Tarot History

“Tarot” refers both to a family of games played with an augmented deck, (that is, decks with a fifth “suit” serving as permanent trumps), and also to the decks themselves. Most other card games using trumps select one of four regular suits to serve as trumps for a particular hand. Tarot is commonly played in various areas of Europe, and has been played in Italy since the 1440s. Outside Europe, there has been a revival of interest in Tarot card games especially amongst participants in Medieval and Renaissance re-enactments.

“Tarot” also refers to similar decks that are used for fortune-telling and other esoteric purposes. In English-speaking countries, despite a slow but growing interest in Tarot’s gaming heritage, fortune-telling is currently the only common use of Tarot cards, even though such use did not begin until roughly 350 years after their invention.

Before there was Tarot

Playing cards were a Chinese invention which found their way to Europe around 1375, by way of the Mamluk empire. They spread very quickly through much of western Europe. Trick-taking games of some sort, traditionally the most popular form of card game, probably arrived with the cards. However, while we know almost nothing about the games played, the design of the Mamluk decks changed very little as adopted by the Italians, and so-called Moorish cards may have also been used in Europe.

The four suits were Swords, Staves (the Mamluk decks used Polo Sticks), Coins, and Cups. Each suit had ten pip cards and three “court cards”, a King, Knight, and Page, creating a 52-card deck. While that basic Italian suit system continued to be used, variations developed almost immediately. Spanish decks changed the Staves into Clubs, and altered the designs, and German cardmakers developed a number of alternative suit-systems.

In the earliest known description of playing cards, Brother John described decks in which the number of court cards and even the number of suits were increased from the norm, and some in which female figures were used on the court cards. In addition to regular decks, novelty decks were also produced in the 14th century, including one with images of gods and emblematic animals.

Although Tarot did not appear until the 1440s, the suit-cards used in Tarot were the same as standard Italian playing cards. In some regular Italian-suited decks of the period, Queens had been added to the suit cards, creating a 56-card deck, and such a deck was the basis for Tarot.

The subjects illustrated on Tarot’s trump cards were also well-known before the 15th century, some them dating back to classical times. Figures such as the Emperor and Pope, allegories of Love, Death, the Wheel of Fortune, the three Moral Virtues, and eschatological subjects from Revelation, were staples of medieval art. Even seemingly enigmatic subjects, such as a female figure with papal attributes or a man hanged by one foot, were far less obscure in that milieu.

The Invention of Tarot

The idea of trumps appears to be a European invention which first appeared in the 1420s, in the German game of Karnöffel. Tarot was probably created 10-15 years later, around 1440, somewhere in northern Italy. The earliest surviving Milanese Tarot decks and Ferrarese references to Tarot both come from that period. As noted, the Tarot deck consisted of a regular 56-card deck, augmented with a hierarchy of 22 allegorical trump cards. This created the standard 78-card Tarot deck, originally referred to as carte da trionfi, cards with trumps. Each trump triumphed over (trumped) the lower-ranking trumps in the manner of the popular trionfi motif, which also appeared in art, literature, religious processions, festival pageants, and so on.

The subjects pictured on the allegorical cards appear to have been standardized from the beginning. The vast majority of all Tarot decks in the 15th through 17th centuries share that design, and the occasional variants all appear to be derived from that archetypal standard. The series of images was similar to cycles of didactic Christian art of that era, most notably, the Triumph of Death and Dance of Death works popular from the time of the Black Death in the mid-14th century.

Tarot quickly became popular and spread in northern Italy, with Milan, Bologna, and Ferrara being early centers of the game. Richly painted decks with gold and silver leaf backgrounds were commissioned by the wealthy, while printed decks were used by commoners and nobles alike. (A record from 1436 indicates that the d’Este court at Ferrara had their own printing press for making cards.) The sequence of the trumps was altered in minor ways as Tarot spread to new locales, and the iconography was also varied somewhat. Moreover, a few complete redesigns are known, such as the classicized Sola Busca deck and the literary Boiardo deck, but they were dramatic exceptions. Changes of iconography, whether simplifying the original designs or conflating the Tarot images with other subject matter, usually left the underlying standard subjects recognizable.

Appropriati and Florentine Decks

The game spread from Italy to France, then to Switzerland, Germany, and beyond, and became very popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period the Tarot trumps also found employment as a literary motif. For example, an involved riddle was published in which the answer was Tarot. There are a number of surviving sixteenth-century examples of tarocchi appropriati, suggesting a kind of parlor game in which people creatively spun out associations by which a given card or cards could be used to describe themselves or another person.

The cards were not given any special meaning; instead, their obvious subjects were worked into verse as a playful exercise of verbal agility, humor, and flattery. The meaning of the Medieval allegory may have been already forgotten, and was probably ignored from the beginning. From the players’ perspective, they were just trumps in a card game.

