Why Are Tarot Decks So Different? A Historical Peek into the Details
Most card games have a single look and way to play, but not tarot cards! Over the centuries, variations have popped up all over the globe and it can be dizzying to sort them all out. Here’s a Curio & Co. tour through the different types of tarot decks!
When first diving into the tarot game, you’ll be forgiven if your first thought is: “Why the heck are all these tarot decks so different?!?” Unlike most card games, with tarot there’s no guarantee you’ll get the same type of deck with the same number of cards every time, and that may be a bit intimidating to a new player. We’ll walk you through the art of the evolving tarot deck here, and rest assured that exploring the differences is part of the fun!
THE PIPS, THE TRUMPS, AND THE THRILLS!Tarot has been around – in one form or another – for nearly 600 years now and to best understand what you can expect a deck to look like today, it’s good to start all the way back then, in the Piedmont area of northern Italy in the 1400s. Today’s widely familiar deck of standard playing cards – with its four suits and royal face cards – has an even longer history than tarot, and it took a sharp turn at that time in the region.
Renaissance parades, a new type of game play was born. These trump characters were a wild bunch, and include what we tarot fans know today as cards like The Fool, The Magician, The Pope, and all their pals. The ”pip cards” are the numbered suits – the four of clubs, the eight of hearts, etc. – and form the base of the game as you start to rack up your points and try to win. In the Piedmont region at the time, however, these suits were known as swords, batons, cups, and coins. When you add those to your trumps, it starts to sound like tarot! In divination and storytelling tarot, the pips are known as “minor arcana” while the trumps are known as “major arcana.”
This oldest tarot deck is what we might consider the base of “standard” tarot today, with each card from the lowest of pips to the highest of trumps assigned an ascending point value, for a total of 78 cards.
THE WORLD-TRAVELLING CARD GAMEAs things tend to happen in a world full of curious humans, the Piedmont-style tarot deck traveled to various ports of call in the pockets of roaming adventurers and merchants on creaky salt-spattered sailing ships and long winding desert caravans, picking up regional variations and idiosyncrasies along the way. Today, it’s possible to pick up a deck in almost any part of the world that will look very different from what we’ve come to expect, and it all comes down to playing preferences.
First, many countries have their own versions of the four pip card suits. We all know the hearts/clubs/spades/diamonds version, but did you know it’s derived from the French version of tarot (which also gave us the word “tarot”)? Now you do! Other regions have even more fun varieties, including wands, rods, pentacles, disks, and even acorns. While these are usually different in name and appearance only, sometimes different point values are assigned, as well; for example, in some regions the Ace is the highest-ranked pip while in others it’s the lowest.
Where it can sometimes get a little baffling is if you encounter say, the 36-card deck in the German “tarock” or the 54-card deck found in the central European version called “Industrie und Glück.” These permutations are usually the fault of someone removing a seemingly random assortment of numbered pips and deciding to just stick with it. We applaud this conviction! All tarot variations are welcome, and many of these extensively mutated forms may be fairly considered a different game entirely, like our modern “Bridge” which is probably the closest descendant of tarot we have today that isn’t still tarot.
But if you like to stick to the classics, our own vintage Tarot of Musterberg is a Piedmontese deck with the expected number of everything in the spots where it all should be. Well, except for the exception. Ugh, maybe we need some more blog post here!
A WILD WORLD OF ARCANA
Because tarot started out as a point-scoring game with a fairly rigid set of rules and values, artists working on their own versions had to find some way to have a little fun, so each deck would feature different tarot artwork depending entirely on the artist’s whim. The Magician is still the Magician no matter what, so he can hold a wand and a top hat, shoot lasers out of his eyes, be a cat scratching a tree, or she can rule over a beautiful rose garden. Why not? The art of the trumps, or the major arcana, is a decorative and interpretive one, allowing for an artistic experience much like any other that’s a window into the soul of the artist. Simply beholding a new beautiful tarot deck by an artist you’ve never seen before is an experience on its own. Much like polyhedral dice in a role-playing game, the various unique tarot decks serve the same function but are still fun to collect because of how they look and feel.
However, given a common starting point of the Piedmont 78-card deck, creative tarot artists have been known to get playful with the number of trumps, as well, leading to some 79-card decks or even more. Famed occultist Aleister Crowley’s deck, for instance has three extra trumps, and they are all The Magician! What do you do when you find one of these in your spread? If you’re anything like us here at Curio & Co., you make a huge deal about it. The 79th card in the Musterberg Tarot is The Siren, and while other decks may have similar cards, Musterberg is the only one where The Siren holds the highest value. So, regardless of which extra trump card you happen to find in your deck, it’s up to its rule-makers (or you!) how you celebrate it.
And when it comes to divination and storytelling, the plotline possibilities that emerge with each variation of the cards is limited only by your imagination! While tarot divination has come to evolve certain standardized card meanings, they are mostly arbitrary and the story you tell with each tarot spread is really up to you. If you feel especially attuned to the artist of your deck, you’ll have an easier time finding a narrative purpose for their version of the characters, including all the background details, accessories, facial expressions, and actions they depict. In this way – and this is the important part! – the differences between tarot decks are not only a matter of personal expression for the artist, but the player!
Want to dive further into the history of tarot decks? Check out the other articles in our history series here:
Ready to learn more about some of your favorite tarot cards? Have a look at our series of articles on the meaning of tarot's most famous cards here: