The Tarot – A Brief Overview

“There exist today several fifteenth-century Visconti-Sforza tarocchi decks which comprise the earliest known tarot cards. The reproduction in 1975 of the most complete of these packs – the Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo tarocchi deck whose original cards are divided between the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, and the Accademia Carrara and Colleoni family, Bergamo, Italy – is an important event for tarot collectors and researchers of art history.

Italy holds the honor of having produced several of the earliest known tarocchi packs that contain the mystical and allegorical trump cards. Throughout five centuries the provocative symbolism of the twenty-two Major Arcana cards has continued to intrigue art historians, artists and occultists. For over five hundred years card designers and artists have faithfullly preserved the same dominant symbolism of the Major Arcana cards while often adding their personal interpretations in the form of slight modifications to the designs based upon the fashions, events and important topics of the day. There exist in leading museums, libraries and private collections many hundreds of such modified tarot designs, the work of such artists as the fifteenth-century genius Bonifacio Bembo, modern painters such as Salvador Dali and Larry Rivers, and many lesser known but talented artists such as Pamela Coleman Smith (Rider-Waite pack), Lady Frieda Harris (Crowley Thoth cards), Fergus Hall (James Bond 007 tarot cards), David Palladini (Aquarian tarot) and Domenico Balbi (Balbi pack).

The development of tarot symbolism during the last five centuries, beginning with the earliest known Italian tarocchi cards, is an intriguing story.


The term trionfi was used in Italy in the fifteenth century to describe the twenty-two Major Arcana cards. The term tarocchi subsequently came into usage in Italy in the early sixteenth century, first referring to the twenty-two Major Arcana cards, and thereafter to the complete seventy-eight-card deck, consisting of the twenty-two Major Arcana and fifty-six Minor Arcana or suit cards. The words tarocchi and tarocco are often used interchangeably, although tarocchi is actually the plural of tarocco. Tarot, the French derivative of tarocchi, has come into widespread usage in the English language. In pronouncing the word tarot, the final t is silent.

MacGregor Mathers, writing in 1888, describes several anagrams derived from the word taro:

Tora – law (Hebrew) Troa – gate (Hebrew)

Rota – wheel (Latin)

Orat – it speaks, argues or entreats (Latin)

Taor or Taur – Egyptian goddess of darkness Ator or Athor – Egyptian Hathor goddess of joy.

The term trumps is derived from the Latin triumphi. The twenty-two trump cards, also known as the Major Arcana or Greater Arcana cards, each contain a symbolic or allegorical picture. Arcana is a Latin word meaning mysterious or secret; the Italian word arcana, derived from the Latin, has the same meaning. The trumps are also known as atouts in French and atutti in Italian. Atouts denote cards of higher value than the rest, that is, a tous or a tutti, superior to all others.

Some researchers believe the word tarot derives from the term tarotee, the name applied to the design on the back of early cards – a multiple series of crisscrossing solid or dotted lines in varying widths. However, it is likely that the word tarotee itself was derived from tarocchi since the use of the word tarocchipredates that of the word tarotee. In the statutes of the guild of card makers of Paris in the year 1594 the cartiers called themselves tarotiers, another form of the word tarot.

The origins of playing cards – both the twenty-two Major Arcana and the fifty-six suited cards – remain obscure. An early pack of suited cards – perhaps the earliest extant deck – is the hand-painted German “Hunting” pack of Stuttgart, which dates from about 1420-1430 and contains no trumps. These cards depict a hunting series with dogs, stags, ducks and falcons for suit signs. The earliest Visconti-Sforza tarocchicards also date from this period. The following are some of the popular theories advanced during the past several centuries regarding the possible origin of tarocchi cards.


Prior to recorded history, prehistoric man developed various systems of oral culture and tradition based upon a subtle knowledge of astronomy and calendric counters. It is generally believed that early man carefully observed the sidereal phases of the day, month and year, and the changing positions of the planets. These were astronomical events he could easily study and he recorded these events by calendric counters such as markings on a stretched piece of animal hide, engravings or scratchings on a bone, and notches on a tree branch. Important cultural events were eventually expressed in metaphorical and allegorical forms as myths, legends and fables, which were verbally transmitted from generation to generation over periods of time extending many thousands and even tens of thousands of years.

Some fragments of these early oral traditions survived into recorded time in the form of popular myths and beliefs. For example, the devil is an antlered figure associated with sorcery and evil, and the hermit is a hooded figure holding a candle and representing the winter solstice. Both these figures are found in the Major Arcana of the tarot pack. Many of the pictorial images on the Major Arcana cards have been distorted by time and the ignorance of their interpreters. Thus, most tarot pictures as popularized during the past five hundred years are unrecognizable in terms of early myths and oral culture. Literal interpretations of many early myths are the basis of numerous superstitions and ceremonies practiced today by religious groups, fraternal orders, secret societies and followers of the occult.

Some scholars including Arthur Corwin, who has been researching the subject since the 1960’s, view the allegorical symbolism of tarot cards as pictorial metaphors that express the preoccupation of early man with the task of timekeeping. The calendar was an important point of reference to early man. He kept accurate records of the celestial changes that occurred on a daily, monthly and annual basis. He observed the precession of the equinox, the astronomical motions of the stars and planets, and other repetitive events. The calendar was used as a means of survival, including planning for winter food storage, preparing necessary shelter, communicating on a daily basis with other human beings and recording the length of time required for birth. . .”