The tarot is a set of cards featuring 21 trump cards and one special card called "The Fool", in addition to the usual suit (face and pip) cards found in ordinary playing cards. Tarot cards are used throughout much of Europe to play Tarot card games.[1]

In English-speaking countries, where the games are largely unknown, Tarot cards came to be utilized primarily for divinatory purposes

Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century with the Mamelukes of Egypt, with suits of Scimitars, Polo Sticks, Cups and Coins. These designs rapidly evolved into the basic 'Latin' suits of Swords, Staves, Cups and Coins, which are still used in traditional Italian and Spanish packs. [3] All evidence indicates that the first tarot decks were created between 1410 and 1430 in either Milan, Ferrara, or Bologna, in northern Italy, when additional trump cards with allegorical illustrations were added to the more common four-suit decks that already existed. These new decks were originally called “carte da trionfi”, or "triumph cards." 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 15 fragmented decks painted in the mid 15th century for the Visconti-Sforza family, the rulers of Milan.[4]

When the tarot was first used for divination is not known, but no documented examples exist prior to the 18th century. However divination using similar cards is in evidence as early as 1540; a book entitled The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forli shows a simple method of divination using the coin suit of a regular playing card deck. 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. In 1765, Giacomo Casanova wrote in his diary that his Russian mistress frequently used a deck of playing cards for divination.

In 1781 Antoine Court de Gébelin wrote a speculative history and a detailed system for using tarot for divination. Since the publication of this history, various explanations have been given for the origins of tarot, most of them of doubtful veracity. There is no evidence for any tarot cards prior to the hand-painted ones that were used by Italian nobles, though some esoteric schools place tarot's origin in Ancient Egypt, or Ancient India.[

Early tarot decks
The relationship between tarot cards and playing cards is well documented. Playing cards first appeared in Christian Europe some time before 1367, the date of the first documented evidence of their existence, a ban on their use, in Bern, Switzerland.[7] Before this, cards had been used for several decades in Islamic Spain (see playing card history for discussion of its origins). Early European sources describe a deck with typically 52 cards, like a modern deck with no jokers.[8] The 78-card tarot resulted from adding 21 trumps and The Fool — analogous to the modern joker — to an early 56-card variant (14 cards per suit).

A greater distribution of playing cards in Europe can, with some certainty, be given from 1377 onwards. Tarot cards appear to have been developed some 40 years later, and they are mentioned in the surviving text of Martiano da Tortona.[9] Da Tortona's text is thought to have been written between 1418 and 1425, since in 1418 the confirmed painter Michelino da Besozzo returned to Milan, and Martiano da Tortona died in 1425. It cannot be proven that tarot cards did not exist earlier than this date, but it seems improbable as the Martiano da Tortona text was written at least 15 years earlier than other corroborating documents.

Da Tortona describes a deck similar to tarot cards in many specific ways. What he describes is more a precursor to tarot than what we might think of as "real" tarot cards. For instance, his deck has only 16 trumps, its motifs are not comparable to common tarot cards (they are Greek gods) and the suits are four kinds of birds, not the common Italian suits.

What makes da Tortona's deck similar to tarot cards is that these 16 cards are obviously regarded as trump cards in a card game; about 25 years later, a near-contemporary speaker, Jacopo Antonio Marcello, called them a ludus triumphorum, or "game winner". The letter in which Marcello uses this term has been documented and translated on the Internet

The next documents that seem to confirm the existence of objects similar to tarot cards are two playing card decks from Milan (Brera-Brambrilla and Cary-Yale-Tarocchi) — extant, but fragmentary — and three documents, all from the court of Ferrara, Italy. It is not possible to put a precise date on the cards, but it is estimated that they were made circa 1440. The three documents date from 1 January 1441 to July 1442, with the term trionfi first documented in February 1442. The document from January 1441, which used the term trionfi, is regarded as unreliable; however, the fact that the same painter, Sagramoro, was commissioned by the same patron, Leonello d'Este, as in the February 1442 document, indicates that it is at least plausibly an example of the same type. After 1442 there is some seven years without any examples of similar material, which gives no reason to conclude a greater distribution of the game during these years. The game seemed to gain in importance in the year 1450, though, a Jubilee year in Italy, which saw many festivities and movement of pilgrims.

Until this time all relevant early documents point to the origin of the trionfi cards as being in the upper class of Italian society, specifically the courts of Milan and Ferrara. At the time, these were the most exclusive courts in Europe.

In the given context, it seems apparent that the special motifs on the trumps, which were added to regular playing cards with a "four suits of 14 cards" structure, were ideologically determined. They are thought to show a specific system of transporting messages of different content; known early examples show philosophical, social, poetical, astronomical, and heraldic ideas, for instance, as well as a group of old Roman/Greek/Babylonian heroes, as in the case of the Sola-Busca-Tarocchi (1491)[11] and the Boiardo Tarocchi poem [12] (produced at an unknown date between 1461 and 1494). For example, the earliest-known deck, extant only in its description in Martiano's short book, was produced to show the system of Greek gods, a theme that was very fashionable in Italy at the time. Its production may well have accompanied a triumphal celebration of the commissioner Filippo Maria Visconti, ruler of Milan, meaning that the purpose of the deck was to express and consolidate the political power in Milan (as was common for other artworks of the time). The four suits showed birds, motifs that appeared regularly in Visconti heraldry, and the specific order of the gods gives reason to assume that the deck was intended to imply that the Visconti identified themselves as descendants from Jupiter and Venus (which were seen not as gods but deified mortal heroes).

