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A Brief History and Use of Tarot

Tarot as we are familiar with it today in the Western world originated in 15th century northern Italy initially as a playing card game known as tarrochini, featuring a variety of “triumph” or “trump” cards that would eventually come to be associated with the Major Arcana of the modern tarot deck. First popularized as a tool of divination around 1785 by French author and occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette, known by his pseudonym “Etteilla,” tarot garnered widespread traction through Etteilla’s psychic services using the cards and through his writings which established more or less standardized ideas such as assigning meaning to upright or reversed card positions and the delineation of different card spreads.

In 1910, scholar and occultist A. E. Waite released his own system of tarot, illustrated by fellow occultist and artist Pamela Colman-Smith. Widely known as the “Rider-Waite” deck—for the Rider Publishing Company who originally published the cards—or as the “Smith-Waite” deck, this version remains the most popular deck in modern use. The majority of decks published after are heavily influenced by the Smith-Waite deck in both design, structure, and symbolism, though they may vary in their artistic style or symbolic nuances. Many may also be familiar with the Thoth Deck, created by English ceremonial magician Aleister Crowley, founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical circle of which A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman-Smith were both members. The Thoth Deck features illustrations by a friend of Crowley, Lady Frieda Harris, and incorporates symbolism from a diverse range of disciplines: religion, history, philosophy, science, mathematics, etc.

The modern tarot deck is comprised of 78 cards divided into twenty-two Major Arcana cards and fifty-six Minor Arcana cards. The Major Arcana are the most widely known cards in popular culture and are ordered 0-21, beginning with The Fool and ending with The World. The illustrations of the Major Arcana are meant to depict an archetypal journey of the soul in stages of evolution, beginning in a state of innocent ignorance and culminating in the soul’s union with the world through knowledge and experience. The Minor Arcana are separated into 4 suits: Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles. Each suit is first ordered Ace through Ten and then features its own court: King, Queen, Knight, and Page. The Minor Arcana are meant to be read in divination as indicators of the subtleties of everyday life influencing larger events.

While various decks may use their own names for the cards belonging to the Major and Minor Arcana, the underlying system generally remains the same. The variety of tarot now widely available allows the potential reader to choose a deck whose particulars and uniqueness speaks to the way in which that individual spiritually connects to the world, empowering the reader to be tethered more deeply to their intuition and inner world through the use of the cards.


John Michael Greer, The New Encyclopedia of the Occult, Llewellyn Publications (2003)

Decker, Ronald, Thierry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett. A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 1996.

King, Francis X.,. Modern Ritual Magic: The Rise of Western Occultism (2nd ed.)

Wang, Robert (June 1987). The Qabalistic Tarot. Weiser Books

Duquette, Lon Milo (2003). Understanding Aleister Crowley's Thoth Tarot. Weise

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