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Tarot (tarocchi, tarock) is a deck of seventy-eight cards divided into twenty-two major arcana or Trumps, and four suits of minor arcana, composed of ten pip cards and four court cards for each suit. The Tarot was originally intended for playing trick taking card games which are enjoyed today in continental Europe. Tarot cards would not be used for divination until the 18th century. The art of divination, reading or fortune-telling with playing cards is known as Cartomancy. The images of tarot are often based on images and scenery of life and nature, spirituality, occult, and religious themes.

Early Tarot Decks

The Arabic game of Tarot migrated into Europe through the invasion of Africa, Spain and Sicily by the Islamic and Persian Malamuk army. These early card games of the Malamuk were called Naibi, a gambling card game which made reference to the Knight and Court cards. These early hand painted cards had four suits, known as the coins, the cups, the staves, and the swords, along with court suit cards.

Evidence for the existence of tarot in Europe can be found as far back as the 14th century, where it was used as a game for gambling and card playing. One of the earliest records about tarot on record was found in Bohemia in 1354 A.D. created by the artist Jonathan Kraysel, and the 1423 hand painted deck from Ferrara Italy. In Italy, the card game was known as carte da Trionfi, cards of Triumphs, or Trumps. The Trifoni deck was known to have existed in 1442 as a 70-card game played by the nobles of Italy.

Hand Painted decks were purchased and used by royalty throughout medieval Europe. More common decks were available to the public when they were created by more economical means like block printing. The first decks which were printed on a press are recorded in documents found from Ferrara Italy in 1436. These cards were also commonly used in gambling games. The prohibition of tarot was an attempt by the church to incite morality, and in some cases, to collect money from fines by people who played tarot games.

The Sola Busca Tarot

The Sola-Busca is the oldest surviving set of seventy-eight cards, dating from 1491. These cards were engraved and hand painted in Ferrara Italy, and sold in the markets of Venice. The complete deck which is owned by the Sola-busca family survives only from photographs taken in 1907, kept in a private collection in Milan, Italy.

The Sola-Busca cards were painted with scenery and mythology which were popular at the time. They were symbolic, representing social, philosophical, religious and mythological themes. One style of Busca deck recorded by the poet Boiardo in 1461 describes the tarot imagery represented by the Greek gods.

Cary Yale Visconti

The oldest deck in existence is the The Cary-Yale Visconti Tarot. This deck, from the 15th century, was created for the Visconti-Sforza family, rulers of Milan. There are only sixty seven cards left of the original deck. The Visconti deck contains six court cards per suit, unlike the traditional system of tarot that decks use today.

These cards are the King, The Queen, The Male Knight, The Female Knight, the Male Valet and the Female Valet. Some have theorized that this deck was created before the seventy-eight deck system was used, or that originally there were only sixteen trumps in the deck. The themes of this deck, like many other deck of the time were influenced by Christian theology and painted with images of medieval life and royalty. The major arcana had cards which depicted images of the Three Christian Virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity.

Tarot de Marseille

The Tarot of Marseille is a deck that originated in Italy, which gained popularity in France and Switzerland by 1499. This deck, sometimes called the Milan pattern, and it was inspired by medieval religious art. The Marseille pattern was re-introduced to northern Italy by the 17th century, and by then the Marseille deck design was considered to be the standard for tarot. The cards were typically produced by woodcut printing and they were hand colored or painted with stencils.

The traditional Marseille tarot is fifty-six cards. There are four suits in the Minor Arcana numbering from one to ten, the Batons, Swords, Cups, and the Coins. Each suit contains four court cards, The Royal Arcana: The Valet, Cavalier, the Queen and the King. Included with this is the fool card which was sometimes numbered as zero or twenty-two, or left un-numbered in some variants of the Marseille deck. The Tarot of Marseille was painted with imagery like the Pope, the Devil and the Last Judgment, themes from the Christian Bible. A controversial image in the Marseille deck is the Popess card, which some say could represent an image of Pope Joan.

The Occult Tarot

Antoine Court De Gébelin

Tarot was not generally used for divination until the late 18th century, when Antoine Court De Gébelin wrote about the origins of Tarot. De Gébelin was the son of a Protestant minister from Switzerland. A patron of the arts and Sciences, De Gébelin was also a member of an esoteric order, the Philalèthes, a Freemason order with ties to the Elect Cohens. He was ordained as a Protestant pastor in 1754. De Gébelin traveled to France in 1762 where he undertook the work of writing and working as a Protestant apologist in Paris for several years.

De Gébelin first encountered the tarot in 1781 in Switzerland, where he connected the imagery of the tarot to occult concepts. De Gébelin's book, titled Le Monde Primitif, 1781 made the claim that the tarot had an occult origin. He claimed that the twenty-two arcana were similar to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He claimed that the tarot was an allegorical story that should be read from the twenty-second card, the world, to the first card which was known as madness [the fool]. He renamed the Popess card as the High Priestess and he renamed the pope card as the Heirophant. Court De Gébelin also modified the tarot by reversing the hanged man image of the tarot, so that the image represented Prudence, instead of sacrifice.

