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The Tarot and other Early Cards
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the deck by
the Italy 2
The 78-card deck generally known as "tarot" has been one of the first kinds of playing cards to be manufactured in Western countries, and the very first one made in Italy.
This statement is based on a certain number of written sources dating back to the late Middle Ages: such documents provide the description of games played by those days, first mentioning cards as a pastime played in princely courts of Northern Italy by the first half of the 15th century.
It appears obvious that by the 1400s playing cards had already entered the European continent, but how this happened, and when, is still a matter of debate.
THE COMPOSITION OF TAROT DECKSTarot decks are made of two distinct groups of cards: 22 individual subjects named trumps, arranged in a specific sequence, and 56 cards divided into four classic suits or families, Coins, Cups, Swords and Batons, usually called suit cards.
In games played with the tarot pack, the 22 illustrated cards act as trumps, whence their common name; cartomancy practices, instead, refer to the same cards as major arcana.
They are often marked by a number, although this feature does not appear in early decks, in which the standard sequence was simply learned by players.
The 22nd trump card, the Fool, usually has no number, and it is more often placed at the bottom of the series. The lack of a specific rank value is explained by the fact that this card was used more or less as a joker, i.e. it could change its value according to the needs of the player who held it.
The 56 suit cards (or minor arcana, according to clairvoyants) are four series running from 1 (ace) to 10, ending with four court cards which show a knave, a cavalier, a queen and a king (the highest value); their value is shown as an arrangement of suit signs, more or less as modern decks do, though their appearance is more elaborate, and they often bear additional decorations.
STANDARD SUBJECTS OF TRUMP CARDSWith a few exceptions, the subjects of the 22 trump cards are standard. But since all of them are featured as allegories, the actual illustrations show many differences from deck to deck, some of which are quite remarkable.
In each tarot edition, the trump cards always reveal a blend of tradition and innovation, being the choice of each illustration usually inspired by previous decks, at the same time reflecting elements of change due to local culture, religion, popular taste, etc.: this gives reason for the many varieties.
Instead, the arrangement of the 22 trumps is less subject to changes. The following table shows what is considered to be the standard sequence, as found in most classic editions. Note that a few subjects have a dual name, one closer to the original meaning of the featured allegory, and one due to the tarot's modern evolution, particularly following its use for esoteric practices, such as cartomancy. The latter name, here in brackets and spelt in italics style, is the one more often found in contemporary editions. In these galleries, though, preference has been given to the original name, also because in all tarots a close connection binds the true name of each subject both to its graphic appearance and to its ranking.
CLASSIC TABLE OF TRUMPS
the Trivial Performer (the Magician)
the Popess (the High Priestess)
the Pope (the Hierophant)
the Wheel of Fortune
the Hanged Man
Some tarots, though, have subjects arranged in a different sequence: it would be wrong to state that other orderings are simply varieties of the "correct arrangement" shown above: for the average tarot player, whether the Chariot is worth more or less than Temperance, or whether Justice wins over the World, would make little difference, provided that each subject's value is fully agreed by all players before starting the game.
Therefore, considering that early trumps had no numbers (players knew by experience each card's rank), it is easy to understand how changes might have occurred when the game of tarot spread to other cities.
A comparison and a discussion of different orderings is shown in page III.
BIRTH OF THE TAROT DECK
the queen of Cups
The reason why the queen was added to the already existing three courts is not really known. However, if we look at these cards in terms of a symbolic representation of the local ruler's household, as suggested by the same name "court cards", the queen might have filled up what in the Western world would have surely been a "hierarchic gap": the ruler's spouse, an important presence in most late medieval European courts. From this point of view, a connection with the earliest non-tarot German decks (e.g. the Hofämterspiel or the Hofjagdspiel) appears very likely.
The 56 suit cards, i.e. the same ones from which all modern decks sprang, were added to the set of 22 trumps (see the graphic scheme in the following paragraph) probably sometime around the late 14th century, thus obtaining the 78-card pack still in use today: this is commonly assumed to be the birth of the tarot, although different combinations too may have likely been attempted, and a specific date for the ultimate standardization of the tarot's composition cannot be defined. These doubts are the consequence of a knowledge of the earliest cards merely based on literary sources that describe or simply mention card decks in account books, inventories, and similar archive documents. A typical example are the VIII emperor cards, belonged to Parisina Malatesta, the young wife of the lord of Ferrara, NicolÚ III d'Este, which appear in a letter dated 1423, and upon whose nature no further light could be shed.
archaic 5 of Batons, from
a Moorish-like pattern, c.1400
Whether trumps had been used alone before meeting the suit cards, or - to put this in other words - whether they had been originally invented for some kind of game played with 22 picture cards alone, is still a matter of debate, and carries some interesting implications: in fact, had they actually been used alone for some time, the birth of Western decks might have to be set back to an earlier date than the one commonly accepted, but as far as now no written record seems to bring enough evidence to this theory.
TAROT AND CARTOMANCY: A RECENT RELATIONFor over three centuries, in all European countries where the tarot had become popular, the only use of the deck was to play card games.
