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This article is about the card decks created for trick-taking games and later used for divinatory and esoteric/occult purposes. For other uses, see Tarot (disambiguation).
Visconti-Sforza tarot deck. The Devil card is a 20th-century remake of the card supposedly missing from the original 15th-century deck.
The tarot (first known as tarocchi, also tarock and similar names), pronounced /ˈtæroʊ/, is a pack of 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 in efforts at divination or as a map of mental and spiritual pathways.
The tarot has four suits corresponding to the suits of conventional playing cards. Each of these suits has pip cards numbering from ace to ten and four face cards for a total of 14 cards. In addition, the tarot is distinguished by 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 unknown, 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. 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 ‘pathways’. Alternatively, it may be from the Arabic ترك taraka, ‘to leave, abandon, omit, leave behind’. According to a French etymology, the Italian tarocco derived from Arabic طرحṭarḥ, ‘rejection; subtraction, deduction, discount’.
Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century, probably from Mamluk Egypt, with suits very similar to the tarot suits of Swords, Staves, Cups and Coins (also known as disks, and pentacles) and those still used in traditional Italian, Spanish and Portuguese decks. The first documentary evidence is a ban on their use in 1367, Bern, Switzerland. Wide use of playing cards in Europe can, with some certainty, be traced from 1377 onwards.
The first known 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 Ferrara, in 1442. 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.
Divination using playing cards is in evidence as early as 1540 in a book entitled The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forli 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.
Picture-card packs are first mentioned by Martiano da Tortona probably between 1418 and 1425, since in 1418 the painter he mentions, Michelino da Besozzo, returned to Milan 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.
Le Bateleur: The Juggler from the Tarot of Marseilles. This card is often named The Magician in modern English language tarots
Two playing card decks from Milan (the Brera-Brambrilla 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 66) are today in the Cary collection of the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University, in the U.S. state of 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, 13 are at the Casa Colleoniand two, ‘The Devil’ and ‘The Tower’, are lost or else 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 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.
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 comes from the southern city of Marseilles, after which it is named the Tarot de Marseilles.
Tarot, tarock and tarocchi games
The original purpose of tarot cards was for playing games, the first basic rules appearing in the manuscript of Martiano da Tortona before 1425. The game of tarot is known in many variations (mostly cultural); the first basic rules for the game of Taroccoappear in the manuscript of Martiano da Tortona (before 1425; translated text), and the next are known from the year 1637. In Italy the game has become less popular; one version named Tarocco Bolognese: Ottocento has still survived and there are still others played in Piedmont, but the number of games outside of Italy is much higher. The French tarot game is the most popular in its native country and there are regional tarot games often known as tarock,tarok,or tarokk widely played in central Europe.
Although the Icehouse games Gnostica and Zarcana are played using tarot cards, they have no relation to traditional tarot play.
Divinatory, esoteric, and occult tarot
Tarot cards would later become 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 Swissclergyman, 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 Romanies (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.
Tarot was used as early as the 16th century to compose poems, called "tarocchi appropriati", describing ladies of the court or famous personages. In modern literature, two exceptional examples of novels centered on the tarot are The Greater Trumps (1932) by Charles Williams and Il castello dei destini incrociati(1969) (English translation: The Castle of Crossed Destinies ) by Italo Calvino. In the former, the tarot is used by the main characters to move through space and time, create matter, and raise powerful natural storms. In the latter, Mediaeval travellers meeting at a castle are inexplicably unable to speak, and use a tarot deck to describe their stories, which are reconstructed by the narrator, calling forth implications of the nature of communication, fate, and the presence of the transcendent in daily life.
Tarots appear in T.S. Eliot‘s modernist poem The Waste Land (1922), in connection with the figure of Madame Sosostris, one of the characters which appear in the first part, "The Burial of the Dead". Some of the cards mentioned in the poem really exist in the tarot deck (the Hanged Man, the Wheel), some have been invented by Eliot.
