Card player with Austrian tarot cards (Industrie und Glück pattern)
Card player with Austrian tarot cards (Industrie und Glück pattern)
Trumps of the Tarot de Marseilles, a standard 18th-century playing card pack, later also used for divination
Trumps of the Tarot de Marseilles, a standard 18th-century playing card pack, later also used for divination

The tarot (/ˈtær/, first known as trionfi and later as tarocchi or tarocks) is a pack of playing cards, used from at least the mid-15th century in various parts of Europe to play card games such as Tarocchini. From their Italian roots, tarot playing cards spread to most of Europe evolving into a family of games that includes German Grosstarok and modern games such as French Tarot and Austrian Königrufen. In the late 18th century, French occultists made elaborate, but unsubstantiated, claims about their history and meaning, leading to the emergence of custom decks for use in divination via tarot card reading and cartomancy.[1] Thus there are two distinct types of tarot pack: those used for card games and those used for divination. However, some older patterns, such as the Tarot de Marseille, originally intended for playing card games, are occasionally used for cartomancy.

Like the common playing cards, tarot has four suits which vary by region: French suits are used in western, central and eastern Europe, Latin suits in southern Europe. Each suit has 14 cards: ten pip cards numbering from one (or Ace) to ten, and four face cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Jack/Knave/Page). In addition, the tarot has a separate 21-card trump suit and a single card known as the Fool. Depending on the game, the Fool may act as the top trump or may be played to avoid following suit.[2] These tarot cards are still used throughout much of Europe to play conventional card games.

Among English-speaking countries where these games are not widely played, only specially designed cartomantic tarot cards are readily available and they are used primarily for novelty and divinatory purposes.[2] The early French occultists claimed that tarot cards had esoteric links to ancient Egypt, the Kabbalah, Indic Tantra, or the I Ching, and these claims have been frequently repeated by authors on card divination. However, scholarly research has demonstrated that tarot cards were invented in northern Italy in the mid-15th century and confirmed that there is no historical evidence of any significant use of tarot cards for divination until the late 18th century.[2][3] In fact, historians have described western views of the Tarot pack as "the subject of the most successful propaganda campaign ever launched... An entire false history and false interpretation of the Tarot pack was concocted by the occultists; and it is all but universally believed".[4]

In the occult tradition, tarot cards are referred to as 'arcana'; with the Fool and 21 trumps being termed the Major Arcana and the suit cards the Minor Arcana.[5] However, these terms are not used by players of tarot card games.

Tarot cards, then known as tarocchi, first appeared in Ferrara and Milan in northern Italy, with a Fool and 21 trumps (then called trionfi) being added to the standard Italian pack of four suits: batons, coins, cups and swords.[6] Scholarship has established that the early European cards were probably based on the Egyptian Mamluk deck which followed the invention of paper from Asia into Western Europe and was invented in or before the 14th century.[7] By the late 1300's Europeans were producing their own cards, the earliest patterns being based on the Mamluk deck but with variations to the suit symbols and court cards.[7]


The use of tarot playing cards was at one time widespread across the whole of Europe with the exceptions of the British Isles and the Iberian Peninsula. Having fallen into decline by the 20th century, in recent decades they have experienced a renaissance in some countries and regions. For example, French Tarot was largely confined to Provence in the 18th century, but took off in the 1950s to such an extent that, in 1973, the French Tarot Association (Fédération Française de Tarot) was formed and French Tarot itself is now the second most popular card game in France.[8][9] Tarock games like Königrufen have experienced significant growth in Austria where international tournaments are held with other nations especially from eastern Europe that still play such games, including Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.[10] Denmark appears to be the only Scandinavian country that still plays tarot games,[10] Danish Tarok being a derivative of historical German Grosstarock. The game of Cego is growing in popularity again in the south German region of Baden.[10] Italy continues to play regionally popular games with their distinctive Tarot packs. These include: Ottocento in Bologna and Sicilian Tarocchi in parts of Sicily.[10] Meanwhile Troccas and Troggu are still played locally in parts of Switzerland.[10]


