Tarot (or Tarots)
French term for a special pack of playing cards popularly
used for the purpose of divination. These cards enjoyed a
boost in popularity as a self-discovery tool of the New Age and
a development tool among Wiccans and ritual magicians. The
derivation of the word tarot is still debated. Some suggest that
these cards were named because of the tarotes on the back, that
is, the plain or dotted lines crossing diagonally. Some confirmation
of this theory is indicated by the German form of the
word, a tarock-karte being a card checkered on the back.
Tarot cards form part of an ordinary pack in countries of
southern Europe and the name tarocchi is given to an Italian
game. In its familiar form, the tarot pack consists of a pack of
78 cards, comprising four suits of 14 cards each (the extra court
card in each suit being the Cavalier, Knight, or Horseman) and
22 symbolical picture-cards as atouts or trumps. The four suits,
related to the modern hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades, are
swords, cups, coins, and batons (earlier represented as swords,
cups, rings, and wands).
The 22 symbolic cards generally picture the Juggler or Magician,
High Priestess or Female Pope, Empress, Emperor, Hierophant
or Pope, Lovers, Chariot, Justice, Hermit, Wheel of
Targ, Russell Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
Fortune, Strength or Fortitude, Hanged Man, Death, Temperance,
Devil, Lightning-struck Tower, Star, Moon, Sun, Last
Judgment, Fool, and Universe. These symbolic designs, which
vary slightly from pack to pack according to different traditions,
are popularly interpreted as follows Willpower, Science
or Knowledge, Action, Realization, Mercy and Beneficence,
Trial, Triumph, Justice, Prudence, Fortune, Strength, Sacrifice,
Transformation, Combination, Fate, Disruption, Hope,
Deception or Error, Earthly Happiness, Renewal, Folly, and
Expiation. These interpretations also vary according to different
authorities. In addition, the other cards in the pack are considered
to have symbolic significance.
There are many different ways of consulting the cards for
divination, but they mostly involve laying out the cards after
shuffling and interpreting the indications of the major symbolic
cards in their relationship to each other.
Much speculation surrounds the whole question of the origins
of the tarot and its relationship to the present-day set of
52 playing cards. It is not difficult to see symbolic interpretations
of the 52 pack in its division into four suits, corresponding
to the seasons of the year, 52 weeks, and the symbolic rulers of
the court cards. Some writers have connected the pack with the
ancient Eastern origins of the game of chess, with its comparable
king, queen, and knight. However, within the occult community,
many have looked to an origin in ancient Egypt. According
to such popular lore, the priests of ancient Egypt
invented the tarot cards to represent their secret doctrines and
teachings. They escaped the destruction of the Christian era
because the book burners did not know what they were. Later,
some Egyptians brought them to Rome, and they survived in
the courts of the popes and passed to France during the period
when the papacy was headquartered in Avignon.
This story of the Egyptian lineage first appeared in the
French occult community of the eighteenth century, having
been invented by a Protestant minister, Antoine Court de Gébelin
(1719–1784). De Gébelin, an occultist and Martinist, had
become an early supporter of Franz A. Mesmer’s ideas of animal
magnetism and an amateur Egyptologist. In 1781, well before
the Egyptian hieroglyphics had been deciphered, he published
an eight-volume tome Le monde primitif (1781) with his
speculative notions. Tarot cards had existed for several centuries
in Europe with no speculation about any mysterious foreign
or occult connection. But De Gébelin argued, with little
evidence, that the word ‘‘tarot’’ actually meant royal road, a
derivation he made from the Egyptian words ‘‘ta’’ or ‘‘way’’ and
‘‘tosh’’ or ‘‘royal.’’ It should be noted that no such words have
been found in the Egyptian language. Along with his essay on
the deck, De Gébelin also published another essay by an anonymous
friend, the first to label the cards the ‘‘Book of Thoth,’’
Thoth being one name for the Egyptian god Horus.
As a result of widespread reading of Le monde primitif, the
tarot cards began to be used as divination devices in Paris,
though the spread of the practice was slow. It was significant
that Francis Barrett did not include any mention of the deck
in his 1801 catalog of magical practice, The Magus.