Tom Deitz‘s 1991 novel Soulsmith begins with a man in prison who uses songs he hears on the radio as virtual tarot cards to create mental readings for himself. The chapter titles in Jeanette Winterson’s Gut Symmetries (1997) are taken from the tarot cards, informing the major theme of each chapter. The 2007 novel Sepulchre by British author Kate Mosse features a fictional tarot deck. Randall Flagg or Walter o’Dim of the Dark Tower series uses them in the end of the first book to tell the future of Roland and his ka-tet. The 2009 young-adult fiction novel Andromeda Klein heavily focuses on tarot, specifically the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and magick theory.
Carl Jung was the first psychoanalyst to attach importance to tarot symbolism. He may have regarded the tarot cards as representing archetypes: fundamental types of persons or situations embedded in the collective unconscious of all human beings. The theory of archetypes gives rise to several psychoanalytical uses. Since the cards represent these different archetypes within each individual, ideas of the subject’s self-perception can be gained by asking them to select a card that they ‘identify with’. Equally, the subject can try to clarify the situation by imagining it in terms of the archetypal ideas associated with each card. For instance, someone rushing in heedlessly like the Knight of Swords, or blindly keeping the world at bay like the Rider-Waite-Smith Two of Swords.
More recently Timothy Leary has suggested that the tarot trump cards are a pictorial representation of human development from infant to adult, with the Fool symbolizing the newborn infant, the Magician symbolizing the stage at which an infant begins to play with artifacts, etc. In Leary’s view the tarot trumps may be viewed as a blueprint for the human race as it matures.
Le Chariot, from Nicolas Conver’s 1760 deck.
Example of 18th century "Tiertarock" or animal tarot.
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 96 cards includesastrological 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 tarots
Central European 54 card Tarock deck
Bourgeois Tarot or Tarot Nouveau.
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. French suited tarot cards are a modern deck used for the tarot/tarock card games commonly played in France and central Europe. The symbolism of French suited tarot trumps depart considerably from the older Italian suited design. 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.
-occult Italian-suited tarot decks
These were the earliest form of tarot deck to be invented, being first devised in the 15th century in northern Italy. The occult tarot decks are based on decks of this type. Four decks of this category are still used to play certain games:
Tarocco Piemontese: the Fool.
The Tarocco Piemontese consists of the four suits of swords, batons, clubs and coins, each headed by a king, queen, cavalier and jack, followed by numerals 10 down to 1. The trumps rank as follows: The Angel (20—although it only bears the second-highest number, it is nonetheless the highest), the World (21), the Sun (19), the Moon (18), the Star (17), the Tower (16), the Devil (15), Temperance (14), death (13), the Hanged Man (12), Strength (11), the Wheel of Fortune (10), the Hermit (9), Justice (8), the Chariot (7), the Lovers (6), the Pope (5), the Emperor (4), the Empress (3), the Popess (2) and the Bagatto (1). There is also the Fool (Matto).
The Swiss Tarot de Besançon is similar, but is of a different graphical design, and replaces the Pope with Jupiter, the Popess with Juno, and the Angel with the Judgement. The trumps rank in numerical order and the Tower is known as the House of God.
The Tarocco Bolognese omits numeral cards two to five in plain suits, leaving it with 62 cards, and has somewhat different trumps, not all of which are numbered and four of which are equal in rank. It has a different graphical design.
The Tarocco Siciliano changes some of the trumps, and replaces the 21 with a card labeled Miseria (destitution). It omits the Two and Three of coins, and numerals one to four in batons, swords and cups: it thus has 64 cards. The cards are quite small and, again, of a different graphical design.
Occult tarot decks
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 ancientEgypt. The 78-card tarot deck used by esotericists has two distinct parts:
The Major Arcana (greater secrets), or trump cards, consists of 22 cards without suits: The Fool, The Magician, The High Priestess, The Empress, The Emperor, The Hierophant, The Lovers, The Chariot, Strength, The Hermit, Wheel of Fortune,Justice, The Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, The Devil, The Tower, The Star, The Moon, The Sun, Judgement, and The World.
