There is a lot of mysticism surrounding the origin of Tarot. I am not immortal, therefore was not alive as history unfolded, and cannot answer with 100% accuracy what theories are right or wrong. I can only present the 'facts' along side the myths and allow you guys to decide for yourselves what you believe.
In 1791, Jean-Baptiste Alliette wrote The Art of Reading Cards, in which he described their origin to be from Ancient Egypt. He told his readers that the symbols and images used on the cards were a way to visually understand the messages written in the Book of Thoth. In the 19th century, as spiritualism gained ground across Europe and America, many spread this disputed version of history as truth. Many believed that Gypsies coming from Northern Africa (it is now believed that the Romani people migrated from Asia – not Africa) brought the cards with them to Europe as a way to hide secret wisdom from persecution and corruption.
The earliest known playing cards similar to Tarot came from Turkey. They are known as the Mamluk cards and are thought to have been made in the late 12th century and highly influenced the first Italian trionfi decks made during the mid 1400's. These beautifully illustrated cards quickly made their way through upper class Italian and French society as a fun game. However, people began using the cards as a means of divination almost right from the start.
The first deck used purely for divining purposes was the Egyptian Tarot – created in 1789 by you guessed it – Jean-Baptiste Alliette, under the pseudonym Etteilla. This deck contained highly esoteric imagery, occult symbolism and astrological influences. Many later decks, including the highly regarded (and one of my personal favorites) Rider-Waite-Smith deck, were inspired by his interpretations of the cards.
The 19th and 20th century brought with it major improvements in printing technology as well as popular interest in occult philosophy, making knowledge of the Tarot spread far and wide. Hundreds of decks emerged, some were whimsical and entertaining, while others were highly esoteric like Aliester Crowley's Thoth Deck.
Today we can find hundreds of thousands of decks on the internet. So many artists have taken the Tarot's 78 cards into their hands, and molded them into an expression of their own style and interpretation. Some of these artists are serious practitioners of the craft, while others simply enjoy the challenge and novelty of creating their own card deck. Some argue that this cheapens their traditional meanings, creating confusion and demeaning those who have dedicated themselves to a serious study of the cards.
For me, the true magick of the Tarot does not come from a rule book written by the publisher, nor does it depend on it's controversial history or origin. The images themselves – and the underlying abstract messages, speak to the human psyche in a way that is difficult to find anywhere else. So many layers of symbolism and meaning are wrapped into the illustrations, that every deck – regardless of their creator – will find a way to effect those who use them.
Each deck is a piece of art – a tangible collection of manifestation at work. Each artist had to meditate on the meaning of the card itself, and decide what it means to them. They then recreate that vision onto blank canvas or paper and put it out into the world for you and me to admire and interpret for ourselves. It is a way for humanity to connect with one another, to share our inner dreams and perspectives and dig deeply into the farthest reaches of our subconscious mind. The best tarot readings stir up great feelings of emotion, forgotten memories of the past, desires for the future and inspiration for our spirits – and that is what makes Tarot a beautiful and powerful tool for our lives.