Here's Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Tarot
Tarot Cards Origin
The origins of playing cards are uncertain, however they first appeared in Europe in the late 14th century. The first records come from 1367 in Berne, and they appear to have spread extremely quickly throughout Europe, as seen by the records, primarily of card games being prohibited. The only significant information about the appearance and number of these cards is provided by a text by John of Rheinfelden in 1377 from Freiburg im Breisgau, who, among other versions, describes the basic pack as containing the still-current four suits of 13 cards, with the courts usually being the King, Ober and Unter ("marshals"), although Dames and Queens were already known by then.
The suits of Batons or Clubs, Coins, Swords, and Cups were an early pattern of playing cards that evolved. These suits are still used in traditional Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese decks, but they have also been changed in packs used exclusively for tarot divination cards, which first emerged in the late 18th century.
Between 1440 and 1450, the first known tarot packs were recorded in Milan, Ferrara, Florence, and Bologna, when additional trump cards with allegorical pictures were added to the conventional four-suit pack. These new decks were known as carte da trionfi, triumph cards, and the additional trionfi cards, which became "trumps" in English. The first recorded mention of trionfi may be discovered in the court archives of Florence in 1440, involving the transfer of two decks to Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta.
The Visconti-Sforza tarot decks, painted in the mid-15th century for the monarchs of the Duchy of Milan, are the earliest surviving tarot decks.
Martiano da Tortona described a lost tarot-like pack commissioned by Duke Filippo Maria Visconti between 1418 and 1425, because the painter he describes, Michelino da Besozzo, arrived to Milan in 1418, and Martiano himself died in 1425. He described a 60-card deck with 16 cards portraying Roman gods and suits featuring four different types of birds. Since 1449, when Jacopo Antonio Marcello recounted that the now-deceased duke had developed a novum quoddam et exquisitum triumphorum genus, or "a new and exquisite sort of triumphs," the 16 cards were considered as "trumps." Other early cards with classical elements are the 1490s Sola-Busca and Boiardo-Viti decks.
Minchiate, an enlarged deck, was used in Florence. This 97-card deck incorporates astrological symbols, the four elements, and conventional tarot patterns.
Although a Dominican friar in the 15th century preached against the evil inherent in cards (due mostly to their employment in gambling), no systematic condemnations of tarot were discovered during its early existence.
Because the first decks of tarot cards were hand-painted, the number of decks created is assumed to be limited. Only with the introduction of the printing press was mass manufacture of cards conceivable. During the Italian Wars, tarot spread beyond of Italy, first to France and then to Switzerland. The Tarot of Marseilles, of Milanese provenance, was the most popular tarot design in these two nations.
The Empress's title. The Man on the Cross. The Caravan. Judgment. Tarot cards' centuries-old symbology, which combines ancient symbols, religious allegories, and historical events, might appear purposely oblique. Occult activities like card reading, according to outsiders and doubters, have no significance in our modern society. A deeper examination of these microscopic masterpieces reveals that their power is not derived from some magical source, but rather from the capacity of their modest, unchanging pictures to expose our most complicated issues and wants.
Contrary to popular belief, the meaning of divination cards evolves over time, influenced by each era's culture and the demands of individual users. This is one of the reasons why these decks may be so perplexing to outsiders, as most of them allude to allegories or events that were recognizable to people many centuries ago. Caitln Matthews, who teaches cartomancy, or card divination, argues that before the 18th century, the iconography on these cards was available to a far larger populace. In comparison to these old decks, Matthews finds most current decks more difficult to interact with.
"You either have really superficial ones or rampantly esoteric ones with so many signs and symbols on them that you can hardly make them out," Matthews explains. "I purchased my first tarot pack, the Tarot de Marseille issued by Grimaud in 1969, and I just returned to it after not using it for a time." The Tarot de Marseille, which is said to have originated in the 17th century, is one of the most frequent types of tarot decks ever made. Marseille decks were typically produced with woodblocks and then hand-colored with simple stencils.
However, employing cards for fun divination dates back much farther, to the 14th century, and is most likely derived from Mamluk gaming cards transported to Western Europe from Turkey. The Italian nobility was playing a game known as "tarocchi appropriati" by the 1500s, in which participants were assigned random cards and exploited theme associations with these cards to create lyrical lines about one another, similar to the famous children game "MASH." These foretelling cards were known as "sortes," which translates as "destinies or lots."
