Two hand-painted Mamluk playing cards and two Venetian playing cards.

Before They Were Divination Tools, Tarot Cards Were Playing Cards

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In the English-speaking world, the word ‘tarot’ is most commonly associated with the occult and divination. What is perhaps less well-known is that tarot cards were only used for such purposes relatively recently. Prior to the 18th century AD, there is no record of tarot cards being used either for the occult or divination. In fact, tarot cards were originally used as playing cards. Thus, when speaking of the ‘origins of tarot’, one may consider the topic from two angles – tarot cards as playing cards, and tarot cards as a means of divination. It is on the former that this article will be focusing primarily.

The Origins of Tarot

Tarot is known by various other similar names, including Tarock, Tarokk, Taroky, Taroc, Tarok, Tarocchi. The origins of this word are unknown, though one speculation is that it derives from the Arabic word taraha, which means “he rejected, put aside”.

This Arabic connection is seen in the opinion that tarot cards were used originally as playing cards by the Mamluks (who are most notable as a dynasty of Muslim rulers in Egypt during the Middle Ages), which then spread to Western Europe. Some have even claimed that the tarot was invented even further afield, that is to say, in China, and that the Mamluks adopted these cards from them.

A Chinese printed playing card dated c. 1400 AD, Ming Dynasty, found near Turpan, measuring 9.5 by 3.5 cm.

A Chinese printed playing card dated c. 1400 AD, Ming Dynasty, found near Turpan, measuring 9.5 by 3.5 cm. ( Public Domain )

According to another common account, the tarot deck was created in northern Italy during the 15th century AD. For example, it has been reported that a request for several decks of ‘triumph’ cards (said to be different from regular ‘playing’ cards due to their trumps) can be found in a letter sent in 1440 by the Duke of Milan.

From Italy, tarot spread to various other European countries, including Denmark, Hungary, France, Germany and Austria, where games involving these cards are still being played even today. As tarot spread across Europe, many regional variations emerged. Some decks, for instance, had 62 cards, whilst others had 78 cards. There were also decks which had as many as 97 or 98 cards. Additionally, the artwork of these tarot decks differed from region to region.

This card is often named The Magician in modern English language tarot.

This card is often named The Magician in modern English language tarot. ( Public Domain )

Nevertheless, there are several common elements that can be found in the majority of tarot decks. Firstly, like the standard 52-card deck which most people today are familiar with, each tarot deck would have four regular suits. Two of the most common suits are the French suit and the Italian suit. The former contains diamonds, hearts, spades and clubs, whilst the latter contains coins, cups, swords and batons.

The next common element is a suit of 21 special cards known as trumps. Tarot is one of the earliest card games into which the concept of trumps had been introduced. In the French suit, the images on its trump cards are often depicted as “arbitrary scenes of people at work and at play, animals both actual and mythological, and landscapes of regional locales.”

Symbols on the Cards

As for the Italian suit, the images on its trump cards are said to differ from deck to deck. Nevertheless, they include such familiar figures as the Pope, the Magician, the Emperor, the Lovers, and Death. For those who use tarot cards for divination, these are usually regarded as having symbolic meaning.

It has also been suggested that rather than being designed with mysticism in mind, the figures on these trump cards were meant to reflect “important aspects of the real world that the players lived in”. Moreover, as this was the Christian world of the Middle Ages, the cards are said to contain “prominent Christian symbolism”.

The third common element is another special card called the ‘fool’ or ‘excuse’. In the French suit, this figure is often depicted as some kind of entertainer, for instance, a harlequin or a musician. Whilst the image resembles the ‘joker’ in the standard 52-card deck, they are not historically connected.

Reproduction of two cards from the Pierpont-Morgan Bergamo Visconti-Sforza Deck, c. 1420 AD.

Reproduction of two cards from the Pierpont-Morgan Bergamo Visconti-Sforza Deck, c. 1420 AD. ( Public Domain )


Moonsong's picture

Within tarot cards, especially when used for divination, apart from the four suits, the cards are divided into Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. That being said, the usual knave, queen and king, were also representations of real figures within history, though it remains debatable who was who. Legend goes that the four Queens are also the four Marys - for example that the Queen of Hearts could have referred to Marie Antoinette and the Queen of Clubs to Mary Queen of Scots. More could have been said taking account of this angle.

- Moonsong
A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world ~ Oscar Wilde

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