Site Map
Tarot Pictures and Sayings
Section › 15 Set Search Previous Next

Reservations Contents  

Modified detail of Benozzo Gozzoli's Vigil - a Renaissance painting

A Tarot History

The following amplifies topics in the introduction, which also supplies references.

The tarot (also known as tarocchi, tarock or similar names) is typically a set of seventy-eight cards. There are twenty-two trump cards, including the Fool, and four suits of fourteen cards each. Non-occult Italian-suited Tarot decks were the earliest form of Tarot deck to be invented, being first devised in or near the 1430s in northern Italy. The trump cards have pictures representing various forces, characters, virtues, and vices. The standard modern tarot deck is based on the Venetian or the Piedmontese tarot. It consists of 78 cards divided into two groups: the 22 trumps and the 54 others.

Tarot cards are used throughout much of Europe to play Tarot card games. 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. Tarot was also used as early as the 1500s to compose poems, called "tarocchi appropriati", describing ladies of the court or famous personages.

Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 1300s with the Mamelukes of Persia, and as far as history takes us, 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.

Manuscripts from 1735 (The Square of Sevens) and 1750 (Pratesi Cartomancer) document rudimentary divinatory meanings for the cards of the tarot.

The earliest tarot cards were hand painted, and for a long time tarot cards remained a privilege for the upper classes. But after the invention of the printing press, mass production of cards started. Decks survive from this era from various cities in France. the best known deck from this phase is a deck from Marseille and thus named the tarot de Marseille.

The trump cards were added to regular playing cards in order to show underlying philosophical, social, poetical, astronomical, and heraldic ideas. The essential meanings of the cards are derived mostly from the Kabbalah of Jewish mysticism and from Medieval Alchemy.

The first esoteric Tarot deck was designed by a French occultist named Alliette. He worked as a seer and card diviner shortly before the French Revolution. Etteilla added astrological attributions and "Egyptian" motifs to various cards, altering many of them from the Marseille designs, and adding divinatory meanings.

In 1781 Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman and Freemason, published a speculative tarot study, asserting that symbolism of the tarot de Marseille represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth. De Gébelin wrote this treatise before Jean-François Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, even before the Rosetta Stone had been discovered. What is more, later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language to support de Gébelin's fanciful etymologies.

Some decks exist primarily as artwork; and such art decks sometimes contain only the twenty-two trump cards. Artists have been free to represent the various elements in a card in any way they choose, and they usually try to draw the picture in such a way as to reveal a new truth. As a result, a variety of styles of tarot decks and designs exist. Many popular decks have modified the traditional symbolism to reflect the esoteric beliefs of their creators.

Historically, one of the most important designs is the one usually known as the tarot de Marseille (below).

System Connections

Older decks, including the tarot of Marseille, are less detailed than more modern decks. Tarot reading revolves around the belief that the cards can be used to gain insight into the current and possible future situations of the subject (or querent), i.e. cartomancy.

Carl G. Jung went into tarot symbolism. It seems he regarded many of the cards as representing archetypes: fundamental types of persons or situations embedded in the subconscious of all human beings. More recently an American advocate of psychedelic drug research, Timothy Leary (1920-96) has suggested that the tarot Trump cards are a pictorial representation of human development from a baby to a fully grown adult: The Fool symbolizing the new born infant, The Magician symbolizing the stage at which an infant starts to play with artifacts, etc. In addition to this, in Leary's view the tarot Trumps can be seen to be a blue print for of the human race in the future as it matures.

There is likewise a link between tarot and astrology, as the tarot derives at least in part from Jewish Kabbalah, as stated above, and Kabbalah is soaked in astrology. Hence, some find it interesting to incorporate ideas and parts of tarot into their own astrological practice. One such way is shown below, by a spiral figure that relates to findings in a study by Sigurd Agrell. Numerology may also be brought into tarot thinking.

For fortune-telling each tarot card is ascribed several fixed meanings, and not all of them seem to have anything to do with what early tarot trumps were intended by their makers to signify by rather standardised, allegorical means.

Tarot de Marseille

It is claimed that the tarot de Marseille is the most popular deck in the Latin countries. Each card, whether in the major arcana or minor arcana, was originally printed from a woodcut; the cards were later coloured either by hand or by the use of stencils. Among early attested decks in the tarot de Marseille family of decks is the one by Dodal (circa 1701). The cards were first use for play only, it seems, and the use of tarot in divination is first attested in the 1700s in the journals of Giacomo Casanova.

It is ascertained that tarot cards were introduced into southern France from northern Italy when the French conquered Milan and the Piedmont in 1499. The name tarot de Marseille was coined at least as early as 1889 by the French occultist Papus and was popularised in the 1930s by the French cartomancer Paul Marteau to refer to a variety of closely related designs that were being made in the city of Marseille, then a centre of playing card manufacture. Similar cards were also made in other cities in France.

The tarot de Marseille contains Christian traditional images (such as the Pope, the Devil, the Grim Reaper and the Last Judgement) and controversial Christian images. Among the latter is La Papesse which portrays a female pope. Many variants have been used instead of her. Among them are Juno, The Spanish Captain and The High Priestess.

The Rider-Waite Deck

In English-speaking countries the tarot games are largely unknown. However, tarot divination has become very popular in the English-speaking world since 1910, when the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot was published. This deck remains very popular in the English-speaking world. It was conceived and made by two members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The images on the 'Rider-Waite' deck were drawn by artist Pamela Colman-Smith, to the instructions of Arthur Edward Waite. The cards were originally published in December 1909, and the symbols used were influenced by the 19th century magician and occultist Eliphas Levi. In 1910, the Pictorial Key to the tarot by A. E. Waite was published. The imagery and backgrounds of these cards are rich in added, esoteric symbolism. Colour is also used symbolically. The subjects of the cards have been quite modified to reflect Waite and Smith's views of Tarot. The Rider-Waite tarot deck has been very influential in the development of later divinatory tarot decks.

This deck obscures the Christian allegories of the tarot de Marseille and other decks by changing some attributions (for example changing "The Pope" to "The Hierophant" and "The Popess" to "The High Priestess").

Further Thought

"An image says more than a thousand words [American]."

Elegant sayings and many kinds of images attempt to sum up experiences or teachings harvested over a time.

It is largely fit to focus on the essentials first of all.

Lovely arts counts the world over.


Tarot study, Literature  


Encyclopaedia Britannica 2009, s.v. "tarot (playing cards)".

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 tarot has reflected culture from Medieval Italy and till our times.

Wikipedia, s.v. "Tarot", "Rider-Waite tarot deck".

Tarot study, To top Archive section Set Next

Tarot study USER'S GUIDE: [Link]
© 2004–2016, Tormod Kinnes, MPhil. [Email]  ᴥ  Disclaimer: [Link]