The tarot (also known as tarocchi, tarock or similar names) is typically a set of seventy-eight cards, comprised of twenty-one trump cards, one Fool, and four suits of fourteen cards each—ten pip and four face cards (one more face card per suit than in Anglo-American playing cards).
Tarot cards are used throughout much of Europe to play Tarot card games such as Italian Tarocchini and French Tarot. In English-speaking countries, where the games are largely unknown, Tarot cards are utilized primarily for divinatory purposes, with the trump cards plus the Fool card making up the twenty-two major arcana cards and the pip and four face cards the fifty-six minor arcana.
No documented examples exist prior to the 18th century of the tarot being used for divination. However, divination using similar cards is in evidence as early as 1540; a book entitled The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forli shows a simple method of divination using the coin suit of a regular playing card deck. 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. In 1765, Giacomo Casanova wrote in his diary that his Russian mistress frequently used a deck of playing cards for divination.
Wide use of playing cards in Europe can, with some certainty, be given from 1377 onwards. Tarot cards appear to have been developed some forty years later, and they are mentioned in the surviving text of Martiano da Tortona. Da Tortona's text is thought to have been written between 1418 and 1425, since in 1418 the painter Michelino da Besozzo returned to Milan, and Martiano da Tortona died in 1425.
Da Tortona describes a deck similar to the cards used for Tarot card games in many specific ways though what he describes is more a precursor to tarot than what we might think of as real tarot cards. For instance, his deck has only sixteen trump cards, with motifs that are not comparable to common tarot cards (they are Greek gods) and the suits are four kinds of birds, not the common Italian suits. What makes da Tortona's deck similar to modern tarot game cards is that these sixteen cards are obviously regarded as trump cards in a card game; about twenty-five years later, a near contemporary of Da Tortona, Jacopo Antonio Marcello, called them a ludus triumphorum, or 'game winner'.
The next documents that seem to confirm the existence of objects similar to tarot cards are two playing card decks from Milan (Brera-Brambrilla and Cary-Yale-Tarocchi) — extant, but fragmentary — and three documents, all from the court of Ferrara, Italy. It is not possible to put a precise date on the cards, but it is estimated that they were made circa 1440. The three documents date from 1 January 1441 to July 1442, with the term trionfi first documented in February 1442. The document from January 1441, which used the term trionfi, is regarded as unreliable; however, the fact that the same painter, Sagramoro, was commissioned by the same patron, Leonello d'Este, as in the February 1442 document, indicates that it is at least plausibly an example of the same type. After 1442 there are some seven years without any examples of similar material. 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.
It seems apparent that the special motifs on the trump cards, which were added to regular playing cards with a 'four suits of fourteen cards' structure, were ideologically determined. They are thought to show a specific system of transporting messages of different content; known early examples show philosophical, social, poetical, astronomical, and heraldic ideas, for instance, as well as a group of old Roman/Greek/Babylonian heroes, as in the case of the Sola-Busca-Tarocchi (1491) and the Boiardo Tarocchi poem (produced at an unknown date between 1461 and 1494). For example, the earliest-known deck, extant only in its description in Martiano's short book, was produced to show the system of Greek gods, a theme that was very fashionable in Italy at the time. Its production may well have accompanied a triumphal celebration of the commissioner Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milano, meaning that the purpose of the deck was to express and consolidate the political power in Milan (as was common for other artworks of the time). The four suits showed birds, motifs that appeared regularly in Visconti heraldry, and the specific order of the gods gives reason to assume that the deck was intended to imply that the Visconti identified themselves as descendants from Jupiter and Venus (which were seen not as gods but deified mortal heroes).
This first known deck seems to have had the standard ten numbered cards, but having kings as the only court card, and only sixteen trump cards. The later standard (four suits of fourteen plus twenty-two) took time to settle; trionfi decks with seventy cards only are still spoken of in 1457. No corroborating evidence for the final standard seventy-eight card format exists prior to the Boiardo Tarocchi poem and the Sola Busca Tarocchi.
