The Story of Tarot

By Paola Orlic

Tarot is a pack of cards used from mid-fifteenth century to play card games, and includes Tarocchi/Tarocchini in Italy, Tarot in France and Tarock in Germany. However, Tarot is best known as a divination tool, popularised in the eighteenth century by mystics and occultists of Europe, used for discovering and expanding mental and spiritual pathways. Since then, Tarot has developed into an elaborate fortune-telling system.

A Tarot deck is most commonly composed of 78 cards organised into the Major and Minor Arcana (arcana is the plural form of the Latin word arcanum, meaning “closed” or “secret”). The Major Arcana consists of 22 trump cards (or 21 and the Fool card). The Minor Arcana consists of 56 pip cards divided into four suits of 14 cards each.

Tarot in its contemporary form has evolved over centuries. Some scholars believe that its four suits most probably derived from early Arabic card games, while the trumps were most likely invented during the Renaissance in Italy. The first known Tarot cards were created between 1430–50 in northern Italy (Milan, Ferrara and Bologna), where additional trump cards with allegorical illustrations were added to the common four-suit pack. These new decks were originally called Carte da trionfi or Triumph Cards, and the newly introduced cards were known as trionfi or trumps in English. The first literary evidence of the existence of Carte da trionfi is a written statement in the court records of Ferrara from 1442. The oldest surviving Tarot cards are the 15 fragmented decks painted in the mid 15th century for the Visconti-Sforza family (for more details see the section about the Visconti-Sforza deck below).

Although there are several theories concerning the origin of the word Tarot, none of these can be considered definitive. Clearly the English and French word Tarot derives from the Italian word Tarocchi, but where this originated is a matter of debate. One theory relates the name to the river Taro near Parma in northern Italy, close to the geographical origin of the Tarocchi game. Other theories point to the Arabic words Turuq, “ways”, or Taraka, meaning “to leave, abandon, omit, leave behind”, which might suggest that Tarot spread through Europe from Islamic Spain. Finally, there is the notion that the word could derive from the names of two angels mentioned in a short passage in the Qu'ran, Harut and Marut, due to the phonetic resemblance.

The first card game with separate trumps (today's Major Arcana) was probably the doing of Filippo Maria Visconti, who became Duke of Milan in 1421 at the age of 20. Visconti ordered the painter Michelino da Besozzo to make images of the 16 trumps based on the classical Roman mythology, with twelve gods and four heroes or half-gods, together with the suits depicting four kinds of birds – eagles, phoenixes, doves and turtledoves. Unfortunately, none of the Michelino da Besozzo cards have survived to this date. We know about them through the writings of Martiano da Tortona, Visconti's scribe. Da Tortona left a valuable description of the trump game as it was played at the Visconti court in the beginning of the fifteenth century.

In addition to the Visconti-Sforza deck, the best preserved deck is called Sola-Busca, dating from 1491. It is the oldest complete deck of 78 cards, including the trumps and the figures representing historical and/or mythical characters identified by names printed on the cards.

Tarot today is most commonly known as a means of divination, the practice of receiving information from supernatural and other paranormal sources or – in a more contemporary Jungian view – as a creative psychological tool for accessing the archetypes of the unconscious. The earliest historical references to Tarot cards make no mention of divination, describing them exclusively in terms of the Tarocchi card game. To begin with, Tarot had nothing to do with anticipating or predicting the future.

According to some theories, playing cards were a Chinese invention which found its way to Europe around the end of fourteenth century through the Mamluk Empire. The Minor Arcana cards probably derive from Mamluk Egyptian cards, which have suits similar to the Swords, Wands, Cups and Coins. These suits are still used today in traditional Italian, Spanish and Portuguese card decks. Playing cards appeared quite suddenly in Christian Europe during the period of 1375–1380, following several decades of use in Islamic Spain.

Even if the four suits may have arrived in Europe from elsewhere, the trumps of the Major Arcana seem to be a European invention. According to some theories the trumps appeared in the 1420s in the German game of Karnöffel. Although institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church and most civil governments did not routinely condemn Tarot cards to begin with, the prohibition arrived soon (Bern in 1367, Florence and Basel in 1377, Regensburg 1378, the Duchy of Brabant 1379, etc.).

