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Tarot (Tar-oh) is a system of symbolism and philosophy consisting of a set of 78 images, normally embodied in a deck of cards similar to a regular set of game-playing cards (see playing card). In the English speaking world, they are most often encountered as a form of cartomancy. There also exist in France a card game known as Tarot played with a 78-card set with similarities both to usual card sets and to cartomancy Tarot card sets. This is the most usual acception of the word tarot in France.

The earliest extant examples of Tarot decks are of Italian origin and roughly date back to the 15th century, when they were used to play the game of Tarocchi. In the course of its development it became connected to cartomancy and thence to occult studies. The set of 78 images, rich with symbolic meaning, is considered by students of this “occult” or “esoteric” Tarot (tarotists practising tarotism) to be independent of the particular representation as a deck of cards; consequently they focus on the study of the images (and their symbolic meanings) as distinct from any particular instance. In addition to its philosophical and divinatory uses, Tarot is also used as an aid to meditation. The occult associations of Tarot are considered taboo in some competing philosophical circles. Strict forms of Christianity, for example, may be incompatible with Tarot or any other occult studies.


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 at outs 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 tarocchi predates 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. [2]


The oldest surviving Tarot cards are three mid-15th century sets all made for members of the Visconti family, rulers of Milan. The oldest existing Tarot deck was painted to celebrate a mid-15th century wedding joining the ruling Visconti and Sforza families of Milan, probably painted by Bonifacio Bembo and other miniaturists of the Ferrara school. Of the original cards, 35 are in the Pierpont-Morgan Library, 26 cards are at the Accademia Carrara, 13 are at the Casa Colleoni, 4 cards being lost (the Devil, the Tower, the Three of Swords, and the Knight of Coins). This “Visconti-Sforza” deck, which has been widely reproduced in varying quality, combines the Minor Arcana (the original suits of (Swords, Wands, Pentacles & Cups, and face cards King, Queen, Knave and Page) with Major Arcana that apparently combine already traditional iconography with considerable artistic license, a sign that the original significance of the designs was already lost. More simply-drawn decks survive from Marseilles, France, from the early 16th century.

It is believed by many that the Tarot is far older than this. Based on similarities of the imagery and numbering, some associate the Tarot with ancient Egypt, or the Hebrew mystic tradition of the Kabbalah, with the heretical Cathars of Languedoc and Piedmont, where the Tarot first appeared, or a wide variety of other origins. This is all, however, pure mythology. In fact, study of the iconography of the earliest tarots via standard comparative-historical methods suffices to pin their origin down to very near the time and place of the original Visconti deck; that is, Northern Italy in the early Renaissance period. We can, for example, place their origin after the Black Death, because the skeletal-death-with-a-scythe motif found on effectively all versions of Trump XIII does not predate the plagues. Before then, skulls in pictorial art were primarily a symbol of scholarship and learning.

In fact, the earliest Tarots seem to have been depictions of the carnival parades that ushered in the season of Lent. These elaborate productions layered then-fashionable Graeco-Roman symbolism over a Christian allegory of sin, grace, and redemption; notably, the earliest versions of the World card (the final Trump, XXI) show a conventional image known from period religious art to represent St. Augustine’s “Heavenly City”, and it is not coincidence that this closely follows the Judgement card. Several other early Tarot-like sequences of portable art survive to place the Visconti deck in context. Later confusion about the symbolism stems from the Marseilles decks, which began a process of steadily paganizing and universalizing the symbolism to the point where the underlying Christian allegory has been almost completely obscured (as, for example, when the Rider-Waite deck of the early Twentieth Century changed “The Pope” to “The Hierophant” and “The Popess” to “The High Priestess”) It is notable that between 1450 and 1500 the Tarot was actually recommended for the instruction of the young by Church moralists (reference is urgently needed here); not until fifty years after the Visconti deck did it become associated with gambling, and not until the 19th century and “Etteila” with occultism. In the Anglo-Saxon world today, the Tarot is usually seen as a means of fortune-telling. However, early references such as the sermon refer only to the use of the cards for game-playing and gambling; and in some European countries such as France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany; this is still seen as the primary purpose of the Tarot today. The relationship between Tarot cards and playing cards is often said to be unclear, but in fact the history is tolerably well documented. Playing cards are first recorded in 1321 in a Swiss monastic chronicle that notes their recent importation from the Orient; they thus predated the earliest Tarots by a century. They may have evolved by mutation from circular cards used in India to play a wargame called “Chaturanga” (“Four Kings”); some very early decks, including one preserved in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, were circular. Early European sources describe a 52- rather than 78-card deck, like a modern deck but without jokers. 78-card Tarots were what happened when the 21 Trumps were merged into early 52-card gambling decks. Why this happened is not completely clear, but there is some evidence that it may have been done as an end-run around anti-gambling laws that targeted the 52-card deck.

