Tarot 101

Tarot 101

The tarot (/ˈtær/; 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 tarocchiniFrench 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 (KingQueenKnight, 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.

History

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 ItalianSpanish and Portuguese playing card decks.
 
The first documented tarot packs were recorded between 1440 and 1450 in MilanFerraraFlorence 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.
 
In Florence, an expanded deck called Minchiate was used. This deck of 97 cards includes astrological symbols and the four elements, as well as traditional tarot motifs.
 
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.

 

Tarot gaming decks

 

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 tarocktarok, or tarokk are widely played in central Europe within the borders of the former Austro-Hungarian empire.

Italian-suited tarot decks

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 Piemontese consists of the four suits of swords, batons, cups and coins, each headed by a king, queen, cavalier and jack, followed by the pip cards for a total of 78 cards. Trump 20 outranks 21 in most games and the Fool is numbered 0 despite not being a trump.
  • The Swiss 1JJ Tarot is similar, but replaces the Pope with Jupiter, the Popess with Juno, and the Angel with the Judgement. The trumps rank in numerical order and the Tower is known as the House of God. The cards are not reversible like the Tarocco Piemontese.
  • The Tarocco Bolognese omits numeral cards two to five in plain suits, leaving it with 62 cards, and has somewhat different trumps, not all of which are numbered and four of which are equal in rank. It has a different graphical design than the two above as it was not derived from the Tarot of Marseilles.

Italo-Portuguese-suited tarot deck

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.

French-suited tarot decks

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:

    • The Industrie und Glück (Industry and Luck) genre art 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.
    • The Adler-Cego animal tarot is used in Germany’s Black Forest and has 54 cards organized in the same fashion as the Industrie und Glück. Its trumps use Arabic numerals but within centered indices. The Tarot Nouveau has 78 cards and is commonly played in France. Its genre art trumps use Arabic numerals in corner indices.

       

      German-suited tarot decks

    • German-suited decks for BauerntarockWürttemberg 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.

      Tarot card reading

      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.

      Tarot decks in occult usage

      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.

      The three most common decks used in esoteric tarot are the Tarot of Marseilles, the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck, and the Thoth tarot deck.

      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.”

     

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