Most people probably have at least a passing acquaintance with tarot decks; they have been used for fortune telling, meditation, and even as a party game for centuries.
The most popular tarot deck is the Rider-Waite, designed by Pamela Colman Smith, on the specific designs of occult scholar A. E. Waite and published in 1910 by the Rider Company. It is usually taken to be the canonical tarot, but there are hundreds of different tarot decks on the market, for sale at book stores, occult shops and online. There are decks for every taste, interest, and budget—decks with cats, dragons, Lord of the Rings characters, Celtic gods, faeries and much more. Some stray so far from the usual symbolism that purists would not even consider them tarot decks.
A standard tarot deck has 78 cards, in two major divisions:
- The Major Arcana: These are the familiar symbolic cards such as Death, Strength, the Hanged Man, and the Hermit. There are 22 major arcana cards, numbered from 0 to 21.
- The Minor Arcana (sometimes, but rarely, called the Lesser Arcana): This is four suits of 14 cards each—numbered 1-10 plus four court cards, usually page, knight (sometimes called a knave), queen and king. The suits are typically cups (or chalices), swords (or blades), pentacles (or coins), and wands (or staves).
A couple of things are worth noting about suits. For one thing, the suits of the tarot deck derive from the common suits of playing cards (or, more precisely, the two sets of suits evolved from the same source). This will be covered more thoroughly later in the article, and the association with modern suits will be noted in a chart below.
Also, modern mystics associate the four suits with four traditional elements—there are a vast number of items associated with said elements, far too many for the scope of this article, but a selected list follows:
- Swords (Spades): the element of air, the direction of east, the colour yellow (or sky blue), the intellect
- Pentacles (Diamonds): the element of earth, the direction of north, greens and browns (also black), growth and stability
- Wands (Clubs): the element of fire, the direction of south, the colour red, passion and desire
- Cups (Hearts): the element of water, the direction of west, the colour blue, compassion
Each of the cards of the major and minor arcana have specific symbolic meanings. Individuals with knowledge of these meanings can use the cards to divine—either trying to ascertain future outcomes or events or to connect with the unconscious on a deep, symbolic level. Much more information about how to use tarot cards for divination or meditation can be found in the various writeups appropriate to these activities.
Given their popularity, and the mysterious reputation accorded to them, it is hardly surprising that the origins of tarot would be shrouded in rumor, myth, and folklore.
Origins of the Tarot
There is a river in northern Italy named the Taro—in the late Middle Ages, its mighty waters turned the wheels of numerous large paper mills. This was area where tarot cards were born; some scholars think that the river lent its name to the cards. But it also so happens that the Roma people (the nomadic group Europeans used to refer to as Gypsies), brought fortune telling cards with them to Europe. The Roma seem to have venerated a goddess named Tara. This deity was an earth-mother goddess whose Indo-European name comes down to us as the word for earth or land in most of the Romance languages. Her name may have been the inspiration for the name of the cards. Other arguments have been made that the name comes from the Hebrew word torah ('the Law'), Latin orat ('it speaks'), the Sanskrit word taru ('cards'), or the names of several Egyptian gods and goddesses.
Playing Cards and Minor Arcana
Sometime in the first five centuries after the life and death of Jesus, a novel form of gambling game was born somewhere in the Far East. Either China, with its paper money, or India, birthplace of chess saw the first playing cards. By the time anyone thought to record the existence of the game, playing cards were well-established in both regions. Gamers began playing with numbered slips of paper or wooden chips, arranged in suits which were coloured and/or named.
Early accounts of Chinese playing cards make mention of three suits, each representing different quantities of money: coins (sometimes described as cakes), strings (of coins) and "myriads," a sort of abstract idea representing a large quantity of money. There seem to have been some additional cards which depicted royalty or legendary figures and some with virtues such as luck, longevity, and prosperity.
The first recorded reference to playing cards in European history is in a historical document dated 1377, written by a monk in Germany. A century later, in 1480, a writer in Italy claimed that cards came to Europe in 1379 from the 'Saracen countries' (the Middle East). Playing cards made their way around Europe between 1370s and 1400. A deck of cards was produced in 1392 for King Charles VI of France.
