Where did tarot cards come from?

Tarot cards first made an appearance in the 1400s, when a card game called tarocchi swept through the royal courts of Italy and France. It was a complicated game, played something like bridge: every card in the tarocchi deck had a point value, and the cards with the highest ranks trumped cards of a lower rank.

Tarocchi cards were illustrated with a host of literary and mythic figures, as well as allegorical images of virtues and ideals, like justice, temperance, and fortitude.

The images naturally lent themselves to some lighthearted banter among players. By the early 1500s, some tarocchi players were using the cards to improvise clever rhymes and poems about the others in the game. The resulting sonnets were called tarocchi appropriati. After a while, some tarocchi enthusiasts even started skipping the game itself, and simply passed out five or six tarocchi cards to everyone in the group so they could interpret the images for themselves.

Tarocchi appropriati was a form of divination. It was never as popular as other fortune-telling methods of the time, which included palm reading and geomancy, or the interpretation of mathematical and geometric figures. Some fortune tellers also used divination wheels, which would lead readers to a fortune in a book. Others used dice. In fact, a mathematical correspondence has led some scholars to wonder if early fortunetellers paired dice with tarot cards. A pair of dice can land on any of twenty-one combinations, and there are twenty-one numbered cards of the major arcana. Three dice, rolled together, can land on any of fifty-six combinations, and there are fifty-six cards in the minor arcana.

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