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Stanislaw Samostrzelnik (c 1490 - 1541): Catalogus archiepiscoporum des Jan Dlugosz, Titelblatt, Szene: Hl. Stanislaus mit König Sigismund, Bischof Tomicki sowie M. und K. Szydlowiecki. Ca 1535. Section
Elaborate Medieval painting. Tarot imagery contain much coarser but similar elements.

Tarot, in Short

The tarot (/tærou/) is a pack of playing cards, used from the mid-15th century in various parts of Europe to play card games such as Italian tarocchini and French tarot. From the late 18th century up till now the tarot has also been used for divination.

The tarot has four suits, like playing-cards. Each suit has pip cards ranging from one (or Ace) to ten, and four face cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Jack/Knave) - in all: 14 cards for each of the four suits. In addition, the tarot has a separate 21-card trump suit and a Fool card. We will look into these 22 cards here.

Tarot Decks

There are over 500 different tarot decks today. What is implied by that? [◦Source]

Tarot decks and authenticity

The historic tarot pictures are part of the cultural heritage of Europe. Their symbolism is drawn from Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Says Tom Little: "The individual symbols on the [Tarot] cards (the virtues, the Devil, the Sun, the Wheel of Fortune, and so on) are all, almost without exception, found elsewhere in the art of the Italian renaissance." Hence, most tarot subjects are distinctive to European Christendom, just as many tarot titles and pictures suggest. [Little a; Tarotpedia]

The earliest names for the tarot are all Italian, and there is no evidence that the tarot originating anywhere else than Northern Italy between 1420-1440. The earliest extant cards are lavish hand-painted decks made for the nobility. The twenty-two cards shown here, were and are trumf playing cards, and the tarot was and is used to play a card game similar to Bridge.

The tarot game was popular throughout much of Europe for centuries and is still played today. About a hundred years after the cards were introduced, the word tarocchi (singular tarocco) came to be used to distinguish them from a new game of triumphs or trumps that was played with ordinary playing cards. As for such playing cards, they were an adaptation of the Islamic Mamluk cards, assumedly originating in Persia, appearing in many European cities in 1375-78, that is, about fifty years before the tarot. [Little b; Huson, passim]

The intentions of the early designer(s) of the tarot in selecting symbols for their trump cards are not all known, although some thoughts are detected. And even though there are kabbalistic, astrological, and other correspondences to take into account, there is no "definitive" tarot version.

The following consists of a series of pictures and sayings and comments to them.

Two sorts of tarot pictures are shown in pairs throughout, starting on the next page: The upper picture is a quite recent and well-known later addition to the tarot decks. It is from 1901. Beneath it is an older picture from a deck in the Marseille family of decks, from the early 1700s to compare with. Even a casual glance shows the older and new pictures are not identical, even though some of the picture motifs are: The older picture reveals how plenty of detail is added in the newer picture, how some parts and motifs are changed too in order to conform to various obscure views of later editors and remakers of the pictures.

Further, the Marseille tarot differs in some respects from older and not uniform Italian tarot cards as well. This is to say that much of the Rider-Waite (upper) tarot deck differs many times from more authentic decks originating in Italy.

The ensuing comments first and foremost relate to the series of old pictures from a deck of Tarot cards that is termed the Tarot de Marseille. It is supposedly the most popular deck in the Latin countries, and is more authentic than the Rider-Waite pictures with their changes of motifs, additions and so on. Sallie Nichols writes of in Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey (New York: Weiser, 1980) that it is

one of the oldest designs available today . . . and the old remnants of old decks still preserved in museums do not correspond exactly with any pack currently in print. Thus no present-day Tarot can be called in any sense authenthic. But the Marseille version, in general, preserves the feeling tone and style of some of the earliest designs. [Nichols 5]

Among early attested decks in the Tarot of Marseille family of decks is the one by Jean Dodal from 1701-15. Starting on the next page, the bottom pictures in the left column are from that deck. Here they are toned up, and their names and numbers are left out from the pictures, and some pictures are modified (mirrored) too, because captions and numbers were not part of the cards originally either.

