What Are Tarot Cards?
Tarot cards are the oldest form of playing cards in Europe. They were made in Italy in the late 14th Century. The name comes from tarocchi, a game played with a 78-card pack in which there are four suits. The emblems of these suits symbolized the four “estates” into which society was divided—the church (represented by a chalice), the nobility (by a sword), the merchants (by money) and the peasants (by clubs). Each suit contains 14 cards, the additional card being the valet.
As well as the four suits, there are 21 numbered trump cards and the joker card (il Pazzo). The first five cards are the magician, the high priestess, the empress, the emperor and the Pope. These are called the grands atouts (big trumps).
The last five cards, the star, the moon, the sun, judgment and the world, are the petits atouts (little trumps). The remainder of the atouts consists of the lovers, the chariot, justice, the hermit, the wheel of fortune, the hanged man, death, temperance, the devil and the tower. From this list you can see how tarot cards came to be used not just for game but also as a way of telling fortunes. In fortune telling the position of a card is all important. A death card upright means a need for change, the beginning of a new phase.
If the card is reversed, it means that the subject cannot make any change. He has reached an impasse in his affairs. The devil upright means an urge to give way to temptations. Reversed, the card means a repressed character. A 56-card pack evolved from the tarot pack. Then came the English and French 52-card pack, the Spanish 48-card pack and the German 32-card pack. The tarot symbols are still used in these shortened packs.
Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century, most likely from Mamluk Egypt, with suits of Batons or Polo sticks (commonly known as Wands by those practicing occult or divinatory tarot), Coins (commonly known as disks, or pentacles in occult or divinatory tarot), Swords, and Cups. These suits were very similar to modern tarot divination decks and are still used in traditional Italian, Spanish and Portuguese playing card decks.
The first documented tarot packs 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.
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. 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 Greek 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”. Other early decks that also showcased classical motifs include the Sola-Busca and Boiardo-Viti decks of the 1490s.
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. 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, no routine condemnations of tarot were found during its early history.
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 important tarot pattern used in these two countries was the Tarot of Marseilles of Milanese origin.