What is tarot?

Major Tom

I read the History & Iconograhpy board avidly even if I don't contribute much due to a lack of historical knowledge.

Now, I've pulled out my 1968 Oxford Concise Dictionary.

It defines the word Icon thusly: Image, statue; (Eastern Church) painting, mosaic, etc., of sacred personage, itself regarded as sacred.

It also defines the word Iconography as: illustration of subject by drawings or figures, book whose essence is pictures, treatise on pictures or statuary study or portraits esp. of an individual.

I teach a class on reading the tarot. In my first lesson I try to tell my students what the tarot is and I try to start with the basics.

For me, in the most basic sense, the tarot is a deck of 78 cards consisting of 22 Major Arcana, 16 Court Cards and 40 Pip cards. To look at tarot any deeper seems to delve into the esoteric, not that I have any problem with that but a deck of cards does seem to be the logical place to start.

I also acquaint my students with the idea of the iconography of tarot, i.e., tarot as a book. I use the examples of a 25 word or less definition given by Firemaiden and Jmd in this thread. And here I'm still on pretty firm ground in that I'm talking about a deck of cards.

Finally, I warn my students that they are embarking upon a spiritual journey when they undertake to study to read tarot. This is where I depart terra firma and travel into terra incognita, but I do firmly believe tarot provides a connection to the divine.

I still feel as though I've barely scratched the suface regarding the question, "What is tarot?"


Tarot is living Story..... :)


Tarot is, what you define, it is

The term Tarot is variously used and discussed. We experience, that it is a term in discussion.

Nobody can dictate language, the speakers are free to define a term to the sense, that they desire or think as appropriate. That's a common law in all communications and for all terms. A lot of these terms, that we use, are not "in discussion", they are fixed in their meaning and nobody cares to contradict the defined meaning. For instance: "lion". Nobody discusses, what a lion is, it is "defined" for the English language and most people have seen, what a lion is at least in TV, so there is not much discussion. The situation in medieval Europe was different, normal people had not much chance ever to experience what a lion really is. Well, there are enough lions in heraldric, so most had a visionary picture of it.
Or a rhinoceros. There are medieval pictures, which show a rhinoceros, and we do realize, they they didn't know it. There are even rumours, that the unicorn is in reality a medieval imaginary mixing of two real informations, the knowledge, that somewhere animals exist with one horn and the real existence of horns, which, however, belong to special sea animals.

For them "unicorn" was a term "in discussion". The discussion is over, mankind knows now about the real base of it.

What can we learn from it ... a term is "in discussion", when the speakers don't know its real base.

As long this state persists, it's better to define the word, when speaking to foreign people :)

Major Tom

Re: Tarot is, what you define, it is

Huck said:
The term Tarot is variously used and discussed. We experience, that it is a term in discussion.

Thanks for this Huck. :)

500 or more years in use and among this community at any rate an intimate aquaintance with tarot and the word tarot is still under discussion regarding it's meaning?


Tom.............why not let your students discover for themselves?

The Tarot is a book disguised as a pack of cards ~ Paul Foster Case

The 78 Cards of the Tarot have lived many lives in the 600 years that we have known them - a card game played by Italian nobility, works of fine art, allegories of moral teachings and philosophy, inspiration for novels and films, coded systems for magic and esoteric wisdom, gateway for meditation, and much more. Most of all, however, we know the Tarot for its use in divination. Divination is the quest for supernatural knowledge of the past, present and future. Many methods of human divination have been utilized by different cultures throughout the centuries,and cartomancy or the use of cards for fortune-telling dates back many centuries. It was in the late 18the century, however that the use of Tarot cards for divination became widespread. We now use Tarot readings in an attempt to understand ourselves better and maybe even discuover the future. ~ Rachel Pollack

I use a combination of the above two quotations when speaking about Tarot. (Added later - was called away during first post).

Ross G Caldwell

I don't think it's hard to define "tarot."

My definition of TAROT is that it is a) a deck of cards with four suits and 21 trumps, and a Fool; and b) a name for a family of games played with this deck.

Of course we can specify what the four suits and trumps are, but you know what I mean. The Tarot de Marseille is the prototype. Tarocchi and Tarok are synonyms.

Anything else and we're not talking about the tarot deck or game, but about other things, more or less closely related. For instance, I'm not sure tarot decks existed in the 15th century, but some of the printed sheets are tarots, and some might be from the 15th century. If they are not exactly tarots, I would call them "proto-tarots" if I were comparing them to tarot, or "precursors to tarot". If I'm not comparing them to anything, I'll just call them trionfi cards, which is what they were apparently called in the 15th century.

