The tarot (/ˈtæroʊ/; first known as trionfi and later as tarocchi, tarock, and others) is a pack of playing cards (most commonly numbering 78), used from the mid-15th century in various parts of Europe to play a group of card games such as Italian tarocchini and French tarot. From the late 18th century until the present time the tarot has also found use by mystics and occultists for divination.
Like the common deck of playing cards, the tarot has four suits (which vary by region, being the French suits in Northern Europe, the Latin suits in Southern Europe, and the German suits in Central Europe). Each of these suits has pip cards numbering from one (or Ace) to ten and four face cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Jack/Knave) for a total of 14 cards. In addition, the tarot has a separate 21-card trump suit and a single card known as the Fool. Depending on the game, the Fool may act as the top trump or may be played to avoid following suit.
François Rabelais gives tarau as the name of one of the games played by Gargantua in his Gargantua and Pantagruel; this is likely the earliest attestation of the French form of the name. Tarot cards are used throughout much of Europe to play card games. In English-speaking countries, where these games are largely unplayed, tarot cards are now used primarily for divinatory purposes. Occultists call the trump cards and the Fool “the major arcana” while the ten pip and four court cards in each suit are called minor arcana. The cards are traced by some occult writers to ancient Egypt or the Kabbalah but there is no documented evidence of such origins or of the usage of tarot for divination before the 18th century.
The English and French word tarot derives from the Italian tarocchi, which has no known origin or etymology. The singular term is tarocco, commonly known today as a term for a type of blood orange in Italian. When it spread, the word was changed to tarot in French and Tarock in German. There are many theories to the origin of the word, many with no connection to the occult. One theory relates the name “tarot” to the Taro River in northern Italy, near Parma; the game seems to have originated in northern Italy, in Milan or Bologna. Other writers believe it comes from the Arabic word طرق turuq, which means ‘ways’. Alternatively, it may be from the Arabic ترك taraka, ‘to leave, abandon, omit, leave behind’.
Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century, probably from Mamluk Egypt, with suits of Batons or Polo sticks (commonly known as Wands by those practicing occult or divinatory tarot), Swords, Cups
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, and Coins (commonly known as disks, or pentacles by practitioners of the occult or divinatory tarot). These suits were very similar to modern tarot divination decks and are still used in traditional Italian, Spanish and Portuguese playing card decks.
The first known documented tarot cards were created between 1430 and 1450 in Milan, Ferrara and Bologna in northern Italy when additional trump cards with allegorical illustrations were added to the common four-suit pack. These new decks were originally called carte da trionfi, triumph cards, and the additional cards known simply as trionfi, which became “trumps” in English. The first literary evidence of the existence of carte da trionfi is a written statement in the court records in Florence, in 1440. The oldest surviving tarot cards are from fifteen fragmented decks painted in the mid 15th century for the Visconti-Sforza family, the rulers of Milan. During the 16th-century, a new game played with a standard deck but sharing the same name (triomphe) was quickly becoming popular. This coincided with the older game being renamed tarocchi.
Picture-card packs are first mentioned by Martiano da Tortona probably between 1418 and 1425, since the painter he mentions, Michelino da Besozzo, returned to Milan in 1418, while Martiano himself died in 1425. He describes a deck with 16 picture cards with images of the Greek gods and suits depicting four kinds of birds, not the common suits. However the 16 cards were obviously regarded as “trumps” as, about 25 years later, Jacopo Antonio Marcello called them a ludus triumphorum, or “game of trumps”.
Special motifs on cards added to regular packs show philosophical, social, poetical, astronomical, and heraldic ideas, Roman/Greek/Babylonian heroes, as in the case of the Sola-Busca-Tarocchi (1491) and the Boiardo Tarocchi poem, written at an unknown date between 1461 and 1494.