The four suits of the modern tarot deck evolved from the playing cards of the Medieval Middle East. One such deck, the Momluk (from Egypt and Syria in the 13th and 14th centuries) had four suits, roughly equivalent to modern playing cards: clubs (or polo sticks), cups, coins, and swords. Also, each suit had three court cards, but no pictures as Islamic prohibitions against representational art forbade it.
The Trumps Complete the Picture
It is unknown exactly when someone decided to use playing cards to tell fortunes, but we do know that at some time in the early 15th century, a fifth suit of cards came into existence, specifically for that purpose. This suit was called the trumps, a name which probably derives from the Italian trionfi, 'triumphs,' possibly in reference to the trionfi parade, which portrayed various vices being triumphed over by virtues. These cards (which, many years later, got dubbed the major arcana) presented allegorical symbolic pictures. Rather than numbers and face cards, the there were 22 cards, 21 which were sequentially numbered and one which was not numbered, but later became represented as zero. In 1442, Carte da trionfi were mentioned in documents—this is the first known reference to tarot cards.
In the 1430s, a Milanese duke named Filippo Maria Visconti had a deck of oracular cards created. Images of the nymph Daphne were central to this deck. Daphne was desired by the god Apollo, who was the patron of seers and soothsayers and that sort of thing. This deck was also called Trionfi and these cards and the other trionfi decks all owe much to one another. Hand-painted cards made for this family (the so called Visconti-Sforza cards, with several beautiful surviving examples) are the earliest tarot deck of which we have specimens, and many historians consider the trionfi cards to be the original tarot deck.
There exists an educational game, probably of Italian origin, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the tarot. This game, called tarocchi or minchiate is essentially a grand set of flash cards used to aid students in the memorization of a large number of useful things: signs of the zodiac, classes of society (from hermit up to Emperor), cardinal virtues (Hope, Faith, Temperance and so forth), the four classical elements, religious figures (Pope, saints, angels, the Devil), astrological bodies (moon, sun, planets), and stages of life (birth, fortune, death). This game was exceptionally popular and a huge number of decks existed (all hand-made, before the printing press, and often customized for a particular tutor or student). These cards lent much to the development of what became known as the tarot deck.
There is also a trick-taking card game, similar in a fashion to bridge, which is named tarocchi. This game uses a deck of cards which is similar (but not identical) to a tarot deck—the Major Arcana cards are used as trumps and the numbering of them is very important to game play. Tarocchi decks, unlike cards used for fortune-telling, have the trumps' numbers in the corner, where they will show when the player fans the cards (the trumps' art is also significantly different from the more familiar decks). Also, the game decks usually have the more familiar suits of cards (diamonds, clubs, hearts, spades). This game is called tarot in France, which adds to the confusion. Some sources seem to feel that the tarocchi game came first and the divinitory tool came from it, but the evidence seems fairly clear that the game and esoteric tool probably came about the same time, from the same sources and diverged from there.
As discussed in our introduction above, the Roma people brought with them fortune telling cards from their original homeland of northern India and Tajikistan. Modelled on Buddhist and Hindu cards and supposedly consecrated to their earth-mother goddess (whose 21 emanations were represented by the 21 cards of the deck), these cards probably offered a further influence on the nascent tarot decks of Europe.
From their birthplace in Northern Italy, the cards spread slowly, to Spain and Germany. The decks typically consisted of 56 cards in four suits, plus 22 trumps, and they were usually called Tarocke or Tarocchi. This 78-card deck would become the standard for tarot decks ever after.
Up until the late nineteenth century, there was no agreed-upon interpretation (or even design) for the cards of the tarot. In 1888, the English occultist Macgregor Mathers wrote a well-received work on the subject which helped to canonize some of these aspects of the deck and helped to start an explosion of popularity that the cards would enjoy for over a hundred years thereafter.
