This is about the system of images on cards and the associated divination procedures; see Tarot (game) for the traditional French card game.

Tarot (Tar-oh) is a system of symbolic images on cards. Whatever their original significance, the cards have been used since they first surfaced as much for divinatory purposes as for trick-taking card games. Tarot is currently also used as tool for reflection on one's personal life, as well as an aid to meditation. Tarot is usually embodied in a deck of 78 cards, similar to a set of playing cards. In the English speaking world, tarot is widely regarded as a form of cartomancy. In France, the word tarot also describes a trick-taking card game; see Tarot (game). Tarot has long been regarded as taboo, due to obscure associations that predate its 19th-century occult associations. Roman Catholic sermons inveighing against the evil inherent in playing cards (though not necessarily tarot reading) can be traced to the 14th century.

The earliest extant examples of Tarot decks are of North Italian origin and date to the mid-15th century. These were called carte da trionfi or "cards of the triumphs". Soon afterward comparable decks were used in the game of Tarocchi. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the cards became a popular in occult studies, initiated by Etteilla and Antoine Court de Gebelin. The set of 78 images is considered by students of this form of Tarot (tarotism) to be independent of details of any particular representation.


The Tarot Deck

The conventional 78-card deck is structured into two distinct sets. The first, called the Major Arcana, consists of 22 cards without suits typically referred to as "trumps". The second, called the Minor Arcana, consists of 56 cards divided into four suits. The cards in each suit are numbered 2 through 10 with four court cards or face cards and an Ace (not dissimilar from the structure of playing cards). Arcana is the plural of the Latin word arcanum, meaning "hidden truth" or "secret knowledge". Alternate names are the Minor Trumps and Major Trumps, or simply the Minors and the Trumps. The traditional Italian suits are Swords, Batons, Coins and Cups, although in modern decks Batons are commonly called Wands or Staves, and Coins are often Pentacles or Discs.

Differences among decks

Tarot cards serve many purposes, and this leads to a variety of Tarot deck styles. Some decks exist primarily as artwork; art decks often contain only the 22 cards of the Major Arcana. Esoteric decks are often used in conjunction with the study of the Hermetic Qabala; in these decks the Major Arcana are illustrated in accordance with Qabalistic principles while the numbered suit cards (2 through 10) typically bear only stylized renderings of the suit symbol. In contrast, decks used for divination usually bear illustrated scenes on all cards. The more simply illustrated "Marseilles" style decks are used esoterically, for divination, and for game play.

An influential deck in English-speaking countries is the fully-illustrated Rider-Waite deck (sometimes called simply the Rider deck). [See discussion of the expression "Rider-Waite-Smith" below, to indicate a category of decks that includes the "Rider-Waite Smith" deck.] (In contrast, in French-speaking countries, the Marseille deck enjoys the equivalent popularity.) The images were painted by artist Pamela Colman Smith, to the instructions of academic and mystic Arthur Waite, and originally published by the Rider Company circa 1910. While the images are deceptively, almost childishly simple, the details and backgrounds hold a wealth of symbolism. The subjects remain close to the earliest decks, but usually have added detail. An important difference from 'Marseille'-style decks is that Colman Smith drew pictorial scenes on the numeric minor arcana cards to depict divinatory meanings ("scenic pip cards"); those divinatory meanings derive, in great part, from traditional cartomantic divinatory meanings (e.g., Etteilla and other cartomancy meanings) and from divinatory meanings innovated by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, of which both Waite and Colman Smith were former members.

The chief aesthetic objection (by some) to the Rider-Waite deck is the crude printing of colours in the original: several decks, such as the Universal Waite, simply copy the Smith line drawings, but with more sophisticated colouring. In Internet tarot discussion groups, the Rider-Waite deck and its close clones, e.g., the the Universal Waite, are sometimes referred to by the collective term "Rider-Waite-Smith", "RWS" or "Waite-Colman-Smith" (or variants of the latter expression). As noted further below, the Rider deck has spawned many variant decks in English-speaking countries in the 20th and 21st centuries, which vary the designs themselves, and not just the colours.

A widely-used esoteric Tarot deck is Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot (pronounced "tote" or "thoth"). The artist engaged by Crowley to paint the cards for the deck is Lady Freida Harris. The Thoth deck is distinctly different from the Rider-Waite deck. And it has non-scenic pip cards. That said, many consider the Rider-Waite deck and the Tarot de Marseille also to be 'esoteric' decks.

