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Tarot (or Tarots)

French term for a special pack of playing cards popularly used for the purpose of divination. These cards enjoyed a boost in popularity as a self-discovery tool of the New Age and a development tool among Wiccans and ritual magicians. The derivation of the word tarot is still debated. Some suggest that these cards were named because of the tarotes on the back, that is, the plain or dotted lines crossing diagonally. Some confirmation of this theory is indicated by the German form of the word, a tarock-karte being a card checkered on the back.

Tarot cards form part of an ordinary pack in countries of southern Europe and the name tarocchi is given to an Italian game. In its familiar form, the tarot pack consists of a pack of 78 cards, comprising four suits of 14 cards each (the extra court card in each suit being the Cavalier, Knight, or Horseman) and 22 symbolical picture-cards as atouts or trumps. The four suits, related to the modern hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades, are swords, cups, coins, and batons (earlier represented as swords, cups, rings, and wands).

The 22 symbolic cards generally picture the Juggler or Magician, High Priestess or Female Pope, Empress, Emperor, Hierophant or Pope, Lovers, Chariot, Justice, Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Strength or Fortitude, Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, Devil, Lightning-struck Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Last Judgment, Fool, and Universe. These symbolic designs, which vary slightly from pack to pack according to different traditions, are popularly interpreted as follows: Willpower, Science or Knowledge, Action, Realization, Mercy and Beneficence, Trial, Triumph, Justice, Prudence, Fortune, Strength, Sacrifice, Transformation, Combination, Fate, Disruption, Hope, Deception or Error, Earthly Happiness, Renewal, Folly, and Expiation. These interpretations also vary according to different authorities. In addition, the other cards in the pack are considered to have symbolic significance.

There are many different ways of consulting the cards for divination, but they mostly involve laying out the cards after shuffling and interpreting the indications of the major symbolic cards in their relationship to each other.


Much speculation surrounds the whole question of the origins of the tarot and its relationship to the present-day set of 52 playing cards. It is not difficult to see symbolic interpretations of the 52 pack in its division into four suits, corresponding to the seasons of the year, 52 weeks, and the symbolic rulers of the court cards. Some writers have connected the pack with the ancient Eastern origins of the game of chess, with its comparable king, queen, and knight. However, within the occult community, many have looked to an origin in ancient Egypt. According to such popular lore, the priests of ancient Egypt invented the tarot cards to represent their secret doctrines and teachings. They escaped the destruction of the Christian era because the book burners did not know what they were. Later, some Egyptians brought them to Rome, and they survived in the courts of the popes and passed to France during the period when the papacy was headquartered in Avignon.

This story of the Egyptian lineage first appeared in the French occult community of the eighteenth century, having been invented by a Protestant minister, Antoine Court de Gébelin (1719-1784). De Gébelin, an occultist and Martinist, had become an early supporter of Franz A. Mesmer's ideas of animal magnetism and an amateur Egyptologist. In 1781, well before the Egyptian hieroglyphics had been deciphered, he published an eight-volume tome Le monde primitif (1781) with his speculative notions. Tarot cards had existed for several centuries in Europe with no speculation about any mysterious foreign or occult connection. But De Gébelin argued, with little evidence, that the word "tarot" actually meant royal road, a derivation he made from the Egyptian words "ta" or "way" and "tosh" or "royal." It should be noted that no such words have been found in the Egyptian language. Along with his essay on the deck, De Gébelin also published another essay by an anonymous friend, the first to label the cards the "Book of Thoth," Thoth being one name for the Egyptian god Horus.

As a result of widespread reading of Le monde primitif, the tarot cards began to be used as divination devices in Paris, though the spread of the practice was slow. It was significant that Francis Barrett did not include any mention of the deck in his 1801 catalog of magical practice, The Magus.

The next important step in the establishment of the occult tarot occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when Éliphas Lévi encountered a deck during his massive reworking of the magical tradition in light of Mesmerist thought. He identified their magical power with animal magnetism, a theory still popular to the present.

In 1853 Lévi published Dogma de la haute magie, in which he first laid out his ideas tying the tarot to the ancient Egyptian teacher Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary author of the Hermetic magical writings. He then tied the cards to the Hebrew magical/mystical Kabala (which he spelled "Qabalah"). He identified the numbered cards with the ten sephiroth. The court cards represented the stages of human life, and the suits symbolized the tetragarmmaton, the four letters that made up the Hebrew name of God. The 22 trump cards were tied to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and all of the Kabbalistic content earlier ascribed to each letter was plowed into the tarot cards.