The Minor Arcana (lesser secrets) consists of 56 cards, divided into four suits of 14 cards each; ten numbered cards and four court cards. The court cards are the King, Queen, Knight and Page/Jack, in each of the four tarot suits. The traditional Italian tarot suits are swords, batons/wands, coins and cups; in modern tarot decks, however, the batons suit is often called wands, rods or staves, while the coins suit is often called pentacles or disks.
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 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 modern esoteric decks. A Marseilles type deck is usually 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 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 (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 & 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.
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 contemporary divination 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 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 88 cards rather than the more conventional 78, 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.
Many popular decks have modified the traditional symbolism to reflect the esoteric beliefs of their creators.
Crowley-Harris Thoth deck
Each card in the Thoth deck is intricately detailed with astrological, zodiacal, elemental and Qabalistic symbols related to each card. Colours are used symbolically, especially the cards related to the five elements of Spirit, Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Crowley wrote a book–The Book of Thoth to accompany, describe, and expand on his deck and the data regarding the pathways within. Unlike the popular Waite-Smith Tarot, the Thoth Tarot retains the traditional order of the trumps but uses alternative nomenclature for both the trumps and of the courts.
Hermetic Tarot utilizes the tarot imagery to function as a textbook and mnemonic device for teaching and revealing the gnosis of alchemical symbolical language and its profound and philosophical meanings. 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 and revealer of perennial wisdom was further developed in the work of Carl Gustav Jung and his exploration into the psyche and active 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.
Popular culture tarot decks
The Vertigo Tarot deck employs characters from titles of American publisher Vertigo Comics including such imagery as John Constantine from Hellblazer, in the role of The Fool zero card. The cards were illustrated by Dave McKean with text by Rachel Pollack and the accompanying book holds an introduction by Neil Gaiman. In France, where the tarot game is most popular, there have been tarot decks published depicting characters from Asterix, Disney, and Tex Avery cartoons. Moreover there are parodying decks like the free Discordian Deck, which transfers Discordian philosophy into divinatory tarot.
Modern oracle cards
Recently, the use of tarot for divination, or as a store of symbolism, has inspired the creation of modern oracle card decks. These are card decks for inspiration or divination containing images of angels, faeries, goddesses, totems, etc. Although obviously influenced by divinatory tarot, they do not follow the traditional structure of Tarot; they often lack any suits of numbered cards, and the set of cards differs from the conventional major arcana.
^ Michael Dummett: The Game of Tarot, 1980, p. 67
^ Casanova, Giacomo; Machen, Arthur. "The Complete Memoires of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt". Retrieved January 22, 2009.
^ The game of Tarot: from Ferrara to Salt Lake City, Michael A. E. Dummett, Sylvia Mann pg. 76 – United States Games Systems (1980) ISBN 0715610147
^ Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage, Paul Huson, pg. 280 – Destiny Books (2004) ISBN 0892811900
^ Huson, Paul Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage. Vermont: Destiny Books, 2004
^ Israel Regardie, "The Tree of Life", (London, Rider, 1932)
^ Tarot for Your Self: A Workbook for Personal Transformation, Mary K. Greer pg. 285 – New Page Books (2002) ISBN 1564145883
^ McCloskey, Leigh, Tarot ReVisioned, adpress
Michael Dummett The game of Tarot: from Ferrara to Salt Lake City
Nichols, Sallie, Jung and Tarot: an Archetypal Journey, York Beach : Weiser, 1980
Douglas Alfred The Tarot Penguin Books 1972
I (The Magician / The Juggler) · II (The High Priestess / The Popess) · III (The Empress) · IV (The Emperor) · V (The Hierophant / The Pope) · VI (The Lovers) · VII (The Chariot) · VIII (XI) (Justice) · IX (The Hermit) · X (Wheel of Fortune) · XI (VIII) (Strength / Fortitude) ·XII (The Hanged Man / The Traitor) · XIII (Death) · XIV (Temperance) · XV (The Devil) · XVI (The Tower / Fire) · XVII (The Star) · XVIII (The Moon) · XIX (The Sun) · XX (Judgement / The Angel) · XXI (The World) · Unnumbered or Zero (The Fool)
Tarot Cards by Suits