Two playing card decks from Milan (the Brera-Brambilla and Cary-Yale-Tarocchi)—extant, but fragmentary—were made circa 1440. Three documents dating from 1 January 1441 to July 1442, use the term trionfi. The document from January 1441 is regarded as an unreliable reference; however, the same painter, Sagramoro, was commissioned by the same patron, Leonello d’Este, as in the February 1442 document. The game seemed to gain in importance in the year 1450, a Jubilee year in Italy, which saw many festivities and the movement of many pilgrims.
Three mid-15th century sets were made for members of the Visconti family. The first deck, and probably the prototype, is called the Cary-Yale Tarot (or Visconti-Modrone Tarot) and was created between 1442 and 1447 by an anonymous painter for Filippo Maria Visconti. The cards (only 67) are today held in the Cary collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. The most famous was painted in the mid-15th century, to celebrate Francesco Sforza and his wife Bianca Maria Visconti, daughter of the duke Filippo Maria. Probably, these cards were painted by Bonifacio Bembo or Francesco Zavattari between 1451 and 1453. Of the original cards, 35 are in The Morgan Library & Museum, 26 are at the Accademia Carrara, thirteen are at the Casa Colleoni, and four: The Devil, The Tower, The Knight of Coins, and the 3 of Swords, are lost or were never made. This “Visconti-Sforza” deck, which has been widely reproduced, reflects conventional iconography of the time to a significant degree.
Hand-painted tarot cards remained a privilege of the upper classes and, although a single sermon by a Dominican preacher inveighing against the evil inherent in cards (chiefly owing to their use in gambling) can be traced to the 14th century, no routine condemnations of tarot were found during its early history.
Because the earliest tarot cards were hand-painted, the number of the decks produced is thought to have been rather small, and it was only after the invention of the printing press that mass production of cards became possible. Decks survive from this era from various cities in France, and the most popular pattern of these early printed decks is called the Tarot de Marseille such as the Jean Dodal Tarot (Lyon) and the Jean Noblet Tarot (Paris) for example.
The original purpose of tarot cards was for playing games, the first basic rules appearing in the manuscript of Martiano da Tortona before 1425, and the next from the year 1637. The game of tarot has many cultural variations. In Italy the game has become less popular. Tarocchini has survived in Bologna and there are still others played in Piedmont and Sicily; but the number of games outside of Italy is much higher.
The 18th century saw tarot’s greatest revival, during which the games became the most popular in Europe. It was played everywhere in Europe with the exception of the British Isles, the Iberian peninsula, and the Ottoman Balkans. French tarot experienced a revival beginning in the 1970s in its native country and France has the strongest tarot gaming community. Regional tarot games—often known as tarock, tarok, or tarokk—are widely played in central Europe within the borders of the former Austro-Hungarian empire.
Each card possesses a pictogram and title that represents a specific concept or archetype. The belief in divination associated with Tarot focuses on the prospect that whatever cards are dealt to the participant will be revelatory.
Divination using playing cards is in evidence as early as 1540 in a book entitled The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forlì which allows a simple method of divination, though the cards are used only to select a random oracle and have no meaning in themselves. But manuscripts from 1735 (The Square of Sevens) and 1750 (Pratesi Cartomancer) document rudimentary divinatory meanings for the cards of the tarot as well as a system for laying out the cards. Giacomo Casanova wrote in his diary that in 1765 his Russian mistress frequently used a deck of playing cards for divination.
Antoine Court de Gébelin, a French-born Protestant pastor and Freemason, published a dissertation on the origins of the symbolism in the Tarot in volume VIII of his unfinished fifteen volumes of the Le Monde Primitif. De Gébelin, who never knew the Tarot as the Tarot de Marseille (a name which came much later), thought the Tarot represented ancient Egyptian Theology, including Isis, Osiris and Typhon (the Greek name for Seth), but never mentions Thoth. For example, he thought the card he knew as the Papesse and known today as the High Priestess represented Isis. He also related four Tarot cards to the four Christian Cardinal virtues: Temperance, Justice, Strength and Prudence. He relates The Tower to a Greek fable about avarice. Although Egyptian had not yet been deciphered by Champollion, Gébelin asserted the name “Tarot” came from the Egyptian words Tar, “path” or “road”, and the word Ro, Ros or Rog, meaning “King” or “royal”, and that the Tarot literally translated to the Royal Road of Life.
