WHY IS THERE A FASCINATION WITH TAROT CARD READINGS?
What is Taro about? Why is it that people believe in them just as fortune tellers when many appear to be scams? Where did they come from?
The tarot is a pack of playing cards, used from the mid-15th century in various parts of Europe to play a group of card games such as Italian tarocchini and French tarot. From the late 18th century until the present time the tarot has also found use by mystics and occultists for divination as well as a map of mental and spiritual pathways.
Like the common deck of playing cards, the tarot has four suits (which vary by region, being the French suits in Northern Europe, the Latin suits in Southern Europe, and the German suits in Central Europe). Each of these suits has pip cards numbering from one (or Ace) to ten and four face cards (King, Queen, Knight and Jack/Knave) for a total of 14 cards. In addition, the tarot has a separate 21-card trump suit and a single card known as the Fool. Depending on the game, the Fool may act as the top trump or may be played to avoid following suit.
Tarot cards are used throughout much of Europe to play card games. In English-speaking countries, where these games are largely unplayed, tarot cards are now used primarily for divinatory purposes. Occultists call the trump cards and the Fool “the major arcana” while the ten pip and four court cards in each suit are called minor arcana. The cards are traced by some occult writers to ancient Egypt or the Kabbalah but there is no documented evidence of such origins or of the usage of tarot for divination before the 18th century.
The English and French word tarot derives from the Italian tarocchi, which has no known origin or etymology. The singular term is tarocco, commonly known today as a term for a type of blood orange in Italian. When it spread, the word was changed to tarot in French and Tarock in German. There are many theories to the origin of the word, many with no connection to the occult. One theory relates the name “tarot” to the Taro River in northern Italy, near Parma; the game seems to have originated in northern Italy, in Milan or Bologna.
Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century, probably from Mamluk Egypt, with suits of Swords, Batons or Polo sticks (commonly known as Wands by those practicing occult or divinatory tarot), Cups, and Coins (commonly known as disks, or pentacles by practitioners of the occult or divinatory tarot) These suits were very similar to modern tarot divination decks and are still used in traditional Italian, Spanish and Portuguese playing card decks.
The first known documented tarot cards were created between 1430 and 1450 in Milan, Ferrara and Bologna in northern Italy when additional trump cards with allegorical illustrations were added to the common four-suit pack. These new decks were originally called carte da trionfi, triumph cards, and the additional cards known simply as triorfi, which became “trumps” in English. The first literary evidence of the existence of carte da trionfi is a written statement in the court records in Florence, in 1440. The oldest surviving tarot cards are from fifteen fragmented decks painted in the mid-15th century for the Visconti-Sforza family, the rulers of Milan.
Special motifs on cards added to regular packs show philosophical, social, poetical, astronomical and heraldic ideas, Roman/Greek/Babylonian heroes, as in the case of the Sola-Busca-Tarocchi (1491) and the Boiardo Tarocchi poem, written at an unknown date between 1461 and 1494.
Two playing card decks from Milan (the Brera-Brambilla and Cary-Yale-Tarocchi)—extant, but fragmentary—were made circa 1440. Three documents dating from 1 January 1441 to July 1442, use the term trionfi. The document from January 1441 is regarded as an unreliable reference; however, the same painter, Sagramoro, was commissioned by Leonello d’Este, as in the February 1442 document. The game seemed to gain in importance in the year 1450, a Jubilee year in Italy, which saw many festivities and the movement of many pilgrims.
Hand-painted tarot cards remained a privilege of the upper classes and, although a single sermon by a Dominican preacher inveighing against the evil inherent in cards (mostly centered around their use in gambling) can be traced to the 14th century, no routine condemnations of tarot were found during its early history.
Because 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, and the most popular pattern of these early printed decks is called the Tarot de Marseille, such as the Jean Dodal Tarot (Lyon) and the Jean Noblet Tarot (Paris) for example.
The original purpose of tarot cards was for playing games, the first basic rules appearing in the manuscript of Martiano da Tortona before 1425, and the next from the year 1637. The game of tarot has many cultural variations. In Italy the game has become less popular. One version named Tarocco Bolognese: Otocento has survived and there are still others played in Piedmont; but the number of games outside of Italy is much higher. The French tarot game is the most popular in its native country and regional tarot games—often known as tarock, tarok, or tarokk—are widely played in central Europe.
Each card possesses a pictogram and title that represents a specific concept or archetype. The belief in divination associated with Tarot focuses on the prospect that whatever cards are dealt to the participant will be revelatory.
