Divinity, sacrifice, suspension. A reversal of values. The Hanged Man from the 1701-1715 classic "Tarot de Marseille" tarot deck of Jean Dodal. Odin hung upside down from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days to attain complete wisdom and knowledge.
Divinity, sacrifice, suspension. A reversal of values. The Hanged Man from the 1701-1715 classic “Tarot de Marseille” tarot deck of Jean Dodal. Odin hung upside down from the world-tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days to attain complete wisdom and knowledge.

Tarot cards were developed in the early 15th century in parts of Europe for playing trick-taking card games like tarocchini (Italy) and tarot (France). The growth of tarot as a game was tied to the invention of the printing press and the availability of paper. Eventually they began to be used for fortune-telling and divination. Used for those purposes, tarot is a form of cartomancy.

The Tarot Deck

For divinatory purposes the 78 card deck is divided into a four-suit deck Minor Arcana (“great secret”) with 56 cards which are very similar to the regular 52 card deck in suits and order (aces low); and the mystic Major Arcana picture cards (normally called “tarots” or “trumps”). There are 21 of them, plus a Fool card.

The Game of Tarot

The game involves dealing out cards and then bidding and taking tricks by beating cards laid down with either higher cards of the same suit or trump cards.

The History of Tarot in Europe

It is only since the late 18th century that the tarot has been use by fortune tellers and mystics and it is only in recent years that the tarot deck has overtaken the regular deck for those purposes, although in the English-speaking world, tarot is generally known only for occult purposes, and not for games.

It seems to have happened like this:

The original picture cards (Major Arcana) of the Italian and French games were hand-drawn or painted with various elevated motifs according to the fashion of the day, which included a fascination in Rennaissance Italy for the magic traditions of the ancient Egyptians, and which reflected the Moorish occupation of the southern countries of Spain and Portugal, and the lowlands east of the Pyrenees in that southern part of France which borders the oldest city in France, the ancient (originally Greek) port of Marseille.1

The imagery of the Major Arcana picture cards included historical, alchemical, heroic, and allegorical elements, some, significantly, but not surprisingly, (given the region’s history), with Arabic, Greek, and Egyptian themes.

This was before the mid fifteenth century, and cards were printed from a woodcut and coloured either by hand or using stencils. With the invention of the printing press, mass printing allowed the games to be played by the poorer and larger population. Printing game cards was a source of income for the printing presses, and could be sold to people who didn’t read.

Over time, the Italians lost interest in the games, but they continued to be played in southern France and Switzerland. A number of card manufacturers were located in Marseilles, and when the Italians warmed up to the games again, the tarot designs from Marseilles became standard patterns.

The mystical but fanciful Eastern elements of the tarot deck, soon came to be taken to be taken for the real thing.

In 1781 a former Protestant pastor and Freemason, Antoine Court (ca.1719 – May 10, 1784), now calling himself Antoine Court de Gébelin was working on a book discussing the persistance of ancient symbols in modern culture (Le Monde primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (“The Primitive World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World”)). He reviewed the images in the Tarot de Marseille tarot deck and surmised that the tarot was created by ancient Egyptian priests who had deliberately and mysteriously distilled the magical Book of Thoth into the images.

Although fairly quickly shown to be false, this interpretation, and the idea of a divinatory tarot, had already caught the public’s imagination.

Within a few years, Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738 – 1791), known as “Etteilla,” published a book of instructions2 on how to perform and interpret tarot for fortune-telling and divination. Etteilla wrote that he had learned the methodology from an Italian some decades before de Gébelin. Eventually he designed and published the first tarot deck intended for occult purposes.

Over fifty years later, in 1854, the occultist Eliphas Levi published a new system derived from Court de Gebellin’s interpretations in his book on magic, Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (Transcendental Magic). Eliphas Levi related his tarot system to the Hermetic Qabalah and to alchemy, both Egyptian exports.

In England, the late nineteenth century witnessed a resurgence of interest in the occult among Victorian magic circles, and out of the influential Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn came several works on tarot that increased the popularity of tarot in English-speaking countries, and in Europe, as well. Since then, the use of tarot has grown.

Today many people read tarot to tell fortunes and divine the future. It has become a significant part of the New Age industry. Countering the ancient mystique of the tarot, you can even find free online tarot reading web sites on the Internet.

The Tarot in Christianity

Using cards to predict the future is a form of divination, and Christians are forbidden from divination according to several sources in the Bible, most particularly, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (see Divination).