Milanese tarocchi, c. 1500
Milanese tarocchi, c. 1500

Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century, but the origin is unknown. The first records date to 1367 in Berne and they appear to have spread very rapidly across the whole of Europe, as may be seen from the records, mainly of card games being banned.[11][12][13] Little is known about the appearance and number of these cards; the only significant information being provided by a text by John of Rheinfelden in 1377 from Freiburg im Breisgau, who, in addition to other versions describes the basic pack as containing the still-current 4 suits of 13 cards, the courts usually being the King, Ober and Unter ("marshals"), although Dames and Queens were already known by then.

One early pattern of playing cards that evolved was one with the suits of Batons or Clubs, Coins, Swords, and Cups. These suits are still used in traditional Italian, Spanish and Portuguese playing card decks, and are also used in modern (occult) tarot divination cards that first appeared in the late 18th century.[14]

The first documented tarot decks were recorded between 1440 and 1450 in Milan, Ferrara, Florence and Bologna when additional trump cards with allegorical illustrations were added to the common four-suit pack. These new decks were called carte da trionfi, triumph cards, and the additional cards known simply as trionfi, which became "trumps" in English. The earliest documentation of trionfi is found in a written statement in the court records of Florence, in 1440, regarding the transfer of two decks to Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta.[15][16]

The oldest surviving tarot cards are the 15 or so Visconti-Sforza tarot decks painted in the mid-15th century for the rulers of the Duchy of Milan.[17] A lost tarot-like pack was commissioned by Duke Filippo Maria Visconti and described by Martiano da Tortona probably between 1418 and 1425, since the painter he mentions, Michelino da Besozzo, returned to Milan in 1418, while Martiano himself died in 1425. He described a 60-card deck with 16 cards having images of the Roman gods and suits depicting four kinds of birds. The 16 cards were regarded as "trumps" since in 1449 Jacopo Antonio Marcello recalled that the now deceased duke had invented a novum quoddam et exquisitum triumphorum genus, or "a new and exquisite kind of triumphs".[18] Other early decks that also showcased classical motifs include the Sola-Busca and Boiardo-Viti decks of the 1490s.[2]

In Florence, an expanded deck called Minchiate was used. This deck of 97 cards includes astrological symbols and the four elements, as well as traditional tarot motifs.[2]

Although a Dominican preacher inveighed against the evil inherent in cards (chiefly owing to their use in gambling) in a sermon in the 15th century,[19] no routine condemnations of tarot were found during its early history.[2]

Because the earliest tarot cards were hand-painted, the number of the decks produced is thought to have been small. It was only after the invention of the printing press that mass production of cards became possible. The expansion of tarot outside of Italy, first to France and Switzerland, occurred during the Italian Wars. The most prominent tarot deck version used in these two countries was the Tarot of Marseilles of Milanese origin.[2]


Three cards from a Visconti-Sforza tarot deck: Ace of cups, Queen of coins and the Knight of batons
Three cards from a Visconti-Sforza tarot deck: Ace of cups, Queen of coins and the Knight of batons

The word "tarot"[20] and German Tarock derive from the Italian Tarocchi, the origin of which is uncertain, although taroch was used as a synonym for foolishness in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.[21][22] The decks were known exclusively as Trionfi during the fifteenth century. The new name first appeared in Brescia around 1502 as Tarocho.[23] During the 16th century, a new game played with a standard deck but sharing a very similar name (Trionfa) was quickly becoming popular. This coincided with the older game being renamed tarocchi.[2] In modern Italian, the singular term is Tarocco, which, as a noun, refers to a cultivar of blood orange. The attribute Tarocco and the verb Taroccare are used regionally to indicate that something is fake or forged. This meaning is directly derived from the tarocchi game as played in Italy, in which tarocco indicates a card that can be played in place of another card.[24][25]

Playing card decks

Main article: Tarot card games

A French tarot game in session
A French tarot game in session

The original purpose of tarot cards was to play games. A very cursory explanation of rules for a tarot-like deck is given in a manuscript by Martiano da Tortona before 1425. Vague descriptions of game play or game terminology follow for the next two centuries until the earliest known complete description of rules for a French variant in 1637.[26] The game of tarot has many regional variations. Tarocchini has survived in Bologna and there are still others played in Piedmont and Sicily, but in Italy the game is generally less popular than elsewhere.

The 18th century saw tarot's greatest revival, during which it became one of the most popular card games in Europe, played everywhere except Ireland and Britain, the Iberian peninsula, and the Ottoman Balkans.[27] French tarot experienced another revival beginning in the 1970s and France has the strongest tarot gaming community. Regional tarot games—often known as tarock, tarok, or tarokk—are widely played in central Europe within the borders of the former Austro-Hungarian empire.

Italian-suited decks

Tarocco Piemontese: the Fool card
Tarocco Piemontese: the Fool card

These were the oldest form of tarot deck to be made, being first devised in the 15th century in northern Italy. Three decks of this category are still used to play certain games:

Italo-Portuguese-suited deck

The Tarocco Siciliano is the only deck to use the so-called Portuguese suit system which uses Spanish pips but intersects them like Italian pips.[28] Some of the trumps are different such as the lowest trump, Miseria (destitution). It omits the Two and Three of coins, and numerals one to four in clubs, swords and cups: it thus has 64 cards but the ace of coins is not used, being the bearer of the former stamp tax. The cards are quite small and not reversible.[9]

French-suited decks

The illustrations of French-suited tarot trumps depart considerably from the older Italian-suited design, abandoning the Renaissance allegorical motifs. With the exception of novelty decks, French-suited tarot cards are almost exclusively used for card games. The first generation of French-suited tarots depicted scenes of animals on the trumps and were thus called "Tiertarock" ('Tier' being German for 'animal') appeared around 1740. Around 1800, a greater variety of decks were produced, mostly with genre art or veduta. The German states used to produce a variety of 78-card tarot packs, originally using Italian suits, but later switching to French suited cards; some were imported to France. Today, there are only two: both are French-suited patterns of Cego packs - the Cego Adler pack manufactured by ASS Altenburger and one with genre scenes by F.X. Schmid, which may reflect the mainstream German cards of the 19th century. Current French-suited tarot decks come in these patterns:

German 'Tarock' cards

From the late 18th century, the south German states manufactured German-suited packs labelled 'Taroc', 'Tarock' or 'Deutsch-Tarok'. Today these survive as 'Schafkopf/Tarock' packs of the Bavarian and Franconian pattern. These are not true tarot packs, but standard 36-card German-suited decks for games like German Tarok, Bauerntarock, Württemberg Tarock and Bavarian Tarock. Until the 1980s there were also Tarock packs in the Württemberg pattern. There are 36 cards; the pip cards ranging from 6 to 10, Under Knave (Unter), Over Knave (Ober), King, and Ace. These use Ace-Ten ranking, like Klaverjas, where Ace is the highest followed by 10, King, Ober, Unter, then 9 to 6. The heart suit is the default trump suit.[2] The Bavarian pack is also used to play Schafkopf by excluding the Sixes.

Spanish-suited decks

Spanish-suited playing cards have four suits, and a deck is usually made up of 40 or 48 cards (or even up to 52 in the oldest versions). It is categorized as a Latin-suited deck and has strong similarities with the Italian-suited deck as both were derived directly from the Mamluk cards. The oldest mentions date back to the 14th century making it one of the oldest in Europe.

