Any of a set of cards used in fortune-telling and in certain card games. Claims have been made for tarot cards' having originated in China, India, orEgypt, but their true origin remains obscure. Tarot cards approximating their present form first appeared in Italy and France in the late 14th century.
Early tarot decks were of several types, each varying in the number of cards. The standard modern tarot deck is based on the Venetian or Piedmontese tarot. It consists of 78 cards divided into two groups: the Major Arcana, which has 22 cards (also known as trumps), and the Minor Arcana, which has 56 cards. The cards of the Major Arcana have pictures representing various forces, characters, virtues, and vices. The 22 cards are numbered from I through XXI, with the Fool being unnumbered. The tarots of the Major Arcana are, in order: I Juggler, or Magician; II Papess, or Female Pope; III Empress; IV Emperor; V Pope; VI Lovers; VII Chariot; VIII Justice; IX Hermit; X Wheel of Fortune; XI Strength, or Fortitude; XII Hanged Man, XIII Death, XIV Temperance; XV Devil; XVI Lightning-Struck Tower; XVII Star; XVIII Moon, XIX Sun; XX Last Judgment; XXI World, or Universe; and the Fool.
The 56 cards of the Minor Arcana are divided into four suits of 14 cards each. The suits, which are comparable to those of modern playing cards, are as follows: wands, batons, or rods (clubs); cups (hearts); swords (spades); and coins, pentacles, or disks (diamonds). Each suit has four court cards (usually named king, queen, knight, and page) and 10 numbered cards. In ascending order, the value progression in each suit is ace to 10, then page (knave, or jack), knight, queen, and king (though the ace is sometimes assigned a high value as in modern playing cards). The standard deck of modern playing cards was historically derived from that of the Minor Arcana (with the elimination of the knight).
At first the tarot was probably used for playing games, though Gypsies may have used it for fortune-telling. From the 18th century, the cards began to take on esoteric associations, as certain European writers connected them to diverse traditions of mysticism, divination, alchemy, and ritual magic. The cards have retained these associations and are now widely used for fortune-telling.
For fortune-telling, each tarot card is ascribed a meaning. The cards of the Major Arcana refer to spiritual matters and important trends in the questioner's life. In the Minor Arcana, wands deal mainly with business matters and career ambitions, cups with love, swords with conflict, and coins with money and material comfort. The tarot deck is shuffled by the questioner, and then the fortune-teller lays out a few of the cards (either selected at random by the questioner or dealt off the top of the shuffled deck) in a special pattern called a “spread.” The meaning of any card is modified according to whether or not it is upside down, its position in the spread, and the meaning of adjacent cards.