A variety of styles of tarot decks and designs exist and a number of typical regional patterns have emerged. Historically, one of the most important designs is the one usually known as the Tarot de Marseille. This standard pattern was the one studied by Court de Gébelin, and cards based on this style illustrate his Le Monde primitif. The Tarot de Marseille was also popularized in the 20th century by Paul Marteau. Some current editions of cards based on the Marseille design go back to a deck of a particular Marseille design that was printed by Nicolas Conver in 1760. Other regional styles include the “Swiss” Tarot. This one substitutes Juno and Jupiter for the Papess, or High Priestess and the Pope, or Hierophant. In Florence an expanded deck called Minchiate was used. This deck of 97 cards includes astrological symbols including the four elements, as well as traditional tarot motifs.
Some decks exist primarily as artwork; and such art decks sometimes contain only the 22 trump cards.
French suited tarot cards began to appear in Germany during the 18th century. The first generation of French suited tarots depicted scenes of animals on the trumps and were thus called “Tiertarock” decks (‘Tier’ being German for ‘animal’). Card maker Göbl of Munich is often credited for this design innovation. Current French suited tarot decks come in these patterns:
The illustrations of French suited tarot trumps depart considerably from the older Italian suited design. The Renaissance allegorical motifs were abandoned for new themes or simply just whimsical pictures of daily life. With very few exceptional recent cases such as the “Tarocchi di Alan”, “Tarot of Reincarnation” and the “Tarot de la Nature”, French suited tarot cards are nearly exclusively used for card games and rarely for divination.
Example of 18th century “Tiertarock” or animal tarot.
Industrie und Glück Tarock trumps
Tarot Nouveau trumps circa 1910
German suited decks for Württemberg, Brixental, and Bavarian tarock are different. They have 36 cards, ranging from 6 to 10, Under Knave (Unter), Over Knave (Ober), King, and Ace. These use Ace-Ten ranking, like Klaverjas, where Ace is the highest followed by 10, King, Ober, Unter, then 9 to 6. The heart suit is the default trump suit. The deck is also used to play Schafkopf.
The Tarocco Siciliano is the only deck to use the so-called Portuguese suit system which uses Spanish pips but intersects them like Italian pips. It changes some of the trumps, and has a card labeled Miseria (destitution). It omits the Two and Three of coins, and numerals one to four in clubs, swords and cups: it thus has 64 cards but the One of coins is not used, being the bearer of the former stamp tax. The cards are quite small and not reversible.
These were the oldest form of tarot deck to be made, being first devised in the 15th century in northern Italy. The occult tarot decks are based on decks of this type. Three decks of this category are still used to play certain games:
Etteilla was the first to issue a revised tarot deck specifically designed for occult purposes rather than game playing. In keeping with the belief that tarot cards are derived from the Book of Thoth, Etteilla’s tarot contained themes related to ancient Egypt. The 78-card tarot deck used by esotericists has two distinct parts:
The terms “major arcana” and “minor arcana” were first used by Jean-Baptiste Pitois (also known as Paul Christian) and are never used in relation to Tarot card games.
Tarot is often used with the study of the Hermetic Qabalah. In these decks there are Kabbalistic illustrations, most being under the influence of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. The images on the “Rider-Waite” deck were drawn by artist Pamela Colman Smith following the instructions of mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite and were originally published by the Rider Company in 1910. The subjects of the Major Arcana are based on those of the earliest decks, but have been modified to reflect Waite and Smith’s view of tarot. A difference from Marseilles style decks is that Smith drew scenes with esoteric meanings on the suit cards. The Rider-Waite wasn’t the first deck to include completely illustrated suit cards. The first to do so was the 15th century Sola-Busca deck.