In 1540 Francesco Marcolini published in Venice a fortune book that can be considered the first known document about cartomancy. The cards that were used in the divination process were not tarot and actually played a rather marginal role.

Perhaps the most curious item from the 16th century concerns Tarot’s Devil card. Venetian Inquisition records suggest that the Devil card was used by witches for Satanic ritual and adoration. Whether this was true or not, it demonstrates that some inquisitors were familiar with Tarot, but, contrary to modern Tarot folklore, did not speak against it.

The Church never spoke against Tarot, and the one known sermon which strongly condemns Tarot, along with dice and regular playing cards, does not suggest that Tarot was anything other than a game of chance. The confused preacher denounces Tarot for its moral allegory in which the Emperor and Pope are subject to the same allegorical and eschatological fate as the rest of mankind. This is exactly the same kind of moral allegory painted on church walls and in Books of Hours.

Variations such as the expanded Minchiate deck were developed. In that deck additional allegorical cards were added, raising the ratio of trumps to suit cards, and it became and extremely popular form of Tarot. (Other Tarot decks achieved a higher trump/suit-card ratio by leaving out the lowest-ranking pips.) In Florence, iconographic changes were made to some trumps which altered the highest-ranking images from a medieval Christian triumph of God to a humanistic triumph of Fame.

The World card showed Europe as the center of the world, and triumphing over that was the Fama card with a picture of Florence. This was more in keeping with Renaissance sensibilities and Florentine hubris. Other card games with allegorical, symbolic, or merely novel content continued to be developed, including one based on the triumphs of Petrarch, a game of Apostles with our Lord, a game of seven virtues; and a game of planets with their spheres.

None of these other games became popular enough to leave any trace beyond the single document which mentions their names. One well known non-standard deck which has survived is the Hofämterspiel, showing the social structure of royal courts during the late Middle Ages. Another is the Book of Trades by Jost Ammon.

The Rationalization of Occult Tarot

During the occult revival, which continued into the early 20th century, there was a great deal of anthropological revisioning of older traditions. Arthur Edward Waite, a Christian mystic and scholar of the occult, explicitly rejected the core of occult Tarot. He wrote, “I am not to be included among those who are satisfied that there is a valid correspondence between the Hebrew letters and the Tarot Trump symbols.”

His own novel interpretation of the trumps drew on many sources (including the occultists) to create an eclectic but tightly integrated representation of the mystical Perennial Philosophy. The first half of the trumps illustrated an involutionary descent while the second half illustrate an evolutionary ascent, the entire spiritual cycle being closely reminiscent of Joseph Campbell’s Universal Monomyth.

This was all in keeping with common ideas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century regarding comparative religion and the universality of myth and mysticism. Waite described his new creation as “a true Tarot under one of its aspects”, and “not occult, but mystical”. In addition, he was the first to use pictorial pip cards to facilitate the intuition of fortune-tellers.

In the late 20th century, Tarot was widely adopted by various New Age enthusiasts, neo-Pagans, and of course, fortune-tellers, as well as people who were simply interested in using the deck for self-exploration without any spiritual or mystical motivation. It was again redefined, largely in the terms of Jungian psychology, but with borrowings from the earlier occultists and from Waite.

This development was greatly facilitated by Waite’s mystical Tarot deck, whose trumps and pips had been redesigned in a manner consistent with such usage. His deck served as a model for hundreds of derivative decks. The new element, characteristic of contemporary Tarot, was the belief that naive intuition and free association would reveal universal archetypes from the unconscious mind. This liberated Tarot enthusiasts from having to learn complex systems of correspondence, and having to choose between the competing systems.

In addition to fortune telling, modern Tarot applications include soul-searching exercises and meditation for personal growth, and as a randomized input for free association and brainstorming techniques. Not surprisingly, they have even been used by some psychologists in a therapeutic context. The main distinctions between Waite and the contemporary Tarot enthusiasts are specificity and authority. Waite was in some ways closer to the earlier occultists who saw and emphasized a particular design to the trumps and their sequence, rather than the contemporary approach which validates any intuition one might posit about what are seen as archetypal subjects. Waite’s authority for his design was personal insight and the history of Christian mysticism, whereas the contemporary Tarotist is likely to cite C.G. Jung and neo-Jungian psychologists.

Also in the late 20th century, more historically sophisticated writers have attempted salvage as much of the earlier occult fictions as possible while abandoning most of the obviously false elements. As with other late 20th-century Tarot writers, their basic premise is the existence of universals which are intuitively understood. Given this premise, Tarot must have always been something very close to what it is currently understood to be — otherwise the supposed universals are not universal. Critics of this viewpoint would say that this preconception leads to the invention of secret coded messages in the trump cards, supported by nothing beyond the anachronistic belief that what people see in the images today must have always been there.

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