Spanish-suited cards are used in Spain, southern Italy, parts of France, Hispanic America, North Africa, and the Philippines. The four suits are bastos (clubs), oros (literally "golds", that is, golden coins), copas (cups) and espadas (swords). However, the suits vary in style depending on the region and time. The following patterns (and their suits) are derived from the oldest Spanish-suited deck: the castillian pattern, the Spanish national pattern (old Catalan pattern), the new Catalan pattern, Franco-Spanish pattern (Suit Piacentine and Suit Romagnole), Madrid pattern (Suit Sicilian and Suit Neapolitan), Sardinian pattern and the extinct Portuguese pattern.

Like the Italian-suited tarot, the deck is used for both game playing and cartomancy. The Spanish deck has been considered part of the occult in many Latin American countries[citation needed] as well as being widely for card games, including in Spain.


Main article: Tarot card reading

Deck of the 22 Major Arcana cards inspired by the Tarot of Marseilles, but with the author's graphic style
Deck of the 22 Major Arcana cards inspired by the Tarot of Marseilles, but with the author's graphic style

The earliest evidence of a tarot deck used for cartomancy comes from an anonymous manuscript from around 1750 which documents rudimentary divinatory meanings for the cards of the Tarocco Bolognese.[29][30] The popularization of esoteric tarot started with Antoine Court and Jean-Baptiste Alliette (Etteilla) in Paris during the 1780s, using the Tarot of Marseilles.[31] French tarot players abandoned the Marseilles tarot in favor of the Tarot Nouveau around 1900, with the result that the Marseilles pattern is now used mostly by cartomancers.

Etteilla was the first to produce a bespoke tarot deck specifically designed for occult purposes around 1789. In keeping with the unsubstantiated belief that such cards were derived from the Book of Thoth, Etteilla's tarot contained themes related to ancient Egypt.[31]

The 78-card tarot deck used by esotericists has two distinct parts:

The terms "Major Arcana" and "Minor Arcana" were first used by Jean-Baptiste Pitois (also known as Paul Christian) and are never used in relation to tarot card games, which operate by a distinct set of rules.[32] Some decks exist primarily as artwork, and such art decks sometimes contain only the 22 Major Arcana.

The three most common decks used in esoteric tarot are the Tarot of Marseilles, the Rider–Waite–Smith tarot deck, and the Thoth tarot deck.[31]

Aleister Crowley, who devised the Thoth deck along with Lady Frieda Harris, stated of the tarot: "The origin of this pack of cards is very obscure. Some authorities seek to put it back as far as the ancient Egyptian Mysteries; others try to bring it forward as late as the fifteenth or even the sixteenth century ... [but] The only theory of ultimate interest about the tarot is that it is an admirable symbolic picture of the Universe, based on the data of the Holy Qabalah."[33] However, the origin of the Tarot pack is now well documented, showing that it was invented in Italy in the early 15th century (see history section above).

Some people today use Tarot cards as a tool for self-exploration and development and some psychologists use Tarot cards as a complementary care therapy. Through Tarot cards, it is claimed that the exploration of the inner self leads to greater freedom within the individual.[34]


  1. ^ "Diligence and Fortune" is the contemporary meaning of the phrase Industrie und Glück. See, for example, Placardi, Carl (1766). Das Kaiserliche Sprach- und Wörterbuch, Cölln am Rhein: Metternich, pp. 72 and 83.


