at Wikipedia
The Doctrine of the Mithraic Mysteries on Sacred Texts
The Hermit in Art: Tarot at Hermitary
Matching the Triumphs at Tarot History
Mithraism Images on PicsWeb
Myth of Phanes at
The nymph Cyrene, overpowering a lion at the British Museum
On the Astronomical Explanation of Phanes’s Relief at Modena by Papathanassiou, M.…22….1P
Francesco Petrarch and Laura deNoves
Tarot History at Tarotpedia
Joy Vernon has been studying and teaching energetic and esoteric modalities for more than twenty years. She is the organizer of the Denver Tarot Geeks, Denver Tarot Meetup and Denver Traditional Reiki Meetup, and she served on the faculty of Avalon Center for Druidic Studies. She is one of the psychics at Isis Books and is a Certified Professional Tarot Reader and a member of the American Tarot Association and Tarosophy Tarot Association. Joy also teaches Traditional Japanese Reiki. For information on upcoming classes or to schedule an appointment, please visit
© 2015 by Joy Vernon. All rights reserved.

Joy Vernon
Joy Vernon

Joy Vernon is widely recognized as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty-five years’ experience teaching energetic and esoteric modalities, Joy brings expertise and practiced familiarity to her specialty of esoteric tarot, which layers astrological and qabalistic symbolism onto the traditional tarot structure. Under her leadership, the Denver Tarot Meetup grew into one of the largest and most active tarot-specific meetups in the world. Now Joy runs the Greater Seattle Tarot Meetup. Joy works as a tarot reader, astrologer, and teacher in Burien, Washington. To learn more, please visit

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