Moreover, some sermons inveighing against the evil inherent in cards can be traced to the 15th century. Bernard of Siena’s sermon in 1423 reviled the cards as the invention of the Devil. A more known sermon, Sermones de ludo cum aliis written by an anonymous Franciscan monk from mid fifteenth or early sixteenth century is now considered the first known source listing all the 22 trumps. In this sermon the monk openly condemned card and dice games, considering them sinful activity. He was especially sentenced the Triumph cards, whose imagery he declared “demonic”. He also went so far as to assign the invention of Tarot to the Devil himself.

As a contrast we should mention Pietro Aretino's witty sixteenth-century fiction entitled Le carte parlanti (The Talking Cards). Aretino was an author, playwright, poet and famous satirist, ultimately known as “the Scourge of Princes”, who strongly influenced contemporary art and politics. He is also known as the inventor of modern literate pornography. In Le carte parlanti, gaming is discussed in a congenial and cheerful fashion, with frequent references to Tarot symbolism. Aretino talks about a game with a pleasant morality and examines the meaning of trumps. Le carte parlanti is composed in the form of dialogue between the “talking” cards and the artist who painted them, called the Padovano after his birthplace.

Tarot was not widely adopted by mystics, occultists and secret societies until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This tradition begun in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gebelin, a Swiss clergymen and Freemason, published Le Monde primitif, a study of religious symbolism and its occurrences in the modern world. De Gebelin first called attention to the unusual symbols of the Tarot de Marseille and claimed that the symbols in fact represented the mysteries of the Egyptian gods Isis and Thoth. He furthermore claimed that the name Tarot originated in the Egyptian words tar meaning “royal” and ro meaning “road/path, way”, concluding that the Tarot represented a “royal road” to wisdom.

De Gebelin wrote his treatise before Champolion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs (1822). Later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language that would support De Gebelin’s “creative” etymology, but these findings came too late. By the time authentic Egyptian texts were available and translated, the identification of the Tarot cards with the Egyptan “Book of Thoth” was already firmly established in occult practice. Moreover, as Gebelin strongly believed that the Tarot deck held the secrets of the ancient Egyptians, he had (re)constructed Tarot history without any historical evidence. In his version of history, Egyptian priests had distilled the ancient Book of Thoth into the Tarot images, which they allegedly brought to Rome. From Rome they were introduced to France. An essay by Comte de Mellet included in Court de Gebelin’s Le Monde primitif was furthermore responsible for the mystical connection of the Tarot’s 21 trumps and the Fool with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This essay made such an impact on subsequent Tarot practice that within two years the fortuneteller known as “Le Grand Etteilla” published a technique for reading the Tarot in 1785. The Tarot reading was born…

Jean-Baptiste Alliette was a French occultist who assumed the name Etteilla – his real name in reverse – and marketed himself as a seer and card diviner (a.k.a. cartomancer, a fortune-teller interpreting Tarot and other playing cards) during the French Revolution in Paris. Even though he is mostly considered as a Tarot charlatan, Eteilla was the first to popularize Tarot divination to a wide audience and is probably the first professional Tarot occultist known in history who made a living by reading Tarot cards. He published his ideas about correspondences between the Tarot, astrology, the four elements and four bodily humours. Although largely discounted by “serious” occultists, he was the first to issue a revised Tarot deck specifically designed for occult purposes in 1791 – the first known esoteric Tarot deck. He added astrological attributions to various cards, altering many of the Marseille designs and adding divinatory meanings in text. The Etteilla deck is today mostly eclipsed by the more elaborate deck by Coleman-Smith and Waite, and Aleister Crowley's Thoth deck.

The idea of the cards as a mystical key to wisdom was further developed by Eliphas Levi and has travelled to the English-speaking world with The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Levi is considered by some to be the true founder of the majority of contemporary schools of Tarot. His 1854 Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (Transcendental Magic in English) introduced an interpretation of the cards which linked them to the Kabbalah. While Levi accepted Court de Gébelin's claims about an Egyptian origin of the symbols, he rejected Etteilla's innovations and his altered deck. Instead, he devised a system which related the Tarot – especially the Tarot de Marseille – to the numerology of the Kabbalah and the four elements of alchemy.