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 Golden Dawn Tarot which is based on a deck by SL MacGregor Mathers, the Tree of Life Tarot whose cards are stark symbolic catalogs, and the Cosmic Tarot, which is unusual for an esoteric deck because it is fully-illustrated.

The Marseille style Tarot decks, used for playing the game of Tarot, generally feature suit cards which look very much like modern playing cards. The numbered cards sport an arrangement of non-scenic numeric minor arcana cards ('non-scenic pip cards') indicating the number and suit, while the court cards are often illustrated with two-dimensional drawings.

Other modern decks created since the time of the first publishing of the Rider-Waite deck circa 1910 vary in their card imagery. The variety is almost endless, and grows yearly. For instance, cat-lovers may have the Tarot of the Cat People, a fairly standard deck complete with cats in every picture. The Tarot of the Witches and the Aquarian Tarot retain the conventional cards with varying designs. The Witches deck became famous/notorious in the 1970s for its use in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die. These modern decks change the cards partly or completely. For example, the Motherpeace Tarot is notable for its circular cards and feminist angle: the mainly 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".

Computing professionals might find the Silicon Valley Tarot most intelligible, which offers online readings. 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.


The Tarot has a confusing and rich symbolism because it has a confusing and rich history. Such a history is not impenetrable, however; much of the fog around the symbolism can be dispelled if one bothers to study sources other than occultists with a vested interest in the mystery of it all. We'll do some dispelling further on; in the meanwhile, the most important thing to note is that modern, occult readings of the cards often have little to do with their meaning in their original context -- and that, given the modern uses of the Tarot, this is actually a good thing.

Tarots are more interesting, expressive, and psychologically resonant today than their ancestors. Interpretations have evolved together with the cards over the centuries: later decks have "clarified" the pictures in accordance with their perceived meanings, the meanings in turn modified by the new pictures. Images and interpretations have been continually reshaped, partly at random and partly in conscious or unconscious efforts to help the Tarot live up to its mythic role as a powerful occult instrument.

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. As with its Marseilles-deck ancestor, the card shows a woman holding the jaws of a lion, but this picture is far more elaborate. The strangely-shaped hat of the Marseilles card has traditionally been interpreted as a symbolic lemniscate: the sideways-figure-eight representation of infinity. In the newer card, this symbol appears explicitly. 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. Even here there is room for interpretation: the card is sometimes considered as showing intellect triumphing over desire, sometimes as the equal union of intellect and passion, sometimes just as a symbol of mental strength or endurance.

The twenty-two cards in the major arcana are: Fool, Magician, High Priestess [or La Papessa/Popess], Empress, Emperor, Hierophant [or Pope], Lovers, Chariot, Strength, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, Devil, Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Judgement, World. Each card has its own large, complicated and disputed set of meanings. Altogether the major arcana is said to represent the Fool's journey (http://www.learntarot.com/journey.htm): a symbolic journey through life in which the Fool overcomes obstacles and gains wisdom.

There is a vast body of writing on the significance of the Tarot. In many systems of interpretation, the four suits are associated with the four elements: Swords with air, Wands with fire, Cups with water and Pentacles with earth. The numerology is usually thought to be significant. The Tarot is often considered to correspond to various systems such as astrology, Pythagorean numerology, the Kabalah, the I Ching and others.


Carl Jung was the first psychologist to attach importance to the Tarot. He regarded the Tarot cards as representing archetypes: fundamental types of person or situation embedded in the subconscious of all human beings. The Emperor, for instance, represents the ultimate patriarch or father figure.

The theory of archetypes gives rise to several psychological uses. Some psychologists use Tarot cards to identify how a client views himself or herself, by asking the patient to select a card that he or she identifies with. Some try to get the client to clarify his ideas by imagining his situation or relationship in terms of Tarot images: Is someone rushing in heedlessly like the Knight of Swords perhaps, or blindly keeping the world at bay as in the Rider-Waite-Smith Two of Swords? The Tarot can be seen as a kind of algebra of the subconscious, allowing it to be analysed at the conscious level.

Interestingly, the older decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and Marseilles tend to have a cruder and less general "algebra" than the modern ones. This is not merely an illusion of the modern eye, it reflects the general direction of evolutionary change in Tarot art over the centuries, and especially since 1900. The Tarot symbolism has rather successfully universalized itself from parochial origins.

