The tarot has been called many things; first known as trionfi and later as tarocchi, tarock, and other names. It is a set of playing cards ( most commonly numbering 78), used from the mid-15th century all over Europe to play a group of card games such as Italian tarocchini and French tarot. However, from the late 18th century until present time the tarot has also found use by mystics and occultists in efforts at divination or as a map of mental and spiritual pathways. It is common to find mystics offering tarot readings to make psychic predictions.
There are four suits to the tarot that vary depending on region; the French suits in Northern Europe, the Latin suits in Southern Europe, and the German suits in Central Europe. Each suit has pip cards numbering from ace to ten and four face cards for a total of 14 cards. The tarot can also be distinguished by a separate 21- card trump suit and a single card known as the Fool that varies in use depending on the game, with some games using it as the top trump card and others using it to avoid following suit.
Francois Rabela, a French renaissance, is gives tarau as the name of one of the game played by Gargantua in his The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel. This is considered likely the earliest attestation of the French form of the name. Throughout much Europe tarot cards are used to play card games. In many English-speaking countries, where these games are largely unknown, tarot cards are now used primarily for divinatory purposes. Occultists call the trump cards and the Fool “the major arcana” while the ten pip and four court cards in each suit are called minor arcana. Some occult writers trace the cards to ancient Egypt or the Kabbalah, but there is no documented evidence of these origins nor is there any evidence of tarot usage for divination before the 18th century.
Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century, presumably from Mamluk Egypt, with suits very similar to the tarot suits of Swords, Staves, Cups and Coins (alternatively known as disks and pentacles) and those still used in traditional Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese decks. The earliest written document mentioning a tarot-like card set occurs as early as 1227, and it says that “Italian children are instructed in the knowledge of the virtues via sheets (cards) denominated carticellas”. A perfect example of the carticellas comes from a 1460 set known today as “Tarot de Mantegna” or “Tarot de Baldini” created by artist Francesco del Cossa. This set was composed of 50 cards and split into 5 categories (Social Classes, The Muses, Arts & Sciences, Virtues & Cosmic Principles, and Planets & Spheres). Nevertheless, the first direct mention of playing cards was in 1299 in a manuscript written in Siena titled “Trattato del governo della familia di Pipozzo di Sandro”, in which the existence of naibbe is mentioned, which is the first term used for playing cards (naipes in Spanish, originating from the Arabic word naib (deputy) suggesting the name of the game, the Game of Deputies.
The first known and documented tarot cards were created between 1430 and 1450 in Milan, Ferrara and Bologna in northern Italy when additional trump cards with allegorical illustrations were added to the common four-suit pack. The new decks were called carte da trionfi, triumph cards, originally and the additional cards known simply as trionfi, which became “trumps” in English. The oldest surviving tarot cards are from fifteen fragmented decks painted in the mid-15th century for the Visconti-Sforfza family, the rulers of Milan.
Divinations using playing cards appear in records as early as 1540 in a book entitled The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forli which allows a simple method of divination. However, the cards were used then only to selet a random oracle and have no meaning in themselves. Manuscripts from 1735 (The Square of Sevens) and 1750 (Pratesi Cartomancer) document rudimentary divinatory meanings for the cards of tarot and also a standard sytem for laying out the cards. Giacomo Casanova, an Italian author and adventurer, wrote in his diary that in 1765 his Russian mistress frequently used a deck of playing cards for divination.
Tarot was not widely adopted by mystics, occultists and secret societies until the 18th and 19th centuries. The tradition began in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gebelin, a Swiss clergyman, published Le Monde Primitif, a speculative study which included religious symbolism and its survival in the modern world. De Gebelin asserted that the symbolism of Tarot de Marseille represented mysteries of Isis and Thoth. He also claimed that the name “tarot” originated from the Egyptian words tar, meaning royal, and ro, meaning “road”, and that the Tarot therefore was a “royal road” to wisdom. However, Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language to support his fanciful etymologies. Despite this, the association of the tarot cards with the Egyptian Book of Thoth was already firmly established in occult practice and continues in modern urban legend to present day.
The 78 card tarot deck used for occult purposes by esotericists has two distinct parts. The Major Arcana (greater secrets), or trump cards, consists of 22 cards without suits: The Magician, The High Priestess, The Empress, The Emperor, The Hierophant, The Lovers, The Chariot, Strength, The Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, The Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, The Devil, The Tower, The Star, The Moon, The Sun, Judgement, The World, and The Fool. The Minor Arcana (lesser secrets) consists of 56 cards, divided into four suits of 14 cards each: ten numbered cards and four court cards. The court cards are the King, Queen, Knight, and Page/Jack, in each of the four tarot suits. The traditional Italian tarot suits are swords, batons/wands, coins, and cups. Modern decks, however, often call the batons suit wands, rods, or staves, while the coins suit is termed pentacles or disks. For divining purposes, each card has a set of meanings that vary with the one doing the reading. They are not said to be exact meanings, only references.
The tarot has been used for many things over the years. It has been used in literature to write poetry and as a plot device in other writings. Carl Jung, a famous psychologist and psychiatrist, attached importance to the tarot symbolism and said that they represent archetypes, or fundamental types of persons or situations embedded in the collective unconscious of all human beings. However, their primary current use is as a method of divinity.