Dec 08, 2022 Last Updated 5:41 PM, Feb 19, 2020

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What is the Tarot? An introduction to the deck

Most modern tarot decks consist of 78 cards. These are divided into two sections: the 56 cards (or four suits) of the Minor Arcana, or ‘lesser secrets’, and the mysterious Major Arcana, or ‘greater secrets’.  It is these 22 images, that include The Hanged Man, Death, The Sun, and The Star, which give the tarot its beguiling, intriguing reputation.



Looking at the Minor Arcana

But the Minor Arcana contains its own mysteries. It is, at first glance, very similar to the playing card deck we’re all familiar with. There are four suits – Wands – sometimes called Staves or Batons; Pentacles – also called Coins or Discs; Swords, and Cups. Each suit has numbered cards from Ace to ten, plus four court cards – King, Queen, Knight and Page or Princess. The symbols representing each suit are found in myths, legends, and in domestic playing cards too. So, Wands correspond to Clubs, Pentacles to Diamonds, Hearts to Cups, and Spades to Swords. 

Symbolically, these suits correspond to the four magical treasures of Ireland’s Tuatha de Danaan (the legendary ‘people of the goddess Dana’). These were: a cauldron (Cups), a spear (Wands), a stone (Pentacles/Discs/Coins) and a sword (Swords). In Hindu art similar mystical symbols are the cup, sceptre, ring and sword.  The implacable Greek goddess of fate herself, Nemesis, also had symbolic attributes including a cup, a wand of apple-wood, a wheel and a sword.  These symbols also connect with the four elements of the ancient world – fire, earth, air and water.


Introducing the Major Arcana

The elusive, mysterious Major Arcana is the subject of much debate, interpretation, and research. Imaginative, romantic theories surround them – ancient Egypt, gypsies, or the great library at Alexandria have all been claimed as popular sources for these images. What seem to be the earliest cards we have, of which 17 remain, date from 1392.  The earliest full deck which survives today was painted by Bonifacio Bembo thirty years later. They were specially commissioned by the Duke of Milan, and are known as the Visconti Deck, after his family name.

So we cannot say tarot cards existed prior to the 1300s. But the ideas, symbols and beliefs behind these images are not as recent as the cards themselves. So the idea that these cards represent a pictorial book of esoteric teaching, subversive history, and Gnostic ideas seems viable. Some of the images, such as the Wheel of Fortune or The Magician, were not only familiar to the medieval mind, but are found all over the world in various mythologies. 

Medieval Europe was a very dangerous place for heretics. By recording secret philosophies and ideas visually, those who wanted to pass on their ideas might have imagined they had found a safe way to do so. Additionally, during the Renaissance, a practice called ars memorativa flourished. These were pictorial memory systems, and formed an integral part of the whole occult movement of the time. The idea, adapted from Ancient Greek culture, was intended to aid meditation and tap deeper levels of consciousness. Tarot cards are still used as a focus for contemplation today, further strengthening this attractive and probably accurate theory.


by Jane Lyle

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