Storytelling and Art

The Tarot has been known to inspire writers as well as visual artists. Novelist Italo Calvino described the Tarot as a "machine for telling stories", writing The Castle of Crossed Destinies with plots and characters constructed through the Tarot. T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land uses only superficial descriptions of Tarot cards, a few of which are genuine. Random selections of Tarot cards have also been used to construct stories for writing exercises and writing games.

Tarot decks hold a significant role in fantasy writer Roger Zelazny's Amber series, where most characters carry a magical deck of Tarot cards, representing other characters, or locations. A Tarot deck inspired from the Amber series has been published.

Tarot cards also played a role in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. At the end of Book 1The Gunslinger, Roland finally catches up to the Man in Black, where he reads Roland's future with a deck of Tarot cards in a golgotha: "Death. Yet not for you."


Divination, or fortune-telling, is by far the most popular and well-known use of the Tarot. This is sometimes seen as an extension of the psychological use mentioned above. It can be argued that we sometimes perceive the signs of future events subconsciously only. For instance you might be subconsciously aware that a relationship or job is in trouble, before you admit it to yourself. In that sense, it might be said that the Tarot can give you insights into the future without having any supernatural or occult aspect at all. Meaning may emerge even from purely random patterns, as chance selections force you to consider concepts that you'd normally ignore, and the density of meaning is great enough that meanings can emerge from almost any selection of cards.

That point of view is rare among those who practice Tarot. Tarot diviners generally believe that Tarot cards simply allow them to exercise an innate psychic ability to see the future. Its popularly believed that the cards take on the "aura" or "vibrations" of someone who touches them. The cards are therefore "insulated" by wrapping them in silk or enclosing them in a box, and only touched by the diviner and person for whom the reading is done: the "querent".

There are many variations, but in a typical reading the querent shuffles the cards, then the diviner lays out the cards in a pattern called the spread. The most popular spread is the Celtic Cross. The cards are then analysed according to their positions, their relationships and whether the cards are upside-down. An inverted card has its own set of modified meanings; sometimes opposite, sometimes weakened, sometimes twisted.

Divination may be seen as magical in itself, but the word "magic" usually refers to the use of Tarot cards in a magical ritual designed to achieve some end. This is much less common than simple divination, however.


In Tarot divination, results can be achieved with analysis of just one card, but for more thoroughness combinations of several cards in set patterns are usually used. These patterns are called spreads. There are many many spreads, althoug the Celtic Cross is by far the best known, and is often taught to beginners as their first spread. More experienced practioners will use their own spreads, assigning their own meanings to the relevant positions represented.

The Great Cross ("Celtic Cross") Layout

One of the best known of spreads, its most common version consists of ten or eleven cards. The first one representing the person or situation (this is sometimes considered optional, thus the spread can also consist of 10 cards), the next six are laid atop and around it in a cross shape, and the final four in a column to the right.

Origin and History

The origins of the tarot are obscure, and it has not been easy for historians to strip them of the occultist associations that developed in the 19th century. Roman Catholic sermons inveighing against the evil inherent in cards can be traced to the 14th century. No mention of playing cards in the context of gambling and other marks of dissolute life precede the sudden appearance of a barrage of hostility in the 1370s: a sermon by the Swiss Johannes von Rheinfelden, Tractus de moribus et disciplina humanae conversationis states that "the game of cards has come to us this year" (said to be 1377, in the 15th-century surviving manuscript) without inveighing against them, but prohibitions against cards were issued by John of Castile and the cities of Florence and Basle that same year and by the city of Regensburg the following year and in the Duchy of Brabant in 1379 [1] (http://www.snopes.com/history/world/cardking.htm). Bernard of Siena gave a sermon reviling cards as the invention of the Devil in 1423.

In Pietro Aretino's witty 16th-century dialogue Le carte parlanti ("The talking cards: dialogue in which gaming is discussed in a congenial fashion") there are frequent references to tarot symbolism: "The temptation of the hermit is the devil," and some irony on their uses: "...They reveal the secrets of nature, the reason for things, and explain the causes why day is driven out by night and night by day." [2] (http://www.tarothermit.com/more.htm)

The oldest surviving Tarot cards are three mid-15th century sets all made for members of the Visconti family, rulers of Milan. The oldest of these existing Tarot decks was painted to celebrate a mid-15th century wedding joining the ruling Visconti and Sforza families of Milan, probably painted by Bonifacio Bembo and other miniaturists of the Ferrara school. Of the original cards, 35 are in the Pierpont Morgan Library, 26 cards are at the Accademia Carrara, 13 are at the Casa Colleoni, 4 cards being lost (the Devil, the Tower, the Three of Swords, and the Knight of Coins). This "Visconti-Sforza" deck, which has been widely reproduced in varying quality, combines the Minor Arcana (suits of Swords, Staves, Pentacles and Cups in their original form, and face cards King, Queen, Knave and Page) with Major Arcana that apparently express versions of some already traditional iconography. The considerable artistic license displayed in the set is a sign that the original significance of the designs was already lost in the 15th century.

