What is Tarot?
A Set of Tarot cards contains 78 cards. There are 56 cards of the Minor Arcana (Arcana means secret) which are separated into four suits with each card having a number from one to 10 of a court card, much like the playing cards that we use today. These are said to represent the events that take place in our lives. There are also 22 cards of the Major Arcana which are symbolic cards representing personality traits or archetypes.
They are used as a tool of divination, similar in concept to Runes, Crystal Balls and Tea Leaves, where the diviner is trying to foretell what will happen in the future. It may be more understandable to many if we say that they help us to understand our subconscious which I see as the link between us and the universe. So if we can interpret what the universe is trying to tell us by randomly choosing cards from a deck, we may lead more informed and true lives.
Where did they come from?
Tarot is surrounded by a large amount of confusing lore, possible due to being used by those involved in the occult starting in the late 18th century. What we can say with some certainty is that playing cards similar to those we use today came to Europe in the late 14th century. They were used in Islamic areas well before that though but only as a game much as we use them today.
Then, in the mid 15th Century in Milan, there was a popular game called Triumh or Trumps which used the 56 ‘normal’ cards along with 22 ‘Trump’ Cards. These hand painted Visconti Sforza tarocchi (in French – Tarot) cards are recognised as the original deck of tarot cards. They were not used for divination though.
It was over 300 years later that tarot cards started to be used as a divination tool and the trump cards seen as having more meaning. The use of the cards had spread from Europe to America and it was Eliphas Levi, a philosopher and exponent of the Jewish Kabbalah, who linked the cards to Hebrew Philosophy and stated that they revealed esoteric knowledge to those equipped to understand it.
Perhaps the most famous and closely associated group to modern tarot is the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn founded in 1888. Dr. Arthur Edward Waite developed his own deck with the help of Pamela Coleman Smith as illustrator. Golden Dawn, later known as Holy Order of the Golden Dawn sought to fuse several esoteric belief systems into one system of Magic. Beliefs as disparate as Egyptian beliefs, Kabbalah and Alchemy were combined and the tarot cards that Waite developed use many symbols relating to these systems.
The Rider Waite cards are most well-known Tarot cards available today but there many other types of cards available, most of which follow the designs incorporated in the Rider Waite Tarot. Others include The Crowley or Thoth Tarot, the IJJ Tarot and the Lenormand Tarot, all using different methods.