Even the oldest known tarot cards were not intended for mysticism; rather, they were intended for a game comparable to modern-day bridge. In Italy, wealthy families commissioned pricey, artist-made decks known as "carte da trionfi" or "cards of triumph." These cards had suits of cups, swords, money, and polo sticks (later altered to staves or wands), as well as courts comprised of a monarch and two male underlings. Tarot cards eventually added queens, trumps (the tarot's wild cards), and the Fool to this arrangement, resulting in a full deck of 78 cards. Today, suit cards are referred to as the Minor Arcana, while trump cards are referred to as the Major Arcana.
Bill Wolf, a graphic designer and artist whose interest in tarot graphics extends back to his days at Cooper Union in New York, has his own views regarding the tarot's origins. Wolf, who does not employ cards for divination, feels that "the meaning of the images was parallel to the mechanics of the game's play at first." Every time the game was played, the random draw of the cards formed a fresh, unique narrative, and the decisions players made affected the development of that narrative." Consider a card game in the form of a choose-your-own-adventure.
"The iconography was supposed to mirror essential components of the players' real life, and the prominent Christian symbolism in the cards is a clear reflection of the Christian culture in which they lived," he says. Illustrations changed to represent a certain designer's goal as divinatory usage grew more prevalent. "The topics took on increasingly esoteric significance," Wolf adds, "but they typically kept the classic tarot format of four suits of pip cards [akin to the numbered cards in a standard playing-card deck], matching court cards, and the extra trump cards, with a Fool."
Even if you're not familiar with tarot card reading, you've probably seen one of the popular decks, such as the famous Rider-Waite, which has been issued continuously since 1909. The Rider-Waite deck, named after publisher William Rider and prominent mystic A.E. Waite, who commissioned Pamela Colman Smith to draw it, was instrumental in the growth of 20th-century occult tarot employed by mystical readers.
"The Rider-Waite deck was created for divination, and it came with a book authored by Waite that explained much of the esoteric meaning behind the images," Wolf explains. "People say its innovative point of genius is that the pip cards are 'illustrated,' which means that Colman Smith merged the number of suit indications into little vignettes that, when combined, make a tale in graphics." This strong narrative aspect provides readers with something to hold onto, since it is quite natural to look at a combination of cards and create your own tale from them.
"The deck truly took off in popularity when Stuart Kaplan got the publication rights and built a following for it in the early '70s," Wolf explains. With his 1977 book, Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling, Kaplan helped revive interest in card reading, and he has subsequently produced other books on the subject.
Despite the fact that historians such as Kaplan and Matthews publish fresh material on divination decks every year, there are still numerous gaps in the greater tale of fortune-telling cards. According to Wolf, persons who utilize cards for divination are frequently at conflict with academics who are studying their ancestors. "There is a lot of disagreement among tarot historians and card readers concerning the origins and function of tarot cards," Wolf explains. "The evidence implies that they were developed for games and only subsequently adapted for use in divination." Personally, I believe they were created for game play, although the design is more complex than many tarot historians appear to assume."
By the mid-eighteenth century, mystical uses for playing cards had extended from Italy to the rest of Europe. Antoine Court de Gébelin, a French writer, said that the tarot was based on a holy book authored by Egyptian priests and given to Europe by African Gypsies. In actuality, tarot cards precede the arrival of Gypsies in Europe, who originated in Asia rather than Africa. Regardless of its flaws, Court de Gébelin's nine-volume history of the globe had a huge impact.
In 1791, teacher and publisher Jean-Baptiste Alliette published his first book on the tarot, "Etteilla, or L'art de lire dans les cartes," which translates as "Etteilla, or the Art of Reading Cards." (By merely reversing his surname, Alliette came up with the magical moniker "Etteilla.") According to Etteilla's writings, he initially learnt divination using a deck of 32 cards intended for the game Piquet, together with his own Etteilla card. This sort of card is called as the significator, and it usually represents the person having their fortune told.
While the tarot is the most well-known, it is just one form of divination deck; others include regular playing cards and so-called oracle decks, a word that encompasses all other fortune-telling decks other than the classic tarot. Etteilla finally moved to a regular tarot card, which he believed housed ancient Egyptian secrets. Etteilla's concept was similar to that of Court de Gébelin, who purportedly discovered Egyptian motifs in tarot-card images. Though hieroglyphics had not yet been translated (the Rosetta Stone was uncovered in 1799), many European thinkers in the late 18th century felt ancient Egypt's religion and texts provided significant insights into human life. They increased the legitimacy of the cards by connecting tarot images to Egyptian mysticism.
