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If a Tarot card reading takes place in a book, movie or TV show, the Death card is certain to be dealt.
As performed by
Tim the Enchanter

By the powers of woo
I played poker once with Tarot cards. I got a full house and 3 people died.
—Steven Wright

Tarot (of obscure origin, though from the Italian tarocco) is a term used to describe a type of playing card deck consisting of 78 cards. The Tarot originated in northern Italy in the 15th century and was created by adding a series of 22 trump cards to a 56-card Latin-suited deck (coins, batons, swords, and cups).[notes 1] Several games across central and western Europe developed around this enhanced deck, most of them trick-taking games vaguely similar to bridge, and the French tarot (using the more familiar suits of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs) is one of the most popular card games in France today.


Did tarot imagery predict 9/11? Probably not. Card from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck.

In English-speaking countries, they are frequently used today as a method of divining the future; they first came to be used for divination in the 18th century and have become the subject of myths and pseudohistory after being appropriated by occultists. The Marseilles Tarot in particular used a series of personages (e.g. 2: the Popess; 5: the Pope; 13: Death; 15: the Devil) on the trump cards that many occultists took to have deeper meanings; in somewhat modified form, these characters were carried on to modern divination decks.[notes 2]

Many neopagans put a lot of stock in tarot readings. Some of the more rationalistic kind see it as a way for the brain to relax and let patterns form without there being anything spiritual behind the cards themselves. Others really believe that it is a way for the universal consciousness to impart information to them. Most professional tarot card "readers" do so through cold reading rather than actually caring about what the cards say. However, if you see an amateur group (like your college pagan group), you can usually find some really earnest people.

Many Christians (especially fundamentalists) consider tarot decks to be Satanic, and many occultists believe that playing games with a divination deck is an act of desecration. It thus follows that the best place to play a game of tarot is either on the front lawn of any fundamentalist church on a Sunday morning or in Salem, Massachusetts, on Pickering Wharf, in front of Laurie Cabot's store.[notes 3] Seriously though, Christians shouldn't have to worry about tarot. As much as neopagans and occultists love the practice, it's not at all related to Satanism, and tarot readings are harmless as long as they aren't taken too seriously.

And if you are one of a jury at a murder trial, you mustn't find the defendant guilty till you've consulted the other side and asked the deceased who did it. Now what's that thing about mistaking a parody for the real thing?


The many different styles of tarot decks available can essentially be broken down into playing and divination decks. A playing deck (using either Latin or French suits) is similar to a standard deck of cards with the addition of the trumps; the exact content of the trumps is generally irrelevant for gameplay and is not standardized.

Sampeku up and challenged me to a game of five card tarot, pentacles wild. I saw him deal the High Priestess from the bottom of the deck…
—The Firesign Theatre

Traditional tarot decks[edit]

The Wheel of Fortune, from the Pierpont Visconti tarot, around 1450. A very standard interpretation of a common medieval allegory.
And here's Death again.
The mystic figures of the Mexican Lotería.

The images used originally in the game, however, once were standardized. The Tarot of Marseilles,Wikipedia so named because the city in the south of France once was a center of playing card manufacture, preserves images and an order similar to earlier decks (deriving from decks such as the Visconti decks), used to play the game in late Renaissance Northern Italy. Originally designed for the tarot game, the Tarot of Marseilles and its sequence of images inspired occultist imagination in the late 18th century.

The traditional images of the trumps from the early decks are obviously the product of a Christian culture. They contain political, religious, and cosmic figures from Christian teachings, popular legends, and allegories: the Pope, the Grim Reaper, the Devil, and the Last Judgment, and so forth. They were designed to be easily recognizable by possibly illiterate and innumerate game players. In the card game, the only matter of import is which card outranks another. There are at least glimpses of an internal logic in the collection, based on this criterion. You begin with earthly figures, starting with the humble and moving on towards royalty. Then come a series of abstract qualities, virtues, and supernatural figures. From here, the collection moves on through heavenly bodies like the stars, moon, and sun; and the highest ranking cards depict eschatological events like the Last Judgment. The entire collection of images seems as likely to be fraught with mystic significance as the figures of the Mexican lottery game.[1]

