The original origin of the Tarot is unknown, lost in time along with the beginnings of many other thoughts, beliefs, and practices. The records of the Tarot decks date to the 14th Century in Italy; wealthy noblemen and merchants commissioned popular artist to design fanciful decks for a popular upper-class card game.
The earliest known recorded issue concerning the Tarot was in 1332. King Alfonse XI of Leon and Castile instituted a proclaimation against the use of the cards. Within the Roman Catholic Church the cards were also forbidden as a tool of the Devil, and often labeled as part of "The Devil's Picture Book" or "The Devil's Bible." Few decks have survived the years, the Visconti-Sforza, forged between 1420 and 1450, is one of the oldest and most complete decks remaining. Tarot is thought by many to be dervied from the fourteenth century Italian card decks, tarocchi, meaning "trump" or "triumph." The tarocchi were used in a card game called tarok, played within the noble ranks. As the game moved into France, tarocchi was altered to fit with French, reemerging as tarot. Mirroring this is the name of the sixteenth century Parisian card producers who named themselves tarotiers.
During the late 18th Century, influential occult scholars discovered the decks and unlocked their greater potential for divination and magickal workings. The scholars unearthed the true history of the Tarot, connecting the images and descriptions to the Kabbalah, Egyptian culture, Hermetic philosophies, and other magickal systems. Investigation into the Tarot proceeded for the better part of the Century, and new integration of the cards into magickal systems are still being "discovered" today.
Despite the age of the traditional Tarot decks, many new decks continue to appear, embodying aspects of various cultures, philosophies, and lifestyles. Some of the newer decks include, the Japanese Tarot, the Witches' Tarot (Ellen Cannon Reed and Martin Cannon), and the Tarot of the Cat People (Karen Kuykendall), as well as decks that do not mirror the Traditional Format, such as The Dream Power Tarot (R.J. Stewart and Stuart Littlejohn). Furthermore, decks that mirror the Tarot are quickly appearing, including Medicine Cards and I Chung Cards.
Quite obviously, the Tarot must be more than a collection of beautiful images on small pieces of paper. The directing force behind the Tarot, which allows it to give glimpses of the future and provide answers to questions, lies within the unconscious of the mind; the level of awareness that is consciously outside our everyday experiences, but becomes accessible with the Tarot acting as a medium. Some call this higher level of awareness, the Inner Guide, the Young Self, or any other number of different labels. Regardless of what you name it, this higher level of awareness is capable of receiving and interpreting the more subtle energy flows that our physical sensors can not detect to a significant degree. By shuffling the cards, the psyche produces a pattern within the layout of the cards to provide the solution or answer to the question. Many people fuss of the question, "How can a deck of cards answer questions accurately?" The deck is a tool for you to establish a deeper connection within yourself, nothing more.
This principle, of the Tarot being a tool for connecting with your deeper psyche, becomes more apparent with practice with your deck. The meanings are derived less from the booklet that comes with all decks, but rather the impression you get from the card and how it fits in with the spread as well as the posed question. "Randomness" will become less apparent with continued use of a particular deck as well. You will find that in personal readings, certain cards will appear frequently, depicting the dominant energies abounding in your life and recurring situations.
Many people view the world around them and all its chaotic, random occurrences, never considering these "random" events are indeed directed by more subtle forces that they are unable to perceive. Randomness, by definition, denotes a purposeless course of events, deprived of direction or any influential force. However, everything does indeed have some sort of purpose or cause. The breathe you take now could very well contribute to the Tornado that pops up in the Midwest sometime tomorrow, or the Thunderstorm than cools off the Sahara the next day, or the gust of wind that saves a plane from crashing into a mountain next September. Splitting hairs? You decide. Energy is the basis of everything, and (as we learn in grammar school,) energy is neither created nor destroyed, but is constantly changing forms. The Deeper Awareness can process these energy shifts that normally go unnoticed.
The Tarot is not a necessary tool to connect with your deeper awareness. There are many other tools capable of bridging the gap, some work better for others. In truth, no tool is needed at all, but rather practice and training to build a stronger connection with your deeper self than the majority of people possess. The Tarot can aid in the building of this previously unrecognized relationship.
A final aspect to remember when reading the Tarot: The cards do not predict the absolute furture, but rather illustrate the trends that are most probable under the given cicumstances. To be successful with the Tarot, it helps to keep an open mind and simply allow the reading to flow (which will happen more smoothly with practice.) Beginners make mistakes just like practiced readers, so don't fret if something doesn't turn out exactly how it came out. Most likely, the cards were interpreted slightly off -- no big deal.
The images on the cards typically portray archetype personality traits, and through these traits the interpretation is derived. A traditional format Tarot deck contains 78 cards, 22 Major Arcana, and 56 Minor Arcana.