De Gébelin wrote that the tarot had its origin in the lands of Egypt, where gypsies cultivated the use of tarot for divination and oracles. Historians dispute this because the occurrence of early Christian medieval imagery in tarot disproves this theory. De Gébelin's occult background allowed him to create the esoteric and mystical symbolism that tarot uses to this day.

Jean-Baptiste Alliette

Jean-Baptiste Alliette [Etteilla] is given credit for making the occult tarot popular. Etteilla published information on tarot divination and ascribed elemental and planetary attributes to the tarot. He also used astrological and elemental associations for his cards. Working from the theories of De Gébelin, he created a deck made for divination in 1788. Ettilla is credited for the revival of occult tarot and for preserving the tarot history and theory of De Gébelin.

From the knowledge of De Gébelin's esoteric writings, Etteilla wrote a book in 1783 titled Maniere de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes [trans. Manner of recreation with a game of cards named Tarots]. This was the first time that a tarot deck was published along with an accompanying book. This same deck created by Etteilla is still used today for divination.

Etteilla's system of tarot was developed from the traditional game decks known as the piquet deck, a shortened version which used hearts, clubs spades and diamonds. Along with this he added the Etteilla card, and he added upright and reversal meanings to the cards. Etteilla also published a deck, the Petit Etteilla which was based on the same system of occult divination. The tarot of Etteilla had twenty-two major arcana and fifty-six minor arcana. From the inspiration of De Gébelin, Etteilla had reordered the Major Arcana or Trumps, and added his own images and scenery.

Eliphas Levi and the Tarot

The French occultist and writer Alphonse Louise Constant [1810], [Eliphas Levi, pseudonym] influenced occult revivalists of the 19th century like Crowley and Waite. Eliphas Levi had never created his own deck, but his perceptions on the origins and meaning of the tarot had influenced modern systems of tarot. By 1853, Levi was working as a journalist and giving lessons in occult theories. He adopted the name Eliphas Levi from a Hebrew translation of his own name. He attended a seminary in Paris where he trained to be a priest. While at the St. Sulpice seminary, he learned about the Devil, animal magnetism and energies, which lead to his study of the occult.

Levi traveled to England in 1854, where he met the Rosicrucian author Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Lytton was known for his writings on occult, mesmerism, astrology, clairvoyance and magic. Levi formed a partnership with him and this launched his career as an occult writer. he published the book, Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie in 1855 [Eliphas Levi's Transcendental Magic Its Doctrine and Ritual], which was translated and annotated by Arthur Edward Waite

In this book he criticized the Etteilla method of Tarot, claiming that it was incorrectly made, claiming that "The writings of Etteilla, now very rare, are obscure, wearisome and barbarous in style". Levi reversed the order of the tarot as it had been known to Etteilla and the earlier De Gébelin which was designed to be ordered and read from the twenty-first card to the zero, or fool.

Papus Tarot

Occult tarot was influenced by Gerard Encausse [pseudonym, Papus, 1865]. The name Papus, inspired by Eliphas Levi's Apollynus Of Tyanna, means Physician. Papus was a physician and a hypnotist. He was a French occultist who studied the work of Eliphas Levi, Kabbalism, alchemy and magic. Papus was a member of Madame Blavatsky's French Theosophical Society in 1884 until he left the Society one year later. Papus was an outspoken member and activist in the occult community. He joined the Ahathoor Temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in Paris. In 1888 he created his own occult order, The Kabbalistic order of the The Rosicrucians. He was also the founder of the Martinist Order, a method of esoteric Christianity.

Papus wrote a book about his system of tarot, The tarot of the Bohemians. In his book he connects the different theories of occultism, such as the Kabbalistic association and astrology into one system. The theory of Papus about the origins of tarot were inspired by writers who developed their ideas from authors like Court De Gébelin and Levi, who claimed that Tarot had its origins in Egypt, the Romany Bohemians, the origin of the Gypsy Tarot theory. The system of Papus tarot assigned the Fool card to the Hebrew letter Shin [the element of fire], and he places this card in the deck as the twenty first card, even though it remained un-numbered in the deck.

Golden Dawn Tarot

The golden dawn tarot is based on the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This was Rosicrucian Freemason order which was founded by Dr. William Westcott, Dr. William Woodman, and S. MacGregor Mathers. The teachings of the golden dawn are based on the document known as the Cypher Manuscript.

The tarot manual of the Golden dawn written by MacGregor Mathers, Harriet Felkin titled Book T was a document that was originally circulated among private members of the Golden Dawn for instruction on tarot. This book influenced other golden dawn based decks. Book T is a manual that includes descriptions of the tarot, along with the astrological, qabalistic, elemental and spiritual attributes. The golden dawn method of esoteric tarot was based the seven planets, on associations with the Hebrew letters, and the tree of life from kabalah. The major arcana is positioned on the Sephira and paths in the tree of life through symbolic association.

