Tarot (Tar-oh) is a system of symbolism and philosophy consisting of a set of 78 images, normally embodied in a deck of cards similar to a regular set of game-playing cards (see playing card). In the English speaking world, they are most often encountered as a form of cartomancy.
The earliest extant examples of Tarot decks are of Italian origin and roughly date back to the 15th century, when they were used to play the game of Tarocchi. In the course of its development it became connected to cartomancy and thence to occult studies. The set of 78 images, rich with symbolic meaning, is considered by students of this "occult" or "esoteric" Tarot to be independent of the particular representation as a deck of cards; consequently they focus on the study of the images (and their symbolic meanings) as distinct from any particular instance.
In addition to its philosophical and divinatory uses, Tarot is also used as an aid to meditation.
The Tarot Deck
The conventional 78-card deck is structured into two distinct sets, called the Minor Arcana and Major Arcana (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.
Differences between 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.
The most popular deck today is probably the fully-illustrated deck confusingly known as the Rider-Waite-Smith, Waite-Smith, or simply the Rider deck. The images were painted by artist Pamela Colman Smith, to the instructions of academic and mystic Arthur Waite, and published by the Rider company. According to many accounts, Aleister Crowley also had substantial creative input. 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. The chief aesthetic objection to this 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.
Probably the most widely-used esoteric Tarot deck is Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot (pronounced tote). In contrast to the Thoth deck's colorful artistry, 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 Marseilles style Tarot decks generally feature suit cards which look very much like modern playing cards. The numbered cards sport an arrangement of pips indicating the number and suit, while the court cards are often illustrated with two-dimensional drawings.
Other decks vary in their conventionality. Cat-lovers have the Tarot of the Cat People, a fairly standard deck complete with cat in every picture. The Tarot of the witches and 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.
Other decks change the cards partly or completely. 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".
A very spiritual Tarot deck is the Isis Tarot also known as Tarot van Isis, Tarot d'Isis, etc., by Erna Droesbeke, using archetypical symbols.
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. 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.
Today's Tarots have become far more interesting, expressive, and psychologically resonant today than their ancestors were. Interpretations have co-evolved 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. Both 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.
For example, take a look at 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 most often 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: 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. 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, 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 patient views himself or herself, by asking the patient to select a card that he or she identifies with. Some try to get the patient 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.
It is instructive to note, however, that 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.
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. Tarot diviners generally believe that Tarot cards simply allow them to exercise an innate psychic ability to see the future. It's 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 analysuis of just one card, but for more thoroughness combinations of several cards in set patterns are usually used. These patterns are called spreads.
The Great Cross ("Celtic Cross") Layout
One of the best known of spreads, it's most common version consists of nine or ten cards. The first one representing the person or situation (this is sometimes considered optional, thus the spread can also consist of 9 cards), the next five are laid atop and around it in a cross shape, and the final four in a column to the right.
Origin and History
The oldest surviving Tarot cards are three mid-15th century sets all made for members of the Visconti family, rulers of Milan. The oldest existing Tarot deck 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. 35 of the cards are now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. 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 (the original suits of (Swords, Wands, Pentacles & Cups, and face cards King, Queen, Knave and Page) with Major Arcana that apparently combine already traditional iconography with considerable artistic license, a sign that the original significance of the designs was already lost.
More simply-drawn decks survive from Marseilles, France, from the early 16th century.
It is believed by many that the Tarot is far older than this. Based on similarities of the imagery and numbering, some associate the Tarot with ancient Egypt, or the Hebrew mystic tradition of the Kabbalah, with the heretical Cathars of Languedoc and Piedmont, where the Tarot first appeared, or a wide variety of other origins. This is all, however, pure mythology. In fact, study of the iconography of the earliest tarots via standard comparative-historical methods suffices to pin their origin down to very near the time and place of the original Visconti deck; that is, Northern Italy in the early Renaissance period. We can, for example, place their origin 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 a symbol of scholarship and learning.
In fact, the earliest Tarots seem to have been depictions of the carnival parades that ushered in the season of Lent. 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 Marseilles 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 "Etteila" 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 rules of the French version of this game, bearing little or no relation to the fortune-telling purpose of the cards and still very popular in France, can be found here.
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 are first recorded in 1321 in a Swiss monastic chronicle that notes their recent importation from the Orient; they thus predated the earliest Tarots by a century. 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 gambling 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.
It was first practically applied by a charlatan named 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.