The oldest surviving tarot cards are three early to mid 15th century sets, all made for members of the Visconti family. The first deck is the so called Cary-Yale Tarot (or Visconti-Modrone Tarot), which was created between 1442 and 1447 by an anonymous painter for Filippo Maria Visconti. The cards (only sixty-six) are today in the Yale University Library of New Haven. But the most famous of these early tarot decks was painted in the mid 15th century, to celebrate the rule of Milan by Francesco Sforza and his wife Bianca Maria Visconti, daughter of the duke Filippo Maria. Probably, these cards were painted by Bonifacio Bembo, but some cards were realized by miniaturists of another school. Of the original cards, thirty-five are in the Pierpont Morgan Library, twenty-six are at the Accademia Carrara, thirteen are at the Casa Colleoni and two, 'The Devil' and 'The Tower', are lost, or possibly never made. This "Visconti-Sforza" deck, which has been widely reproduced, combines the suits of swords, batons, coins and cups and the court cards king, queen, knight and page with trump cards that reflect conventional iconography of the time to a significant degree.
For a long time tarot cards remained a privilege for the upper classes, and, although some sermons inveighing against the evil inherent in cards can be traced to the 14th century, most civil governments did not routinely condemn tarot cards during tarot's early history. In fact, in some jurisdictions, tarot cards were specifically exempted from laws otherwise prohibiting the playing of cards.
The first wide publicity of divination by tarot came from a French occultist named Alliette, under the pseudonym "Etteilla" (his name reversed), who worked as a seer and card diviner shortly before the French Revolution. Etteilla designed the first esoteric Tarot deck, adding astrological attributions and "Egyptian" motifs to various cards, altering many of them from the Marseilles designs, and adding divinatory meanings in text on the cards. Later, Mademoiselle Marie-Anne Le Normand popularized divination in general during the reign of Napoleon I, through the influence she wielded over Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's first wife. However, she did not typically use Tarot.
Tarot cards eventually came to be associated with mysticism and magic. Tarot was not widely adopted by mystics, occultists and secret societies until the 18th and 19th centuries. The tradition began in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman and Freemason, published Le Monde Primitif, a speculative study which included religious symbolism and its survivals in the modern world. De Gébelin first asserted that symbolism of the Tarot de Marseille represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth. Gébelin further claimed that the name "tarot" came from the Egyptian words tar, meaning "royal", and ro, meaning "road", and that the Tarot therefore represented a "royal road" to wisdom. De Gébelin also asserted that the Gypsies, who were among the first to use cards for divination, were descendants of the Ancient Egyptians (hence their common name; though by this time it was more popularly used as a stereotype for any nomadic tribe) and had introduced the cards to Europe. De Gébelin wrote this treatise before Jean-François Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, or indeed before the Rosetta Stone had been discovered, and later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language to support de Gébelin's fanciful etymologies. Despite this, the identification of the Tarot cards with the Egyptian "Book of Thoth" was already firmly established in occult practice and continues in modern urban legend to the present day.
The idea of the cards as a mystical key was further developed by Eliphas Lévi and passed to the English-speaking world by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Lévi, not Etteilla, is considered by some to be the true founder of most contemporary schools of Tarot; his 1854 Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (English title: Transcendental Magic) introduced an interpretation of the cards which related them to Hermetic Qabalah. While Lévi accepted Court de Gébelin's claims about an Egyptian origin of the deck symbols, he rejected Etteilla's innovations and his altered deck, and devised instead a system which related the Tarot, especially the Tarot de Marseille, to the Hermetic Qabalah and the four elements of alchemy.
Tarot divination became increasingly popular in the New World from 1910, with the publication of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (designed and executed by two members of the Golden Dawn), which replaced the traditionally simple pip cards with images of symbolic scenes. This deck also further obscured the Christian allegories of the Tarot de Marseilles and of Eliphas Levi's decks by changing some attributions (for instance changing "The Pope" to "The Hierophant" and "The Popess" to "The High Priestess"). The Rider-Waite-Smith deck still remains extremely popular in the English-speaking world.
Since then a huge number of different decks have been created, some traditional, some vastly different. The use of Tarot for divination, or as a store of symbolism, has inspired the creation of Oracle card decks. These are card decks for inspiration or divination containing images of angels, fairies, goddesses, Power Animals, etc. Although obviously influenced by Tarot, they do not follow the traditional structure of Tarot; they lack any suits of numbered cards, and the set of cards differs from the traditional major arcana.
