This article is about the structure, card imagery, and history and origin of tarot decks, which today are often used for spiritual, esoteric, psychological, occult and/or divinatory purposes.
Most modern Tarot sets consist of 78 cards with allegorical representations today used for divination, that first appeared in medieval times. A typical Tarot deck consists of:
• The major arcana, consisting of 22 trump cards including the Fool card;
• The minor arcana consisting of 56 cards:
1. Ten cards numbered from Ace to 10 in four different suits; traditionally batons (wands), cups, swords and coins (pentacles) (40 cards in total); and
2. Four court cards, page, knight, queen and king in the same four suits (4 per suit, thus 16 court cards in total).
Tarot originally started out as a game in 15th century Italy, by adding to a normal deck of cards 22 trump cards and 4 queens of each suit. Some early Tarot decks of North Italian origin, which date to the early to mid-15th century have remained. These were called carte da trionfi or "cards of the triumphs." Soon afterwards, the cards came to be known as Tarocchi. It is unknown when the tarot was first used for divination. As early as 1540, a book entitled The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forli shows a simple method of divining from the coin suit of a regular playing card deck. Manuscripts from 1735 (The Square of Sevens) and 1750 (Pratesi Cartomancer) show 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 the tarot to foretell the future. From Gébelin’s time forward, 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.
The Tarot Deck
The typical 78-card tarot deck is structured into two distinct parts. The first, called the Trump cards, consists of 21 cards without suits, plus a 22nd card, The Fool. The second consists of 56 cards divided into four suits of 14 cards each. The traditional Italian suits are Swords, Batons, Coins and Cups. In modern tarot decks, the Batons suit is commonly called Wands, Rods or Staves, while the Coins suit is often called Pentacles or Disks.
Among those who use Tarot cards for divination purposes, the trumps are usually called Major Arcana, while the other cards are known as the Minor Arcana. (Arcana is the plural form of the Latin word arcanum, meaning "closed" or "secret".)
The 14 cards in each suit consist of an Ace, nine cards numbered 2 through 10, and four court cards (not dissimilar from the structure of 52-card bridge/poker playing card decks, except that bridge/poker playing card decks have three court cards rather than four).
The four court cards (or face cards) of the tarot deck traditionally consist of the King, the Queen, the Knight and the Page (or Knave).
In the present-day Anglo-American world, the Tarot is usually seen either as a means of divination, the practice of ascertaining information from supernatural or other sources, or, in a more modern view, as a psychological tool for accessing the unconscious. However, early references such as a sermon refer only to the use of the cards for game-playing and gambling; and in some European countries such as France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany, as Michael Dummett points out in Twelve Tarot Games (1980), Tarot games are still widely played.
Later Tarot decks
As the earliest Tarot cards were hand-painted, the number of the produced decks is considered to have been rather small. Only after the invention of the printing press mass production of cards became possible. Decks from this era survive from various cities in France at various times (the best known in this context being the city of Marseille, in southern France) perhaps from the early 16th century, though actual surviving examples are no earlier than the 17th century. At around the same time, the name "Tarocchi" appeared.
Esoteric views on the history of tarot
Since 1781, when Antoine Court de Gebelin published his "Le Monde Primatif," in which he claimed Tarot cards held the "secrets of the Egyptians," without producing any evidence to sustain his claims, Tarot cards have been written about by many esoterians who have advanced alternative views on the history of Tarot cards. From this mystical vantage-point, the origin and history of the Tarot is unclear and often idealized.
A number of scholars of the western Hermetic or Magical traditions have made such claims of the Tarot having ancient roots and lessons. Look to the works of Robert Fludd or Albertus Magnus for deeper inspections. Another school of thought believes that the Roma people, traveling through many cultures, picked up this pictorial wisdom, and being inventive by nature, created a form of divination (and perhaps of card games) from it. The idea is that they understood and kept the knowledge of the mystery-lessons of the picture-cards in private, while in public they used the cards for profit through divination and card games.
Use of tarot cards in divination
Although much of Tarot imagery looks mysterious or exotic to modern users, nearly all of it reflects conventional symbolism popular in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Nearly all of it may easily be interpreted as a reflection of the dominant Christian values of the times. Thus, the earliest Tarots may have been depictions of the carnival parades that ushered in the Christian season of Lent or the related motif of hierarchical powers found in Petrarch’s poem I Trionfi. These trionfi or triumphs were elaborate productions which layered then-fashionable Graeco-Roman symbolism over a Christian allegory of sin, grace, and redemption. Notably, the earliest versions of the World card show a conventional image known from period religious art to represent St. Augustine’s "Heavenly City," and it is not coincidence that it often closely follows the Judgement card.
The Tarot cards eventually came to be associated with mysticism and magic. This was actually a late rather than early development, as we can tell from period sources on card divination and magic. The Tarot was not widely adopted by mystics, occultists and secret societies until the 18th and 19th century.
Divination, or fortune-telling, is by far the most popular and well-known use of the Tarot in the English-speaking world. This is sometimes seen as an extension of the psychological use mentioned above. Alternatively, it is sometimes seen as a less sophisticated use of tarot. It can be argued that we sometimes perceive the signs of future events subconsciously only. For instance, you might be subconsciously aware that a relationship or job is in trouble, before you admit it to yourself. In that sense, it might be said that the Tarot can give you insights into the future without having any supernatural or occult aspect at all.
That point of view may be unusual among those who use Tarot for divination. Tarot card readers sometimes believe that Tarot cards allow them to exercise an innate psychic ability to see the future. Still others routinely follow the divinatory meanings assigned to each card by popular books and other authorities. Further, some individuals believe that the cards take on the "aura" or "vibrations" of someone who touches them. The cards are therefore sometimes "insulated" by wrapping them in silk or enclosing them in a box, and only touched by the reader and by the person for whom the reading is done (the "querent").
There are many variations, but in many readings the querent shuffles the cards, then the reader lays out the cards in a pattern called a "layout" or "spread." A well-known spread is the Celtic Cross. The cards are then analyzed according to their positions, their individual divinatory meanings, their relationships, and whether the cards are upside-down ("reversed"). If the reader uses the interpretation technique of reversals, a reversed card has its own set of modified meanings and/or modified energies; a reversed card’s meaning may sometimes be the opposite of the upright card meaning, sometimes weakened, and sometimes twisted.
Divination may be seen as magical in itself, but the word "magic" often refers to the use of Tarot cards in a magical ritual designed to achieve some end. This is probably much less common than simple divination.
Layouts or spreads
In Tarot divination, results can be achieved with analysis of just one card, but, for more thoroughness, combinations of several cards in set patterns are usually used. These patterns are called spreads or layouts. There are many different spreads. More experienced practitioners will sometimes use their own spreads, assigning their own meanings to the relevant positions represented.
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