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Summary Article: tarot from Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained

A set of cards, traditionally 78 in number, used mainly for divination.

The traditional tarot deck is made up of 78 cards, which are divided into two main groups – 22 trump cards, known as the major arcana, which depict highly allegorical images, and 56 numbered ‘pip’ cards, known as the minor arcana, which are grouped into four suits of 14 cards – the suits of cups, pentacles, swords and wands.

For a long time, students of the tarot believed that modern playing cards were descended from the tarot deck, but historical evidence suggests that both types of deck – playing cards and tarot – originated at around the same time, and developed alongside each other. Playing cards first appeared in Europe in the second half of the 14th century, and some historians believe they were brought back from Palestine by the Crusaders. Islamic playing cards had four suit emblems – polo-sticks, cups, swords and coins – which probably inspired those used in the European decks.

The earliest surviving tarot deck dates from around 1450, and was hand-painted by the artist Bonifacio Bembo for the Duke of Milan. It was used for an Italian card game called tarocchi (from which the word ‘tarot’ derives), and consisted, like the modern tarot, of four suits of 14 cards, plus a fifth suit of 22 cards showing various allegorical scenes. Most of the 15th-century tarots were, like the Bembo deck, hand-painted and expensive works of art created for wealthy patrons, but in the 16th century, Marseilles became a major centre for the manufacture of tarot cards, and the Tarot de Marseilles soon enjoyed great popularity. It is still considered to show the classic set of images for the major arcana, and later occult decks have almost all based their pictures and symbolism on this French one.

Playing cards were being used for divination by around 1540, and inevitably, tarot cards soon came to be used for the same purpose. By the end of the 18th century, the tarot was being used almost exclusively as a means of divination, rather than for card games. The Roma were particularly instrumental in popularizing the tarot as a fortune-telling device, introducing the cards to new areas as they travelled all over Europe. Occultists were quick to recognize the cards’ esoteric nature, and began to speculate on their origins, making various claims for them as sources of ancient and secret knowledge. One popular notion was that the cards originated in Egypt, and that their symbols were in fact fragments of the ancient Egyptian text, the Book of Thoth. Another theory was that the tarot had been handed down through the centuries by kabbalists (see kabbalah) who had disguised their knowledge within the cards to preserve it in the face of persecution by the Christian Church – with the 22 cards of the major arcana corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and to the 22 pathways that connect the ten sephiroth in the kabbalah’s tree of life. However, it is generally agreed that there is little or no hard historical evidence to support such theories.

The cards of the major arcana have always been the main focus of theory and speculation, because of their allegorical imagery, but in 1910 a new deck was created by a e waite, a member of the hermetic order of the golden dawn, and published by Rider & Company. The Golden Dawn taught that in addition to divination, the images of the tarot could be used for meditation and as gateways for astral projection. Waite designed his own interpretation of the tarot, which he had painted by a fellow-Golden Dawn member, Pamela Colman Smith, using what he considered to be the original mystical meanings of the major arcana cards; although Waite did not believe that the tarot itself was ancient, he believed that it used ancient symbols, and his designs drew on his knowledge of the Hermetic (Western) Kabbalah, and of alchemy, including also symbols taken directly from freemasonry. However, the most striking difference between this deck and previous ones was that it included a pictorial scene on all of its cards – those of the minor as well as the major arcana – whereas most decks before it, and many since, merely show the suit emblems of the minor arcana arranged in simple geometric patterns. The Rider-Waite tarot, as it is usually known, is still a classic standard today.

Because the cards of the major arcana depict archetypes, they lend themselves to many interpretations, as can be seen by the enormous variety of modern tarot decks available; for example, the Mythological Tarot, in which characters from Greek myths are used to fill the archetypal roles; the Arthurian Tarot, which shows the many characters and storylines of the Grail legend; the Tarot of the Orishas, which uses the gods and goddesses of Western Africa; the Motherpeace Tarot, which shows female goddesses and is based on a female-centred spirituality; and the Japanese-inspired Ukiyoë Tarot.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2007

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