Lévi used the Marseilles tarot deck, but grew increasingly dissatisfied with it. His early efforts to produce a new deck did not come to fruition, but Lévi did promote his project with an English Mason, Kenneth Mackenzie (1833-1886). Mackenzie, as a leader in the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, taught tarot to the group of men who were to found the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (OGD), the organization most responsible for the modern magical revival.

S. L. MacGregor Mathers and his wife, Moina, collaborated on the OGD deck to go along with the order's rituals, most of which he also wrote. He produced one original, which was given to each member as they reached the grade of Adapts Minor, who in turn made their own personal copy. It is this deck that was described by Aleister Crowley in his journal, The Equinox. It was finally published in 1978.

Possibly the most important deck to date to come out of the OGD was that produced by Arthur Edward Waite in collaboration with Pamela Coleman-Smith. It was released in 1910 to accompany Waite's The Key to the Tarot (later reissued as The Pictorial Key to the Tarot ) and went on to become the most popular deck for divinatory purposes in the twentieth century. Paul Foster Case (1884-1954), an OGD member who later founded the Builders of the Adytum, developed a deck, based in large part upon the Waite-Smith cards, in collaboration with Jessie Burns Parks. The deck was published in 1931.

Finally, in 1938, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), who left the OGD and published many of its secrets, began a collaboration with Freda Harris to embody the thelemic magick of the Ordo Templi Orientis. They used both the OGD and Waite-Smith deck, but both the art and concepts went far beyond either. While the original art work was displayed at an art gallery during World War II, and a limited edition of 200 decks appeared in 1944, the Crowley-Harris tarot did not reach the public until it was finally published in 1969 by Samuel Weiser. This deck is the only one to challenge the Waite-Smith deck's popularity.

Gypsy Origins

One hypothesis, which parallelled the idea of Egyptian origins and has likewise been largely disproved, concerned the mysterious Gypsies. The idea that the tarot was introduced into Europe by the Gypsies of the Middle Ages was first suggested by an anonymous friend of de Gébelin's in the eighteenth century. It was championed in the next century by J. F. Vaillant, who had lived for many years among the Gypsies and who had been instructed by them in their traditional lore. He tied the word "tarot" to the Hungarian Gypsy tar (pack of cards), and claimed that ancient esoteric symbolism found its way throughout Europe through Gypsy migrations. Vaillant incorporated what he had been told in his books Les Rômes, histoire vraie des vrais Bohémiens (1857), La Bible des Bohémiens (1860), and La Clef Magique de la Fiction et du Fait (1863). Vaillant's theory was endorsed by the French writer "Papus" (penname of Gérald Encausse) in his book Le Tarot des Bohémiens: Le plus ancien livre du Monde, (1899) (English edition as The Tarot of the Bohemians, 1919) in which he claimed that the tarot was the absolute key to occult science. Papus notes, "the Gypsy pack of cards is a wonderful book according to Court de Gébelin and Vaillant. This pack, under the names of Tarot, Thora, and Rota, has formed the basis of the synthetic teaching of all the ancient nations successively.

The British legal authority De l'Hoste Ranking, writing in 1908, adds:

"I would submit that from internal evidence we may deduce that the tarots were introduced by a race speaking an Indian dialect; that the form of the Pope shows they had been long in a country where the orthodox Eastern Church predominated; and the form of head-dress of the king, together with the shape of the eagle on the shield, shows that this was governed by Russian Grand Dukes, who had not yet assumed the Imperial insignia. This seems to me confirmatory of the widespread belief that it is to the Gypsies we are indebted for our knowledge of playing-cards."

In 1865, E. S. Taylor added his support to the same hypothesis in his book The History of Playing Cards. However, W. H. Willshire, in his book A Descriptive Catalogue of Playing and Other Cards in the British Museum (1876), questioned Taylor's conclusion, on the ground that "whether the Zingari [Gypsies] be of Egyptian or Indian origin, they did not appear in Europe before 1417, when cards had been known for some time." But this objection is nullified by the fact that the presence of Gypsies in Europe is now placed at a date considerably before 1417. There was, for example, a well-established feudum acinganorum, or Gypsy barony, in the island of Corfu in the fourteenth century. It is also believed that the Gypsies themselves were originally the ancient chandala caste of India.

