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This article is about the structure, card imagery, and history and origin of tarot decks, which are used for spiritual, esoteric, psychological, occult and/or divinatory purposes. See Tarot (game) for information about the traditional European card game.
As discussed in more detail below, the Tarot is usually a deck of 78 cards composed of:
the major arcana, consisting of 21 trump cards and the Fool card;
the minor arcana consisting of 56 cards:
ten cards numbered from Ace to 10 in four different suits; traditionally batons (wands), cups, swords and coins (pentacles) (40 cards in total); and
four court cards, page, knight, queen and king in the same four suits (4 per suit, thus 16 court cards in total).
The earliest extant specimens of Tarot decks are of North Italian origin and date to the early to mid-15th century. These were called carte da trionfi or "cards of the triumphs". Soon afterwards, the cards were used for the games called Tarocchi. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the cards became popular in occult studies, initiated by occultists such as Etteilla and Antoine Court de Gebelin.
The Fool: the unnumbered card in the Tarot deck, from the Tarot of Marseille.Contents [hide]
1 The Tarot Deck
2 Origin and History
2.1 The tarot deck
2.2 Use of tarot cards in divination
2.3 Differences among decks
5 Storytelling and Art
6.1 Layouts or spreads
6.1.1 The Great Cross ("Celtic Cross") Layout
6.1.2 The Romany Draw Layout (or Past/Present/Future Layout)
6.1.3 "Crowley's" Thoth layout
8 External links
8.1 Tarot history
The Tarot Deck
Death, the tarot card, from the Rider-Waite-Smith deckThe typical 78-card tarot deck is structured into two distinct parts. The first, called the Major Arcana, consists of 21 cards without suits typically referred to as "trumps", plus a 22nd card, The Fool. The second, called the Minor Arcana, consists of 56 cards divided into four suits of 14 cards each. The traditional Italian suits are Swords, Batons, Coins and Cups. In modern tarot decks, the Batons suit is commonly called Wands, Rods or Staves, while the Coins suit is often called Pentacles or Disks. (Arcana is the plural form of the Latin word arcanum, meaning "key".)
The 14 cards in each suit consist of an Ace, nine cards numbered 2 through 10, and four court cards (not dissimilar from the structure of 52-card bridge/poker playing card decks, except that bridge/poker playing card decks have three court cards rather than four).
The four court cards (or face cards) of the tarot deck traditionally consist of the King, the Queen, the Knight and the Page (or Knave). In bridge/poker decks, the court cards typically consist of the King, the Queen and the Jack. The Jack corresponds to the tarot deck's Page.
In the Western world today, the Tarot is usually seen either as a means of divination, the practice of ascertaining information from supernatural or other sources, or, in a more modern view, as a psychological tool for accessing the unconscious. However, early references such as a sermon refer only to the use of the cards for game-playing and gambling; and in some European countries such as France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany, Tarot is still a widely played game.
The relationship between Tarot cards and playing cards is well documented. Playing cards appeared quite suddenly in Christian Europe during the period 1375-1380, following several decades of use in Islamic Spain: see playing card history for discussion of its origins. Early European sources describe a deck with typically 52 cards, like a modern deck with no jokers. The 78-card Tarot resulted from merging the 21 Trumps and the Fool into an early 56-card variant (14 cards per suit).
Origin and History
The tarot deck
As an institution, the Roman Catholic Church and most civil governments did not routinely condemn tarot cards during tarot's early history. In fact, in some jurisdictions, tarot cards were specifically exempted from laws otherwise prohibiting regular playing cards. However, some sermons inveighing against the evil inherent in cards can be traced to the 14th century. No mention of playing cards in the context of gambling and other marks of dissolute life precede the sudden appearance of a barrage of hostility in the 1370s: a sermon by the Swiss Johannes von Rheinfelden, Tractus de moribus et disciplina humanae conversationis states that "the game of cards has come to us this year" (said to be 1377, in the 15th-century surviving manuscript) without inveighing against them, but prohibitions against cards were issued by John I of Castile and the cities of Florence and Basel that same year and by the city of Regensburg the following year and in the Duchy of Brabant in 1379 . Bernard of Siena gave a sermon reviling cards as the invention of the Devil in 1423. However, other sources praised cards as an educational tool.
