The Historical Tarot: A Prologue

Beginning with the word itself . . .

And that fantastic and bizarre name o/Tarocco, is it without etymology?
Flavio Alberti Lallio, 1550

At the beginning is the word itself. “Tarot.” Where did it come from?
And … how is it pronounced?

Because we don’t know the answer to the first question, there is no sure answer to the second! I have heard “Tarot” pronounced in various ways:
tare-ohtare-oh, tare-ut, tah-row. And since we have no idea what the derivation of the word might be, there’s no way of assigning a “correct” pronunciation.

So everyone can make a personal choice.

The only thing we can say for certain about the word “Tarot” is where it last stopped before arriving in the English language. Tarot is the French term for a deck of seventy-eight cards employed both in games (though rarely today) and in divination.

The cards as we now know them seem to have reached France by way of Italy, where the word for the deck is Tarocco. In other European countries, the name for the cards is given as Taro, Taroc, or Tarok.

The Italian Tarocco appears to have been the first of these words to come into use, but the striking fact is that the name Tarocco was not used until well after the deck itself appeared. During the fifteenth century, when the cards seem to have appeared in Italy, the Tarot deck was called simply cartes da trionfi, meaning “cards with trumps.” It was not until 1516 that the name Tarocco was first recorded in an account book.

There are, of course, many theories about the origin of the word “Tarot” and its “tar-” siblings. Some of these theories are exoteric, having to do mainly with the history of cards and their manufacturing process. [1]

More interesting — and numerous — however, are the esoteric hypotheses, which suppose that the Tarot is associated with an ancient (and later hidden, or “occult”) tradition.

One school of thought, for example, suggests that the name “Tarot” may have been taken from the name “Tara,” which is found in several mythic traditions. A Hindu myth tells of the liaison between Soma (the god of ecstasy) and Tara, the wife of another god; out of this union, Buddha (Wisdom) was born. [2]

Another Tara, consort of the enlightened Avalokitesvara, is revered in Tibetan Tantrism as one of its great Matrika-devis, or mother-goddesses. [3] The same sound is found in the Roman word terra, meaning “earth,” and the appellation Terra Mater (Earth Mother) was applied to the Roman goddess Tellus.

That last entry in the Tarot name-game, like most of the other possibilities mentioned, is related to a particular theory of the “true” meaning and the “real” history of the Tarot — in this case, to the assertion that Tarot preserves remnants of an ancient matriarchal belief system centered around goddess-worship.

But those who think the origin of the Tarot is instead to be found in Egyptian hieroglyphics and temple paintings would have “Tarot” come from an ancient Egyptian phrase Ta-Rash, meaning “the royal way”; and those who stress the association of the Tarot cards with the Kabbalah (a Jewish mystical system), point out that the word “Tarot” is similar to Torah, the Hebrew name for the first five books of the Old Testament.

Yet another theory is that “Tarot” is an anagram of the word rota, Latin for “wheel.” The Egyptian goddess-name Ator, a form of Hathor (often used interchangeably with Isis), might also be the basis for an anagram.

And from the sound-alike category come such possibilities as the Chinese word Tao and the Arabic Tariqa, both of which mean “the Way.”

A different approach employs geography. One such theory suggests a connection between “Tarot” and the River Taro in northern Italy (a locale thought by some to have been the site of the introduction of the Tarot cards into Europe), while another relates “Tarot” to the Hill of Tara, seat of Irish kings from ancient times until the sixth century.

All of this speculation [4] finally “proves” only that a particular combination of sounds (“t/vowel-r/vowel”) is frequently found in association with divine figures and occult practices. It’s possible that the sound goes back to a once-universal and now-unknown “original language.”

Or it may be that there is something in the vibrations of the sound itself that connects with the basic neurological programming of human beings, linking the sound sequence imaginatively to a certain type of phenomenon. But so far there has not been enough study of these tantalizing possibilities to provide reliable illumination in our search for the etymology of “Tarot.”

The origin of the word “Tarot” remains unknown — and so does the origin of the deck itself. Our factual knowledge of the existence of Tarot goes back only to 1442, when the earliest extant documentary reference to “trump” cards was made in an account book from the court at Ferrara, in Italy. The earliest surviving examples of trump cards date from the same general time and place.

But could the Tarot just have appeared out of nowhere in Renaissance Italy? Did someone invent it, find it, dream it? If not, how did it come into being?

How did the trumps become linked (and then unlinked) to the suit cards? Are the esoteric properties of the Tarot merely a creation of imaginative occultists … or have we rediscovered important meanings of the Tarot which were for hundreds of years obscured by the belief that it was merely a game?

There are certainly no clear answers to these questions. And there may never be. Many contemporary writers on the Tarot simply dismiss the question of origins, and treat the cards as if they were ahistorical symbols. But as Manly P. Hall, a capable modern explicator of the esoteric, comments in his book The Tarot: An Essay:

“Anyone attempting an analysis of the cards should first acquaint himself with their historical descent in order to protect his conclusions from popular errors and concepts.”

And besides that — what we do know about the history of Tarot is fascinating, provocative, and well worth exploring. So Chapter 1 will begin with some facts and questions.


[1] For example: The familiar pattern found on the backs of playing cards was called tarotee and a small border of dots on some old cards was called tares — but it’s impossible to know if “Tarot” was derived from these terms or vice versa. It seems unlikely that there is a useful connection here, since only decks with trumps were called Tarots, and the trumps probably developed separately from the fifty-two-card deck.

[2] This mythical child was not Gautama Buddha, a historical person whose teachings form the basis of Buddhism.

[3] Tantrism refers to an ancient Indian cult, thought by some to have been influenced by Chinese philosophy and practice. The aspects of Tantrism best known in the West are its techniques of esoteric sexuality and of intense meditation, but even these are not very well understood. The sexual side of Tantrism is more emphasized in Hindu Tantra, while the meditative portion is stronger in Buddhist Tantra.

[4] The theory of a goddess-worship background for the Tarot is discussed in great detail by Barbara G. Walker in Secrets of the Tarot. The Ta-rosh etymology was introduced by Court de Gebelin, “father” of the esoteric Tarot. Elizabeth Haich explains the Torah connection in Wisdom of the Tarot. See Papus’s The Tarot of the Bohemians for an explanation of the supposed Rota derivation. The suggestion of Tarif comes from Idries Shah, The Sufis. Sylvia Mann, in Collecting Playing Cards, proposes the River Taro connection. Stuart Kaplan mentions a number of other ideas about the etymology and origins of “Tarot” in chapter 2 of The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Vol. 1.