Coincidental with the occult revival referred to as the New Age movement, the tarot has enjoyed an unprecedented period of popularity. New Agers have seen the tarot as an important additional tool for personal transformation and have interpreted the symbolism as a new map of the subconscious. The New Age approach has spurred the production of a variety of decks that explore different symbolic worlds, offer variant interpretations from the psychological to the Wiccan, and present a broad scope of artistic styles. Traditional tarot cards have gone high-tech, with digital decks for sale on the Internet for those who are curious and willing to spend a few dollars. Some of these digital decks have replaced the customary card suits and symbols (i.e. cups, wands, pentacles, swords, priestesses, magicians) with characters representing modern themes. For example, a "king" in a traditional tarot deck is replaced with a "businessman" in a contemporary deck. These modern versions may attract a broader audience to tarot, however, many will take the practice less seriously than with the more traditional decks.


Banzhaf, Hajo. The Tarot Handbook. Stamford, Conn.: U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 1993.

Butler, Bill. Dictionary of the Tarot. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.

Decker, Ronald. A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Douglas, Alfred. The Tarot: The Origins, Meaning and Uses of the Cards. New York: Taplinger; London: Gollancz, 1972. Reprint, London: Penguin, 1974.

Falconnier, R. Les lames hermétiques du tarot divinatoire. Paris, 1896.

Gettings, Fred. The Book of Tarot. London: Paul Hamlyn, 1973.

Huson, Paul. The Devil's Picture Book: The Compleat Guide to Tarot Cards; Their Origins and Their Usage. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1971. Reprint, London: Abacus, 1972.

Hutton, Alice. The Cards Can't Lie: Prophetic, Educational and Playing-Cards. London: Jupiter Books, 1979.

Lévi, Éliphas. La clef des grands mystéres. Paris, 1861.

MacGregor Mathers, S. L. The Tarot: Its Occult Signification, Use in Fortune-Telling and Method of Play. London: George Redway, 1888. Reprint, New York: Gordon Press, 1973.

Ozaniec, Naomi. The Illustrated Guide to Tarot. New York: Sterling Publications, 1999.

Papus. The Tarot of the Bohemians: The Most Ancient Book in the World; The Use of Initiates. 2nd rev. ed. London: William Rider, 1919.

Thierens, A. E. The General Book of the Tarot. London: Rider; Philadelphia: David McKay, 1928. Reprint, Hollywood, Calif.: Newcastle Publishing, 1975.

Waite, A. E. Pictorial Key to the Tarot. London: William Rider, 1911. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1959.

Reprint, Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolf Steiner, 1971. Reprint, New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

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The French term tarot refers to a variety of playing cards commonly used for divination. The typical deck has seventy-eight cards—twenty-two symbolic trump cards and four suits—swords, cups, coins, and batons (or wands)—of fourteen cards each. Each suit has ten numbered cards and four court cards. While there are a few games that utilize tarot cards, as a whole they are primarily used for fortune-telling. A tarot card reader will lay selected cards from a deck in a pattern before a client, and from the position of a particular card, when overturned, will determine its meaning. As is true of many areas of occultism, the tarot has received but scant attention from the scholarly community.

The tarot's origin is lost to history, though tarot decks appear to have emerged as a variety of playing cards and to have become established in the occult community in France and Italy in the eighteenth century. There is little evidence to support speculation concerning their Egyptian origin, first proposed by Protestant minister and occultist Antoine Count de Gébelin (1719–1784) in his 1781 book Le monde primitif. In a subsequent publication he called the deck the "Book of Thoth," a label that has continued.

An anonymous friend of de Gébelin's suggested the culture of the Gypsies as an alternative origin for the tarot, an idea championed in several books by J. F. Vaillant, a researcher who had lived among Gypsies and become knowledgeable about their occult practices. Gypsies had adopted the tarot, and Vaillant saw the mobile communities as perfect instruments for distributing the cards. Vaillant's ideas were championed by popular occult writer Gérald Encasse (known by his pen name "Papus") in his 1899 book Le Tarot des bohemians: Le plus ancien livre du monde. The possible Gypsy origin of the tarot was hotly debated in the twentieth century, with inconclusive results.