The trump cards, with their original names in French are:

  1. Le Bateleur (The Mountebank or literally The Juggler, usually "The Magician" in occult decks)
  2. La Papesse (The Female Pope, usually "High Priestess" in occult decks.)[notes 4]
  3. L'Impératrice (The Empress)
  4. L'Empereur (The Emperor)
  5. Le Pape (The Pope; usually "The Hierophant" in occult decks and "Il Ierofante" in the Giovanni Vacchetta Tarot)
  6. L'Amoureux (The Lover, usually "The Lovers" in occult decks. In non occult Italian decks, this term is also plural "Gli Amanti")
  7. Le Chariot (The Chariot)
  8. La Justice (Justice)[notes 5]
  9. L'Hermite (The Hermit)
  10. La Roue de Fortune (The Wheel of Fortune)
  11. La Force (Strength)
  12. Le Pendu (The Hanged Man)
  13. (La Mort) (Death)[notes 6]
  14. Tempérance (Temperance)
  15. Le Diable (The Devil)
  16. La Maison Dieu (The House of God, usually "The Tower" in occult decks and in non occult Italian decks "La Torre")
  17. L'Étoile (The Star)
  18. La Lune (The Moon)
  19. Le Soleil (The Sun)
  20. Le Jugement (Judgement)
  21. Le Monde (The World)[notes 7]

Some decks as the Visconti di Modrone (see below) included also: Faith, Hope, and Charity.

There is also an unnumbered card:

  • Le Mat (The Fool)

In game play, this card is sometimes called L'Excuse, "The Excuse", because that is its effect; the player dealt this card can play it instead of following suit, as is required by the rules of a typical trick taking game.

As mentioned above in addition to the trumps there're four suits (Wands, Cups, Swords, and Denars/Coins) composed of ten "pip" (from 1 to 10) plus four "face" (Page, Knight, Queen, and King) cards each. However, the Cary-Yale Visconti di ModroneWikipedia deck had six, not four, face cards (Damsel, Page, Lady on horse/Amazon, Knight, Queen, and King) per suit.

Divination decks[edit]

Divination decks are usually highly artistic in nature and can represent a large part of an artist's portfolio; however, their pips are often incorporated into the card image in a somewhat hard-to-read manner, making them somewhat inconvenient for gaming, but excellent for fleecing the rubes. Divination decks are almost always Latin-suited or a derivation thereof.

The most well known tarot deck in English speaking countries, the Rider-Waite Tarot,Wikipedia drawn by Pamela Colman-Smith,Wikipedia was heavily influenced by the Golden Dawn (no, not that one, the other Golden Dawn), and through them, the Kabbalah, and was based mostly on the Marseilles tarot with some influences from some of the more baroque Italian Tarot decks such as the Sola Busca and Giovanni Vacchetta Tarots. There are 22 "Major Arcana," each of which (supposedly) corresponds to a node on the Kabbalah. These represent large ideals, such as Death (renovation, endings, not going black as one could think)[notes 8], the Devil (lust, being seduced by the physical world), the Wheel of Fortune (change in life), or the Star (hope, luck). There are also 56 "Minor Arcana" with 14 cards in 4 suits. These are more familiar to non-mystics, as they represent 1-10, and the Page, Knight, Queen and King of each suit, corresponding to the same in a deck of playing cards (minus the Knight, of course). However, these are flexible, as are the correspondences, and divination uses also "reversed" (upside-down) cards whose meanings are more or less the opposite of not-reversed ones.

Other influential divination decks include:

  • Aleister Crowley's Thoth tarotWikipedia, painted under his direction by Lady Freida Harris. Where the Rider-Waite tarot is twee and medievalizing in its inspiration, this deck is abstract and surrealistic. The cards are also significantly larger than most standard Tarot decks.
  • The Aquarian Tarot, the Hanson-Roberts Tarot, the Mythic Tarot, and the Robin Wood Tarot are all artistic variants based on the Rider-Waite Tarot, especially in the pip cards.
  • The Motherpeace TarotWikipedia, a "feminist" deck in which most male figures have been replaced by women. The cards of this deck are round rather than rectangular; this is somehow supposed to symbolize women's fertility. When your Tarot cards are also fertility symbols, they become harder to shuffle.