Some of the things to take into account

Tarot cards were playing cards originally, and are still used as such in many European countries. Later, subsumed meanings attached to the cards have been added by several writers. For further looks into the tarot history: [Link]

Nichols further writes that "the Marseille deck comes to us unaccompanied by an explanatory text," but this is not the case with the cards and texts created by A. E. White." [Nichols 5].

As for the order of the twenty-two pictures, in some decks each picture is marked with one of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet so as to connect the pictures with the Kabballa, "But there exists no uniform agreement as to which Hebrew letters belongs to which Tarot . . . here also confusion reigns," writes Nichols [p. 6]

Confusion has to be taken into account. And linking tarot images to astrological factors by way of ideas or mental associations, may either be handy or not, depending on how it is done. If well aligned, outcomes may not be proved to be true, or true in all respects, and so on. However, not being documented does not mean non-effective. Also, since many of the kinds of alignments do not agree among themselves, and since much tarot imagery has changed over time too, "encumbered" with additions and changes, it may help not to take anyone's word that things are such and such.

Jungian Outlooks, Breasts, and Interpretations

Karen Hamaker-Zondag. Tarot As a Way of Life: A Jungian Approach to the Tarot. (Newburyport, MA: Weiser, 2007) tells about using the pictures astrologically that "There is no agreement over how this should be done." [177, also 177-82] Further, "To translate these two systems (astrology and tarot) into one another's languages . . . usually does not work in practice [p. 189]." However, she does present one approach of alignment by a circular diagram in her Appendix F [p 179].

It needs to be pointed out that actual alignment between tarot and astrology is not documented. One of the reasons lies in something that the American showman Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-91) said, "We've got something for everyone." This statement has been translated since into the Forer effect. It says that vague and general positive descriptions of their personalities will be accepted and thought highly of by people, even though these descriptions may apply to a wide range of people. It is the same with many general astrology sayings: they are rarely specific or concrete enough to favour the individuals. If we take into account that the individual is unique at heart this take may not be so strange as it would seem at first glance.

But there is far more to say. Consider a general description of body parts: "You are a round, bulging pair, somewhat fatty, smooth to touch, you may awaken desires, and there is a "stem of bone" between you."

If you are the buttocks, you may exclaim: "That's us!" But if you are the female breasts, you might say it too: "It's us."

You may say, "You are both right, breasts and buttocks. But if I describe you further, you should see some peculiarities of each pair, and these differences will make a difference in your understanding of the general words too - go into your understanding of them." Simpler put, female breasts are not buttocks. There is a difference, in part of one of placement. Breasts are in the front, buttocks on the back side and are not similarly surrounded - and thus co-defined - either. It is like that with the body parts. Much is in common as being part of the same organism, yet some forms and functions are different. The knee is not like the bowel area, for example. And parts relate to one another in some ways and thereby we identify them too. What eatables that enter the head (Aries area) often goes through the throat (Taurus area) - and further.

This is to suggest that even in the case of general descriptions that look alike, some characteristics or prominences may jut out (like breasts, for example) and shape our understanding og something special - breasts, buttocks, elbows, shoulders, and much else.

As for star signs, is it true that every other sign is introvert and every other extrovert? This rather basic astrological claim was tested by Hans Eysenck, and eventually found to be unfounded. Other problems with the value of astrological understandings is shown here: [More] Eysenck at last postulated that the reinforcement of "outwardly fixed" horoscope ideas of oneself was the crucial factor: If people go on thinking they are like this and that because their horoscope tells they are like that, they may be steering into patterns of behaviour and resiprocal interactions that confirm their self-image, no matter how untrue it might be. Overrating oneself is one danger here, but there are many other, such as "frozen deals".

There are many ways to link tarot cards and astrological signs; not just one way of doing it. Muriel Bruce Hasbrouck shows one kind of aligning in her Tarot and Astrology: The Pursuit of Destiny (Rochester, VM: Inner Traditions / Bear and Company, 1986). The topic may be explored.

Numbering the pictures is rather simple

If you would like to like some astrological knowledge that some link to the tarot, to a series of pictures, have try. The sequencing of the pictures is largely that of Dr Sigurd Agrell and the Tarot de Marseille, and the numbering is largely according to Agrell. It does not contain a picture given the number "0", but starts with 1.

