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Tarot: A Brief History

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A pair of tarot cards.

Tarot (also tarok, tarokky, tarrochi, etc) is the common name given to a pack of playing cards usually consisting of four suits of 14 cards (10 pips and 4 courts), 21 trumps and a fool, or excuse.

These cards are unusual in that they have two kinds of history associated with them. The first, that of academia, is based on evidence. The second, that of occultism, is more varied, exotic and colourful and is based on intuition. For reasons that will become clear, it is the second of these that is most familiar to - not to mention popular with - the English-speaking world.

Whatever we choose to believe to be the true history of these cards need not impact greatly, if at all, on their occult significance. Designs of these cards can be divided into playing cards and those designed by occultists and there need be no conflict between them. The reasons for this will also be made clear further on.

First Appearances

The cards first appeared in Italy in the 14th Century and introduced European card players to a new concept that was to dominate card-play for centuries to come - the trump card. This was done by adding to a standard pack of cards a fifth suit of trump cards, decorated with a theme that distinguished them from the other cards. The numbers of these cards, their ranks, and to some extent also their themes, varied greatly during their early years. The earliest description we have is of trumps featuring Greek gods and numbering only 16. Some historians speculate that the original number may have been 14, the same as the suit cards, but this remains unproven. As the game spread across Italy, the variations grew - not least because these packs had neither the name or the rank shown on the cards.

One of the most notable and long-lived was the minchiate pack with nearly twice the number of trumps than found in other games. Minchiate finally died out early in the 20th Century, sometime in the 1930s. It was only when printing became widely available that the structure and patterns on the cards were standardised, though it was still a regional affair. The origin of the theme on the trump cards is something that we cannot know from evidence but there is some speculation worthy of note, that fits their name (triumphs), images, and function. Triumph processions were common and popular in the Middle Ages - as they are today - and held to usher in Lent and other occasions. The figures that made up these processions bear some similarity in theme and content to the cards and even today, our May Day processions are still led by a fool or wildman - there may be a link here, but it is speculation.

It is worth noting at this stage that the suits of swords, batons, cups and coins, exotic to us now, were in fact the standard playing-card suits of the time and used throughout Europe. Germany and Switzerland were the first countries to experiment with different suits, with France eventually producing its own in the late 17th Century. These French suits were those that we know today, with hearts, diamonds, spades, and trefoils (clubs) and were an economic coup for French card-makers. Other designs required expensive wood blocks to produce, while these simple designs required nothing more complex than stencils, making them much cheaper. Whilst Germany and Switzerland held on to their own suits, Italy, Sicily, Spain, and Portugal kept the old designs. Everyone else switched to the French.

Another point of note is that the suits have four court cards instead of three, and a queen in addition. In old packs, the court cards were all male. There is record of an early pack in Milan that had six court cards, with a female counterpart for each of the males - this is the first instance of a queen that we have in playing cards.

The cards soon travelled out into the rest of Europe. They became particularly popular in Germany, but didn't reach France until the 17th Century in the form of a pack, derived from the Milanese pattern, now known as the Marseilles pattern. It distinguished itself from its Italian forerunners by putting names on the trumps and was also one of the first packs to number them. While the rest of central Europe began to change over to using French-suited tarot cards (with the trumps now showing rural scenes or animals), France continued to use this pack. Gradually, the game saw a decline in France until, in the 18th Century, it was little-known and the cards came to be seen as strange and exotic.

Occultists' Interpretations

It was then, after four hundred years as just a card game, that the first occultists picked up the cards and saw something that generations who had looked before had somehow - by ignorance, stupidity or integrity - missed. For some, this was genuine mystery, romance, and ancient lore. For others, it was serious profit.

The first of the Romantics, Antoine Court de Gebelin, saw another guest playing a game of tarot at a friend's home. At once, he recognised the cards for what they really were: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs of hermetic origin. The ancients, to protect their wisdom from library-burning ignorance, codified and disguised it in a simple game, to go unnoticed by the unworthy. This harmless game was brought to Europe by travelling gypsies, where it remained unrecognised and safe. To the delight of the other guests, de Gebelin took up each card in turn and revealed its true meaning, at last restoring to us the ancient lore. He did not do this on the strength of evidence; the whole point of the ancients' strategy was that there was none. Instead, he reached his conclusions through an intuition and genius that all others had lacked for centuries.

Of course, this is long before the Rosetta stone had unlocked the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs and it is also worth noting that gypsies did not, in fact, hail from Egypt.

The second, important contribution to our history that this hero of tarot provided, was a masterstroke of genius. DeGebelin made some effort to make his interpretation of the cards consistent but found that some of the details must have been corrupted by card-makers over the ages. While it has been common practice among academics to construct theories to fit the facts, rejecting or modifying them should they fail to do so, Court de Gebelin took the innovative step that would characterise so much future work on the cards. He reversed the academic method and so began the far more fruitful strategy of changing the facts to fit his theory. He began with the hanged man, turning it the other way around and naming it Prudence, thus completing the series of classical virtues. A small beginning but over the last two hundred years countless 'rectified' packs have been produced, each helping to return the correct symbols to the cards that had been lost to copying errors and ignorance.

Following on from this revelation a Jean-Babtiste Alliete, using the pen name Etiella, began to popularise cartonomancy - in fact, he coined the term. In later years he discovered the tarot and began to offer this as a means of divination, for the first time presenting a systematic method for doing so. He also extensively rectified the cards and one of the packs attributed to him can still be purchased today.