The early history of the tarot is identical to the early history of playing cards. From the late 14th century, Europeans used playing cards with four suits. Special painted trump cards were added a little later, initially customised for wealthy patrons.[2] Decks denominated with the tarot suit symbols, clubs, gold coins, cups, and swords, minus the suit of dedicated trumps, remain in use in the Spanish-speaking world as well as in Italy.[3] The French suits of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs became dominant because of cheapness: tarot style decks needed pictures of cups and swords, so every card had to be a woodcut, but French style pip cards could be made easily with stencils.[4]

Court de Gébelin[edit]

Antoine Court de Gébelin

Tarot was almost entirely unknown to the occult until the late 18th century, and its pedigree in the world of divination is much younger than that of astrology or geomancy. In 1781, Antoine Court de GébelinWikipedia (1725–1784), a French-born Protestant pastor and Freemason, published a dissertation on the origins of the symbolism in the Tarot in volume 8 of his unfinished 15 volumes of the Le Monde Primitif ("The Primitive World"). This tome was an attempt to derive the primordial religion and culture of the human race by examining various relics in popular folklore. De Gébelin interpreted cards very similarly to the traditional figures of the Tarot de Marseille. He thought the Hanged Man was printed upside down, and represented the virtue of Prudence; the other three cardinal virtues (Justice, Strength, Temperance) are already there.

He hypothesized that the Tarot represented ancient Egyptian religious ideas, including Isis, Osiris and Typhon (the Greek name for Seth), but never mentions Thoth. For example, he thought the card he knew as la Papesse represented Isis.[5] Gébelin asserted the name "Tarot" came from the Egyptian words Tar, "path" or "road", and the word Ro, Ros or Rog, meaning "King" or "royal", and that the Tarot literally translated to the Royal Road of Life. The fact that Egyptian hieroglyphics remained completely unreadable at the time of his "discovery", and indeed would not be translated by Champollion for 40-odd more years didn't faze him any.[5]

Ironically, despite being the father of occult Tarot, Gébelin himself was completely unfamiliar with Tarot as a game; only discovering it as an adult being played by a group of Swiss ladies and immediately jumping to conclusions that they must have had some sort of occult significance[6]. While he did provide a report of the game in Le Monde Primitif, he had to rely on a report of his friend, and the rules feature a puzzling idiosyncrasy in scoring that can easily be explained by bad memory on part of himself and/or his friend[7].


Etteilla's 1789 version was the first Tarot deck made specifically for divination. Etteilla took great liberty with the source imagery; this card confounds the Magician and the Pope.

The first flowering of Tarot divination, almost forgotten in the English-speaking world, was the work of an agricultural supplies dealer named Jean-Baptiste Alliette,Wikipedia (1738–1791) who used his surname backwards as his diviner's name: Etteilla. Etteilla stands as a shining example of the longstanding occult tradition of ripping off earlier authors without giving them credit. He brazenly stole Court de Gébelin's material, and, in 1783, was responsible for several firsts in Tarot divination:

  • He founded the first society for Tarot cartomancy, the Société littéraire des associés libres des interprètes du livre de Thot.
  • He invented the dedicated deck for occult and divinatory use, and was the first Tarot author to publish a revised and "corrected" deck wherein all the mystic symbols are properly elucidated: the Grand Ettiella deck
  • He published, under the imprint of his society, the Dictionnaire synonimique du Livre de Thot, a book that "systematically tabulated all the possible meanings which each card could bear, when upright and reversed."[8]

Etteilla contributed to occult perspectives as well by making several historically outlandish claims about the Italian Tarot, further reinforcing its mystical import. Etteilla:

All of these themes would feature in later occult writings about the Tarot. Michel Dummett (1980) suggests that Etteilla was attempting to scoop Court de Gébelin as the discoverer of the occult tarot. Etteilla in fact claimed to have been involved with Tarot longer than Court de Gébelin.[8]

Eliphas Lévi[edit]

Eliphas Lévi

The next significant contributor to the lore of the occult Tarot was Eliphas Lévi,Wikipedia (1810–1875) (né Alphonse Louis) a French Catholic in minor orders, attracted to odd versions of radical politics, and later in life, a self-proclaimed magus and master of the mystic arts who developed the most known depiction of Baphomet too. Lévi, at least, had the good grace to acknowledge his predecessor Etteilla, damning his work with faint praise, giving credit to Etteilla for "obstinate perseverance and incontestable good faith of the author, who all his life perceived the grandeur of the occult sciences, but was destined to die at the gate of the sanctuary without ever penetrating behind the veil" while noting that the earlier works were "obscure, wearisome and barbarous in style."[9] Thank goodness an authentic wizard has come along to set all his predecessors straight.