The original Golden Dawn Tarot was created by Richard Dudschus and David Sledzinski under the guidance of Pat Zalewski The Classic Golden Dawn Tarot deck is a re-creation of the original Tarot used by the Golden Dawn order. There are only 1200 which were printed, uncolored for the instruction of tarot. This deck inspired other Golden Dawn style decks by other authors, such as the Thoth Deck and the Waite-Smith deck, the BOTA deck and many more.

One version of the Golden dawn Tarot was created by Robert Wang, and Israel Regardie. is the New Golden dawn Magical tarot [formerly, the New Golden dawn ritual tarot] This deck includes Hebrew and astrological associations which were created by the golden dawn. In this deck are two temperance cards, and the court cards are the King, Queen, Prince and Princess

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

The Rider-Waite-Smith deck is one of the most popular occult and divinatory decks available. It was created in 1909 by William Rider and Son, in London. The creators of this deck, Pamela Coleman Smith, and Aurthur Edward Waite were both members of the esoteric order of the Golden Dawn. The accompanying book The pictorial Key to the Tarot was published in 1911.

The designs for the RWS deck were based on the Sola-Busca tarot, Eliphas Levi and other decks throughout history. There are seventy-eight cards in this deck, with scenery in all of the cards except for the Aces. The Rider-Waite-Smith court royals use a classical system of King queen knight and page.


In Cartomancy the querant is the one that the tarotist reads for. The quereant either chooses the cards, or the cards are chosen by the reader. The cards are laid out into a spread, and read in succession. The layout of the cards in the spread often form a panoramic scene for the tarotist to read.

Another method is to choose a Significator card for the querant before reading, and to use this card as a focus during the reading to represent the querant. The Significator card is a card is a major arcana card, or a court card which is chosen from the deck that represents the quereant. This significator card is sometimes chosen based on calculations of birth numerology or based on the astrological sign of the querant. The numerology of the cards which are chosen are also used for divination.

Tarot Arcana

The standard modern arrangement for most modern tarot decks is twenty two trumps, sixteen court cards and forty pips, or Minor Arcana creating the whole seventy eight card deck. The specific ordering of the Major Arcana can vary between decks, such as the Crowley Thoth deck which switches the Emperor Card with the Star Card, and the Golden Dawn Tarot which applies a switch between Justice and Temperance.

The Minor Arcana are known as the pips. The forty pips in a standard deck are classifed according to classical elemental associations known as suits. The suit of wands is represented by the element of Fire, the suit of Cups, is represented by water, the suit of swords is Air, and the suit of coins, or pentacles is Earth. They number one to ten, and the first card of each suit are known as Aces. These associations were inspired by the tarrocchi suits of hearts which are the cups, spades are the swords, clubs are the wands, and the Coins, are the pentacles

The Court Royals can vary in different decks. The standard for Court Royal arrangements, such as the Rider-Waite-Smith, is the King, Queen, Page and knight. The Crowley Thoth court Royal arrangement is the Knight, Queen, Prince and Princess. The court cards of the thoth deck are given elementary attributes, except for the princess cards are given a planetary instead of an elementary association.

Tarot as a Card Game

Current research in Tarot history shows that the European Tarot card games were influenced by Arabic and China card games which migrated into Europe during the medieval era.

The 78-card deck contains:

  • four suits: depending on the region, either the Anglo-French hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs or the original Latin suits of swords, batons, cups, and coins; numbered one through ten, plus four court cards—a jack, a knight, a queen, and a king;
  • the twenty-one tarots, known in divination as the "Major Arcana", which function in the game as a permanent suit of trumps;
  • the Fool, also known as the Excuse, an un-numbered card that in some variations excuses the player from following suit or playing a trump, and in others acts as the strongest trump.
  • In many regional variants a shortened deck of 62 or 54 cards is used.

Typical rules of play

Play is typically counter-clockwise; the player to the right of the dealer plays to the first trick. If possible players must follow suit. If following suit is not possible a trump card must be played. The winner of each trick leads the next.

After the hand has been played, a score is taken based on the point values of the cards in the tricks each player has managed to capture. The values of the cards where "n" is often equal to 1, 2, 3, or 4 depending on the type of game one is playing are given as follows:

Trump XXI (21), Trump I (1), the Excuse or Fool, and the 4 kings are worth 4 + 1/n each

The 4 queens are worth 3 + 1/n each

The 4 knights are worth 2 + 1/n each

The 4 jacks are worth 1 + 1/n each

All other cards are worth 1/n each For the purpose of the rules, the numbering of the trumps are the only thing that matters. The four Latin suits are replaced in many regions with the French suits of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades. Some variations of the game are played with a 54-card deck (5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 of hearts and diamonds and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 of spades and clubs are discarded).

Variations of the game are still played in France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, and especially in the countries on the area of the former Austro-Hungarian monarchy.