The next important step in the establishment of the occult
tarot occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when Éliphas
Lévi encountered a deck during his massive reworking of the
magical tradition in light of Mesmerist thought. He identified
their magical power with animal magnetism, a theory still popular
to the present.
In 1853 Lévi published Dogma de la haute magie, in which he
first laid out his ideas tying the tarot to the ancient Egyptian
teacher Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary author of the
Hermetic magical writings. He then tied the cards to the Hebrew
magicalmystical Kabala (which he spelled ‘‘Qabalah’’).
He identified the numbered cards with the ten sephiroth. The
court cards represented the stages of human life, and the suits
symbolized the tetragarmmaton, the four letters that made up
the Hebrew name of God. The 22 trump cards were tied to the
22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and all of the Kabbalistic
content earlier ascribed to each letter was plowed into the tarot
Lévi used the Marseilles tarot deck, but grew increasingly
dissatisfied with it. His early efforts to produce a new deck did
not come to fruition, but Lévi did promote his project with an
English Mason, Kenneth Mackenzie (1833–1886). Mackenzie,
as a leader in the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, taught tarot
to the group of men who were to found the Hermetic Order of
the Golden Dawn (OGD), the organization most responsible
for the modern magical revival.
S. L. MacGregor Mathers and his wife, Moina, collaborated
on the OGD deck to go along with the order’s rituals, most of
which he also wrote. He produced one original, which was
given to each member as they reached the grade of Adapts
Minor, who in turn made their own personal copy. It is this
deck that was described by Aleister Crowley in his journal, The
Equinox. It was finally published in 1978.
Possibly the most important deck to date to come out of the
OGD was that produced by Arthur Edward Waite in collaboration
with Pamela Coleman-Smith. It was released in 1910 to accompany
Waite’s The Key to the Tarot (later reissued as The Pictorial
Key to the Tarot) and went on to become the most popular
deck for divinatory purposes in the twentieth century. Paul Foster
Case (1884–1954), an OGD member who later founded the
Builders of the Adytum, developed a deck, based in large part
upon the Waite-Smith cards, in collaboration with Jessie Burns
Parks. The deck was published in 1931.
Finally, in 1938, Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), who left the
OGD and published many of its secrets, began a collaboration
with Freda Harris to embody the thelemic magick of the Ordo
Templi Orientis. They used both the OGD and Waite-Smith
deck, but both the art and concepts went far beyond either.
While the original art work was displayed at an art gallery during
World War II, and a limited edition of 200 decks appeared
in 1944, the Crowley-Harris tarot did not reach the public until
it was finally published in 1969 by Samuel Weiser. This deck is
the only one to challenge the Waite-Smith deck’s popularity.
Gypsy Origins
One hypothesis, which parallelled the idea of Egyptian origins
and has likewise been largely disproved, concerned the
mysterious Gypsies. The idea that the tarot was introduced
into Europe by the Gypsies of the Middle Ages was first suggested
by an anonymous friend of de Gébelin’s in the eighteenth
century. It was championed in the next century by J. F. Vaillant,
who had lived for many years among the Gypsies and who had
been instructed by them in their traditional lore. He tied the
word ‘‘tarot’’ to the Hungarian Gypsy tar (pack of cards), and
claimed that ancient esoteric symbolism found its way throughout
Europe through Gypsy migrations. Vaillant incorporated
what he had been told in his books Les Rômes, histoire vraie des
vrais Bohémiens (1857), La Bible des Bohémiens (1860), and La Clef
Magique de la Fiction et du Fait (1863). Vaillant’s theory was endorsed
by the French writer ‘‘Papus’’ (penname of Gérald Encausse)
in his book Le Tarot des Bohémiens Le plus ancien livre
du Monde, (1899) (English edition as The Tarot of the Bohemians,
1919) in which he claimed that the tarot was the absolute key
to occult science. Papus notes, ‘‘the Gypsy pack of cards is a
wonderful book according to Court de Gébelin and Vaillant.