Lévi's great input into the lore of the occult Tarot was his importation of Kabbalah into the body of received lore. He did so by observing that there were 22 non-suited cards in the Tarot deck (21 trumps plus the Excuse; also known as the "Major Arcana") and twenty-two characters in the Hebrew alphabet. This just couldn't be coincidence, after all. He therefore assigned each Tarot trump a Hebrew letter. Later authorities continue this tradition of attribution, but some elaborated different assignments. He used these values to import the whole Kabbalistic cosmogony into the cards. One must wonder what he would have made of the Florentine Minchiate deck, which has forty trump cards in addition to the Fool.

He also claimed that the Gypsies were responsible for preserving the ancient Egyptian lore of the cards in their traditional fortune telling business. Note that Roma fortune tellers in fact used standard card decks, until their customers started asking for Tarot. It was widely and falsely believed at the time that the Roma originated in Egypt, rather than in India, their actual original homeland.

With Lévi, the broad outline of the lore associated with Tarot divination was largely complete. Occultists firmly "knew" that:

  • the Tarot was of Egyptian origin;
  • In Egypt, it had been called the Book of Thoth;
  • Hermes Trismegistus was somehow responsible;
  • It was firmly embedded and emplaced in alchemy, astrology, Kabbala, and other traditional bodies of magical knowledge;
  • Its ancient secrets had been preserved and brought to Europe by Gypsies;
  • Its original and truest purpose was divination.

None of these things were ever actually true of the cards themselves. With Tarot, we can see an entire occult tradition and pseudohistory arise within the space of less than a century, and point to the specific points in time at which elements to the legend were added. At the same time, the integration of the Tarot into occultism is a defining moment of Western esotericism; a cultural artifact that originated entirely outside of any system of occultism is by eisegesis incorporated into it.

The Tarot in Britain and America[edit]

The Wheel of Fortune of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. The familiar medieval allegory is entirely obscured by pseudo-Egyptian nonsense.

Levi's magical correspondents included the Englishman William Westcott, one of the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical secret society that taught a variety of occult mysteries to its members. This curriculum included the Tarot; the order taught a version of Tarot lore that was fully embedded in Kabbalah and kabalistic numerology. When the Golden Dawn shattered, among its shards were Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith. Smith was an artist and illustrator, born in England to American and Jamaican parents. Waite was a minor poet and writer on occult subjects. His Pictorial Key to the Tarot[10] taught a simplified version of the Golden Dawn interpretations. Waite commissioned Smith to create a companion deck that would illustrate his text.

The result, the "Rider-Waite-Smith" tarot, deserves the highest praise as a major leap forward in user friendliness. Instead of the barren images of swords, cups, and coins, the suits were woven into dramatic scenes meant to illustrate the divinatory meaning of the cards, with their face cards (Court Cards in occultist lingo) having also that added. The least successful part is the trump suit, the Major Arcana in magical jargon. Here, Waite's insistence on his pseudohistorical ideas obscured the meanings of several of the cards, replacing most if not all early imagery with a mix of symbolism of different origins and nonsense; the Wheel of Fortune being a particularly bad example[notes 9]. The suit cards, the Minor Arcana, represent a great leap forward. Most subsequent decks owe a great deal to Smith's deck and the meanings she illustrated.

All the Major Arcana cards of the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot.


Cards from an Austrian Tarot playing deck.