Etteilla stated that tarot cards started with the fabled Book of Thoth, which reportedly belonged to the Egyptian god of knowledge, based on Court de Gébelin's Egyptian connection. According to Etteilla, Thoth's priests etched the book into gold plates, producing the images for the first tarot deck. Based on these notions, Etteilla issued his own deck in 1789, one of the first created expressly as a divination tool and afterwards known as the Egyptian tarot.
"Etteilla was one of the ones that made divination so esoteric," Matthews explains. "He developed a deck that integrated everything from Court de Gébelin and his book 'Le Monde Primitif,' which postulated an Egyptian origin for the tarot and other occult things." Matthews distinguishes between the tarot's abstract readings and the plain "cartomantic" reading technique that flourished previous to Etteilla in the 16th and 17th centuries.
"When we used to send telegrams, each word cost money," Matthews says, "so you'd have to send very few words like, 'Big baby.'" Mother is doing OK. 'Please come to the hospital.' And you'd get the gist of it. I read cards in a similar manner, beginning with a few generic keywords and make meaning of them by filling in the blanks. This isn't a tarot reading where you project things like, 'I see you've lately experienced a huge disappointment.' 'Mercury has gone retrograde, and da da da.' A cartomantic reading is far more simple and realistic, such as 'Your wife will eat tomatoes, fall from the roof, and die miserably.' It's a straightforward reading style, pre-New Age."
Matthews has written numerous publications about divinatory cards, the most recent of which being The Complete Lenormand Oracle Cards Handbook. This 36-card deck was named after renowned card-reader Mademoiselle Marie Anne Lenormand, who was popular during the turn of the 18th and 19th century, however decks bearing her name were not made until after her death. The earliest packs in Matthews' collection are two Lenormand-style decks, a French Daveluy from the 1860s and a Viennese Zauberkarten deck from 1864, both of which were among the first to be illustrated using the chromolithography process.
Oracle decks, such as the Lenormand, use more direct visual language than typical tarot cards. According to Wolf, "the tarot may frequently speak in sweeping, ageless, global pronouncements about our role in the world." "The iconography of fortune-telling decks is more illustrational than archetypal." The pictures are more particular, simpler, and less generalized in general, keeping the discourse more direct."
Unlike other oracle decks, which lack suited pip cards, Lenormand cards have a unique blend of numerical playing-card iconography on top of drawn scenes used for fortune-telling. "One of the first versions, dubbed the Game of Hope, was created by a German named J.K. Hechtel and was designed as a board game," Matthews recalls. "You set out cards numbered one through 36, and the purpose of the game was to roll the dice and advance your tokens along it." If you get to card 35, the anchor card, you're home free and clear. However, if you walked any more, there was the cross, which was not so good. It reminded me of the game Snakes and Ladders." In this sense, the Game of Hope followed in the Victorian-era tradition of board games that decided a player's life narrative by chance.
The original instructions for the game said that it could be used for divination because the graphic on each card comprised both a symbolic image, such as the anchor, and a specific playing card, such as the nine of spades. "Hechtel must have noticed similarities between divining with playing cards, which everyone performed, and his game," Matthews adds. "At the end of the 18th century and into the early 19th century, many additional oracle cards arose about the same period." They grew in popularity after the Napoleonic Wars, when everyone had settled down and had become exceedingly bourgeois.
"Mary Greer just found that there was an earlier source to the Lenormand cards," she says. "The British Museum has a deck named 'Les Amusements des Allemands' ('The German Entertainment.'" Basically, a British company created a deck of cards with graphics and short epigrams on the bottom that say things like, 'Be attentive, don't waste your money,' and the like. It's pretty cliche. However, it came with a book of instructions that is nearly comparable to the instructions for later packs of Lenormand cards."
Tarot-card fans can pinpoint the evolution of specific pictures by comparing different decks from different historical periods. "For example," Matthews argues, "the contemporary counterpart of the hermit with the light had an hourglass, and he was Saturn or Chronos, the keeper of time." You can see how that relates to the Tarot Bolognese meaning of delay or obstruction. It was about time flowing slowly, though that's not a very common current connotation."
Most card readers know that the person being read for's connections and assumptions are just as essential as the actual designs on the cards: Divination cards allow you to project particular thoughts, whether subconscious or conscious, and experiment with different results for key decisions. As a result, the finest pictures, like scenes from a picture book, generally give clear images of their topics with an open-ended feel, as if the action is unfolding in front of you.