More simply-drawn decks survive from Marseille, France, perhaps from the early 16th century, though actual surviving examples are no earlier than the 18th century.

The designation of "Arcana", signifying "hidden meaning," is as old as the tarots themselves, but whatever that meaning has been, was lost before the earliest surviving sets were painted. There is no reason to be confident that the surviving set of Major Arcana are complete. Any viewer will notice that, of the four Classical Virtues, only Fortitude, Justice and Temperance remain. Can Prudence have always been missing? The Christian Virtues that would ordinarily complete them (Faith, Hope and Charity) are missing, however. The presence of the Fool and the Magician have often suggested a portable catechism for the illiterate, which survives in cartomancy. All the heavenly sources of Light, so important to Dualist heretics, are present in the Major Arcana, without any planets that would have been required for any meaning associated with astrology, the usual context for heavenly bodies. Indeed, of any possible signs of the Zodiac, only the dual-natured Twins are present. It is unlikely that their Zodiac context is being referred to, in which case all the others would have to have gone missing. Traces of medieval dualist heresy, such as the Bogomils taught, or the Cathars, whose centers were precisely where the earliest Tarot surfaced in Piedmont and Provence, can be also detected in the paired balance, not merely of Emperor with Empress, but, significantly, by Pope with Popess, with echoes of the Pope Joan myth and of the gnostic Pistis Sophia. The substitution of a more neutral "Hierophant" designation for the nameless high priest is a modern one. Steven Runciman, in The Medieval Manichee (1947), doubted the Catharist connection: "There seems to me to be a trace of Dualism in the pack, but it has since been overlaid with debased Kabalistic lore." He recognized the traditional interpretation of the Devil as the embodiment of the evil natural forces of this world, holding a naked man and woman in chains, and suggested in the Tower struck by lightning, a Cathar view of a Catholic church.

Study of the iconography of the earliest tarots via standard comparative-historical methods suffices to pin the origin of the depiction of Death as after the Black Death, because the skeletal-death-with-a-scythe motif found on effectively all versions of Trump XIII does not predate the plagues. Before then, skulls in pictorial art were primarily symbols of scholarship and learning.

Mystical associations

Since the Egyptianizing ruminations in Le Monde primitif by Antoine Court de Gebelin (1781) which soon inspired the occultism of "Etteilla," it has been believed by many that the Tarot is far older than this. Based on similarities of the imagery and reinforced by the added numbering, some associate the Tarot with ancient Egypt, or the Hebrew mystic tradition of the Kabbalah, or a wide variety of other origins. This is all, however, pure mythology.

In fact, the earliest Tarots seem to have been depictions of the carnival parades that ushered in the season of Lent or the related motif of hierarchical powers found in Petrarch's poem I Trionfi. These elaborate productions layered then-fashionable Graeco-Roman symbolism over a Christian allegory of sin, grace, and redemption; notably, the earliest versions of the World card (the final Trump, XXI) show a conventional image known from period religious art to represent St. Augustine's "Heavenly City", and it is not coincidence that this closely follows the Judgement card.

Several other early Tarot-like sequences of portable art survive to place the Visconti deck in context. Later confusion about the symbolism stems from the occult decks, which began a process of steadily paganizing and universalizing the symbolism to the point where the underlying Christian allegory has been almost completely obscured (as, for example, when the Rider-Waite deck of the early Twentieth Century changed "The Pope" to "The Hierophant" and "The Popess" to "The High Priestess") It is notable that between 1450 and 1500 the Tarot was actually recommended for the instruction of the young by Church moralists (reference is urgently needed here); not until fifty years after the Visconti deck did it become associated with gambling, and not until the 19th century and "Etteilla" with occultism.

In the Anglo-Saxon world today, the Tarot is usually seen as a means of fortune-telling. However, early references such as the sermon refer only to the use of the cards for game-playing and gambling; and in some European countries such as France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany; this is still seen as the primary purpose of the Tarot today.