It is played with a tarot deck of playing cards. The so-called "esoteric" decks used for divination are usually ill-suited for playing, for example because the corner symbols are missing. A typical type of Tarot playing card deck is that of the standard French design, the so-called "Tarot Nouveau", which is French-suited and has face and number layouts similar to the common 52-card deck. The "Tarot Nouveau" deck has trumps which depict scenes of traditional French social activities, in increasing levels of wealth; this differs from the character and ideological cards of the standard Italian-suited Tarot decks such as the Tarocco Piedmontese or Tarocco Bolognese, or the Rider-Waite or Tarot de Marseilles decks well-known in cartomancy.
Other tarot/tarock decks popular in Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Austria use either the Latin suits of cups, coins, batons and swords, or the German suits of Hearts, Bells, Acorns and Leaves. The character representations of the trump cards in divinatory tarot is based on representations similar to those found in the Italian tarot decks; Germanic Tarot playing card decks are less likely to feature these characterizations.
The 78-card tarot deck contains:
As certain regions have adopted Tarot games that use only a subset of the 78-card deck, the decks themselves have become specialized. A full Tarot deck such as one for jeu de Tarot contains all 78 cards and can be used to play any game in the family; many Austrian Tarock and Italian Tarocchi decks, however, are a smaller subset suitable only for games of a particular region.
Play is typically counter-clockwise; the player to the right of the dealer plays to the first trick. If possible players must follow suit. If following suit is not possible a trump card must be played – this rule characterises all Tarot games, even Bavarian Tarock, which does not use a pack with a separate suit of tarocks. In the French tarot game, this trump must beat any trump already played to the trick if possible. The winner of each trick leads the next.
The cards are usually counted in groups of two or three depending on the game. After the hand has been played, a score is taken based on the point values of the cards in the tricks each player has managed to capture. (counting cards)
For the purpose of the rules, the numbering of the trumps are the only thing that matters. The symbolic tarot images customary in divinatory tarot have no effect in the game itself: though, rather ironically, the tarot deck was originally designed to play this game (see playing card history), the design traditions subsequently evolved independently and the tarots often bear only numbers and whimsical scenes arbitrarily chosen by the engraver. However there are still traditional sequences of images in which the common lineage is visible: for example, a moon is visible at the bottom left corner of the XXI in the picture at the top of the page. This stems from confusion of German Mond with Italian mondo and French monde, meaning "world" - the usual symbol associated with the 21 on Italian suited tarots and in divinatory tarot.
In tarot decks made for playing the game (as opposed to those made for divination or other esoteric uses), the four Latin suits are replaced in many regions with the French suits of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades. Some variations of the game are played with a 54-card deck (5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 of hearts and diamonds and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 of spades and clubs are discarded).
Variations of the game are still played in France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, and especially in the countries on the area of the former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, for which even the name Tarockanien has been coined: the Austrian variation of the game is thus still widely popular among all classes and generations in Slovenia, Croatia and in the Czech Republic, while in Hungary different rules are applied.
Tarot has a complex and rich symbolism with a long history. In the past, many occult- or divination-oriented authors claimed that the symbolism's origins are lost in time and/or postulated or claimed as fact non-historical theories. Some authors such as Rachel Pollack have written that tarot origin myths have their own significance and value and that the reader can find a study of such myths enriching while at the same time being aware that they aren't factually true. Interpretations have evolved together with the cards over the centuries: later decks have "clarified" the pictures in accordance with meanings assigned to the cards by their creators. In turn, the meanings come to be modified by the new pictures. Images and interpretations have been continually reshaped, in part, to help the Tarot live up to its mythic role as a powerful occult instrument and to respond to modern needs.
See, for example, the Rider-Waite-Smith Strength card. We can know more about the symbolic intentions of the designer here, since he conveniently wrote many books on the subject on occultism and symbolism and a handbook specifically for this deck titled The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1910). As with its ancestor in the Tarot de Marseilles, the Strength trump shows a woman holding the jaws of a lion, but the Rider-Waite-Smith picture is far more elaborate. The woman's hat of the Marseilles card has been interpreted as a lemniscate: the sideways-figure-eight representing infinity, or, according to Waite, the Spirit of Life. Other symbols are included: a chain of roses symbolizing desire or passion, against a white robe symbolizing purity. The mountains in the background demonstrate another kind of strength.