  1. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett 1996, p. ix.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Dummett, Michael A. E; Mann, Sylvia (1980). The game of Tarot: From Ferrara to Salt Lake City. ISBN 9780715610145.
  3. ^ Semetsky, Inna (2011). Re-Symbolization of the Self: Human Development and Tarot Hermeneutic. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. p. 33. ISBN 978-94-6091-421-8.
  4. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett (1996), p. 27.
  5. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett (1996), p. 38.
  6. ^ Decker, Depaulis & Dummett (1996), pp. 28 & 31.
  7. ^ a b Early History of Playing Cards at Retrieved 21 November 2022.
  8. ^ Daynes 2000, p. 6.
  9. ^ Tarot Hors Ligne - Jeu de Cartes Individuelle Archived 2022-10-29 at the Wayback Machine at Retrieved 29 October 2022.
  10. ^ a b c d e Card Games: Tarot Games Archived 2019-11-29 at the Wayback Machine at Retrieved 20 October 2022.
  11. ^ Peter F. Kopp: Die frühesten Spielkarten in der Schweiz. In: Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte 30 (1973), pp. 130–145, here 130.
  12. ^ Hellmut Rosenfeld: Zu den frühesten Spielkarten in der Schweiz. Eine Entgegnung. In: Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte 32 (1975), pp. 179–180.
  13. ^ Detlef Hoffmann: Kultur- und Kunstgeschichte der Spielkarte. Marburg: Jonas Verlag 1995, p. 43.
  14. ^ Donald Laycock in Skeptical—a Handbook of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, ed Donald Laycock, David Vernon, Colin Groves, Simon Brown, Imagecraft, Canberra, 1989, ISBN 0-7316-5794-2, p. 67
  15. ^ Pratesi, Franco (2012). "In Search of Tarot Sources". The Playing-Card. 41 (2): 100.
  16. ^ Pratesi, Franco. Studies on Giusto Giusti Archived 2021-02-24 at the Wayback Machine at Retrieved 4 February 2018.
  17. ^ Dummett, Michael (1996). A Wicked Pack Of Cards. p. 25. ISBN 9780312162948.
  18. ^ Pratesi, Franco (1989). "Italian Cards - New Discoveries". The Playing-Card. 18 (1, 2): 28–32, 33–38.
  19. ^ Robert Steele. A Notice of the Ludus Triumphorum and some Early Italian Card Games; With Some Remarks on the Origin of the Playing Cards." Archaeologia, vol LVII, 1900: pp 185-200.
  20. ^
    The dictionary definition of tarot at Wiktionary
  21. ^ Vitali, Andrea. About the etymology of Tarocco Archived 2021-02-24 at the Wayback Machine at Le Tarot Cultural Association. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
  22. ^ Vitali, Andrea. Taroch - 1494 Archived 2021-02-25 at the Wayback Machine at Le Tarot Cultural Association. Retrieved 4 February 2018.
  23. ^ Depaulis, Thierry (2008). "Entre farsa et barzelletta: jeux de cartes italiens autours de 1500". The Playing-Card. 37 (2): 89–102.
  24. ^ "Tarocco". (in Italian). Retrieved 2020-09-09.
  25. ^ "Taroccare". (in Italian). Retrieved 2020-09-09.
  26. ^ Dummett, Michael; McLeod, John (2004). A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press. pp. 17–21.
  27. ^ Parlett, David (1990). The Oxford Guide to Card Games (1 ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-214165-1.
  28. ^ Tarocco Siciliano, early form Archived 2021-03-01 at the Wayback Machine at the International Playing-Card Society website. Retrieved 26 July 2015.
  29. ^ Pratesi, Franco (1989). "Italian Cards: New Discoveries, no. 9". The Playing-Card. 17 (4): 136–145.
  30. ^ Dummett, Michael (2003). "Tarot Cartomancy in Bologna". The Playing-Card. 32 (2): 79–88.
  31. ^ a b c Jensen, K. Frank (2010). "A Century with the Waite–Smith Tarot (and all the others...)". The Playing-Card. 38 (3): 217–222.
  32. ^ Parlett, David. "tarot game". Encyclopedia Britannica, 9 August 2012, Accessed 26 June 2022.
  33. ^ Crowley, Aleister, The Book of Thoth, Weiser Books, 1969, Massachusetts. pg.5.
  34. ^ Lustig, Caitlin (Caitie); Wu, Hong-An (Ann) (July 2022). "Tarot as a technology of care". Interactions. 29 (4): 24–29. doi:10.1145/3536392. ISSN 1072-5520. S2CID 250118027.


Further reading

Media related to Tarot cards at Wikimedia Commons