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Tarot is a system of symbolism and philosophy popular in Western cultures; it is most often practiced as a form of cartomancy. It consists of a fixed set of 78 images, rich with symbolic meaning. The images are most often embodied in a deck of cards, though the study of Tarot (Tarotism, practiced by tarotists) focuses on the images (and their meanings) as distinct from any particular instance.

In addition to its philosophical and divinatory uses, Tarot is also used as an aid to meditation and as a card game. It is likely that the Tarot deck has its origins in the card game Tarocchi (alternately Taroc, Tarock), a 14th century game originally from Italy. As reported by Joseph Campbell, the earliest known deck did not come about until 1392.

The Tarot Deck

The 78-card deck is structured into two distinct sets, called the Minor Arcana and Major Arcana (arcana is the plural of the Latin word arcanum, meaning "hidden truth" or "secret knowledge"). Alternate names are the Minor Trumps and Major Trumps, or simply the Minors and the Trumps.

The Minor Arcana

The Minor Arcana consists of 56 cards, which are closely related to the deck of 52 playing cards used in most modern card games. It is comprised of four suits, most commonly named Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles, though there is a wide variety of different names and suit symbols used in different decks.

Each suit has 14 cards, being Ace (One), 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Page, Knight, Queen, King. These last four are called the court cards, and often have different names in different decks.

Modern decks often have the card named and numbered, though many resemble early decks in that there are no titles or numbers on the cards. The numbered cards usually have the appropriate number of symbols for the suit depicted, and the court cards usually have the corresponding person depicted holding the symbol of their suit.

Modern decks will often have a symbolic scene depicted on the numbered Minors, though this was never the case before the early 20th century when the Rider-Waite-Smith deck was published. Before this, the numbered cards of the Minors showed merely a geometric arrangement of the appropriate number of suit symbols.

The Major Arcana

The Major Arcana consists of 22 cards. Each depicts a scene, mostly featuring a person or several people, with many symbolic elements. In many decks, each has a number (usually in Roman numerals) and a name, though not all decks have both, and some have only a picture. The earliest decks bore unnamed and unnumbered pictures on the Majors (probably because a great many of the people using them at the time were illiterate), and the order of cards is not standardised. However, one of the most common set of names and numbers is as follows:

  • 0 - The Fool
  • I - The Magician
  • II - The High Priestess
  • III - The Empress
  • IV - The Emperor
  • V - The Hierophant
  • VI - The Lovers
  • VII - The Chariot
  • VIII - Strength
  • IX - The Hermit
  • X - The Wheel Of Fortune
  • XI - Justice
  • XII - The Hanged Man
  • XIII - Death
  • XIV - Temperance
  • XV - The Devil
  • XVI - The Tower
  • XVII - The Star
  • XVIII - The Moon
  • XIX - The Sun
  • XX - Judgement
  • XXI - The World

The images on the Major Arcana are often very heavy with symbolism; in more occult decks, there is far more to the illustration than a mere depiction of the card title. The Major Arcana are usually regarded as relating to matters of higher purpose or deep significance, as opposed to the Minor Arcana which relate to the everyday world and matters of immediate significance.

Differences between decks




The Great Cross ("Celtic Cross") Layout

Origin and History



New Age

Additional Resources

Out of print, but worth tracking down, The Game of Tarot by Michael Dummett ISBN: 0715610147 is a history of the Tarot, and a compilation of Tarot card games.