Another example of the preservation of designs from one deck to another can be seen via the incorporation of the ribbon design found on the Deux de Deniéres in a Swiss-style deck originally published by Müller & Cie. of Schaffhouse into the of The Book of Thoth Tarot's Two of Disks.
There are numerous published books that discuss the usage of the tarot for divination. In many systems, the four suits are associated with the four elements: Swords with air, Wands with fire, Cups with water and Pentacles with earth. The numerology of the cards is also considered significant. The tarot is considered to correspond to various systems such as astrology, Pythagorean numerology, the Hermetic Qabalah (where each of the major arcana represent a path on the tree of life), the I Ching, Christianity , Aura-Soma and others.
Sometimes, rather than being dealt randomly, the initial card in a spread is intentionally chosen to represent the querent or the question being asked. This card is called the significator.
Some common spreads include:
8Card 1: The querent Card 2: The way you see the other person in the relationship Card 3: The way they see themselves Card 4: What the person represents to you Card 5: What you represent to them Card 6: Obstacles within the relationship Card 7: Strengths within the relationship Card 8: Probable result There are numerous other spreads - essentially, the reader may use any card arrangement in which they find by experience to be useful.
More recently Dr. Timothy Leary has suggested that the Tarot Trump cards are a pictorial representation of human development from a baby to a fully grown adult, The Fool symbolising the new born infant, The Magician symbolising the stage at which an infant starts to play with artifacts, etc. In addition to this, the Tarot Trumps to be a blue print for of the human race in the future.
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 Marseilles. 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 Marseilles was also popularized in the 20th century by Paul Marteau. Some current editions of cards based on the Marseilles design go back to a deck of a particular Marseilles 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 ninety six 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 twenty two trump cards.
The terms major arcana and minor arcana were first used by Jean Baptiste Pitois AKA Paul Christian and are seldom used in relation to Tarot card games.
Tarot is often used in conjunction with the study of the Hermetic Qabalah. In these decks all the cards are illustrated in accordance with Qabalistic principles, most being under the influence of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and bearing illustrated scenes on all the suit cards. The images on the 'Rider-Waite' deck were drawn by artist Pamela Colman-Smith, to the instructions of Christian mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite, and were originally published by the Rider Company in 1910. This deck is considered a simple, user friendly one but nevertheless its imagery, especially in the Major Arcana, is complex and replete with esoteric symbolism. The subjects of the Major Arcana are based on those of the earliest decks, but have been significantly modified to reflect Waite and Smith's view of Tarot. An important difference from Marseilles style decks is that Smith drew scenes with esoteric meanings on the suit cards. However 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 decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and Marseilles are less detailed than more modern decks. A Marseilles type deck is usually distinguished by having repetitive motifs on the pip 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 style Tarot decks generally feature numbered minor arcana cards that look very much like the pip cards of modern playing card decks. 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.
A widely used modernist esoteric Tarot deck is Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot (pronounced or /θɒθ/). 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 & Liber 777, are an evolution and expansion upon that which he learnt in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
In contrast to the Thoth deck's colourfulness, 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 coloured by its owner. Other esoteric decks include the Golden Dawn Tarot, which claims to be based on a deck by SL MacGregor Mathers.
The variety of decks presently available 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, the Cosmic Tarot, and The Alchemical Tarot that combines traditional alchemical symbols with tarot images.
These modern decks change the cards to varying degrees. For example, the Motherpeace Tarot is notable for its circular cards and feminist angle: 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 like "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 CIO, 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 some very soft and colorful Pagan symbolism. As with other decks, the cards are available with a companion book written by Ms. Wood which details all of the symbolism and colors utilized in the Major and Minor Arcana.
Unconventionality is taken to an extreme by Morgan's Tarot, produced in 1970 by Morgan Robbins and illustrated by Darshan Chorpash Zenith. Morgan's Tarot has no suits, no card ranking and no explicit order of the cards. It has eighty eight cards rather than the more conventional seventy eight, and its simple line drawings show a strong influence from the psychedelic era. Nevertheless, in the introductory booklet that accompanies the deck (comprehensively mirrored on dfoley's website, with permission from U.S. Games Systems), Robbins claims spiritual inspiration for the cards and cites the influence of Tibetan Buddhism in particular.
Each card in the Rider-Waite deck is intricately detailed with symbols related to the card. Color is also used symbolically.