Visconti-Sforza Deck

The oldest surviving Tarot cards are three early to mid fifteenth century partial sets, all made for members of the illustrious Visconti family. The oldest of these existing Tarot decks was most probably painted to celebrate the wedding of the ruling Visconti (Bianca-Maria) with (Francesco) Sforza, uniting the two noble families of Milan. Most likely the cards were painted by Bonifacio Bembo and other miniaturists of the Ferrara school. Today's term Visconti-Sforza Tarot refers to a collection of incomplete sets of approximately 15 known decks, now located in various museums, libraries and private collections around the world. Unfortunately, no complete deck has survived. The three most known collections are the Pierpont-Morgan Bergamo, Cary-Yale and Brera-Brambilla. All the remaining Visconti-Sforza decks lack four cards: the Devil, the Tower, the Three of Swords, and the Knight of Coins. Tarot scholars theorise that they have either been lost or were never made. We speculate that the cards existed, but someone superstitious in the Visconti family removed them on purpose, most likely in the hopes of getting rid of bad luck or simply to avoid bringing misfortune upon the family.

Marseille Deck

The Tarot de Marseille (or Marseille deck) is one of the best known patterns in Tarot design. It is a pattern from which many subsequent Tarot decks derived. It was probably introduced to southern France when the French conquered Milan and the Piedmont in 1499.

The name Tarot de Marseille is not of a particularly ancient vintage; it was coined in 1889 by the French occultist Papus and was popularized in the 1930s by the cartomancer Paul Marteau, who used this collective name to refer to a variety of closely related designs made in Marseille, a centre for manufacturing playing cards. Some current editions of cards based on the Marseille design go back to a particular deck that was printed by Nicolas Conver in 1760. Other regional styles include the Swiss Tarot that substitutes the cards Papess and Pope with Juno and Jupiter. 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.

More recently French-speaking Tarotists including Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kris Hadar continue to use Tarot de Marseille for esoteric purposes. In the mid-1990s Jodorowsky contacted a late descendent of the Camoin family who had been printing the Marseille decks since the nineteenth century. They worked together for almost a decade to create a 78-card deck including the original details and eleven colour prints.

Esoteric Decks

In the English-speaking world, where there is little or no tradition of using Tarot as playing cards, Tarot became known through the of occult traditions influenced by French Tarotists such as Etteilla and Eliphas Levi. The occultists later produced esoteric decks that reflected their own ideas. These decks were widely circulated in the anglophone world.

Two of the most popular esoteric Tarot decks from the first half of the twentieth century were the Rider-Waite Colman-Smith deck conceived by A. E. Waite and painted by Pamela Colman Smith, and the Thoth Tarot deck conceived by Aleister Crowley and painted by Lady Frida Harris. Waite, Colman Smith, Crowley and Harris were all former members of the influential Victorian-era Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Tarot became increasingly popular from the 1910s, with the publication of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, which included symbolic images and divinatory meanings in the numeric cards. Due to large marketing campaigns by the publisher U.S. Games Systems, the Rider-Waite-Smith deck has been one of the most popular decks in the English-speaking world from the 1970s. It could be generally said that English-speaking countries favour the Rider-Waite-Smith deck (sometimes abbreviated as the RWS, Rider- or Rider-Waite deck), while in French-speaking countries the Marseille deck enjoys the equivalent popularity.

RWS (Rider-Waite-Colman-Smith) Deck

The images in the RWS deck were drawn by artist Pamela Colman Smith, based on the instructions of the Christian mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite, and originally published by the William Rider & Son publishers in 1909. 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 Marseille-style decks is that Smith drew scenes on the numeric cards to depict divinatory meanings; those divinatory meanings derive from early cartomancers such as Etteilla, and are linked to those espoused by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Thoth Deck

A widely-used esoteric Tarot deck is Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot. Crowley engaged the artist Lady Frida Harris to paint the cards. It was finished in 1944 but published for the first time only in 1969. The Thoth deck is distinctly different from the Rider-Waite deck and has a very intricately elaborated system of symbolism and divinatory meanings. Given the complexity of this deck we have left Thoth Tarot beyond the scope of this tutorial.