Matthews like cards with simple pictures, such as the Tarocchino Bolognese by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, an Italian deck established around the 1660s. Matthews has a replica of the Mitelli deck rather than the original, so she may play them without concern of harming a valuable relic. "The Mertz Lenormand deck is my favorite due of its clarity," she explains. "The background on each card is a creamy, vellum hue, so you can see the images quite well when you lay them out in tableau." To be honest, I'm sick of all the new Photoshopped tarots and sleek imagery, with their utter lack of foundation or depth.
"I also like reading with the Daveluy Lenormand deck, which has been masterfully renovated by Lauren Forestell, who specializes in recovering replica decks—cleaning out 200 years of card shuffling and human sadness." The coloration on the Daveluy is stunning. Chromolithography provided everything an extraordinarily vivid color, and I believe it was as revolutionary as Technicolor was in the days of movies."
Some decks' illustrations had dual purposes, supplying divinatory tools as well as scientific knowledge, such as the Geografia Tarocchi deck from circa 1725. "The Geografia are remarkable cards," Matthews adds, "almost like a miniature encyclopedia of the globe with the oracle picture popping out at the top." "The actual part you read from is just about the length of a cigarette card." So, for example, the hung man's legs are shown at the top of the card, while the rest of the card contains information about Africa, Asia, or other regions."
Other decks' meanings, on the other hand, are notoriously difficult to understand, such as the famed Thoth tarot produced by Aleister Crowley, who was known for his connection with numerous cults and experiments with recreational drugs and so-called "sex magick." The Thoth deck, completed in 1943, was illustrated by Lady Frieda Harris and included a variety of esoteric and scientific symbols, inspired many subsequent cards. "With the advent of the divination industry in the twentieth century, more liberties were taken, and the images evolved into increasingly individualized aesthetic statements, both in substance and manner of execution," Wolf argues.
To counteract such occult decks, there exist divinatory cards with limited space for interpretation, such as "Le Scarabée d'Or" or The Golden Beetle Oracle, one of Wolf's most cherished decks. "It's simply fabulously odd." "The card box has a small glass in the lid, and when you shake it, the beetle appears and points to a number," he adds. "You next look for the appropriate number on a deck of round cards with beautiful script lettering on them and read your fortune." Can you picture consulting the Golden Beetle in a Victorian salon in France? It was almost like a piece of performance art."
History of Tarot
Tarot refers to any of the decks of cards used in metasymbology, tarot games, and fortune-telling. Tarot decks were developed in Italy in the 1430s by adding a fifth suit of 21 artistically designed cards called trionfi ("triumphs") and an odd card named il matto ("the fool") to the previous four-suited pack. (The contemporary joker, which was developed in the late nineteenth century as an unsuited jack in the game of euchre, is not related to the fool.)
The pack to which these cards were introduced naturally carried Italian suitmarks and related to an era of card design experimentation in which queens were often added to the series of court cards formerly consisting of simply a king and two masculine figures (see playing card). The four characters in standard cards (but not in tarots) were later reduced to three by the suppression of the queen, save in French cards, which suppressed the cavalier (knight).
Instead of a single suitmark, the trionfi each wore a separate allegorical picture. Similar to floats in a current festival parade, such images most likely depicted figures in medieval reenactments of Roman triumphal processions. They were unnumbered at first, thus it was required to remember which sequence they went in. Whether or if trionfi were created independently of regular playing cards, their role when introduced to the pack was to operate as a suit of triumphs, or "trumps," greater in strength to the other four.
The majority of current tarot decks are based on the Venetian or Piedmontese tarot. It is made up of 78 cards separated into two groups: the major arcana (22 cards, often known as trumps) and the minor arcana (56 cards).
The primary arcana cards feature images of many forces, people, virtues, and vices. The 22 cards are numbered from I to XXI, with the fool remaining unnumbered. The main arcana tarots are as follows, in order: I juggler, or magician; II empress; IV emperor; V pope; VI lovers; VII chariot; VIII justice; IX hermit; X wheel of fortune; XI strength, or fortitude; XII hung man; XIII death; XIV temperance; XV devil; XVI lightning-struck tower; XVII star; XVIII moon; XVIII sun; XXIX
The minor arcana consists of 56 cards split into four suits of 14 cards each. The suits are as follows: wands, batons, or rods (clubs); cups (hearts); swords (spades); and coins, pentacles, or disks (diamonds). Each suit has four court cards (king, queen, knight, and jack) and ten numbered cards. The value progression in each suit is ace to 10, then jack, knight, queen, and king in increasing order (though the ace is sometimes assigned a high value, as in modern playing cards).