The relationship between Tarot cards and playing cards is often said to be unclear, but in fact the history is tolerably well documented. Playing cards appeared quite suddenly in Christian Europe during the period 1375-1380, following several decades of use in Islamic Spain. They may have evolved by mutation from circular cards used in India to play a wargame called "Chaturanga" ("Four Kings"); some very early decks, including one preserved in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, were circular.

Early European sources describe a 52- rather than 78-card deck, like a modern deck but without jokers. 78-card Tarots were what happened when the 21 Trumps were merged into early 52-card decks. Why this happened is not completely clear, but there is some evidence that it may have been done as an end-run around anti-gambling laws that targeted the 52-card deck.

The Tarot cards eventually came to be associated with mysticism and magic. This was actually a late rather than early development, as we can tell from period sources on card divination and magic. The Tarot was not widely adopted by mystics, occultists and secret societies until the 18th and 19th century. The tradition began in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman and Freemason, published Le Monde Primitif, a study of religious symbolism and its survivals in the modern world. De Gébelin first called attention to the unusual symbols of the Tarot de Marseille, and asserted that the symbols in fact represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth. De Gébelin furthermore 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 wrote before Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, and later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language that supports de Gébelin's fanciful etymologies, but these findings came too late; by the time authentic Egyptian texts were available, the identification of the Tarot cards with the Egyptian "Book of Thoth" was already firmly established in occult practice.

Although tarot cards were used for fortune-telling in Italy early in the 1700s and perhaps earlier, they were first widely publicized as a divination method by Alliette, aka "Le Grand Etteilla", an ex-barber who reversed his name and marketed himself as a seer and card diviner in the Paris of the French Revolution. Etteilla designed the first esoteric Tarot deck, adding astrological attributions to various cards, altering many of them from the Marseilles designs, and adding divinatory meanings in text on the cards. The Etteilla decks, though now eclipsed by Smith and Waite's illuminated deck and Aleister Crowley's "Thoth" deck, remains available. Etteilla's best known successor was Marie-Anne Le Normand, whose cartomancy became fashionable during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, due largely to the influence Le Normand wielded with Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's first wife. After the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon kings, interest in cartomancy declined.

Interest by more serious occultists came later, during the Hermetic Revival of the 1840s in which (among others) Victor Hugo was involved. The idea of the cards as a mystical key was first seriously developed by Eliphas Levi and passed to the English-speaking world by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Levi, not Etteilla, is the true founder of most contemporary schools of Tarot reading; his 1854 Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (English title: Transcendental Magic) introduced a new system for interpreting the cards. While Levi 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 to the Kabbalah and the four elements of alchemy.

The breakthrough into mass popularity began in 1910, with the publication of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, which took the step of including symbolic images in the minor as well the major arcana. (Arthur Edward Waite had been an early member of the Golden Dawn) In the twentieth century, a huge number of different decks were created, some traditional, some wildly different.

Tarot decks display the archetypes of spiritual life, see iconography.


  • The Game of Tarot by Michael Dummett ISBN 0-71-561014-7 - a history of the Tarot, and a compilation of Tarot card games. (out of print)
  • A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot by Ronald Decker, Thierry de Paulis, and Michael Dummett ISBN 0-312-16294-4 - a history of the French origin of the occult Tarot, focusing on Etteilla, Le Normand, and Lévi.
  • A History of the Occult Tarot by Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett, ISBN 0-7156-3122-5, continuing the story of the occult Tarot through the Golden Dawn tradition and its reception in the English-speaking world.
  • Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack - comprehensive, covering and the minor as well as the major arcana; and taking several angles on the Tarot.
  • Complete Guide to the Tarot by Eden Grey - concentrates on classical divination, but has some information on the more spiritual aspects.
  • Qabalistic Tarot by Robert Wang - a comprehensive and highly regarded, but frequently challenging, reference to the esoteric aspects of Tarot.
  • The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Stuart Kaplan, 3 vols - repertory of illustrations and history..

External links

Search resources

  • Tarot at dmoz.org (http://dmoz.org/Society/Religion_and_Spirituality/Divination/Tarot)

Tarot history

da:Tarot de:Tarot es:Tarot eo:Taroko fr:Tarot_divinatoire it:Tarocchi nl:Tarot ja:タロット pl:Tarot pt:Tarot fi:Tarot-kortit sv:Tarotkortlek zh:塔羅牌


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