What is Tarot?

Jane Harmon
Jane Harmon
Tarot cards are most often used in fortune telling.
Tarot cards are most often used in fortune telling.

The Tarot is a deck of cards now commonly used in 'fortune telling', or divination. Divination using cards is called cartomancy. The deck consists of four numbered suits like a regular deck of playing cards, and twenty two picture cards numbered one through twenty-two (in some decks, zero through twenty-one).

The cards appeared at roughly the same time as the now-universal 52-card deck, and it is a matter of dispute which came first. The Tarot deck has fourteen cards in each suit, versus thirteen for playing cards; the Tarot 'court cards' include a page along with the knight (knave), queen and king.

Tarot is associated with the occult.
Tarot is associated with the occult.

The twenty-two picture cards, now called the Major Arcana (the suited cards are the Minor Arcana), were originally permanent trump cards. That is, in a trick-taking game, any picture card would take a trick over a suit-card. They illustrate universal story themes; the Fool is a young man setting off on a journey with a pack insouciantly slung over his shoulder. He is often depicted not watching where he's going, and about to walk off the edge of a cliff, while a small dog yaps at his heels in warning. Other cards depict concepts rather than people - the wheel of fortune is fate or karma, and the figure of Judgment is justice in all its forms.

The suits have direct analogies to standard playing cards: swords are spades, cups are hearts, pentacles (coins, discs) are diamonds and wands (staves) are clubs.

The use of the Tarot as a tool for telling fortunes is of fairly recent invention, dating back to the end of the eighteenth century. The most familiar deck is the so-called Rider-Waite deck. The designs were by Arthur Waite, a member of the occult society Order of the Golden Dawn, in collaboration with artist Pamela Colman Smith, so the deck is sometimes called the Waite-Smith deck. It was first published by the Rider Company in 1909.

Hundreds of different Tarot decks now exist. Decks that downplay or remove the Christian symbolism are increasingly popular, and some feminist decks significantly downplay the male dominant roles found in traditional decks. Some decks have discarded the suit system altogether and are structured around different themes - animals in a Native American inspired deck, for example.

Uses for Tarot cards are varied. They can of course be used in a traditional fortune telling layout. But they can also be used as inspiration cards, affirmation tools, or for self-discovery and intuition building.

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Discussion Comments


The oldest known Tarot decks come from Italy and they are dated circa 1420. Judging from the best available evidence, it appears that standard playing cards are actually older than Tarot cards. People may have speculated that Tarot is older than the 1400s but there is no proof of it. I am also glad that Wisegeek updated this article to show that Tarot cards were used for game playing prior to their use in divination. It should be understood that Tarot is not exclusively a divination system. It is also a family of card games which are enjoyed today mainly in Europe.


the origin of the tarot card is unknown because there is no proof of whether or not they originated from europe.


I cannot believe this article does not mention anywhere that Tarot cards were created for playing a trick taking card game. Not only were Tarot cards created for playing a card game, Tarot card games are still played today in continental Europe. The article defines Tarot exclusively in terms of divination or fortune telling. This is not correct. This article is very biased in its definition of Tarot. There are also numerous misleading statements and inaccuracies. Not all of Tarot is occult.

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    • Tarot cards are most often used in fortune telling.
      By: Mivr
      Tarot cards are most often used in fortune telling.
    • Tarot is associated with the occult.
      By: Hunta
      Tarot is associated with the occult.