The Tarot cards eventually came to be associated with mysticism and magic. This was actually a late rather than early development, as we can tell from period sources on card divination and magic. The Tarot was not widely adopted by mystics, occultists and secret societies until the 18th and 19th century. The tradition began in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman and Freemason, published Le Monde Primitif, a study of religious symbolism and its survivals in the modern world. De Gébelin first called attention to the unusual symbols of the Tarot de Marseille, and asserted that the symbols in fact represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth. De Gébelin furthermore claimed that the name “tarot” came from the Egyptian words tar, meaning “royal”, and ro, meaning “road”, and that the Tarot therefore represented a “royal road” to wisdom. De Gébelin wrote before Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, and later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language that supports de Gébelin’s fanciful etymologies, but these findings came too late; by the time authentic Egyptian texts were available, the identification of the Tarot cards with the Egyptian “Book of Thoth” was already firmly established in occult practice. It was first practically applied by a charlatan named Alliette, aka “Le Grand Etteilla”, an ex-barber who reversed his name and marketed himself as a seer and card diviner in the Paris of the French Revolution. Etteilla designed the first esoteric Tarot deck, adding astrological attributions to various cards, altering many of them from the Marseilles designs, and adding divinatory meanings in text on the cards. The Etteilla decks, though now eclipsed by Smith and Waite’s illuminated deck and Aleister Crowley’s “Thoth” deck, remains available. Etteilla’s best known successor was Marie-Anne Le Normand, whose cartomancy became fashionable during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, due largely to the influence Le Normand wielded with Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s first wife. After the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon kings, interest in cartomancy declined.

Interest by more serious occultists came later, during the Hermetic Revival of the 1840s in which (among others) Victor Hugo was involved. The idea of the cards as a mystical key was first seriously developed by Eliphas Levi and passed to the English-speaking world by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Levi, not Etteilla, is the true founder of most contemporary schools of Tarot reading; his 1854 Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (English title: Transcendental Magic) introduced a new system for interpreting the cards. While Levi accepted Court de Gébelin’s claims about an Egyptian origin of the deck symbols, he rejected Etteilla’s innovations and his altered deck, and devised instead a system which related the Tarot to the Kabbalah and the four elements of alchemy. The breakthrough into mass popularity began in 1910, with the publication of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot and the book The Pictorial key to the Tarot, which took the step of including symbolic images in the minor as well the major arcana. (Arthur Edward Waite had been an early member of the Golden Dawn) In the twentieth century, a huge number of different decks were created, some traditional, some wildly different.

Commentary on Tarot

In his book A Key To The Wisdom Of The Ages Paul Foster Case mentions the following:

“The Tarot is a book, disguised as a pack of cards. Fiftysix of its seventy-eight pages are called minor trumps. These are divided into four suits, distinguished by emblems like those on Spanish or Mexican playing-cards. The names of the suits are: Scepters or Wands; Cups; Swords; Coins or Pentacles. In the seventeenth century, French card-makers altered these, the original suitemblems, to the Clubs, Hearts, Spades and Diamonds familiar to everybody. Basically, the suits represent the four worlds, or planes, mentioned in Chapter I. The wands (clubs) correspond to the archetypal world, to the element fire, and to I in IHVH. The cups (hearts) correspond to the creative world, to the element water, and to the first H in IHVH. The swords (spades) correspond to the formative world, to the. element air, and to the V in IHVH. The coins or pentacles (diamonds) correspond to the material world, to the element earth, and to the second H in IHVH. In each suit are ten minor trumps, numbered consecutively from Ace to Ten. Thus the meaning of any numbered card in the minor trumps may be determined by combining the meanings of its number with the characteristics of the world represented by its suit. All the Twos, for example, suggest duplication, alternation and the like, and every one of them has some relation to the idea of Wisdom. So with the other numbered cards. Besides the numbered cards, every suit of minor trumps contains four courtcards, instead of the three found in modern packs of playing-cards.

They are:

KING, symbol of Spirit, the essential Self in man;
QUEEN, symbol of Soul, the inner “pattern” part of a particular human personality;
KNIGHT, symbol of that particular focus of energies, and of the
personal sense of selfhood, which constitutes the Ego seated
in the heart of a particular human personality;
PAGE, symbol of body, the personal vehicle of a particular human being.

