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Tarot Cards Overview

Author: Lena Santos

The word “tarot” is actually both French and English and there are various theories as to the origin of the word. The first theory is that “tarot” came from the Italian word tarocchi derived from the card game called tarrochini. This particular card game originated in either Bologna or Milan, it was also thought that “tarot” was in reference to the Taro River in Parma. There are those who think that “tarot” is Arabic and came from the word turug (pathway) or taraka (abandon). A more complex theory is that the word came from the Italian tarocco which is actually a derivative of the Arabic word tarh – which could mean rejection or subtraction or discount or deduction.

The tarot card is depicted in popular movies as a tool used in fortune-telling. It is also described in fictional books as something mystical, magical and sometimes “evil”. What are tarot cards? What is its history?

The tarot is made up of four suites of regular playing cards, each having 14 pieces of cards. What distinguishes a deck of tarot cards from conventional playing cards is a single card called the Fool and a separate 21-card trump suit. The Fool card may act as the top trump depending on the type of game being played.

While the Europeans used it to play different games, occultists in English-speaking countries used the tarot as a means to build spiritual pathways, thus its modern association with mysticism. Some occult writers associate the tarot to the Kabbalah or trace its origins to ancient Egypt, but there had been no documented proof of its usage for divination earlier than the 18th century.

The oldest known tarot cards to survive are the ones painted for the mid 15th century rulers of Milan, the Visconti-Sforza family. Back then, the images on the cards were painted by commissioned artists, making each deck different from all others and giving it a personalized touch. The mass production of tarot cards was only made possible after the invention of the printing press.

Among the games played using tarot cards upon its invention were the tarot, tarock and tarocchi games, as stated in the manuscripts of Martiano de Tortona. Its involvement in magic and mysticism started in 1781 when a Swiss clergyman named Antoine Court de Gebelin published a speculative study of religious symbolism, which mentioned another theory about the origin of tarot cards. In the study, De Gebelin said that the word tarot represented a “royal road” to wisdom, citing its origin to be the Egyptian words tar, which means royal, and ro pertaining to road. De Gebelin also claimed that the symbolism of the Tarot de Marseille, which was the most popular pattern of early printed decks, was the representation of the mysteries of Thoth and Isis.

De Gebelin further speculated that the Gypsies, who were the first known users of cards in divination, were descendants of ancient Egyptian. He also mentioned that the Gypsies were the ones who introduced the use of cards in Europe. De Gebelin wrote his study before the Egyptian hieroglyphs had been deciphered and before the Rosetta stone was discovered. These later discoveries did not bear anything that supported the clergyman’s claims about the origin of tarot cards. Despite the lack of strong proof, the tarot cards’ association with the Egyptian Book of Thoth has already been established and continues to be recognized in occult practice until today.

Aside from the Tarot de Marseille, there are other varieties of tarot cards that have become popular in Europe. In Germany, the use of the French suited tarot cards called Tiertarock became widespread. These cards were decorated with animal scenes on the trump, hence the name of the deck because “tier” is German for animal. French suited tarot cards are very seldom used in divination and almost exclusively used for games. Its symbolism is also very different from that of old tarot cards with Italian suited design.

The tarot did not only land on the pages of history books but also found its place in literature as the subject of novels and object of poems. In the 16th century, tarot cards were used in composing “tarocchi appropriate” or poems that describe famous personalities of that era and ladies of the court. In more recent times there are two notable novels that dealt with tarot cards. These are The Greater Trumps written by Charles Williams and published in 1932 and The Castle of Crossed Destinies authored by Italo Calvino and published in 1979.

In Williams’ book the characters use tarot cards to create matter and powerful weather disturbances as well as to travel through time and space. In Calvino’s masterpiece, on the other hand, the characters, which are medieval travelers who could not speak, use the tarot to communicate with one another and tell their stories as they meet in a castle.

Through the centuries, the tarot has evolved not only in its appearance but also in its function. From being an object used to play games to a tool used in divination, the tarot is now a big part of modern popular culture. More designs have been printed, mostly representing other aspect of popular culture. Among these is the Vertigo Tarot deck, which features some of the characters created by American publisher Vertigo Comics in place of original tarot deck characters, like The Fool. There are also tarot decks published with Disney characters as the main design and these are popular nowadays in France.

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