Older esoteric decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and Marseilles are less detailed than modern ones. A Marseilles type deck is distinguished by having repetitive motifs on the pip cards, similar to Italian or Spanish playing cards, as opposed to the full scenes found on “Rider-Waite” style decks. These more simply illustrated “Marseilles” style decks are also used esoterically, for divination, and for game play, though the French card game of tarot is now generally played using a relatively modern 19th century design of German origin. Such playing tarot decks generally have twenty one trump cards with genre scenes from 19th century life, a Fool, and have court and pip cards that closely resemble today’s French playing cards.
The Marseilles’ numbered minor arcana cards do not have scenes depicted on them; rather, they sport a geometric arrangement of the number of suit symbols (e.g., swords, rods/wands, cups, coins/pentacles) corresponding to the number of the card (accompanied by botanical and other non-scenic flourishes), while the court cards are often illustrated with flat, two-dimensional drawings.
An example of a modernist tarot deck is Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (Thoth pronounced /ˈtoʊt/ or /ˈθɒθ/). Crowley, at the height of a lifetime’s work dedicated to occultism, engaged the artist Lady Frieda Harris to paint the cards for the deck according to his specifications. His system of tarot correspondences, published in The Book of Thoth and Liber 777, are an evolution and expansion upon that which he learned in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
In contrast to the Thoth deck’s colorfulness, the illustrations on Paul Foster Case’s B.O.T.A. Tarot deck are black line drawings on white cards; this is an unlaminated deck intended to be colored by its owner.
Other esoteric decks include the hermetic Golden Dawn Tarot, which claims to be based on a deck by S.L. MacGregor Mathers
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The variety of decks in use is almost endless, and grows yearly. For instance, cat-lovers may have the Tarot of the Cat People, a deck replete with cats in every picture. The Tarot of the Witches and the Aquarian Tarot retain the conventional cards with varying designs. The Tree of Life Tarot’s cards are stark symbolic catalogs; and The Alchemical Tarot, created by Robert M. Place, combines traditional alchemical symbols with tarot images.
These contemporary divination decks change the cards to varying degrees. For example, the Motherpeace Tarot is notable for its circular cards and feminist angle where the male characters have been replaced by females. The Tarot of Baseball has suits of bats, mitts, balls, and bases; “coaches” and “MVPs” instead of Queens and Kings; and major arcana cards such as “The Catcher”, “The Rule Book”, and “Batting a Thousand”. In the Silicon Valley Tarot, major arcana cards include The Hacker, Flame War, The Layoff and The Garage; the suits are Networks, Cubicles, Disks and Hosts; the court cards CEO, Salesman, Marketeer and New Hire. Another tarot in recent years has been the Robin Wood Tarot. This deck retains the Rider-Waite theme while adding Pagan symbolism. As with other decks, the cards are available with a companion book written by Wood which details all of the symbolism and colors utilized in the Major and Minor Arcana.
Unconventionality is embraced by Morgan’s Tarot, produced in 1970 by Morgan Robbins and illustrated by Darshan Chorpash Zenith. Morgan’s Tarot has no suits, no ranking and no ordering of the cards. It has 88 rather than 78 cards and its simple line drawings show an influence from the psychedelic art. Nevertheless, in the introductory booklet that accompanies the deck Robbins claims inspiration for the cards from Tibetan Buddhism.
The tarot created by A. E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith departs from the earlier tarot design with its use of scenic pip cards and the alteration of how the Strength and Justice cards are ranked.
The Thoth deck has astrological, zodiacal, elemental and Qabalistic symbols. Crowley wrote the book The Book of Thoth to accompany it. This deck retains the traditional order of the trumps but uses Crowley’s words for both the trumps and the courts.
Hermetic Tarot has imagery to function as a textbook and mnemonic device for teaching the gnosis of alchemical symbolical language. An example of this practice is found in the rituals of the 19th-century Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In the 20th century, Hermetic use of the tarot imagery as a handbook was developed by Carl Gustav Jung’s exploration into the psyche and imagination. A 21st-century example of a Hermetic rooted tarot deck is that of Tarot ReVisioned, a black and white deck and book for the Major Arcana by Leigh J. McCloskey.