Other decks related to the tarot deck are tarocco bolognese, tarocco siciliano, minchiate etc. Not exactly tarot, so I wouldn't call them tarot cards either.

For me then, the use of "tarot" by *itself* to mean a philosophical system is also not good usage. It obscures the historical picture, and the very real and interesting problems posed by the existence of some particular cards and some particular documents mentioning them. I would instead talk about a "philosophy of the tarot", or something else so as not to confuse the picture. We could thus talk about "transcendental tarot", or "esoteric tarot", or "occult tarot", or any number of things.

However I will freely admit it is much less mystical and fun to speak with such qualifications on one's terms, but I submit that in a Tarot History Forum it should be countenanced, even encouraged occasionally.



Ross G Caldwell said:
For me then, the use of "tarot" by *itself* to mean a philosophical system is also not good usage. It obscures the historical picture, and the very real and interesting problems posed by the existence of some particular cards and some particular documents mentioning them. I would instead talk about a "philosophy of the tarot", or something else so as not to confuse the picture. We could thus talk about "transcendental tarot", or "esoteric tarot", or "occult tarot", or any number of things.

I agree, I would like to have it made clear when we are talking about Tarot as cards, and when we mean the spirit, philosophy, ideas, teachings etc., thought to be behind the cards.


I think if one tours internet forums one comes across innumerable examples of definition problems - and corresponding "furious" exchanges, appeals to authority, dictionaries etc. }) Now, if I *really* knew about such things (I'm not much of a philosopher!) I might express concerns over "loaded language" and "thought arresting cliches" etc.? E.g. if I were to answer the question with: "Tarot is a (my) pathway to God" - It may INDEED BE so, but it would then be very difficult to contradict such a definition without seeming to be an atheist, bad sport etc. And therein, I suspect, lies a problem ;)

Doubtless... Ancient Egyptians, the builders of Stonehenge etc. etc. were no less intelligent than the originators of the cards (and we ourselves) I have no doubt they also thought in the same ways. But I don't see them e.g. as "inventors of Tarot" (sic) although they probably (doubtless) preempted many of it's ideas?

I too think simple working definitions are useful. :)



I'm feeling that I should be more careful...

when I say the word 'tarot' in this forum.
I think my mind registers a specific card sequence when people speak of "tarot" in this forum and mostly I am thinking of the evolved 78 deck with the courts, suits and majors.
I still run into differences in books when I come across the word tarocchi as applied to historical Italian decks.
I've many times come across the term 'tarocchi' as being applied to the 50 card so-called Mantegna series written in the context of the 15th century. Similar to the term of Holy Roman Emporer, a historical term that is technically misleading.


Speakers make language

As already noted, Tarot is a term "in discussion".

I agree with Ross, that Tarotcards from 15th century should be called "Trionfi", as speakers of 15th century called them this way. But - using this term only gives sense, if your partner in communication knows about the term Trionfi and its meaning ... and speaking in an open forum like this one, it might be adviseable to speak of "Tarotcards in 15th century, at that time called Trionfi", to be correctly understood, but that's a little long and near to be unpractical.

But, generally, names are only names, the partners in communications are humans, generally it is adviseable to write in a way, that is understood.

For instance:
"70-cards-Tarot" or "5x14-Tarot" would show, that you talk about a Tarot with 70 cards.
"78-standard-Tarot" would show, that you talk about the standard version.
"Shortened Tarot-version" would signal decks like the Bolognese Tarocchi (but there are also others).
"Socalled Mantegna-Tarocchi" signals, that there is a an error in the naming.

People with no detailed knowledge about Tarot-history reading your article need the word "Tarot" for their global understanding, that here is really is talked about "their object", which is Tarot.

The combination with other words has the didactical intention to tell them, that there are differences, which should or might be known, which contain meaning.

The writer Pan in these days at the aeclectic-forum caused trouble, by using Tarot in a sense, that it refered to older Tarot-similar forms, which existed far before the 15th century. Somehow this use of the term "Tarot" is legitime, as there really had been forms, which has a lot of common contents with Tarot, perhaps occasionally even more than for instance between 70-card-Tarot and standard-Tarot and Minchiate-Tarot exist.

Somehow for this sort of content also a term must exist, which explicitely contains the word Tarot (for the global understanding), but which also gives a signal, that here the historical context of "playing cards only" is broken. Perhaps "pre-playing-card forms of Tarot" or something more elegant, I don't know.

But it is necessary to establish such new forms, otherwise one is running in always the same repeating word-definitions-quarrels, full of misunderstandings and unnecessary talking :) to invent the wheel again.