Other Decks

In the twentieth century, a large number of Tarot decks were created, some following traditions, others diverging from them. Some decks exist primarily as artwork; and such “art decks” sometimes contain only the 22 cards of the Major Arcana. The variety of decks is extensive and grows yearly. A few very different examples: Tarot of the Cat People has cats as protagonists on all cards. The Motherpeace Tarot are circular cards with a feminist angle: all male characters have been replaced by females. The Tarot of Baseball has suits of bats, mitts, balls and bases; it has coaches instead of Queens and Kings; Major Arcana cards include The Catcher, The Rule Book and Batting a Thousand. The Silicon Valley Major Arcana trumps feature The Hacker, The Flame, The War, The Layoff and The Garage; the suits are Networks, Cubicles, Disks and Hosts, and the court cards CEO, Salesman, Marketeer and New Hire.

Diane B. Wilkes together with Arnell Ando (the creator of the Transformational Tarot deck) discussed the concept of the Storyteller Tarot at the 1997 International Tarot Society Convention in Chicago. Most of the cards in this deck were supposed to be based on stories from literature, although several include pop-songs and historical figures.

Tarot has a complex and rich symbolism with a long history. Contrary to what many popular authors claim, Tarot origins are not lost in the mists of time. In fact, much of the fog around the symbolism can be clarified if one studies iconographical sources rather than the occult ones. Interpretations have evolved together with the cards over the centuries: later decks have “clarified” the pictures in accordance with meanings assigned to the cards by their creators. In turn, the meanings come to be modified by the new pictures. Images and interpretations have been continually reshaped, in part to help the Tarot live up to its mythic role as a powerful occult instrument. Each card has its own large, complicated and disputed set of meanings.

There is a vast body of writing on the symbolism and significance of the Tarot. In many systems of interpretation based on the occult teachings of the Golden Dawn, the four suits are associated with the four elements: Swords with air, Wands with fire, Cups with water and Pentacles with earth. The Tarot is also considered to correspond to various systems such as astrology, Pythagorean numerology, the Kabbalah and the I Ching. The Major Arcana cards are frequently said to represent the Fool's journey: a symbolic journey through life in which the Fool overcomes obstacles and gains wisdom.

Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) was the first psychiatrist to attach importance to the Tarot. He regarded the Tarot cards as representing archetypes: fundamental types of a person or situation embedded in the subconscious of all human beings. Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and colleague of Sigmund Freud. He was a creative thinker whose observation of correspondences between world religions, mythologies and dreams of his patients led to a unique view of the human condition. Jung emphasized the reality of the psychic life (a fact that separated him from the empirically oriented mainstream of academic psychology). He proposed that the consciousness of all humans is linked; that the consciousness of each person is like a small pond which trickles into the ocean of a shared “collective unconscious”. One of his key principles involves the contents of this collective unconscious – the archetypes as “cultural imprints”, images and ideas built up by the thoughts of mankind throughout history. Jung linked Tarot trumps and characters in fairy tales, both referencing the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Archetypes are seen as a kind of algebra of the subconscious, allowing Tarot imagery to be analysed at the conscious level.

The Tarot has inspired writers as well as visual artists for centuries. Selections of Tarot cards have also been used to construct stories in writing exercises and writing games. Italo Calvino described the Tarot as “a machine for telling stories”. He wrote the novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies with plots and characters constructed on the Tarot archetypes. Charles Williams wrote a supernatural thriller The Greater Trumps, about a struggle over “the Original Deck” that landed in the hands of an English civil servant. T. S. Eliot's famous poem “The Waste Land” contains descriptions of Tarot cards. These are but a few examples of links between Tarot and storytelling.

Stories have a curious relationship to the future and fortune-telling. In sci-fi and other speculative fiction genres, stories allow us to imagine whole worlds in the near and far future. In games, we can play out possible futures in the first person. In fortune telling, stories guide us to identify with them, to find their connections with our own lives and through them to speculate on what the future might bring. Tarot is such an elaborate system of stories, symbols and archetypes, and can be used (according to Jung) to reach deep into a person's psyche, uncovering links between their own experience and the images of kings and queens, astral bodies and abstract intuitions of which the Tarot consists. A Tarot reading remains a highly interpretative and participatory storytelling performance that can engage people across cultures and generations. It can invoke alternate realities and introduce chance and wonder into decisions of everyday life.

(see tarot notes)