Divination using playing cards is in evidence as early as 1540 in a book entitled The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forlì which allows a simple method of divination, though the cards are used only to select a random oracle and have no meaning in them. But 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. Giacomo Casanova wrote in his diary that in 1765 his Russian mistress frequently used a deck of playing cards for divination.
French suited tarot cards began to appear in Germany during the 18th century. The first generation of French suited tarots depicted scenes of animals on the trumps and were thus called “Tiertarock” decks (‘Tier’ being German for ‘animal’). Card maker Gobl of Munich is often credited for this design innovation. Current French suited tarot decks come in these patterns: (1) The Industrie und Gluck (Industry and Luck) tarock deck of Central Europe uses Roman numerals for the trumps. It is sold with 54 cards; the 5 to 10 of the red suits and the 1 to 6 of the black suits are removed; (2) The Cego deck is used in Germany’s Black Forest bordering France and has 54 cards organized in the same fashion as the Industrie und Glück. Its trumps use Arabic numerals but within centered indices; and (3) The Tarot Nouveau has 78 cards and is commonly played in France. Its trumps use Arabic numerals in corner indices.
The illustrations of French suited tarot trumps depart considerably from the older Italian suited design. The Renaissance allegorical motifs were abandoned for new themes or simply just whimsical pictures of daily life. With very few exceptional recent cases such as the “Tarocchi di Alan”, “Tarot of Reincarnation” and the “Tarot de la Nature”, French suited tarot cards are nearly exclusively used for card games and rarely for divination.
German suited decks for Bavarian tarock are very different. They only have 36 cards, ranging from 6 to 10, Under Knave (Unter), Over Knave (Ober), King, and Ace. In this game’s hierarchy, Ace is the highest followed by 10, King, Ober, Unter, then 9 to 6. There is no dedicated trump suit; the three players have to agree on one suit though in some places the heart suit is the default trump suit.
The Tarocco Sicillano is the only deck to use Spanish suits like other southern Italian non-tarot decks. It changes some of the trumps, and has a card labeled Miseria (destitution). It omits the Two and Three of coins, and numerals one to four in clubs, swords and cups: it thus has 64 cards but the One of coins is not used, being the bearer of the former stamp tax. The cards are quite small and not reversible.
The terms “major arcana” and “minor arcana” were first used by Jean-Baptiste Pitois (a/k/a Paul Christian) and are never used in relation to Tarot card games.
Tarot is often used with the study of the Hermetic Qabalah. In these decks they have Kabbalistic illustrations, most being under the influence of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. The images on the “Rider-Waite” deck were drawn by artist Pamela Colman Smith following the instructions of mystic and occultist Arthur Edward Waite and were originally published by the Rider Company in 1910. The subjects of the Major Arcana are based on those of the earliest decks, but have been modified to reflect Waite and Smith’s view of tarot. A difference from Marseilles style decks is that Smith drew scenes with esoteric meanings on the suit cards. The Rider-Waite wasn’t the first deck to include completely illustrated suit cards. The first to do so was the 15th century Sola-Busca deck.
Older esoteric decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and Marseilles are less detailed than modern ones. A Marseilles type deck is distinguished by having repetitive motifs on the pip cards, similar to Italian or Spanish playing cards, as opposed to the full scenes found on “Rider-Waite” style decks. These more simply illustrated “Marseilles” style decks are also used esoterically, for divination, and for game play, though the French card game of tarot is now generally played using a relatively modern 19th century design of German origin. Such playing tarot decks generally have twenty one trump cards with genre scenes from 19th century life, a Fool, and have court and pip cards that closely resemble today’s French playing cards.
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/wands, cups, coins/pentacles) 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.
The variety of decks in use is almost endless, and grows yearly. For instance, cat-lovers may have the Tarot of the Cat People, a deck replete with cats in every picture. The Tarot of the Witches and the Aquarian Tarot retain the conventional cards with varying designs. The Tree of Life Tarot’s cards are stark symbolic catalogs; and The Alchemical Tarot, created by Robert M. Place, combines traditional alchemical symbols with tarot images.
These contemporary divination decks change the cards to varying degrees. For example, the Motherpeace Tarot is notable for its circular cards and feminist angle where the 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 such as “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 CEO, 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 Pagan symbolism. As with other decks, the cards are available with a companion book written by Wood which details all of the symbolism and colors utilized in the Major and Minor Arcana.