Like the common deck of playing cards, the tarot has four suits (which vary by region, being the French suits in Northern Europe, the Latin suits in Southern Europe, and the German suits in Central Europe). Each of these suits has pip cards numbering from one (or Ace) to ten and four face cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Jack/Knave) for a total of 14 cards. In addition, the tarot has a separate 21-card trump suit and a single card known as the Fool. Depending on the game, the Fool may act as the top trump or may be played to avoid following suit. François Rabelais gives tarau as the name of one of the games played by Gargantua in his Gargantua and Pantagruel; this is likely the earliest attestation of the French form of the name. Tarot cards are used throughout much of Europe to play card games. In English-speaking countries, where these games are largely unplayed, tarot cards are now used primarily for divinatory purposes. Occultists like myself call the trump cards and the Fool “the major arcana” while the ten pip and four court cards in each suit are called minor arcana. The cards are traced by some occult writers to ancient Egypt or the Kabbalah but there is no documented evidence of such origins or of the usage of tarot for divination before the 18th century.
Each card possesses a pictogram and title that represents a specific concept or archetype. The belief in divination associated with Tarot focuses on the prospect that whatever cards are dealt to the participant will be revelatory.
Divination using playing cards is in evidence as early as 1540 in a book entitled The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forlì which allows a simple method of divination, though the cards are used only to select a random oracle and have no meaning in themselves. But manuscripts from 1735 (The Square of Sevens) and 1750 (Pratesi Cartomancer) document rudimentary divinatory meanings for the cards of the tarot as well as a system for laying out the cards. Giacomo Casanova wrote in his diary that in 1765 his Russian mistress frequently used a deck of playing cards for divination. Antoine Court de Gébelin, a French-born Protestant pastor and Freemason, published a dissertation on the origins of the symbolism in the Tarot in volume VIII of his unfinished fifteen volumes of the Le Monde Primitif. De Gébelin, who never knew the Tarot as the Tarot de Marseille (a name which came much later), thought the Tarot represented ancient Egyptian Theology, including Isis, Osiris and Typhon (the Greek name for Seth), but never mentions Thoth. For example, he thought the card he knew as the Papesse and known today as the High Priestess represented Isis. He also related four Tarot cards to the four Christian Cardinal virtues: Temperance, Justice, Strength and Prudence. He relates The Tower to a Greek fable about avarice. Although Egyptian had not yet been deciphered by Champollion, Gébelin asserted the name “Tarot” came from the Egyptian words Tar, “path” or “road”, and the word Ro, Ros or Rog, meaning “King” or “royal”, and that the Tarot literally translated to the Royal Road of life. I have always used the Tarot as a major means of divination in my readings.