Adam McLean, a highly respected occult historian, has suggested a Hermetic (i.e., Gnostic) origin for the tarot based upon his examination of the Tarocchia of Mantegna, a card deck that appeared in the mid-fifteenth century in Italy. McLean, drawing on the work of art historian Kenneth Clark, has argued that this deck can be traced to the city of Ferrara during the period that Marsilio Ficino and other scholars began to make their translations of the Corpus Hermeticum.

Whatever the ultimate origin of the tarot, it is generally agreed that the modern understanding of it can be traced to 1853 and the publication of Dogma de la haute magie by magician Eliphas Levi, the most important voice in the nineteenth-century occult revival in France. Levi, working with an older Marseilles deck, tied the cards to the Kabbalah, the Hebrew mysticalmagical system. The twenty-two trump cards were identified with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The four suits were related to the four letters in the Hebrew name of God, the tetragrammaton, and the several court cards to the stages of human life. The ten numbered cards in each suit were identified with the ten sephiroth, images pictured on the kabbalistic Tree of Life, a diagram representing the various levels in the kabbalistic universe.

Levi's hope of producing a new tarot specifically designed for magical purposes was not fulfilled until the tarot became part of the more comprehensive system for practicing magic devised by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (OGD), a magical order formed in England in the 1880s. OGD leader S. L. MacGregor Mathers and his wife, Moïna, collaborated on the new tarot for initiates, though they produced only one oversized deck. That deck was then given to all members as they progressed through the OGD system. They mastered the tarot in the process of making their own private duplicates. This deck was not published until the 1970s, many decades after the dissolution of the order.

Two members of the OGD produced new tarot decks. Arthur Edward Waite teamed with artist Pamela Coleman-Smith to create a deck originally released in 1910. It has surpassed all others in popularity through the twentieth century. Shortly thereafter, Aleister Crowley, who had had an angry break with the OGD and had become the British leader of a rival organization, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), worked with artist Freda Harris to create an OTO deck, which he called the Book of Thoth. A complete set of masters was completed, but the deck was not published until 1969, when the OTO was experiencing a revival after having almost died out. The Book of Thoth is the second most popular tarot deck.

The OGD, the Waite, and the Crowley decks were used for divination but had a more important function. The individual cards, especially the trump cards, were seen as containing archetypal images that the initiate could meditate on and utilize to assist in an occult awakening. During the 1970s, as the New Age movement was emerging, the tarot would take on a third use, as a New Age tool for transformation. The New Age focused on individual transformation as a step toward broad social change. That transformation could be assisted by a number of practices, including older divinatory practices such as astrology and tarot. The New Age suggested that tarot readings, rather than predicting the future, could provide important information that an individual could use to make decisions about life questions.

The New Age tended to locate religious authority in the individual and encouraged adherents to find the tools that seemed to resonate with their present state. The search for a broader range of tools from which to choose led to the creation of many new decks, employing different kinds of art, from the abstract to the representational, and utilizing a variety of themes (Wicca, surrealism, feminism, Jungian psychology, tantra). During the last quarter of the twentieth century, several hundred new decks appeared, accompanied by a plethora of books to explain the different decks and to facilitate their use.

See alsoAstrology; Gnosticism; Kabbalah; Magic; Mysticism; New Age Spirituality; Occult, The.


Douglas, Alfred. The Tarot: The Origins, Meaning andUse of the Cards. 1974.

J. Gordon Melton

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ta·rot / ˈtarō; ˈte(ə)rō; təˈrō/ • n. (the Tarot) playing cards, traditionally a pack of 78 with five suits, used for fortune-telling and (esp. in Europe) in certain games. The suits are typically swords, cups, coins (or pentacles), batons (or wands), and a permanent suit of trump. ∎  a card game played with such cards. ∎  a card from such a set.

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tarot Pack of 78 cards originating in their present form in 14th-century Italy. The cards are in two groups: the major arcana and the minor arcana. All 22 cards of the major arcana are pictorial, numbered, and captioned, and are most used today by astrologers and fortune-tellers. The 56 cards of the minor arcana are in four suits, each numbered ace to ten plus four captioned court cards.

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tarot one of a set of playing-cards. XVI. — F. — It. tarocco (pl. -chi), of unkn. orig.