What is the Tarot – A brief explanation

tarot reader drawing

The Tarot is a mystical  deck of seventy-eight (78) cards which have gone through a complete transformation since the first decks were introduced.

A Very Brief History

The origins of the Tarot are not completely clear and there are many theories and myths; however, this is what we do know.

Trionfi (Triumphs) were originally created and designed in 15th century Italy to use in a game called Tarocchi. Note: although there were other cards being use previously, the Trionfi were the closest to the Tarot of today. Over the next 200 years, the cards evolved in other countries like France, Belgium and Germany. However, during the 18th and 19th centuries, occultists began to change the use and function of the cards. These individuals began associating the Tarot with a number of philosophical, divinatory, spiritual and mystical systems such as the Kabbalah, Hebrew alphabet and the Tree of life, Egyptian symbolism and mythology, astrology, numerology, etc.

These associations and additions paved the way for the modern Tarot cards used today. Regardless of the lack of evidence to support these theories, many Tarotists continue to use all or some of these correspondences in their readings. In addition, while many Tarotists use the cards in a predictive manner, foretelling the future, not all do. Instead, they use them as a psychological/therapeutic tool to empower the Querent, their client. This is a common misconception of the Tarot.

If you would like to learn more about the history of the Tarot I suggest visiting one or both of these sites:

Tarot Heritage
Trionfi – a site dedicated to Tarot’s history

The Deck Structure

The deck is divided into two separate Arcanas; the Major Arcana (22 cards) and the Minor Arcana (56 cards).

Arcana, or Arcanum, in Latin translates as a deep secret; a mystery. Major and Minor is literal -The Major Arcana cards represent ‘big’ or major secrets and are also referred to as the ‘Trump’ cards. The Minor Arcana represents ‘lesser’ or minor secrets and are also referred to as the ‘Pip’ cards.


The Major Arcana is associated with life events and/or lessons, well-known archetypes, development and maturity that begins with The Fool card and ends with The World.

A story called, “The Fool’s Journey” demonstrates his life’s journey through each card. We can thank Eden Gray for the story as well the phrase found in Chapter  8 Epilogue, in her book, The Complete Guide to the Tarot. She states:

The Fool is probably the most important card of the deck.

He is a prince of the other world on his travel through this one – all amidst the morning glory, in keen air. The sun, which shines behind him, knows whence he came, whither he is going, and how he will return by another path after many days. He is the spirit in each experience.

Let each reader use his imagination and find here his own map of the soul’s quest, for these are symbols that are deep within each one of us.

Here is a link to a lovely short biography on Eden Gray by Mary Greer.


The Minor Arcana consist of four suits known as the Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles and represent stages of development and/or aspects of day-to-day life associated with the suit itself.

In each suit we find 16 cards and similar to playing cards, there are 10 number cards and a royal cards. Ace through Ten plus four royal court cards (versus three) – they are known as the Page, Knight, Queen, and King. In addition, each suit is associated with one of the four classic elements: Wands are associated with Fire; Cups are associated with Water; Swords with Air; Pentacles with Earth.

Wands/Fire  – involves issues of the spirit; passion, enthusiasm, etc.
Cups/Water  – involves issues of the heart; love, emotions, etc.
Swords/Air    – involves issues of the mind; thoughts, conflict etc.
Coins/Earth* – involves issue of the body; possession, physical etc.

Here’s an easy way to remember each suits corresponding element/meaning:

  • Wands – think of a flame on a wand, that would light your path in a dark place and how a spark creates fire. What can your spark create?
  • Cups – think of fluid (or water) overflowing the cup and how emotions can too.
  • Swords – think of how words from breath, can cut both ways like a double-edge sword.
  • Coins/Pentacles – think of money which can offer stability and foundation, just like earth or soil can and the resources/nourishment they offer.

*Historically, each suit, each court card, and sometimes even the Major Arcana cards, can be named differently from deck to deck. I’m sure you noticed that I called the fourth suit, Coins versus Pentacles. I used “Coins” for the sake of this learning tip.

Different Types of Decks

You may, or may not, be surprised to hear there are literally thousands of decks available on the market. Tarot decks have been created in all shapes and sizes, themes, styles, and there are even literature and movie related dedication decks. You may be overwhelmed but, you will not be disappointed.

Regardless of the countless decks available, there are three main types of Tarot decks; three main schools currently used – Tarot de Marseille aka TdM (1650?), Rider-Waite-Smith aka RWS (1909) and Thoth (1969).

The Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck calls the fourth suit Pentacles, while the Thoth deck calls them Coins and these monikers are commonly interchanged among Tarotists, depending on which deck they use. The Marseille de Tarot’s French card titles can vary greatly depending on how they are translated into English and by whom.

Aeclectic.net has the largest list of reviews and can be very helpful deciding which deck(s) to purchase or not. You can look them up by name, theme, or publisher and can filter them by their star rating.

Note: this site’s information correlates primarily with RWS decks unless otherwise noted.