Tarots of the Pharaohs: A Strange (and Strangely Compelling) Theory
It has been claimed that the tarot is of ancient Egyptian origins, passed down in a romantic, clandestine way, and filled with arcane symbolism from Dynastic times (some of it may have been rescued from the Library of Alexandria, then encoded in the symbols of the cards). French scholar Antoine Court de Gebelin wrote about this in his nine-volume opus Monde Primitif in 1781 and the idea was just too great. People ran with it.
Msr. de Gebelin claimed that he had traced the tarot's origins to the initiation rites of the ancient Egyptian priests. The trumps symbolized the leaders of the society, the cardinal virtues, the wise and the foolish people. He claimed the four suits were representative of the four classes of ancient Egyptian society: the nobles represented by the sword, the farmers by the distaff, the priests were represented by the cup, and the merchants by the coin. He also claimed a numerical significance of the number seven. Each suit contains two sevens of cards and the numbered trump cards are three sevens.
A Parisian wigmaker-turned-fortune teller named Etteilla took this theory even further. Etteilla was a keen student of magic, astrology, and alchemy and he believed that the Egyptian god Thoth had revealed the secrets of the tarot to the priests of the earliest Egyptian dynasties. Said secrets were then inscribed on sheets of gold 171 years after the Great Deluge and later transcribed by 17 mystics into a mighty tome entitled Book of Thoth.
Of course, no golden sheets, nor any sort of tarot symbolism, has ever been discovered in the numerous archeological digs of Egypt's ancient tombs and monuments. In 1799, the Rosetta Stone was discovered and Egyptian heiroglyphic writing was deciphered and demystified. As no references to the symbolism of the tarot, nor indeed to the purported Book of Thoth, have surfaced, this theory has faded.
A few occultists have tried to revive it—in the late nineteenth century, Jean-Baptiste Pitois described in elaborate detail the 22 paintings from a hidden gallery under the Pyramids. These paintings became the trumps, but then no such paintings have ever been seen by anyone by Msr. Pitois (who saw them in a vision or something like that).
Twentieth century Scottish mystic Aleister Crowley also espoused the theory, even creating a (very beautiful) tarot deck called the Book of Thoth Tarot. Of course, Mr. Crowley was a self-admitted charlatan, so a large grain of salt might be advisable when examining his claims. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Egypt theory continues to hold a few die-hard adherents.
So, if it isn't from Ancient Egypt, Where DID the Tarot Come From?
For those who just cannot accept that the mystical deck is a conglomeration of symbolism from the Roma fortune telling cards, the Italian memory game, and playing cards, other theories abound. Perhaps the tarot was developed from from ancient Jewish esoteric mysticism. In the late 19th century, French priest, mystic, and Rosicrucian Eliphas Lévi advanced the theory that the Tarot was a key to the Bible, the Jewish kabbalah, and much other ancient occult scholarship. He connected the 22 paths between the sephiroth of the kabbalistic Tree of Life with the 22 trump cards and also with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He also espoused the view that the four suits represent the four letters of the tetragrammaton—the sacred name of God. Pitois was one of Lévi's students.
Of course, it could have come from the fabled lost continent of Atlantis
—there are a number of bizarre
theories as to the origin of the cards, and Atlantis figures into a couple of them. Some of the more outlandish theories involve alien
intelligences (either from space
or from other dimensions) or deities revealing the tarot to humans. The fanciful nature of these theories
serves as further testament to the cards' long-lived ability to fire the imaginations of dreamers
and scholars alike.
Thompson, Joy, "A Fool's History of Human Civilization" Parabola magazine, Vol. 26, #3, Fall 2001, pp. 6-12.
Innes, Brian, "The Tarot" (Crescent Books, New York, 1987).
Place, Robert M., "The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination" (Tarcher/Penguin, New York, 2005).
Cavendish, Richard, editor, "Man, Myth, and Magic; volume 18" (Marshall Cavendish, New York, 1995).
Chalquist, Craig, "the Origins of the Tarot" online article from Metareligion, http://www.meta-religion.com/Esoterism/Tarot/origins_of_the_tarot.htm
Conversations with some very kooky and unusual individuals
Rider-Waite tarot deck by Mertseger
Wikipedia (for the tarocchi stuff)
Historical tarot/tarocchi site: Trionfi.com