This pack, under the names of Tarot, Thora, and Rota, has
formed the basis of the synthetic teaching of all the ancient nations
The British legal authority De l’Hoste Ranking, writing in
1908, adds
‘‘I would submit that from internal evidence we may deduce
that the tarots were introduced by a race speaking an Indian dialect;
that the form of the Pope shows they had been long in
a country where the orthodox Eastern Church predominated;
and the form of head-dress of the king, together with the shape
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Tarot
of the eagle on the shield, shows that this was governed by Russian
Grand Dukes, who had not yet assumed the Imperial insignia.
This seems to me confirmatory of the widespread belief
that it is to the Gypsies we are indebted for our knowledge of
In 1865, E. S. Taylor added his support to the same hypothesis
in his book The History of Playing Cards. However, W. H. Willshire,
in his book A Descriptive Catalogue of Playing and Other
Cards in the British Museum (1876), questioned Taylor’s conclusion,
on the ground that ‘‘whether the Zingari [Gypsies] be of
Egyptian or Indian origin, they did not appear in Europe before
1417, when cards had been known for some time.’’ But this
objection is nullified by the fact that the presence of Gypsies in
Europe is now placed at a date considerably before 1417. There
was, for example, a well-established feudum acinganorum, or
Gypsy barony, in the island of Corfu in the fourteenth century.
It is also believed that the Gypsies themselves were originally
the ancient chandala caste of India.
Coincidental with the occult revival referred to as the New
Age movement, the tarot has enjoyed an unprecedented period
of popularity. New Agers have seen the tarot as an important
additional tool for personal transformation and have interpreted
the symbolism as a new map of the subconscious. The New
Age approach has spurred the production of a variety of decks
that explore different symbolic worlds, offer variant interpretations
from the psychological to the Wiccan, and present a broad
scope of artistic styles. Traditional tarot cards have gone hightech,
with digital decks for sale on the Internet for those who
are curious and willing to spend a few dollars. Some of these
digital decks have replaced the customary card suits and symbols
(i.e. cups, wands, pentacles, swords, priestesses, magicians)
with characters representing modern themes. For example, a
‘‘king’’ in a traditional tarot deck is replaced with a ‘‘businessman’’
in a contemporary deck. These modern versions may attract
a broader audience to tarot, however, many will take the
practice less seriously than with the more traditional decks.
Banzhaf, Hajo. The Tarot Handbook. Stamford, Conn. U.S.
Games Systems, Inc., 1993.
Butler, Bill. Dictionary of the Tarot. New York Schocken
Books, 1975.
Decker, Ronald. A Wicked Pack of Cards The Origins of the Occult
Tarot. New York St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
Douglas, Alfred. The Tarot The Origins, Meaning and Uses of
the Cards. New York Taplinger; London Gollancz, 1972. Reprint,
London Penguin, 1974.
Falconnier, R. Les lames hermétiques du tarot divinatoire. Paris,
Gettings, Fred. The Book of Tarot. London Paul Hamlyn,
Huson, Paul. The Devil’s Picture Book The Compleat Guide to
Tarot Cards; Their Origins and Their Usage. New York G. P. Putnam’s
Sons, 1971. Reprint, London Abacus, 1972.
Hutton, Alice. The Cards Can’t Lie Prophetic, Educational and
Playing-Cards. London Jupiter Books, 1979.
Lévi, Éliphas. La clef des grands mystéres. Paris, 1861.
MacGregor Mathers, S. L. The Tarot Its Occult Signification,
Use in Fortune-Telling and Method of Play. London George Redway,
1888. Reprint, New York Gordon Press, 1973.
Ozaniec, Naomi. The Illustrated Guide to Tarot. New York
Sterling Publications, 1999.
Papus. The Tarot of the Bohemians The Most Ancient Book in the
World; The Use of Initiates. 2nd rev. ed. London William Rider,
Thierens, A. E. The General Book of the Tarot. London Rider;
Philadelphia David McKay, 1928. Reprint, Hollywood, Calif.
Newcastle Publishing, 1975.
Waite, A. E. Pictorial Key to the Tarot. London William Rider,
1911. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y. University Books, 1959.
Reprint, Blauvelt, N.Y. Rudolf Steiner, 1971. Reprint, New
York Causeway Books, 1973.