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Tarot Card Meanings - A Brief History of Tarot


Early Tarot History

The written history of Tarot dates back to 15th century Europe. Tarot Cards appear to have originated in Italy, and shortly thereafter gained popularity in France. The most likely source for their original name, Tarocchi is the Taro River in the Parma region of northern Italy. The Italian "Tarocchi" later evolved into "Tarot" in the French and English languages. Tarot cards are one of many types of playing cards that became popular in this era.

Tarot Divination

Evidence exists of Tarot cards being used for divinatory readings in Italy as early as the 16th century. Use of the cards for fortune telling initially was not widespread, or at least not widely admitted to. It is thought that the Gypsies were among the early Tarot readers. Divinatory Tarot readings started becoming more popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, likely due in part to the increased diversification of European Christianity and reduced threat of witch hunting during this period.

Although Tarot games remain popular in Europe today, in much of the world Tarot cards are more commonly used for divination. A look at the cards will probably explain why. Note the detail, the backgrounds, the richness of the images. Tarot decks typically contain symbolic artwork through which the artist attempts to convey the possibilities of the cards. The cards represent trends, situations, events, people, characteristics and lessons relevant to human life. Tarot cards have been recognized for their representations of the human condition by such notables as Carl Jung, one of the fathers of Psychology.

Tarot-card History: Are They Really That Ancient?

According to Tarot historian Tom Tadfor Little, traditional playing cards were first seen in Europe in 1375, having been brought over from the Islamic societies where they had been used for centuries before that. These cards were not, however, Tarot cards. At this point, he says, there is no evidence to show that Tarot cards had yet been created, which goes against many claims that ordinary playing cards evolved from the original Tarot deck.


It wasn't until 1440 that the cards that were most likely the origin of Tarot cards were first mentioned. In a letter from the Duke of Milan, there was a request for several decks of "triumph" cards to be used at a special event. The letter differentiated triumph cards from regular "playing" cards.

It does appear, however, that the first Tarot decks were created as a game. There were four suits with cards numbered one through ten and also court cards that included a queen, king, knight and page. The deck also included 22 symbolic picture cards that did not belong to any suit. The decks were used to play a game called triumph that was similar to bridge. In triumph, 21 of the 22 special picture cards were permanent trump cards. The game spread quickly to all parts of Europe. People began referring to as tarocchi, which is an Italian version of the French word tarot, around 1530.


In 1781, in France and England, followers of the occult discovered Tarot cards. They saw the symbolic pictures of the cards as having more meaning than the simple trump cards they were used for at the time. They used the cards as a divination tool, and occult writers wrote about "the Tarot." After this, the Tarot became a part of occult philosophy.


There are also those who believe that Tarot cards originated in Egypt. In some circles, they are thought to be the sole surviving "book" from the great fire that burned the libraries of ancient Egypt. In this theory, the cards are considered to be the hieroglyphical keys to life.

The Tarot Deck

There are many varieties of Tarot decks, and there is no standard number of cards across all decks. While the types of cards, the suits and their meanings are the same, the illustrations vary greatly. Decks are based on various themes such as nature, animals, fantasy, dragons, etc. The most common deck in the United States is the Rider-Waite deck, which was created in 1909 by A.E. Waite, a prominent member of the occult group the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and published by Rider & Company. The artist was Pamela Colman Smith. This 78-card deck was the only readily available deck in the United States for many years, which is why it is considered the "definitive" tarot deck in the United States. According to The Hermitage: A Tarot History Site, however, there is no "definitive" tarot deck.

The Tarot deck is made up of the Minor Arcana and the Major Arcana. Like regular playing cards, the Minor Arcana of the Tarot deck includes four suits.


Each suit has meaning regarding a specific approach to life. The cards within these suits are numbered one through ten and also include the court cards -- the king, queen, knight and page. The Minor Arcana cards represent the more minor, practical daily ups and downs in life.


The Tarot Spread

Before a reading is performed, the cards are shuffled usually by the person receiving the reading. The person receiving the reading should also be concentrating on the question or area for which they want guidance while the deck is shuffled. In some more traditional circles, a more elaborate sorting and separation of the cards is performed.


Once the cards are shuffled and the deck has been cut, the reader lays out the cards in a pattern called the spread. Each position in the spread has a meaning, and there are many different types of spreads, ranging from those that incorporate a single card to spreads that include all 78 cards of the deck. Which spread is used is up to the reader and the specific type of question or reading. Some spreads focus more on a specific type of information. For example, one spread might focus more on emotional matters, while another might bring in more information about the influences of others.

Once the cards are laid out, their meanings are interpreted based on their positions and their neighboring cards


Reversed Cards

Because Tarot cards each have one picture that faces in one direction, it is possible that cards will be facing the opposite direction when dealt. According to most sources, this doesn't change the meaning of the card, but simply weakens the impact of the meaning.


In most people's minds, "Tarot card reading" means a woman in flowing robes, leaning over a small table in a candlelit room, foretelling impending doom.


But that's not really what Tarot cards are about. In fact, they're not even really meant to tell your fortune or future. According to The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, "The most powerful sources of information come from within; the Tarot aids in coming in contact with one's Higher Self."