Metasymbology and tarot decks were initially used for occult and fortune-telling purposes in France around 1780. For fortune-telling, each tarot card is assigned a significance. The major arcana cards address spiritual issues as well as key themes in the questioner's life. Wands in the minor arcana relate mostly with business and professional objectives, cups with love, swords with conflict, and coins with money and material comfort. The questioner shuffles the tarot deck, and then the fortune-teller arranges a few cards (either chosen at random by the questioner or dealt from the top of the shuffled deck) in a unique pattern known as a "spread." The meaning of every card is altered depending on whether it is upside down, its position in the spread, and the meaning of nearby cards.
Etymology of Tarot
Tarot and German Tarock are derived from the Italian Tarocchi, the origin of which is unknown, although taroch was used as a synonym for folly in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. During the fourteenth century, the decks were just known as Trionfi. Tarocho was the new name that debuted in Brescia in 1502 for the first time.
During the 16th century, a new game with a standard deck but a very similar name (Trionfa) was rapidly gaining popularity. This corresponds with the renaming of the earlier game to tarocchi. Tarocco is the single name in modern Italian, and it refers to a blood orange cultivar as a noun.
Regionally, the attribute Tarocco and the verb Taroccare are used to denote that something is fraudulent or fabricated. This concept is borrowed straight from the Italian tarocchi game, in which tarocco denotes a card that may be played in place of another card.
Tarot in Occult Usage
Around 1789, Etteilla was the first to publish a tarot deck particularly meant for occult purposes. Etteilla's tarot had themes relating to ancient Egypt, in keeping with the unfounded notion that such cards were drawn from the Book of Thoth.
The 78-card tarot deck used by esotericists is divided into two sections:
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, The World, and The Fool comprise the Major Arcana (greater secrets), or trump cards. From The Magician to The World, the cards are numbered in Roman numbers from I to XXI, with The Fool being the sole unnumbered card, either put at the beginning of the deck as 0, or at the end as XXII.
The Minor Arcana (lesser secrets) is made up of 56 cards divided into four suits of 14 cards each: ten numbered cards and four court cards. In each of the four tarot suits, the court cards are the King, Queen, Knight, and Page/Jack. The classic Italian tarot suits are swords, batons, coins, and cups; however, in modern occult tarot decks, the batons suit is commonly referred to as wands, rods, or staves, while the coins suit is referred to as pentacles or disks.
The designations "Major Arcana" and "Minor Arcana" were coined by Jean-Baptiste Pitois (also known as Paul Christian) and are never used in tarot card games.
Some decks exist solely as works of art, and these art decks may contain only the 22 Major Arcana.
The Tarot of Marseilles, the Rider–Waite–Smith tarot card, and the Thoth tarot deck are the three most prominent decks used in esoteric tarot.
Aleister Crowley, co-creator of the Thoth deck with Lady Frieda Harris, said of the tarot: "The origins of this deck of cards are unknown. Some experts try to date it back to the ancient Egyptian Mysteries, while others try to date it as late as the fifteenth or possibly sixteenth century... [However], the sole idea of ultimate interest regarding the Tarot is that it is an amazing symbolic representation of the Universe based on Holy Qabalah data."
Tarot as a Game
The original intent of tarot cards was to be used in games.
Martiano da Tortona's work from before 1425 has a brief explanation of the rules for a tarot-like deck. For the following two centuries, only vague descriptions of game play or game vocabulary are available, until the oldest known detailed statement of rules for a French variation in 1637. There are several regional variants to the tarot game. Tarocchini has persisted in Bologna, and there are also others played in Piedmont and Sicily, although the game is less popular in Italy than it is abroad.
Tarot saw its greatest resurrection in the 18th century, when it became one of Europe's most popular card games, played everywhere except Ireland and Britain, the Iberian peninsula, and the Ottoman Balkans.
Beginning in the 1970s, French tarot enjoyed a renaissance, and France now boasts the largest tarot gaming community. Regional tarot games, sometimes known as tarock, tarok, or tarokk, are popular in central Europe within the former Austro-Hungarian empire.