By the early 19th Century, however, tarot cards had again begun to fade into obscurity. They were rescued once more from the card-players by Alphonse-Louise Constant, who wrote under the name Eliphas Levi. Levi did far more than just this, he revived the whole occultist enterprise in France, integrating the tarot as a corner stone to his whole magical system. He rejected Eteilla's changes, accepting the Marseilles pattern as largely correct, certainly with regards to its order - though there were still corrections that had to be made in accordance with his magical theory.

The importance that Levi placed upon the Marseilles pattern is something of a puzzle to academic historians. It was, as has been noted, a very late variation on, or even a corruption of, previous packs. The order is quite different in many earlier Italian cards and the names given also differ. One example is the Hanged Man - a card over which much mystery and importance has been placed. Yet, in Italy, he was the Traitor. An appropriate name given that traitors suffered the additional indignity of having their corpses publicly hung upside-down. In Italy, then, what he represents is no mystery at all. A good example of corruption is found in Temperance - great significance has been given to her having wings. Yet this is a mistake: in the earlier packs from which the Marseilles pack was made, she was seated on a chair, with the corners of the back visible behind her. Later copyists gave the chair a little curve, a feature that became more pronounced in later packs, until they were eventually taken to be wings. It was a copying error, produced in 'Chinese whispers' fashion. Still, these and more have found themselves intricately and inextricably a part of Levi's theory.

Occultists seldom seem to acknowledge these questions. At least, not in print - although there are very notable exceptions (AE Waite and some other members of the Golden Dawn among them). They might theorise that some guiding influence has, over the centuries, been prompting the copyists here and there to return the cards to their original state. This is the same influence that allowed them to be corrupted sometime before their first appearance in the 14th Century. Perhaps it was waiting for the time and place to be right for the wisdom to be restored. Of course, this theory does require that we assume the occult history of the cards to begin with and the content of the cards cannot then be evidence for their history at all - that may be known only from intuition, not evidence. As there have always been and will always be those who prefer to base their beliefs on evidence and those who prefer to base them on intuition, there will always be two irreconcilable histories of tarot cards.

It is beyond the scope of this short introduction to discuss in any detail the history of the cards after they reached England. The cast of significant characters is far too great to do the story full justice. However, towards the end of the 19th Century, occultist organisations were gaining popularity - and a certain credibility in English-speaking countries. With the translation of French texts, particularly by Eliphas Levi, tarot cards were finally introduced to England. As there had been no history of the game being played, the cards were readily accepted as being of occult design and many accepted, as many still do, the belief of Levi that they are of ancient hermetic origin. However, with new occultists integrating the cards into their own systems of magic, something extraordinary took place. Tarot was no stranger to being 'rectified,' but what AE Waite and others undertook was nothing short of a complete redesign. If you were to compare any 20th-Century pack with anything from the 19th Century or earlier, you would be hard-pressed to identify them as being the same pack of cards. Indeed, all that has been preserved through this transition is the basic structure (though it is still often altered), and the names of the trumps (still with some variation). This is of great significance because now we draw a clear division between the tarot of card-players and that of occultism.

Philosophers of the last century have often noted that the words and other symbols take their meaning not by referencing things in the world but rather by how they are used. For example, the word 'mouse' has been used for a long time to refer to a type of rodent but can now also be used to describe the plastic device alongside your computer keyboard that sits on its own mat.

If the origin of the tarot symbols is not occult, that does not mean that the cards cannot have occult use and significance. It is simply a matter of what the cards are used to signify in a given context. This is further supported by the fact that the new cards have undeniably been designed with the intention that they represent occult beliefs - in effect, modern designers have done exactly what Court de Gebelin believed the ancients to have done - codified their occult beliefs in a pack of cards. The range and variety of these cards is quite astounding, covering all interests, aesthetics, and spiritual beliefs: from the tarot of cats to The Lord of the Rings. There is nothing incorrect in playing card games be it with old Italian designs, or modern French suits. Nor is there anything incorrect in finding spiritual meaning in those cards designed to contain it. Neither group need feel threatened or insulted by the other.

Card Tricks

Finally, a brief note about the games. These are still very popular and are played in France, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Sicily, Hungary, among other nations. In Italy, Sicily and Switzerland, they still use Italian suits and trumps, whilst the rest of the world use the French suited cards - although there is some variety in trump designs, from film stars to Asterix!

There is considerable variety in the games, although they are all trick-taking in nature. There are games for two, three, four, and five players with an excellent balance of chance and strategy. It would be prejudiced to describe them as the best family of card games but also unfair not to include them among the best. The most widely played of these games is the French game - people from across the world play it. Denmark plays the last surviving game of Grosstarock, an excellent gambling game for three, in which the goal is to win the last trick with either a king or the lowest trump. Germany, once home to so many tarot games, now hosts only two, the first of these being Cego, which uses unusual trumps featuring animals. The second of the German tarots is the Bavarian tarock, which is not played with tarot cards at all: it is an adaptation of a tarock game to be played using the traditional German suited pack of cards. The Italian games are often played in partnerships, a feature that seems unique to Italian tarot.

Packs of the cards are easily obtainable over the Internet now, and for the rules look no further than www.pagat.com - the most comprehensive guide to card games on the internet, though you will not find there the rules for Minchiate or the Sicilian game.

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