The Tarot

History of Tarot

The tarot, now standardized as a deck of 78 pictorial cards, is a popular tool for divination among practitioners of modern Wicca as well as other folk. The English word, tarot, is a French derivation of the Italian tarocchi. The original Italian name was trionfi, meaning "trumps" or "triumphs."

The first evidence of the existence of these cards can be traced back to 14th century Italy, where they were originally used as a card game. Covelluzzo, a 15th century chronicler, related that in 1379 a game of cards was introduced into Viterbo. Indeed, the oldest tarot decks still preserved in museums date from the time of the Italian Renaissance. Apparently, the "Game of Triumphs" or carte de trionfi was played with rules similar to the modern game, Bridge.

It was a French archaeologist, Antoine Court de Gebelin, in Le Monde Primitif (published between 1773 and 1782) who postulated the erroneous, but romantic, notion that the tarot preserved the wisdom of the legendary Book of Thoth and these cards were brought by Gypsies from ancient Egypt to Europe. An equally romantic 20th century occult notion was that the modern tarot cards were pictorial renditions of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The Romany, or Gypsies, were from India, not Egypt, and did not arrive in Europe until the 15th century, 100 years after the tarot appeared.

The first tarot decks were hand-drawn or painted for noble houses in Italy. The artist, Bonifcio Bembo, for example, was commissioned by Filippo Maria Visconti, the Duke of Milan, and Franceso Sforza (the husband of Visconti's illigitimate daughter) sometime between 1420 and 1440 to create a deck. This deck is now known as the Visconti-Sforza deck. The drawings in the Italian Rennaissance featured figures taken from Rennaissance and Medieval stories and courtly life. Many images in the Visconti-Sforza deck may have been designed after Visconti or Sforza family members. The Visconti-Sforza deck did depict family heraldric devices, such as the Visconti family motto, bon droyt, meaning "by legitimate right."

There is historical evidence, however, that the cards were eventually used by ordinary people. Less costly decks were reproduced by techniques using woodcuts, stencils, and copper engraving. Indeed, the term, tarocchi, which is still in use in Italy today, may have derived from taroccare, a technique for stamping designs (tara) into sheets of gold.

By the 16th century, the popularity of the game spread to northern Italy, where an unknown artist created the deck now known in English as Marseilles Tarots, as Tarocchi Marsiglies in Italian, and Les Tarots Marseilles in French. During the 16th century, the popular Marseilles Tarots, spread the recognizable tarot iconography throughout Europe.

There is no definite record of divination with the cards before the 18th century. However, there are some hints that the tarot may have been used purposes other than gaming prior to that time. In 1589, the Venetian courts recorded evidence of the use of tarot cards on a witch's altar, apparently in a spell. Pierre del'Ancre, in 1622 wrote, "It is a type of divination of certain people who take the images and place them in the presence of certain demons or spirits that they have summoned, so that those images will instruct them on the things that they want to know."

In 18th century France, there were finally clear references linking the cards to magical practice and divination. There were three influential books. In 1770, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, under his nom de plume, "Etteila," published a book, Etteilla, ou maniere de se recreer avec un jeu de cartes (translated as Etteila, or Way to Entertain Yourself with a Deck of Cards), describing a system of divination using the piquet gaming deck. In a list of other methods of fortune telling, Etteila also briefly mentions the "les Tartaux." In the nine volume collection, Le Monde Primitif (published between 1773 and 1782), many subjects of antiquity were discussed including a description of how the tarot cards could be read by using a layout adapted from a model that was supposedly used by the ancient Egyptian priests. In 1785, the book, Maniere de se recreer avec le jeu de cartes nomees Tarots (translated as How to Entertain Yourself With the Deck of Cards Called Tarot) was published by Etteilla. Etteilla provided directions of how to use the tarot cards for divination by laying them out in a spread. He discussed the meaning of the cards. Although this book was published after Gebellin's book, Le Monde Primitif, Etteilla wrote that he had been studying tarot since 1757 and had learned the art of cartomancy from an Italian who divulged the secrets of his folk tradition to him. Like Gebellin, Etteilla believed that tarot was ultimately Egyptian in origin. He conjectured that the tarot was 2,125 years old in 1757, as it had been created 1,828 years after the creation of the world.