In Pietro Aretino's witty 16th-century dialogue Le carte parlanti ("The talking cards: dialogue in which gaming is discussed in a congenial fashion") there are frequent references to tarot symbolism: "The temptation of the hermit is the devil," and some irony on their uses: "...They reveal the secrets of nature, the reason for things, and explain the causes why day is driven out by night and night by day." 
The oldest surviving Tarot cards are three early to mid-15th century sets, all made for members of the Visconti family, rulers of Milan. The oldest of these existing Tarot decks was perhaps painted to celebrate a mid-15th century wedding joining the ruling Visconti and Sforza families of Milan, probably painted by Bonifacio Bembo and other miniaturists of the Ferrara school. Of the original cards, 35 are in the Pierpont Morgan Library, 26 cards are at the Accademia Carrara, 13 are at the Casa Colleoni, 4 cards (the Devil, the Tower, the Three of Swords, and the Knight of Coins) being lost or possibly never made. This "Visconti-Sforza" deck, which has been widely reproduced in varying quality, combines the Minor Arcana (suits of Swords, Staves, Coins and Cups, and face cards King, Queen, Knight and Page) with Major Arcana that reflect conventional iconography of the time to a significant degree.
More simply drawn decks survive from various cities in France at various times (the best known in this context being the city of Marseille, in southern France) perhaps from the early 16th century, though actual surviving examples are no earlier than the 17th century.
Much speculation surrounds early tarot cards, including the notions which follow. There is no reason to be confident that the surviving set of Major Arcana is complete. Of the four Classical Virtues, only Fortitude, Justice and Temperance remain. Can Prudence have always been missing? The Christian Virtues that would ordinarily complete them (i.e., Faith, Hope and Charity) are missing, however. The presence of the Fool and the Magician has often suggested a portable catechism for the illiterate, which survives in cartomancy. All the heavenly sources of Light, so important to Dualist heretics, are present in the Major Arcana, without any planets that would have been required for any meaning associated with astrology, the usual context for heavenly bodies. Indeed, of any possible signs of the Zodiac, only the dual-natured Twins are present. It is unlikely that their Zodiac context is being referred to, in which case all the others would have to have gone missing. Traces of medieval dualist heresy, such as the Bogomils taught, or the Cathars, whose centers were precisely where the earliest Tarot surfaced in Piedmont and Provence, can be also detected in the paired balance, not merely of Emperor with Empress, but, significantly, by Pope with Popess, with echoes of the Pope Joan myth and of the gnostic Pistis Sophia. The substitution of a more neutral "Hierophant" designation for the nameless high priest is a modern one. Steven Runciman, in The Medieval Manichee (1947), doubted the Catharist connection: "There seems to me to be a trace of Dualism in the pack, but it has since been overlaid with debased Kabalistic lore." He recognized the traditional interpretation of the Devil as the embodiment of the evil natural forces of this world, holding a naked man and woman in chains, and suggested in the Tower struck by lightning, a Cathar view of a Roman Catholic church. However, historians have found little evidence to substantiate many such speculations.
Study of the iconography of the earliest tarots via standard comparative-historical methods suffices to pin the origin of the depiction of Death as after the Black Death, because the skeletal-death-with-a-scythe motif found on effectively all versions of Trump XIII does not predate the plagues. Before then, skulls in pictorial art were primarily symbols of scholarship and learning.
Use of tarot cards in divination
The Rider-Waite-Smith deckSince the Egyptianizing ruminations in Le Monde primitif by Antoine Court de Gébelin (1781) which soon inspired the occultism of "Etteilla," it has been believed by many that the Tarot is far older than this. Based on purported similarities of imagery and reinforced by the added numbering, some claim that Tarot originated in ancient Egypt, Hebrew mystic tradition of the Kabbalah, or a wide variety of other exotic places and times. Such ideas, however, are speculative.
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