In Agrell's renumbered approach any comment or saying is presumably commenting on a picture or side to a picture, and also relates to the astrological sign in question, one by one. It is very simple in essence. And by this each comment is a two-way comment.

The series serves to illustrate how pictures are able to signal information, in part like a good tale. "A picture tells more than a thousand words," but that, in case, depends on conventions and interpretations also.

Let us consider to what degree picture 1" is "Ariesy". I comment the picture according to that view, and go on through all the twenty-two tarot cards, aligning them spirally to astrological signs (figure).

Tarot and Jung's archetypes

For example, Carl G. Jung got the idea that the twenty-two tarot pictures presented here, are related to archetypes. Dr Gerald Schueler says Jung "saw all of the Tarot images as "descended from the archetypes of transformation."" However, in the light of the many and substantial changes of the images from rather crude tarot decks to later decks with added motifs and details, that may not be a fine view at all. [Link]

Tom T. Little exposes the many permutations of and additions to the oldest tarot pictures in Histories of the Trump Cards. [Little d]

Twelve Fields of Life

Life can be approached from mange angles. The pictures are sequenced according to twelve such angles or fields of life, spiralling through them a long way (figure 1). The first angle is that of the First Field, which is a synthesis of the so-called First House, Aries the Ram and the tarot pictures 1 (the Fool), and 13 (the Hanged Man), as figure 1 shows. The second angle is the Field of the Second House, Taurus the Bull, and so on. A list of the tarot pictures, their most common names today, as well as the order and sequencing employed here, is placed below the figure.

Tarot spiral
Figure 1. A spiral form to suggest a way of interconnecting Tarot numbers and the 12 houses/signs of the zodiac. [More]

Tarot pictures as most commonly named

First spiral round:

  1. The Fool, formerly Harlequin - of Aries
  2. The Magician or The Juggler, or The Mountebank - of Taurus
  3. The Papess or The Female Pope, or The High Priestess - of Gemini
  4. The Empress - of Cancer
  5. The Emperor - of Leo
  6. The Pope or The Hierophant - of Virgo
  7. The Lovers - of Libra
  8. The Chariot - of Scorpio
  9. Justice - of Sagittarius
  10. The Hermit - of Capricorn
  11. The Wheel of Fortune - of Aquarius
  12. Strength or Fortitude - of Pisces

Second spiral round:

  1. The Hanged Man - of Aries
  2. The Mystery/Trump without name or Death - of Taurus
  3. Temperance - of Gemini
  4. The Devil - of Cancer
  5. The Tower or The House of God - of Leo
  6. The Sun (switched) - of Virgo
  7. The Moon - of Libra
  8. The Star (switched) - of Scorpio
  9. Judgement - of Sagittarius
  10. The World - of Capricorn

Both of these lists are the "B" or "Eastern" Order, whose main distinction is to put Justice between Judgment and the World, and Temperance between the Pope and Love. There are about 18 16th century Italian sources that list all or most of the Trumps, and most are this Eastern order.

Sigurd Agrell points out that the oldest known tarot card only contained pictures, and were not numbered. He also suggests that the twenty-two pictures illustrate the Latin alphabet. [Agrell 120, 121] And The Fool - which either goes unnumbered or is given zero as its number, is actually the first of the 22 pictures. He therefore presents it as "number 1". The oldest display of the image shows a harlequin (buffoon) surrounded by laughing children, and not attacked by any animals at all. [Agrell 123] Agrell further links The Fool to the first letter of the alphabet. Agrell also attaches gods, goddesses, Greek letters and runes to the cards [survey p. 157-58]

With Agrell the order of the pictures is as in the Rider-Waite deck. I stick to the order of the Marseille deck, with the exception that the pictures 18 and 20 (the Sun and the Star) have swapped place. The reson is that the sun is a star anyway, and what comes first in the sequence is probably nearest, all in all. Such an arrangement of the tarot pictures is the most satisfying to me.

Oldest Known Italian Titles

No surviving tarot cards from the 1400s and 1500s have titles written on them. Yet there are several written references to tarot cards from this period. The early titles show what tarot was to depict then.