Probably due to the success of his books on fortune telling, Etteilla was the first to design a tarot deck specifically used as a divination tool. He assigned each card a pre-described meaning, which would be interpreted according to its place in the layout of the spread. Interestingly, some of the divinitory interpretations described by Etteilla are still in use in some decks today.

Those three influential above did revitalize the popularity of tarot with the French aristocracy through cartomancy. Nevertheless, in the early 18th century tarot cards still remained popular among the lower classes of France and Italy, although gaming with tarot had ceased to be fashionable with the nobility. Local villages continued to produce the Marseilles Tarots as well as other regional versions.

Although it is not known when the Italian Streghe began using the cards in divination, it is possible that they may have been using them for this purpose around this time or earlier. Etteilla claimed he learned a folk tradition of divination from an Italian.

It is also possible that the Romany had likewise been using the cards for cartomancy and other magical purposes. It is also possible the wandering Romany may be credited with helping spread the use of tarot as a divination tool, especially among the lower class.

Other early Italian decks which may have contributed to the development of our modern tarot pack are:

Meaning of Tarot

The modern tarot is divided into two parts: the Minor Arcana and the Major Arcana. The Minor Arcana is comprised of 56 cards, which are divided into four suits: cups, pentacles, wands and swords. Pentacles are sometimes called Pantacles or Coins. The Major Arcana, or trumps, comprise 22 cards. The trumps of the Major Arcana apparently relate back to the original Italian name, trionfi. The entire deck is highly symbolic. Over the centuries--especially with the creation of highly specialized or focused decks--symbolism has been built up layer upon layer.

Whole books have been written about the intricacies of tarot cards, which I do not have space to explore fully here. I advise anyone interested in reading the tarot to study whatever literature comes with the deck which she or he has purchased. If one is so inclined, then check out one or more books on the subject. Ultimately, one's intuition is the most valuable guide.

How to Lay Out or Spread Tarot for Cartomancy

There are numerous patterns in which the cards can be laid out. There is no one pattern which is superior to the others, although each cartomant Reader, or cartomancer, will certainly have her or his favorite spreads.

I have heard of people laying out 29 cards to study possible patterns in a cycle from one full moon to the next. There is also a Four-Week Forecast spread consisting of a layout of 13 cards, which observes cycles in a month. Each of the 7-day weeks is represented by three cards; the 13th card represents the Querient.

I have also attended festivities during the Wiccan Samhain, the Witches' New Year, in which each participant drew a single card to represent an omen for the coming year.

Below are two spreads.

Standard Modern Spread


This 10-card spread is one of the most popular for Tarot divination. It is similar to a method described in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot, which Arthur Edward Waite described as an Ancient Celtic method. The person seeking an answer to a question is known as the questioner or Querient.

You may select a Significator card who will represent the Querient, that person who is making the inquiry, or you may allow for a random Significator. Shuffle the cards and lay them out face up according to the order indicated in the illustration.

  1. The Significator, which represents the Querient
  2. Immediate influences, possible obstacles
  3. Goal or message from your higher self, a destiny
  4. Distant past or a foundation
  5. Recent past events affecting the present
  6. Future influences affecting the present, what is coming into action
  7. The search and the Querient's relation to the matter
  8. Environmental factors
  9. Inner emotions, the Querient's hopes and fears, possible obstacles
  10. The final outcome of the reading

Quick Five Card Spread

5 cards

  1. The Significator, which represents the Querient. In a 5-card quick spread, the Significator card is always chosen randomly along with the rest of the layout.
  2. Past influences
  3. Environmental factors
  4. Intended goal, or emotional influences
  5. Final result of the reading

The Function of Cartomancy

"Contrary to popular belief, the Tarot does not, in any way, forecast the future. Instead it gives us choices and allows pause for thought." --Dorothy Morrison, Everyday Tarot Magic, Meditations and Spells, 2002 (p. 7)

A rational individual will question the usefulness of information gleaned from picture cards randomly laid out in certain patterns on a flat surface. Tarot cards are as useful or as useless as any other form of divination.