This first known deck seems to have had the standard ten numbered cards, but having kings as the only court card, and only 16 trumps. The later standard (four suits of 14 plus 22) took time to settle; trionfi decks with 70 cards only are still spoken of in 1457.[13] No corroborating evidence for the final standard 78-card format exists prior to the Boiardo Tarocchi poem and the Sola Busca Tarocchi.

Individual researchers' opinions are that the trionfi decks of the early time primarily had five suits of fourteen cards [13] only; the trumps and the fool were simply considered as a fifth suit with predefined trump function.

The oldest surviving tarot cards are three early- to mid-15th century sets, all made for members of the Visconti family. The oldest of these existing tarot decks was perhaps painted to celebrate a mid-15th century wedding joining the Visconti and Sforza families of Milan, probably painted by Bonifacio Bembo and other miniaturists of the Ferrara school. Of the original cards, 35 are in the Pierpont Morgan Library, 26 are at the Accademia Carrara, 13 are at the Casa Colleoni and four — the Devil, the Tower, the Three of Swords and the Knight of Coins — are lost, or possibly were never made. This "Visconti-Sforza" deck, which has been widely reproduced, combines the suits of swords, batons, coins and cups and the court cards king, queen, knight and page with trumps that reflect conventional iconography of the time to a significant degree.

For a long time tarot cards remained a privilege for the upper class of society, and, although some sermons inveighing against the evil inherent in cards can be traced to the 14th century, the Roman Catholic Church and 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.

As 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 (the best known being a deck from the southern city of Marseilles). At around the same time, the name tarocchi appeared.[citation needed]

Recently, the use of Tarot for divination, or as a store of symbolism, has inspired the creation of Oracle card decks. These are card decks for inspiration or divination containing images of angels, faeries, goddesses, Power Animals, etc. Although obviously influenced by Tarot, they do not follow the traditional structure of Tarot; they lack any suits of numbered cards, and the set of cards differs from the traditional major arcana.

The modern, 78-card tarot deck has two distinct parts:

The major arcana ("greater secrets"), or trump cards, consists of 21 cards without suits, plus a 22nd card, The Fool, which is often given the value of zero: 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 (sometimes referred to as pips), divided into four suits of 14 cards each: ten numbered cards and four court cards. The court cards are the page, knight, queen and king in each of the four tarot suits. The traditional Italian tarot suits are swords, batons, 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 are only used in esoteric practice.

A variety of styles of tarot decks and designs have existed and a number of typical regional patterns emerged. Historically, one of the most important designs is now usually known as the Tarot de Marseilles.[weasel words] 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 includes astrological symbols and the four elements, as well as traditional Tarot cards.

Older decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and Marseilles are less detailed than more modern decks. A Marseilles-type deck is usually distinguished by having repetitive motifs on the pip cards as opposed to full scenes found on "Rider-Waite" style decks.

Some decks exist primarily as artwork; and such "art decks" sometimes 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) sometimes bear only stylized renderings of the suit symbol. However, under the influence of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, decks used in the English-speaking world for divination often bear illustrated scenes on the numeric cards to facilitate divination. The more simply illustrated "Marseilles" style decks are nevertheless used esoterically, for divination, and previously for game play. (Note that the French card game of tarot is now generally played using a relatively modern 19th-century design of German origin. Such Tarot decks generally have 21 trumps with genre scenes from 19th-century life, a Fool, and have court and pip cards that closely resemble today's French playing cards.)

An influential deck in English-speaking countries is the Rider-Waite deck (sometimes called simply the Rider deck). (See also discussion of the general expression "Rider-Waite-Smith" below, to indicate a category of decks that includes the "Rider-Waite" deck as well as decks which use the line drawings of the Rider-Waite deck, such as the Universal Waite deck, or decks using scenes on the pip cards as opposed to simple motif repetition.) (In contrast, in French-speaking countries, the Marseilles deck enjoys the equivalent popularity.) The images were drawn by artist Pamela Colman-Smith, to the instructions of Christian mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite, and originally published by the Rider Company in 1910. While the deck is sometimes known as a simple, user-friendly one, its imagery, especially in the Trumps, is complex and replete with occult symbolism. The subjects of the trumps 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 on the numeric cards to depict divinatory meanings; those divinatory meanings derive, in great part, from traditional cartomantic divinatory meanings (e.g., Etteilla and others) and from divinatory meanings first espoused by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, of which both Waite and Smith were members. However, it isn't the first deck to include completely illustrated numeric cards. The first to do so was the 15th-century Sola-Busca deck; however, in this case, the illustrations apparently were not made to facilitate divination.

Numerous other decks that are loosely based on Rider-Waite (as noted below) have been published from the mid-20th century through today. They are sometimes called Rider-Waite-Smith clones; however, the term is misleading. They are not exact copies as the term clone would imply. Instead, they are variations.

A widely-used esoteric Tarot deck is Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot (pronounced /təʊt/ or /θɒθ/). The often controversial Crowley engaged the artist Lady Frieda Harris to paint the cards for the deck.

In contrast to the Thoth deck's colourfulness, 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 coloured by its owner. Other esoteric decks include the Golden Dawn Tarot, which is apparently based on a deck by SL MacGregor Mathers. Numerous other decks exist, including the Tree of Life Tarot whose cards are stark symbolic catalogs, and the Cosmic Tarot.

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, cups, coins) 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.

Other modern decks created since the time of the first publishing of the Rider-Waite deck in 1909 vary in their card imagery. The variety is almost endless, and grows yearly. For instance, cat-lovers may have the Tarot of the Cat People, a deck complete with cats in every picture. The Tarot of the Witches and the Aquarian Tarot retain the conventional cards with varying designs.

These modern decks change the cards to varying degrees. For example, 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". 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 Ms. Wood which details all of the symbolism and colors utilized in the Major and Minor Arcana.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 License.