About Tarot Cards
The Tarot was originally a deck of 78 cards, divided into 4 suits of 14 cards (the standard ace-10, then page, knight, queen, and king) and 22 un-numbered ‘triumphs’ or ‘trumps’. Over the years, the trumps got numbered 1 to 21, with one card (the fool) remaining un-numbered or sometimes being 0. The 4 suits are commonly called the ‘Minor Arcana’ and the trump cards are called the ‘Major Arcana’.
More loosely, any deck of cards designed for ‘fortune-telling’, divination, meditation, contemplation, or other non-game uses is popularly called a Tarot deck. The most commonly found suits for Tarot decks are cups, swords, wands or staffs (probably originally polo-sticks), and pentacles (originally coins).
The names of the Major Arcana cards frequently change from deck to deck, but historically they’ve been ;
- The Fool (un-numbered or 0)
- The Magician (I)
- The High Priestess (originally the Popess) (II)
- The Empress (III)
- The Emperor (IV)
- The Heirophant (originally the Pope) (V)
- The Lovers (VI)
- The Chariot (VII)
- Strength (VIII, originally XI)
- The Hermit (IX)
- The Wheel of Fortune (X)
- Justice (XI, originally VIII)
- The Hanged Man (XII)
- Death (XIII)
- Temperance (XIV)
- The Devil (XV)
- The Tower (XVI)
- The Star (XVII)
- The Moon (XVIII)
- The Sun (XIX)
- Judgement (XX)
- The World (XXI)
The Major Arcana cards are usually illustrated, frequently the Minor Arcana cards are, as well.
Tarot decks come in a bewildering variety these days. You can find oversized, undersized, or round decks. Some have more than 78 cards, some less. Some are based on a particular mythic cycle. Some are based on a particular psychological theory. Some are based on channelled information. Some are just hard to describe. A ‘historical’ deck has simply one, two, or however many wands, cups, or whatever for the number cards.
A.E. Waite first popularised a deck which has illustrations on all 78 cards (painted by Pamela Colman Smith), which has become the model for the greatest number of other currently available decks.
A. Crowley popularised a deck which had arcane symbols, but not real ‘illustrations’ on the number cards (painter by Lady Frieda Harris). Decks which follow those basic set-ups are descendants from these earlier ones.
No-one knows the ‘true’ origin of the Tarot. The most common myth is that it was brought to Europe by the Gypsies – but this myth come from the fact that very early occultists who used the Tarot fancied that it came from Egypt. They were as wrong about that as they were about the homeland of the Gypsies. In fact, the Tarot came to Europe about the same time as any other form of playing card, in the early/mid 1300’s. It is most closely related to the ‘Mamluk’ deck of the Islamic world, which had suits cups, coins, swords, and polo-sticks.
The Tarot was originally used for a game called ‘tarocchi’ in Italy, which is sort of a distant cousin to Bridge. Tarocchi is still played in some parts of the world, not usually with the same decks the ‘fortune tellers’ use.
The game was quite popular for a time among the royalty in Italy, and sometimes a duke would commission an artist to create a really nice deck. Some of the earliest surviving Tarot decks come from this source. Plainer decks existed, but were not well made enough, or well thought-of enough, to survive the intervening 600 years.
The Joker of ‘standard’ card decks is “not” related to the Fool of Tarot. The Joker was invented as a wild card for Euchre in the 1800’s, in a part of the world where the Tarot was virtually or totally unknown.
The Tarot was first associated with the occult by Antoine Court de Gebelin, a relatively obscure Parisian mason who wrote about the deck in 1781. He invented a lot of the standard myths about the Tarot which were later popularised by others (it comes from ancient Egypt, the Major Arcana is related to the Kabalah, etc.). The first big popularise of the deck was a contemporary of de Gebelin, called Etteilla, who published the first ‘revised and corrected’ Tarot deck for divination. The fad was caught up by Eliphas Levi, Oswald Wirth, and Papus, among others. From Papus, the Tarot caught on with some English mystics, such as S.L. Mathers (whose mistranslation of Levi brought us the suit of pentacles), A.E. Waite, and A. Crowley. The Tarot received a lot of attention from these folks, and they created a fairly large body of writing on the use of Tarot. For the most part they thought that divination was a ‘lower’ use of the cards, that ideally it should be used to put you in touch with eternal verities, usually in conjunction with whatever magical order they happened to be involved with. But of course, divination was the most popular use for the cards.
Most of the Tarot decks on the market were created this century, most of those in the last 20 years.