The value of the cards directly relates to their randomness and the Querient's intuitive response to them. Roger von Oech, in A Wack on the Side of the Head, 1998, wrote:

Many cultures have developed tools that take advantage of our ability to make sense out of ambiguous situations. These tools are called oracles.... Traditionally, the purpose of using these oracles was not so much to foretell the future as it was to enable the user to delve deeper into his own intuition when dealing with a problem. (p. 143)
Oech then related the following story:
There once was an Indian medicine man whose responsibilities included creating hunting maps for his tribe. Whenever game got sparse, he'd lay a piece of fresh leather out in the sun to dry. Then he'd fold and twist it in his hands, say a few prayers over it, and smooth it out. The rawhide was now crisscrossed with lines and wrinkles. The medicine man marked some basic reference points on the rawhide, and--presto!--a new game map was created. The wrinkles represented new trails the hunters should follow. When the hunters followed the map's newly defined trails, they invariably discovered abundant game.

Moral: By allowing the rawhide's random folds to represent hunting trails, he pointed the hunters to places they previously had not looked. (p. 146)

Another shamanic method for securing knowledge about the location of game animals was to scorch the bones from a recent hunt and examine the cracks in the bones. The random pattern of the cracks indicated in what direction game animals could be found.

Hunters sought intuitive advice from their shamans. A Querient--or person with a question--sought out advice from a cartomant Reader--someone who could intuitively read the symbolism of the picture cards and their relation to each other. I suspect one reason a Querient sought advice from a Reader is one could freely discuss certain things one would not discuss with a priest or minister. A cartomant Reader could become a trusted confidant on sensitive issues, especially in matters of the heart.

Rosemary Ellen Guiley, in Moonscapes (1991), wrote:

Ideally, the Tarot is not consulted for "yes" or "no" answers, but for insight into situation and forces in motion. Skillful reading requires good intuition, an ability governed by the moon herself. Besides divination, the Tarot is used in meditation and creative visualization exercises as a means of personal growth. (p. 138)
It is for that reason while you, as a Querient, may wish to find an ethical and intuitive Reader, to help you mull over situations that logically have you stymied, you may prefer to "read for yourself."

The practice of reading the cards for yourself was, at one time, considered to be inadvisable. Personally I suspect this notion arose from some less than scrupulous fortune tellers who encouraged the use of only paid, professional Readers.

The reading of tarot itself is alikened to a journey. Moving through possibilities relating to the present, future, and past. Indeed, the Major Arcana cards have been viewed as representations of the mystic's journey to enlightenment. The cards can also be used as a random idea germinator.

The absolutely most important thing is not to become dependent on the cards for every decision in your life. Over-consult the cards and they will cease to be random. It is possible to become emotionally adicted to any sort of decision maker. That is the wrong way to use tarot. You are in charge of the cards. The cards are not in charge of you.

Use in Magical Spells

Numerous modern writers have explained how tarot cards can be used as a focal point in a spell.

A wholly modern Wiccan prosperity ritual, for example, used the six of pentacles, a silver taper, six dimes, and a jar to use as a spare money jar. On the night of a full moon, a Wiccan caught the rays of the full moon in her jar. Indoors, by the candlelight of the silver taper, she cast a circle and invoked Aradia. The six dimes were placed in the money jar with the six of pentacles underneath.

Artwork varies from deck to deck, but the symbolic meaning of the six of pentacles often is vigilance and attention to money, material gain, present prosperity, gifts, careful generosity and equal distribution.

After reciting a short affirmation about her intention for the coins to grow, the Wiccan finished the ritual by thanking the moon Goddess and erasing the circle.

During the next 29 days, she will daily add coins or even dollars to the money jar: possibly with a statement, "Rather than spend $4.25 today on a iced mocha latte, I will add it to my jar."

The tarot card in this spell served as a focal point for vigilance and careful attention to one's own money.

Charles G. Leland, in the late 19th century recorded some older Italian spells involving tarot cards. The one below has been gleaned from Etruscan Roman Remains.