The King of Wands is the idea of Spirit, the Queen of Wands the idea of Soul, the Knight of Wands the idea of personal energies, and the idea of what may be called
“Egoity,” the Page of Wands the idea of body. Similarly, the courtcards of Cups symbolize the patterns of Spirit, Soul, personal energies, and body; those of Swords
stand for the processes required to the manifestation of Spirit, Soul, personal energies, and body; those of Coins or Pentacles represent the actualized manifestation of Spirit, Soul, personal energies and body in a particular human being.

Tarot Cards

The Major Arcana ( Trump )

The Minor Arcana

The Minor Arcana (or Lesser Arcana) are the 56 suit cards of the 78-card deck of tarot cards. The Minor Arcana comprise four suits with 14 cards each. Although there are variations, the Minor Arcana commonly employ the Italo-Spanish suits: Wands (alternatively, batons, clubs, or staves), cups, swords, and pentacles (alternatively, coins, disks, or rings). In contrast, the corresponding French suits are clubs (♣), hearts (♥), spades (♠), and diamonds (♦).

The Suit of Wands:

The Wands represent the element of Fire, the world of Atziluth and Chiah of the soul. Atziluth is the world of pure emanation, the world which flows…

  • Ace of Wands – The roots of the power of fire
  • Two of Wands – Dominion
  • Three of Wands – Virtue
  • Four of Wands – Completion
  • Five of Wands – Strife
  • Six of Wands – Victory
  • Seven of Wands – Valour
  • Eight of Wands – Swiftness
  • Nine of Wands – Strength
  • Ten of Wands – Oppression
  • Knight of Wands – Lord of Flame and Lightning
  • Queen of Wands – Queen of the thrones of flame
  • Prince of Wands – Prince of the chariot of fire
  • Princess of Wands – Princess of the shining flame


The Suit of Swords:

The Swords represent the element of Air, the world of Yetzirah, Ruach in soul. Yetzirah is the world of formation, of synthesis and analysis…

  • Ace of Swords – The roots of the powers of Air
  • Two of Swords – Peace
  • Three of Swords – Sorrow
  • Four of Swords – Truce
  • Five of Swords – Defeat
  • Six of Swords – Science
  • Seven of Swords – Futility
  • Eight of Swords – Interference
  • Nine of Swords – Cruelty
  • Ten of Swords – Ruin
  • Knight of Swords – Lord of the Winds and Breezes
  • Queen of Swords – Queen of the thrones of Air
  • Prince of Swords – Prince of the chariot of the winds
  • Princess of Swords – Princess of the rushing winds


The Suit of Cups:

The Cups represent the element of Water, the world of Briah, Neshamah of the soul. Briah translates as “creation”, and like Neshamah…

  • Ace of Cups – The root of the powers of water
  • Two of Cups – Love
  • Three of Cups – Abundance
  • Four of Cups – Luxury
  • Five of Cups – Disappointment
  • Six of Cups – Pleasure
  • Seven of Cups – Debauch
  • Eight of Cups – Indolence
  • Nine of Cups – Happiness
  • Ten of Cups – Satiety
  • Knight of Cups – Lord of waves and waters
  • Queen of Cups – Queen of the thrones of water
  • Prince of Cups – Prince of the chariot of waters
  • Princess of Cups – Princess of the palace of the floods


The Suit of Disks :

The Disks represent the element of the Earth, the world of Assiah, Nefesh in soul. Assiah is the world of making, literally translated as ‘action’, the actual material area…

  • Ace of Disks – The root of the powers of Earth
  • Two of Disks – Change
  • Three of Disks – Works
  • Four of Disks – Power
  • Five of Disks – Worry
  • Six of Disks – Success
  • Seven of Disks – Failure
  • Eight of Disks – Prudence
  • Nine of Disks – Gain
  • Ten of Disks – Wealth
  • Knight of Disks – Lord of the wild and fertile land
  • Queen of Disks – Queen of the thrones of Earth
  • Prince of Disks – Prince of the chariot of the Earth
  • Princess of Disks – Princess of the echoing hills




[1]. The tarot, Thelemapedia: The Encyclopedia of Thelema, accessed May 2020.

[2]. Regardie, Israel.The complete Golden Dawn System of Magic, Llewelyn Publications (1999).

[x]. Regardie, Israel. A Garden of Pomagranates: Skrying on the Tree of Life , Llewelyn Publications (1999).

[x]. Regardie, Israel.The Tree of Life: An Illustrated Study in Magic. Llewelyn Publications (2000).

[x]. Crowley, Aleister. (1981). The Book of Thoth. New York, S. Weiser.


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