The Occult Minor and Major Arcana.

The Minor Arcana are essentially the regular 56-card game deck when used for occult purposes. It has four suits like the regular 52 card English deck. The suits in the tarot deck may differ though. A usual correlation is Wands – Clubs, Coins – Diamonds, Cups – Hearts, and Swords – Spades. The standard Jack card is replaced by two others but otherwise the 56 card deck is similar to the 52 card English deck.

In interpretation, the 56 cards of the Minor Arcana reflect everyday things and events.

The Major Arcana are an additional suit of 22 cards of illustrations of scenes, people, objects and (especially) symbols. Sometimes the cards are numbered.3 The Major Arcana include a single “Fool” card.

The Major Arcana are of loftier significance than the Minor Arcana and reflect the big events in one’s life.

Popular and influential Tarot Card Decks

Tarot doesn’t appear to have a long history, and consequently how it is used and interpreted is still rather unformed and inconsistent. Several early serious occultists like Levi and Etteilla designed decks and corresponding interpretive guides specifically for occult use. In the late nineteenth century A.E. Waite and the “notorious” Aleister Crowley joined them.

Tarot de Marseille

The Hanged Man from the Tarot de Marseille (by Jean Noblet (circa 1650)).
The Hanged Man from the Tarot de Marseille (by Jean Noblet (circa 1650)).

The oldest of the standard decks, the Tarots de Marseille are the “tarots of Marseille.” Those are the tarot decks originally made in the Marseille area of south-eastern France for sale throughout France and Italy beginning in the early sixteenth century.

Some significant known early artisan decks in the Tarot de Marseille style include Jean Noblet’s deck from about 1650, Jean Dodal’s deck (circa 1701), and that of Nicolas Conver, who produced a deck in 1760.

Recall that the Tarot de Marseille was a game card set before it was widely used as a diviniatory set, and wasn’t designed as an divinatory deck. It gained that disctinction when Court de Gébelin studied the Marseille game set in his research on symbology and deduced that it was carrying hidden secrets from the Egyptians. At about the same time, Etteilla worked from Tarot de Marseille (and so did, we assume, his Italian mentor), as did Eliphas Levi, years later.

The famous fortune-teller, Marie-Anne Lenormand used the occult Etteilla deck derived from the Tarot de Marseille. Today the Tarot de Marseille is the predominant deck used in the Latin countries and France, and has inspired many others.

The Rider-Waite Tarot

The Hanged Man from the "Rider Waite" tarot deck.
The Hanged Man from the “Rider Waite” tarot deck.

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a late 19th century British magical interest group that inspired much of the interest in the occult of the subsequent years, and out of it came all four of the principals in the creation of the Rider-Waite and Thoth tarot decks of the twentieth century which are popular in the English-speaking countries.

In December of 1909 the Rider-Waite tarot deck was published. Drawn by Pamela Colman Smith, and inspired by the great occultist Eliphas Levi, it was designed and published by Arthur Edward Waite. The Rider-Waite tarot deck is the primary English tarot deck.

Shortly after, publisher A. E. Waite published the companion guide, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot.

The Rider-Waite deck has served as the jumping-off point for a number of derivative decks available for sale.

Thoth Tarot deck

The Hanged Man from Aleister Crowley's "Thoth" tarot deck.
The Hanged Man from Crowley’s “Thoth” tarot deck.

Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck is another of the most popular tarot decks. The original companion text is The Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians, one of the titles in the Equinox series of publications (volume III, number 5). It was drawn by Lady Frieda Harris. Both Lady Harris and Aleister Crowley were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Although Crowley died in 1947, the deck wasn’t published until 1969, over 25 years after it was completed. Consequently, it is less popular.

Divinatory, Esoteric & Occult tarot card reading at Wikipedia.

References and Reading

See the Thoth Tarot Deck at Wikipedia.
See the Rider Waite Tarot deck at Wikipedia.
See the Tarot de Marseille Tarot Deck at Wikipedia.

Buy the Rider-Waite Tarot at Amazon (paid link)

  1. This particular area, once called Septimania, and then the Languedoc, was part of the land of the Cathars, a Gnostic Christian religion whose members were driven underground, and then murdered by the Church in the Albigensian or Cathar Crusade of 1209–1229. []
  2. Manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées Tarots (“How to Entertain Yourself With the Deck of Cards Called Tarot”) []
  3. Wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_Arcana has a list that will help you associate numbers to pictures. []