ARCANA used to describe the two parts of the Tarot deck
comes from the Latin word, secret

The cards embody symbolism and history

The Tarot deck, a pack of finely painted cards, is one of the most ancient and symbolic of the many mystical future-telling arts. Tarot cards appeared in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages near the opening of the Renaissance. During this period many enlightened mystics used and adapted the Tarot deck, embellishing its already rich symbolism. Although claims that Tarot decks can successfully predict the future are unsubstantiated, the cards are the embodiment of much symbolism and history, which is a puzzle worthy of continued study. The word arcana, which is the word used to describe the two parts of the Tarot deck, comes from the Latin word, secret.


The exact origin of the Tarot deck is unclear, although it is conjectured that the Tarot deck came from two separate types of card decks. One of these may have originated directly after the destruction of the library at Alexandria. Because books were scarce, a type of cards may have been used to record directions for certain rituals. The other type of cards may have originated from a card game, probably in the sixth century in the Middle East. Although this theory is not proven, it is generally accepted by Tarot experts.

A Tarot deck is actually two decks mixed together, the Greater, or Major Arcana and the Lesser, or Minor Arcana. Although they have separate origins, similar symbolism runs through both decks. The decks are not kept separately, but as a single pack. How and when the two decks combined to become the Mayor Arcana and the Minor Arcana of traditional Tarot, is little known and much debated. Gypsies are thought to have used fairly modern seventy-eight and eighty-four card decks as early as the twelfth century. The decks may have been combined earlier, but it seems unlikely.

Western Europe received the cards in the fourteenth century; gypsies are credited for bringing them as they wandered. The cards were also spread by soldiers returning from wars. In Austria, Tarot decks were commonly used as a game. Records and even paintings show the existence of Tarot decks in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

The first well-recorded Tarot deck was created by the French painter Charles Grington for Charles VI of France who reportedly was in the latter stages of mental illness. The deck included seventeen cards obviously from the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck. The cards were finely done; the backgrounds inlaid with gold or silver. The cards bore no inscriptions or numbers and still exist today.

In the years after Tarot decks appeared in Western Europe, they were adapted by many different artists and mystics. Soothsayers added their messages in symbols over the ages. Symbolism remained rather constant throughout many interpretations, up to and including, twentieth century decks.

Bolognese Tarot decks consisted of forty-four Minor Arcana cards and eighteen Major Arcana cards. They appeared in the fifteenth century and the twentieth card, The Angel or Judgment, is transposed with the twenty-first card, The World.

Tarocchi, "Tablets of Fate", consisted of a twenty-two card Major Arcana and a ninety-seven card Minor Arcana. The first such deck was recorded in 1470. Tarocchi, unlike most Tarot cards, were not used in games.

The highly religious life of Medieval people left its mark on the deck. One should consider the Hierophant, an angel in the Lovers, the religious leader in Death, the archangel Michael in Temperance, the Devil and Gabriel in the Angel or Judgment. These are only the most obvious examples of religious influence from the Major Arcana. The Minor Arcana features an angel or two and several semi-religious characters.

Exactly how much religion shaped the Tarot deck is impossible to say. However, religion is firmly intertwined with its symbolism; the religious symbols are some of the most clear and visual. It was never considered blasphemous to use the Tarot deck for games. Most decks were used for games as much as they were used for readings.

England banned Tarot cards in 1463, largely as a result of pressure from the churchmen. Many decks were smuggled into England. In the rest of Europe, mystics continued to use the decks unrestrained.


The Tarot deck consists of the Greater or Major Arcana and the lessor or Minor Arcana. The Greater Arcana consist of from seventeen to forty-one cards. Most decks have twenty-two Greater Arcana cards. The cards are usually numbered beginning with zero, the Fool, and sometimes are accompanied by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each card bears a different picture, usually a symbolic person. A number of themes runs throughout the series.

The Lessor Arcana, in most decks, consists of fifty-six cards divided into four suits: Cups, Swords, Coins or Pentacles, and Wands or Staffs. Each suit has ten numbered cards, bearing a picture which includes the appropriate amount of the suit's symbols. In some decks only the symbols without scenery or people were drawn, probably to save time. In addition, each suit has four court cards: King, Queen, Knight, and Page or Jack. The King and Queen each sit on a thrown, holding the symbol of the suit. The Knight, bearing the symbol, is armored and on horseback. The Page, a young man, stands in the open holding the symbol. It is clear that modern playing cards developed from the Minor Arcana.

The universe, according to the Greek philosophers, was made of four elements: water air, earth, and fire. This belief continued well into the Renaissance. For purposes of studying the Tarot deck, one must use this belief and the symbolism that it incurs.

