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The Structure of the Tarot

Structure of a Standard Deck

The precise origins of the Tarot remain a mystery, but over time a consistent standard has evolved for the structure of a Tarot deck. The components of this structure include not only the number of cards and their symbols, but also their order in relation to each other and their division into groups.

The standard Tarot deck follows the structure of the Venetian or Piedmontese Tarot from medieval Europe. This consists of 78 cards made up of two groups: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana, having 22 and 56 cards respectively. In the Major Arcana are found the archetypal Tarot cards, like the Fool, the Devil and the Moon; while the Minor Arcana is comprised of four suits of fourteen cards, each containing cards numbered from one to ten as well as four "court" cards. Examples of cards from each of the Arcana are shown below, as depicted in the influential Marseilles deck from medieval Europe. Click on an Arcana to find out more about it and to see all the cards it contains.

Major Arcana
Major Arcana
Minor Arcana
Minor Arcana

Variant Decks

While the 78 card structure described above is the standard for a deck to be a true Tarot deck, not all decks that claim to be Tarot adhere to this pattern. Early decks were of several types with differing numbers of cards, and some contemporary decks vary the system to accommodate the underlying non-Tarot philosophies that inspire them. Examples of early European decks related to the Tarot include:

  • Tarocchi of Mantegna, consisting of five series of ten cards each;
  • Tarocchino of Bologna, which differs from the standard structure in having no court cards in the Minor Arcana (so 62 cards in total), and is thought, probably erroneously, to have been invented by Francois Fibbia, Prince of Pisa;
  • Minchiate of Florence, a 98-card deck consisting of the standard 78 cards augmented by twenty additional major cards representing the twelve signs of the zodiac, the four elements (Fire, Water, Air and Earth) and four cardinal virtues (Hope, Prudence, Faith and Charity; though these are often considered to be Wisdom/Prudence, Temperance, Courage/Fortitude and Justice).

An example of a modern deck that eschews the historical Tarot structure is the Enochian Tarot: an augmented deck containing eight extra cards in the Major Arcana to support the system of Enochian Magic on which it is based. Although they contain elements of standard structure, whether such decks are really Tarot decks at all is debatable. Even those modern decks constructed on traditional lines often replace cards in the Major Arcana with inappropriate alternatives or ignore important aspects of established symbolism.

The Kabbalistic Structure of the Tarot

Tree of Life The most influential model in the development and interpretation of the Tarot from the 19th century on has been the consideration of the cards as an expression of the esoteric system known as Kabbalah. The preeminent decks of the 20th century have been based on Kabbalistic ideas, in terms of their structure, their symbology and their interpretation. Two major examples are the Rider-Waite and Thoth decks, designed by Arthur Edward Waite and Aleister Crowley respectively. More details of the Kabbalistic structure of the Tarot can be found in Tarot and the Kabbalah.