I have listed these tarot trumps mainly in the Marseille order, and numbered them largely as dr Agrell has done. No early documents list the trumps in this order.

There were variant titles even then. In the list, the earliest recorded variants of titles are to the left (first). It is the earliest list of trumps there is - the "Steele Sermon", Sermones de Ludo cum Aliis from ca. 1480, by an anonymous Franciscan friar. He uses the variant terms of Gobbo, Impiccato, Sagitta in particular (list below).

Another popular list is from Tommaso Garzoni, "Piazza Universale" (1587). He uses Vecchio, Impiccato, Fuoco as titles of the same problematic images.

Allowing for variation, I have put some of Agrell's titles into the list too.

  1. El matto, Il matto
  2. El bagatella, Il gabbatella
  3. La papessa
  4. Imperatrix, La imperatrice
  5. Imperator, L'imperatore
  6. El papa, Il papa
  7. L'amore, L'innamorato (Agrell)
  8. Lo caro triumphale, Il carro
  9. La iusticia, La giustizia
  10. L'eremita (Agrell) carrying a timeglass. El gobbo, Il vecchio - Hunchback, Old Man, Time
  11. La rotta, La ruotta della fortuna (Agrell) of defeat and breaches
  12. La fortezza
  13. Lo impichato, L'impiccato, Traditore L'Appicato (Agrell) - Hanged Man, Traitor
  14. La morte (In one of the oldest known pictures he sits on a horse - Agrell)
  15. La temperantia, La temperanza
  16. El diavolo, Il diavolo
  17. Il fuoco (fire), La casa de dio (Agrell) La sagitta (arrow, lightning), Casa, etc. House, Fire
  18. El sole, Il sole
  19. La luna
  20. La stella
  21. Lo angelo, L'angelo, Il Giudizio
  22. El mondo, Il mondo

Tarot author Tom T. Little tells that thirteen of these titles match the picture titles in the Tarot de Marseille They are: Fool, Papess, Empress, Emperor, Pope, Justice, Death, Temperance, Devil, Star, Moon, Sun, and World. In addition, two more are essentially the same: The French Bateleur is translated from the Italian Bagatella. Bagatella could mean someone using a wand, like a conjurer or parade performer. Further, Wheel is an abbreviation of Wheel of Fortune. Chariot is probably an abbreviation of Triumphal Chariot, a picture of triumph processions.

More titles differ in meanings: Love (Amore) talks of the oldest way of viewing The Lovers (Amoreux): the focus probably is on love itself more than love between persons. Moreover, Fortitude (Fortezza) is not just Strength (Force), but has more to do with courage than power. That is also the oldest focus. The Last Judgement is invariably termed the Angel in the oldest references. "Angel" suggests what the focal point of the scene was.

Three titles vary in the early Italian sources:

  1. The Hermit is referred to as Hunchback, Old Man, or Time, The figure is frequently depicted with an hourglass, suggesting Time, and a full-blown image of a winged man on crutches persists in some tarot traditions still. So the association with Time was early and strong. The card represents old age.
  2. The Hanged Man is more frequently called the Traitor. As in shame paintings he is depicted hung upside down. Someone is being executed.
  3. The Tower (House of God or Maison Dieu in the Tarot of Marseille) is most frequently called Fire, but also The Arrow, which refers to the lightning strike that hits the tower. Other titles refer to the building itself. The scene does not appear to be a picture of the underworld. The fire seems more likely to be "fire from Heaven", a divine punishment. The original title was simply Fire, referring to the tongue of flame that strikes and destroys the building. [Main sources, Agrell; Little c]

More on the picture arrangement and accompanying sayings

Sayings that are coupled to a picture on the following pages, first and foremost relate to that picture, and beneath the surface also to the proposed Life Field (Area) in question. Thus, our picture no. 18, the Sun, pertains to the same sector as the Pope (our card no. 6). In this alignment the Pope and Sun are quite relatable, it is implied (but not proved).

Further, the sayings are string like couplets according to a basic scheme I prefer and call tick tack tao. The scheme helps in gleanings meanings, just as the structure of astrology helps us understand what is meant by basic concepts of each sign and house, for example.

