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1. one of a special pack of cards, now used mainly for fortune-telling, consisting of 78 cards (4 suits of 14 cards each (the minor arcana), and 22 other cards (the major arcana))
2. a card in a tarot pack with distinctive symbolic design, such as the Wheel of Fortune
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

What today we know as Tarot cards, a popular tool for divination and self-understanding in the Esoteric community, first emerged in the late-eighteenth century as Esotericists began to interpret playing cards within an occult context. As developed in the nineteenth century, the common Tarot deck has 78 cards. There are four suits with fourteen cards each, ten numbers, and four court cards. There are also 22 trump cards.

The first to publicly advocate a symbolic interpretation of playing cards was Antoine Count de Gébelin (1719–1784), a French Protestant minister who had been attracted to Martinism, the teachings of Esoteric thinker Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (1743–1803). In 1781, de Gébelin published Le Monde primitif, which includes his speculations on the Italian tarocchi playing cards. He traced the cards’ origins to ancient Egypt. Some who read his book began to use the cards for divination.

The use of the Tarot took a giant step forward in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Eliphas Levi (1810–1875), a former Roman Catholic priest, developed his comprehensive magical system and presented it to the public in a series of books on what he termed “transcendental magic.” He continued the identification of the Tarot with ancient Egypt, especially with the magical teachings ascribed to the ancient teacher Hermes Trimegistus. More importantly, however, he associated the deck with the mystical branch of Judaism known as the Kabbalah. The Kabbalah pictures the cosmos in terms of ten realms (sephiroth) that are tied together by a number of pathways. The ten numbered cards were thus identified with the ten sephiroth; the four suits with the four letters in the Hebrew name for God (the so-called tetragrammaton); and the twenty-two trump cards with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. By identifying the cards with the content of the Kabbalah, the reputation of Tarot as a tool for divination greatly increased.

Both Levi and those who came after him were dissatisfied with the main Tarot deck then in use, the so-called Marseilles deck. It would only be after the founding of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (HOGD) in the 1880s that a new deck was produced. This deck, which was intended for the exclusive use of the HOGD’s members, was developed by Moina (1865–1928) and S. L. MacGregor Mathers (1854–1918). One of the order’s members, Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), in collaboration with Freda Harris, would later develop his own version, which he called the Book of Thoth, again suggesting an Egyptian origin.

It was a third Golden Dawn member, Arthur Edward Waite (1857–1942), who, working with Pamela Coleman-Smith, developed the most popular version of the Tarot deck. The Waite-Smith deck was released in 1910, along with a book explaining the Esoteric meaning of each card, and the Waite deck would subsequently dominate Tarot card reading until the late-twentieth century. During the period of the New Age movement in the 1970s and 1980s, a host of new Tarot decks, each with a different twist or developed for a specific audience, appeared. Together, they pushed the Waite-Smith deck from the center of the Tarot world. As the twenty-first century began, several hundred versions of these decks became available for purchase.

Various ways of reading Tarot cards have been suggested, but most involve shuffling the deck and then laying out the cards in one of several patterns (spreads). Generally, the person reading the cards sits facing the person receiving the reading. A small table is placed between them. Each card is then read in terms of its own symbolism, its position in the pattern, and its orientation.


Almond, Jocelyn, and Keith Seddon. Understanding Tarot. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1991.
Cortellesi, Linda. The User-Friendly Tarot Guidebook. Worthington, OH: Chalice Moon Publications, 1996.
Kaplan, Stuart R. The Encyclopedia of Tarot. Vols. 1–3. New York: U. S. Game Systems, 1978, 1986, 1990.
Woudhuysen, Jan. Tarot Therapy: A New Approach to Self Exploration. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1979.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
Enlarge picture
Tarot cards based on the Marseilles deck: the Hanging Man, the unnamed Death Card, and Temperance. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The oldest known cards used for divination are the tarocchi, or Tarot cards. Their exact origin is unknown. Some occultists and tarot experts, including Etteilla, Eliphas Lévi, and S. L. MacGregor-Mathers, suggest they can be traced back to ancient Egypt, while others consider them an invention of the Chinese. However, there is little or no evidence to support either of these theories. It seems far more likely that the Roma, or Gypsies, brought the cards with them into Europe, although the exact date of this is unknown. The earliest known deck of tarot cards dates from the fourteenth century. De Givry claims there is a trace of the tarot in Germany as early as 1329 but does not give any details.

The tarot deck itself consists of seventy-eight cards in two parts: the Major Arcana (or Greater Trumps) and the Minor Arcana (or Lesser Trumps). The Major Arcana consists of twenty-two cards. Each displays an allegorical figure in a scene of complicated symbolic meaning. Some occultists attribute them to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet: 1—The Magician—Aleph 2—The High Priestess—Beth 3—The Empress—Gimel 4—The Emperor—Daleth 5—The Hierophant—Heh 6—The Lovers—Vav 7—The Chariot—Zain 8—Justice—Cheth 9—The Hermit—Teth 10—The Wheel of Fortune—Yod

11—Strength—Kaph 12—The Hanged Man—Lamed 13—Death—Mem 14—Temperance—Nun 15—The Devil—Samekh 16—The Tower—Ayin 17—The Star—Peh 18—The Moon—Tzaddi 19—The Sun—Qoph 20—Judgement—Resh 21—The World—Shin 0—The Fool—Tav While some attribute the cards listed here, others, including Paul F. Case, place The Fool at the beginning (since the number is 0), realigning up everything as follows: 0—The Fool—Aleph 1—The Magician—Beth 2—The High Priestess—Ginel To further complicate matters, A. E. Waite and Paul F. Case give the number 8 to Strength and number 11 to Justice, the reverse of what all other practitioners contend.

The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits, variously known as Wands (Koshes, Staffs, Staves, Batons, Rods, Scepters), Cups (Koros, Chalices, Cauldrons, Vessels), Pentacles (Bolers, Coins, Disks, Stars, Deniers), and Swords (Chivs, Knives, Blades, Spears). Each suit runs from Ace to Ten, with a Page, Knight, Queen, and King. The regular card deck of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades is based on the Minor Arcana. Somewhere along the way the Page became a Jack, the Knight fell out, and the Major Arcana's Fool became the Joker.

On some decks, the cards of the Minor Arcana merely display the number of each suit, such as six swords, three cups, or ten pentacles. But many more decks depict a whole scene on each card, usually incorporating the number of symbols in the scene.

In a reading, the Querent shuffles the cards and then draws off a number of them. The Reader arranges these cards in a particular pattern—many different spreads can be used. Each card position has its own meaning, which the Reader interprets. The cards can give an indication of the probable course of events over the next few months for the Querent. As with any form of divination however, nothing is set in stone, and the forces can change or be changed.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


cards used to tell fortunes. [Magic: Brewer Dictionary, 1063]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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