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The history of the Tarot has been more or less lost in the mists of time. Even experts can't agree on so much as when exactly the first Tarot deck saw its first light. The first Tarot deck's origin is placed somewhere between teh 14th and 15th centuries. It is however generally agreed that the first Tarot deck was created in Italy.
It is said that the original purpose of the Tarot was simply to play games. Indeed, the Tarot is the ancestor of our playing cards today. The first Tarot was based upon the playing cards of the time, with number cards and court cards. The difference was that a Queen was added to each court suite, and 22 cards not belonging to any of the suites were also added.
At the time, the Tarot was most popularly used in a card game that was similar to bridge, called the Game of Triumphs. Of t he 22 added cards, 21 were used as permanent trumps in this game, and they outranked all the other cards, much like they do in Tarot readings today. The Game of Triumphs and the Tarot cards became very popular throughout Italy, and later spread to France, Sicily, Austria, Germany, and the rest of Europe.
It was only centuries later that occultists in France and England began to see deeper meanings in the Tarot images. This led to the use of the cards as divination tool and its general use in the occult arts.
For more on the fascinating history of the Tarot, feel free to visit "The Hermitage" at http://www.tarothermit.com/. This is an excellent site that explores the history of the Tarot, and how the cards relate to our playing cards, as well as how the Tarot itself is used today.