To profit, why not try to spend at least 7 seconds on each saying, considering it tentatively as a comment to the picture as you scroll down the page. Switch a little back and forth between text and picture go get a general idea, and you may get some elevated perceptions by it too as you go along. You can go on from statement to statement in this way. Or pick one saying and see how it might relate to the picture at hand - just as you like.

The comparison of pictures is useful to some as well.

Feel free to read "he" or "she" or "you" or "one" in the text as you please. Instead of "he", try "you" or "she", thus.

Self-Help Matters

Confronted with tarot images you may soon ask, "What do these images mean?" "Do they work as intended?" Those are questions with a lot of answers, and some are inadequate. As you study them and seek answers, consider clues given by the card makers. The clues are related to sayings like, "A persons is surveyed and often categorised by what he wears." So when someone wears a carpenter's clothes, it is easy to assume it is a carpenter, and if his or her gear conforms to what carpenters are expected to carry with them as gear, your initial surmising gets confirmed - it is very often like that. But then you also try to see the person in relation to such as what he or she does, the surroundings, and so on.

"When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck," said Richard James Cardinal Cushing (1895-1970). Translated to personages that resemble some on old tarot cards, "If she walks and dresses like a duchess and is found in settings and surroundings that pertain to duchesses, it might as well be a duchess." And if you have not misinterpreted things and she is not an impostor, you may be right.

Thus, in studying old tarot cards, and starting from top and centre somehow, we could profit from looking into such as:

  1. What is that person as judged by the whole picture?
  2. What could she (or they) do and be up to?
  3. The stance, posture and grimaces can be suggestive, but allow for the fact that pictures from old woodcuts, as in the tarot of Marseille, may be difficult to ascertain due to coarseness.
  4. Does what she wears from head and downwards (her vestments), signal anything significant to you?
  5. Her insignias, gear, coat of arms and other equipment, what do they suggest to you, if anything?
  6. The setting or surroundings are designed to carry some information too - granted that these too differ with different card-makers, and are altered too.

It is when you consider the topics in the list above, that you realise you may be better off by learning a bit about medieval culture and its many-sided outlets, and maybe proficiency in interpreting iconic art from the Renaissance looks like a must, and also knowledge of how the tarot cards came into being as allegorical items that were changed over the centuries, with altered motifs and details added by occultists and others.

As you read into such things, keys may "open up" as you learn about them. It is not worse than learning to identify the apostle Peter in medieval art by the colour of his clothes - blue and yellow - his particular hairline, and a key he usually is equipped with. The key is his insignia. So when you see such a person in a church painting that is unknown to you and has no text along with it, you may now identify the apostle Peter in it where he appears.

It is more fun to look at art if we have good clues.

Studying details

After some initial surveying, perhaps you want to look closer into things, for example:

  • The "head-gear", if such a word exists. The prowess or hardest might could be represented through it. And prowess can make fit.
  • The kind of collar or pendant (neck jewellery) is shown? Is it big, functional or impressive? What does it represent, in case?
  • The shoulders. How are they? Are they fine, impressive or worse? What are they covered with, and how? Do they represent anything in particular, in your opinion?
  • The breast(s), sides and the front part (biceps area) of the upper arms. The arms that carry something in them, show things through it. A shield suggests a need for coverage, unless it is representational.
  • The broad chest, the arms or hands and what they carry. The items that are held or carried, represent steady influence. The Emperor (no. 5) carries a sceptre, which is a club, basically, and holds on to his belt. A shield is beside his throne. If good coverage or shielding is attained, one may focus on going for gold, which is shown by the items, and represents real, good value. Hence, see what items are held in the hands, if there are any such items, note how the hands are held, and what occupies or covers the chest.
  • The thighs and hips and what is covering them, and what they suggest, all in all.