Jano is a spirit with two heads and whoever desires a favor from them should invoke both. To do so, he must take two cards of a Tarocco pack, generally the wheel of fortune and the diavolo indiavolate, and put them on the iron frame of the bed.

Apparently Jano, originally the Roman Janus, was asked to provide an answer in a dream, an old divination practice known as incubation. The Roman Janus was the guardian of doors and gateways. His double-faced image on coins thus enabled him to look forward and backward, possibly also in time. His wife, Jana, was "queen of secrets."

Tarot Moon Card Meditation

Similar meditations may be done with any of the tarot cards, and some people may find it useful to study them all.

Dim the lights; perhaps light a purple candle for illumination.

Study the Moon card and its symbolic iconography. Artwork varies from deck to deck, but generally the Moon card depicts the following scene: a face, on the waxing crescent moon, visible on the moon's disk, surveying a rivulet running through a valley between two towers. Two dogs bay at the moon while a crustacean is visible in the water's edge of an ocean or lake. Moonlit droplets are often visible in the air, probably representing dew collescing in the night air.

The Moon card is not always a positive card in a tarot deck. The Moon represents a half-lit world of illusions and the realm of dreams. This is also the realm of intuition, imagination, and the subconscious. The crustacean in the water may represent ideas emerging from the primal ocean bottom. The baying dogs may represent a real or illusory danger. Moonlight creates shadows as well as illuminating a path along a stream. One of the messages of the Moon card is things are not always what they seem either logically or intuitively. It would be wise to examine one's perceptions before acting hastily.

To meditate on the Moon card, visualize yourself entering the scene from the left. The night air is cool. Little clumps of grass grow between the dry, rocky ground beneath your feet. It appears the grass is greener down by the rivulet, but up here by the tall, stone tower, the ground is dry. The moon's dew is beginning to coalesce from the night air on the tower stones and on the rocky ground, bringing much needed moisture to the soil. What color are the stones of the towers? How does the light of the pale orb of the night affect the colors around you? Listen to the dogs howling. Does it sound like they are singing to the moon like wolves? Or are they barking in the night because they hear or smell some unseen enemy? Let images flow freely. The moon's light illuminates a path down toward the water. Follow it, if you wish, to the water. In the water, one may see one's most veiled dreams and hidden fears. Perhaps a reflection of the moon's light on the water will be visible.

When you feel you have learned all that is necessary for now, return back out of the left side of the card.


What does Aradia have to do with the tarot? Aside from the fact that both Aradia and tarot are Italian, one of the powers that Aradia gifted her followers with was "to divine with cards."

The Italian tarot cards first appeared in the 14th century. According to some Wiccan lore, Aradia may have lived in the 14th century. At least one modern Wiccan tradition about Aradia claimed that she was born into a noble house rather than a wealthy merchant household. Thus Aradia, as the daughter of a 14th century nobleman, may have discovered how to divine with these playing cards and may have later passed this knowledge onto her students. The key word in that sentence is may. I would be remiss not to point out otherwise.

For another point of view, see Tarot Speculation. Apparently some practitioners view the Italian tarot cards as revealing some of the teachings of Aradia.

Others have used the statements about tarot in Leland's Aradia to date the described magic system to the 17th or 18th century. These people point out the tarot was probably not available for ordinary people prior to that.

It is true that at some point the streghe of Italy discovered these cards were ideal for divination.


Alexandra Diaz, A Tradition of Triumphs, the History of Tarot, Mysteries Magazine, vol. 3, #2, issue #9, 2005.

Elizabeth Geneo, Learning Tarot: A Manageable Approach in Lllewellyn's 2005 Tarot Reader, 2004.

Mary K. Greer, The Birth of Tarot in Llewellyn's 2005 Tarot Reader, 2004.

Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Moonscapes, 1991.

Elizabeth Hazel, The Four-Week Forecast Spread in Llewellyn's 2005 Tarot Reader, 2004.

Stuart R. Kaplan, Introduction in the booklet for The Rider Tarot Deck, 1971, revised 2002.

Dorothy Morrison, Everyday Tarot Magic, Meditation and Spells, 2002.

Lo Scarabeo, Learning Tarots in the booklet for the Tarots of Marseille deck, 2000.

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