Each suit is associated with one element: Cups with water, Swords with air, Pentacles with earth, and Wands with fire. Each suit is also associated with a temperament: Cups are phlegmatic, Swords are melancholic, Pentacles are bilious, and Wands are sanguine.

These four symbols are featured in the Greater Arcana card, the Magician. This card shows a young man with one hand reaching for the sky and the other hand pointing to the ground. Encircling his waist is a snake swallowing its own tail and above his head is the cosmic lemnicscate; both are medieval symbols of infinity. There is a table in front of him that bears the four devices of the Lessor Arcana. The Magician represents skill, but not experience. White flowers on that card in many decks show the purity of his soul. Some Tarot experts say that the Magician is the Fool after he discovered the skills of power, but not the wisdom to use that power. Not all Tarot decks are the same; some show the Magician sitting at the table. Some decks do not show the four symbols, but only the symbols of infinity.


The main use of Tarot cards over the centuries has been soothsaying which is foretelling the future. Now that this ability has been largely discounted, the cards and the manner in which they were used can be observed objectively.

In telling the future, soothsayers use the symbols and positions of the cards to predict the future. Each card holds two divinatory meanings: one if the card is laid so that the top of the card is away from the reader and another if the top is toward the reader. When the top of the card is away it is called "reversed". If the reversed meaning isn't the opposite, it means the same but to a lesser or greater extent. The divinatory meaning of the Magician is mastery, creativity, and will. Reversed, it means the opposite: destructiveness, weakness, and ineptitude. Each card of the Major Arcana is interpreted differently, according to its own scene. Numerology is also considered.

The two of Swords is a card from the Minor Arcana. This card bears a woman, often blindfolded, holding two long swords. In most decks, she is balancing the swords at neck level, but sometimes she is holding them vertically at arm's length. In the background is an ocean or large lake. A first quarter moon rises in some decks.

This card suggests balance. The unconscious element is very strong: the woman, the water, and the moon. The moon is in the first quarter as it rises, like the rising mind of humanity, never to reach zenith because then it would decline. The divinatory meaning in this case is balance. This can mean that the subject of the reading is walking a narrow path and to depart from it will bring disaster. It can also mean that the subject should strive for balance. Reversed, it means loss of balance or something out of balance, which isn't necessarily bad.

This is representative of reading the Minor Arcana in soothsaying arts. The two of Pentacles also means balance, although the two of Cups represents choice as does the two of Wands. Numerology was used in the Tarot deck and especially the Minor Arcana. For instance, the fifth card of each suit indicates strife and ill fortune and the first card means a beginning.

The most common soothsaying method is the Keltic method, which involves laying out ten cards, plus one to represent the subject of the reading, each of which has a special significance. For instance, one card is labeled "this is behind him" which is meant to represent some influence in the subject's past and in the question asked. The soothsayer then interprets the card in context and in view of the question.

The Horoscope method is preferred by some. The subject deals twelve cards, one for every zodiac symbol and a thirteenth to represent himself. Each sign represents some aspect of the subject's life. The reader, in consultation with the subject, interprets the cards as they fall.

The Tree of Life involves a reading rather similar to the Keltic method, but using another pattern. This method is used mostly for long term readings and most mystics decline to do these readings for the same subject too often, possibly because they might obtain conflicting results.

The cards, mystics declare, must be handled carefully to prevent damage and retain accuracy. The cards should be wrapped in silk and kept in a wooden or silver box. They should be handled by as few people as possible, so as not to interfere with the reader's "aura". The subject of the reading must, however, shuffle the deck during the reading. Some readers like to sleep with the cards under their pillow, to keep the cards adjusted to the reader's aura.

Water symbolism is common in Tarot cards, especially the Major Arcana and the suit of Cups. Water is a symbol of the unconscious and feminine elements of the mind. Water indicates hidden influences at work. Water also represents emotion and strength from the deepest recesses of the human spirit.


Modern interest in the Tarot as a divinatory art waxes and wanes with the public's whim. Serious study of the history of the Tarot deck, however, continues.

Tarot cards spread over Western Europe in time to take advantage of the rebirth in Europe, yet early enough to encounter mysticism. Although in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries woodcuts were employed to produce the cards, production was limited. Recent printing methods allowed the cards to be homogenized and mass marketed. Modern cards are frozen in the Medieval time frame, never again to evolve at the hands of so many artists.

Although Tarot cards have no value in predicting the future, they do contain a statement on how people viewed the universe in the Middle Ages. The view of the Tarot pack is that the cosmos is ordered, but mysterious, and this much is true. Something as rich in history as the Tarot deck should not be scoffed at because it cannot predict the future. The Tarot may not hold the keys to the future, but it holds the keys to something at least as important -- the past.

Books of the 1970's were sources for this paper. Contact Dr. Timothy Sherer for details.