Even though such detail exploration may be of some help, historical studies of tarot is fraught with difficulties. This can be easily seen by comparing the pictures from two tarot decks with one another, as there are three main divisions here:

  1. The early tarot trumps were hand-painted, elaborate and Italian. The tarot trumps originate in Northern Italy. They were first made between 1420-40, approximately. Such tarot cards are unnamed, unnumbered, and are varied, also when it comes to themes depicted.
  2. The Marseille cards (drawn in the early 1700s) originated in the 1400s in Italy, but many pictures were simplified and changed, and names that were added, are unlike the older and more authentic Italian names.
  3. The still later Rider-Waite deck has changed the pictures further still. Motifs are altered, details are added to conform to esoteric views that what were in the originals, and so on.

Compare a survey of the dating of some decks by Tom T. Little (e). Before the modern printing press, each town would have its own woodblock printer. It is said that "Each deck was made by hand from that printer's carved wood block designs. Everyone in a given town would have the same designs, however, another town would have a slightly different version." The process allowed errors or alterations to creep in.

Besides, there are many claims that seem to contradict the intentions of the early tarot cards. Thus, what Waite, who designed his own deviant tarot variant and had it drawn and coloured by Miss Pamela Colman Smith, says about the cards of his own making or tallying, is not to be trusted as true for tarot in general, for many details he put into the pictrues, are unauthentic additions.

In short, Waite had a picture drawn to represent a set of underlying and extraneous ideas. They were transposed onto tarot. Against such meddling no one should let his or her opinions be swayed - charlatanism and unintelligence, and speculation are not fit.


Tarot study, Literature  

Agrell, Sigurd. Die pergamenische Zauberscheibe und das Tarochspiel. Lund: The University of Lund, (Sweden), 1936.

Fairfield, Gail. Everyday Tarot: Using the Cards to Make Better Life Decisions. Boston, MA: Weiser Books, 2002. ⍽▢⍽ Ideas and perspectives of use for beginners.

Farley, Helen. A Cultural History of Tarot: From Entertainment to Esotericism. London: I. B. Tauris, 2009. ⍽▢⍽ Helen Farley is Lecturer in Studies in Religion and Esotericism at the University of Queensland. Her book is a researched and well written study of tarot symbolism and the changing imagery in the cards. She explores ways in which the tarot reflects aspects of European culture from Medieval Italy until our times.

Fenton-Smith, Paul. The Tarot Revealed: A Beginner's Guide.

Crows Nest NSW: Inspired Living / Allen and Unwin, 2009. ⍽▢⍽ A book for beginners.

Field, John. Ultimately Tarot. Raleigh, NC: Lulu Press, 2010. eBook (PDF)

Green, Andrea. True Tarot Card Meanings: Learn the Secrets of Professionals. Seattle, WA: Amazon Digital Services, 2014.

Greer, Mary K., and Tom T. Little. Understanding the Tarot Court. St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications, 2004.

Hamaker-Zondag, Karen. Tarot As a Way of Life: A Jungian Approach to the Tarot. Newburyport, MA: Weiser, 2007. Online at Google Books (limited view).

Hasbrouck, Muriel Bruce. Tarot and Astrology: The Pursuit of Destiny. Rochester, VM: Inner Traditions / Bear and Company, 1986. Online at Google Books (limited view).

Hollander, P. Scott. Tarot for Beginners: An Easy Guide to Understanding and Interpreting the Tarot. Illustrated ed. Woodbury MN: Llewellyn Worldwide, 1995. Online at Google Books (limited view).

Huson, Paul. Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage. Rochester, VM: Inner Traditions / Bear and Company, 2004. Online at Google Books (limited view).

Nichols, Sallie. Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey. New York: Weiser, 1980. Online at Google Books (limited view).

Pollack, Rachel. Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot. 2nd rev. ed. London: Element Books / HarperCollins, 1997. ⍽▢⍽ Rachel Pollack is considered one of the foremost US Tarot interpreters. Her book is about many different meanings the Tarot cards, leans much on psychoanalytic theory, and may not be simple enough for the beginner.

Schueler, Gerald. Chaos and the Psychological Symbolism of the Tarot.[]

Sharman-Burke, Juliet. The New Complete Book of Tarot: A Step-by-step Guide to Reading the Cards. London: Connections Book Publishing, 2007. ⍽▢⍽ The author of this concise book is a practicing analytic psychotherapist.

Tarotpedia. Trumps. 2008. Online. []

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