The tarot (; first known as trionfi and later as tarocchi or tarock) is a pack of playing cards, used from the mid-15th century in various parts of Europe to play games such as Italian tarocchini, French tarot and Austrian Königrufen, of which many are still played today. In the late 18th century, some tarot packs began to be used as a trend for divination via tarot card reading and cartomancy leading to custom packs developed for such occult purposes.
Like common playing cards, the tarot has four suits which vary by region: French suits in Northern Europe, Latin suits in Southern Europe, and German suits in Central Europe. Each suit has 14 cards, ten pip cards numbering from one (or Ace) to ten and four face cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Jack/Knave). 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. These tarot cards are still used throughout much of Europe to play conventional card games without occult associations.
Among English-speaking countries where these games are not played frequently, tarot cards are used primarily for novelty and divinatory purposes, usually using specially designed packs. Some occult enthusiasts make relative claims to ancient Egypt, the Kabbalah, Indian Tantra, the I-Ching, among many others, though no documented evidence of such origins or of the usage of tarot for divination before the 18th century has been demonstrated to a scholarly standard.
The word Tarot and German Tarock derive from the Italian Tarocchi, the origin of which is uncertain but taroch was used as a synonym for foolishness in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The decks were known exclusively as Trionfi during the fifteenth century. The new name first appeared in Brescia around 1502 as Tarocho. During the 16th century, a new game played with a standard deck but sharing a very similar name (Trionfa) was quickly becoming popular. This coincided with the older game being renamed tarocchi. In modern Italian, the singular term is Tarocco, which, as a noun, refers to a cultivar of blood orange.
Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century, most likely from Mamluk, Egypt, with suits of Batons or Polo sticks (commonly known as Wands by those practicing occult or divinatory tarot), Coins (commonly known as disks, or pentacles in occult or divinatory tarot), Swords, and Cups. 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 documented tarot packs were recorded between 1440 and 1450 in Milan, Ferrara, Florence and Bologna when additional trump cards with allegorical illustrations were added to the common four-suit pack. These new decks were called carte da trionfi, triumph cards, and the additional cards known simply as trionfi, which became "trumps" in English. The earliest documentation of trionfi is found in a written statement in the court records of Florence, in 1440, regarding the transfer of two decks to Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta.
The oldest surviving tarot cards are the 15 or so Visconti-Sforza tarot decks painted in the mid-15th century for the rulers of the Duchy of Milan. A lost tarot-like pack was commissioned by Duke Filippo Maria Visconti and described by Martiano da Tortona probably between 1418 and 1425, since the painter he mentions, Michelino da Besozzo, returned to Milan in 1418, while Martiano himself died in 1425. He described a 60-card deck with 16 cards having images of the Roman gods and suits depicting four kinds of birds. The 16 cards were regarded as "trumps" since in 1449 Jacopo Antonio Marcello recalled that the now deceased duke had invented a novum quoddam et exquisitum triumphorum genus, or "a new and exquisite kind of triumphs". Other early decks that also showcased classical motifs include the Sola-Busca and Boiardo-Viti decks of the 1490s.
Although a Dominican preacher inveighed against the evil inherent in cards (chiefly owing to their use in gambling) in a sermon in the 15th 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 small. It was only after the invention of the printing press that mass production of cards became possible. The expansion of tarot outside of Italy, first to France and Switzerland, occurred during the Italian Wars. The most important tarot pattern used in these two countries was the Tarot of Marseilles of Milanese origin.
The original purpose of tarot cards was to play games. A very cursory explanation of rules for a tarot-like deck is given in a manuscript by Martiano da Tortona before 1425. Vague descriptions of game play or game terminology follow for the next two centuries until the earliest known complete description of rules for a French variant in 1637. The game of tarot has many regional variations. Tarocchini has survived in Bologna and there are still others played in Piedmont and Sicily, but in Italy the game is generally less popular than elsewhere.
The 18th century saw tarot's greatest revival, during which it became one of the most popular card games in Europe, played everywhere except Ireland and Britain, the Iberian peninsula, and the Ottoman Balkans.French tarot experienced a revival beginning in the 1970s and France has the strongest tarot gaming community. Regional tarot games--often known as tarock, tarok, or tarokk are widely played in central Europe within the borders of the former Austro-Hungarian empire.
These were the oldest form of tarot deck to be made, being first devised in the 15th century in northern Italy. The so-called occult tarot decks are based on decks of this type. Three decks of this category are still used to play certain games:
The Tarocco Siciliano is the only deck to use the so-called Portuguese suit system which uses Spanish pips but intersects them like Italian pips. Some of the trumps are different such as the lowest trump, 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 ace of coins is not used, being the bearer of the former stamp tax. The cards are quite small and not reversible.
The illustrations of French-suited tarot trumps depart considerably from the older Italian-suited design, abandoning the Renaissance allegorical motifs. With the exception of novelty decks, French-suited tarot cards are almost exclusively used for card games. The first generation of French-suited tarots depicted scenes of animals on the trumps and were thus called "Tiertarock" ('Tier' being German for 'animal') appeared around 1740. Around 1800, a greater variety of decks were produced, mostly with genre art or veduta. Current French-suited tarot decks come in these patterns:
Example of 18th century "Tiertarock"
Industrie und Glück Tarock trumps
Tarot Nouveau trumps circa 1910
German-suited decks for Bauerntarock, Württemberg Tarock and Bavarian Tarock are different. They are not true tarot/tarock packs, but a Bavarian or Württemberg pattern of the standard German-suited decks with only 36 cards; the pip cards ranging from 6 to 10, Under Knave (Unter), Over Knave (Ober), King, and Ace. These use Ace-Ten ranking, like Klaverjas, where Ace is the highest followed by 10, King, Ober, Unter, then 9 to 6. The heart suit is the default trump suit. The Bavarian deck is also used to play Schafkopf by excluding the Sixes.
Württemberg Tarock cards
The earliest evidence of a tarot deck used for cartomancy comes from an anonymous manuscript from around 1750 which documents rudimentary divinatory meanings for the cards of the Tarocco Bolognese. The popularization of esoteric tarot started with Antoine Court and Jean-Baptiste Alliette (Etteilla) in Paris during the 1780s, using the Tarot of Marseilles.French tarot players abandoned the Marseilles tarot in favor of the Tarot Nouveau around 1900, with the result that the Marseilles pattern is now used mostly by cartomancers.
Etteilla was the first to issue a tarot deck specifically designed for occult purposes around 1789. In keeping with the misplaced belief that such cards were derived from the Book of Thoth, Etteilla's tarot contained themes related to ancient Egypt.
The 78-card tarot deck used by esotericists has two distinct parts:
The terms "Major Arcana" and "Minor Arcana" were first used by Jean-Baptiste Pitois (also known as Paul Christian) and are never used in relation to Tarot card games. Some decks exist primarily as artwork; and such art decks sometimes contain only the 22 major arcana.
Aleister Crowley, who devised the Toth deck along with Lady Frieda Harris, stated of the Tarot: "The origin of this pack of cards is very obscure. Some authorities seek to put it back as far as the ancient Egyptian Mysteries; others try to bring it forward as late as the fifteenth or even the sixteenth century ... [but] The only theory of ultimate interest about the Tarot is that it is an admirable symbolic picture of the Universe, based on the data of the Holy Qabalah."