Tarot card gamesWikipedia (also known as "tarock" and "tarochi") are popular in France, much of Central Europe formerly ruled by the Habsburgs and, to a lesser extent, Italy. Playing decks, not intended for divination, are normally used for playing those games. They are typically used for trick-taking games similar to whist or bridge, where the picture cards (major arcana) function as trumps.[11]

One of the earliest uses in Europe, popular in the 16th century, was the game of tarocchi appropriati (appropriate tarot). In this players are dealt a hand of cards and then compete to write poems based on the imagery on the cards.[12] A pack of cards with interesting pictures would be more fun for this than something resembling American playing cards.

Besides that, of course owing to their symbolism and importance among mystics the Tarot has been carried to other media as video games or role-playing games with variations such as the possibility of summoning Major Arcana to help you. However don't expect to be very succesful in reality asking, say, the Priestess to protect you with her shield of angelical wings of those thugs who are going to rob you or the Emperor to send his soldiers to teach them a lesson they'll never forget.

How to make a tarot playing deck[edit]

You will need two decks of 54 standard playing cards with identical backs and different faces; in the US, a Bicycle Standard or Jumbo Index deck and a Bicycle Lo-Vision four-color deck will do. (This example is based on that combination.)[notes 10]

Take the cards from the standard deck minus one joker (the other joker will be the Fool). Mix in the A->10 cards from the clubs (blue) and diamonds (green) from the Lo-Vision deck along with the Ace of Spades (black) and the jacks from all four suits; the clubs will be trumps 1-10, the diamonds (because a diamond's worth more than a stick) will be trumps 11-20, the big-index jacks will act as cavaliers,[notes 11] and the ace of spades will be trump 21. You are now ready to play any tarot game using a standard 78-card deck, and you won't have to frustrate yourself with the artsy-fartsy markings on a cartomancy deck or pay obscene shipping charges to import a playing deck from France or Italy.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]





  1. In occult decks, particularly the Rider-Waite, the coin and baton suits are sometimes renamed to pentacles and wands respectively.
  2. Incidentally, these decks, while lavishly illustrated and sometimes great works of art, tend to be rather poor gaming decks due to large card size and less-than-convenient markings with no corner indices. And in these times of everything being digital there are applications for smartphones that allow to practice Tarot readings
  3. Laurie Cabot is the official witch of Salem; she has a curious fixation with Harry Potter.
  4. Thought by some to represent Pope Joan.
  5. Occult decks often place Strength in the 8th position, and move Justice to 11. This is not the French or Italian tradition, and is done for kabbalistic and astrological reasons. The Strength card often features a lion, and therefore is thought to go with Leo, the astrological lion. Justice is the familiar allegorical figure with scales, and as such corresponds to the astrological Libra.
  6. Often left unnamed in traditional French decks.
  7. Time-stopping vampires not included.
  8. The card that is closest to that, including to hit rock bottom, is the Ten of SwordsWikipedia but even in such card there's hope to exit of the latter. Don't hope to see it very featured, though.
  9. Interestingly enough, Christian imagery is more present in some of them than in the traditional decks with the High Priestess and the Empress being based in the woman described in the Book of Revelation with the Moon at her feet and crowned with stars, the former not being depicted as a female pope and having more than a passing resemblance to traditional depictions of Mary instead, and the Lovers transparently being Adam and Eve
  10. Total cost, approximately US$7 depending on supplier.
  11. You could also use three decks with three different index sizes, making the cavalier-jacks the middle-size index cards, but it's probably a waste of money to tear apart a third deck just for the jacks.


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Mexican lottery game.
  2. A Brief History of Tarot,
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Spanish playing cards.
  4. Playing Cards, David Partlett, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017
  5. 5.0 5.1 Court de Gébelin, Antoine. Le Monde Primitif vol. 8. (1781) pp. 370-389
  6. Dummett, Michael, and Sylvia Mann. The Game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City. (London: Duckworth, 1980),104
  7. Ibid.,232
  8. 8.0 8.1 Dummett, Michael. The Game of Tarot. London: Duckworth, 1980. p. 103. ISBN 0715631225.
  9. Lévi, Eliphas, Transcendental Magic (1854; tr. A. E. Waite, 1896), p. 164.
  10. A. E. Waite, Pictorial Key to the Tarot, (1910)
  11. See the Wikipedia article on Tarot card games.
  12. Where do tarot cards come from?, BeliefNet