Only in the mid-late 18th century these cards began to be related to esoteric activities, later developing into cartomancy as we know it today. This event can be regarded as a Y-junction in the history of tarot patterns, since from this moment onwards most of the decks supposed to be used for such purposes added to the original subjects symbols inspired by Egyptian mythology or by the Jewish Kabbalah: in fact, many cartomancy decks feature a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet on each trump, claiming a specific relation with each of the cards' meanings. Needless to say that in earlier centuries, a similar concept would have been surely banned as "heretical", and harshly prosecuted.
But the 19th century's Romantic movement acted as catalyst in favour of such hesoteric practices, and by the turn of the 20th century two of the most famous cartomancy tarot patterns were created, the Ryder-Waite and the Wirth.
Nowadays, despite in most parts of the Western world the New Age movement has brought a cartomancy revival, in some parts of Europe the tarot is still used for playing. Countries such as France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, some Italian regions, and few more, still keep alive the tradition of tarot games; many of the the decks now used, though, show some differences compared to the original ones (see page II for regional patterns), representing the ultimate level of the tarot's "family tree".
THE TAROT'S GRAPHIC APPEARANCEIn the classic tarot pattern, suit cards follow the so-called Italian or Spanish system, on which the national decks of these two countries are still based.
the ace of Batons
Batons are pictured as cerimonial staves, straight, often with knobs on their ends and more or less rich decorations along their shafts. Swords instead are usually thin, black and curved as sabres. Both suits have signs arranged in complicated patterns, and small allegorical figurines often fill the empty spaces in most illustration.
Aces and court cards, instead, feature their suit sign in a more free style, though common elements, such as a hand holding the ace of Batons (a cudgel) and the ace of Swords, appear in many classic editions.
The tarot's Coins are sometimes referred to as Pentacles, due to the fact that in some decks the coin decoration is a five-pointed star, or pentacle. This is but one of the many different geometric patterns which can be found on this suit sign. In fact, the name "Pentacles" is never used in any of the Italo-Spanish-suited regional patterns.
Quite often, the trumps bear the name of the subject, spelled in full length; sometimes also court cards (and, seldom, the aces) feature their names. This is not really an original feature, since none of the early decks used to state any of the pictured subjects; it is likely that names were added around the 17th century, and one of the most well-known decks in which they appear is the Marseille Tarot.
Disregarding the modern production, which nowadays keeps in mind the export market, old decks bore a text only in the local language, in most cases Italian and French. Fewer decks had names in German or Flemish too, while English came no sooner than the 19th century.
ABOUT THE ORIGIN OF THE WORD "TAROT"The many theories about how this word originated are highly speculative, since no source has ever been able to give any account of its real origin and meaning.
In the 15th century, the trumps were known as Trionfi (triumphs), which was also the name given to the full deck. Probably, to avoid misunderstanding the name of the deck was changed to Tarocco (tarot) about one century later.
There are two main cultural directions followed by scholars to explain such name: the one which sinks deep into Egyptian mythology, claiming relations to a magical or esoteric origin of this deck (from the Egyptian tar = "road, way" and ro = "royal"), and a more rational theory, which relies on the Arabic origin of Western cards, as mentioned in the webpage's introduction.
Besides the absence of historical proof of any playing card deck in Egyptian history, there are linguistic elements which might support the early Arabic origin.
The word tarot in its original language (Italian) was, and still is, tarocco. Most other Western language groups have followed the same common root, thus the French tarot (also used in English, Spanish and Portoguese), the German tarock, the Hungarian tarokk, and so on.
In Italian, today the word still has two meanings: it is the name of the deck made of 22 trumps and 56 suit cards, but it is also the name of a variety of oranges from the isle of Sicily, whose colour has a rather golden shade, and whose skin is roughly pitted. It should be kept in mind that the island of Sicily acted both as a geographic and cultural interface between the Arabic civilization from the northern coasts of Africa and Italy's mainland.
A relation between the two surviving meanings of TAROCCO apparently exists: the very first Arabic cards which reached Europe through Sicily in mediaeval times, were probably made of (or lined with) thin leaves of gold, finely embossed (i.e. in relief).
the Fool, detail from the famous Visconti-Sforza deck:
the hammered gold leaf, used as a background texture
in all tarots of this group, is clearly visible
The same technique, a hammered leaf of gold, was used in the making of some of the earliest Western tarots stil extant, such as the famous Visconti decks. Although no proof can be given, such a luxury decoration for relatively small pictures painted on a pasteboard base, and supposed to be played with, might have been inspired by the same models from which the main subjects (i.e. the Arabic suited cards) were taken.
This pastime was not simply a game of luck for betting money, what today we would call a "gambling game", as suggested by the fact that such practice is banned by the Isl‚m, although it is sure that the Arabic world used decks like the so-called Mulûk wa-Nuww‚b (15th century), the only one that partially survived, a sample of which is shown on the right.
The archaic verb taroccare, now no longer used, indicated the technique by which goldsmiths decorated a surface covering it with a hammered leaf of gold, eventually in a diamond-shaped pattern. All trump cards of the Visconti-Sforza tarot have a similar texture in the background. This is also the root of the French term tarotť which indicates the same pattern (i.e. repeated series of adjacent diamonds or squares), still commonly used for card backs.
Therefore, the root of the word might come from an Arabic term in relation with this early decorative technique, a theory which has already been suggested by the Italian playing card publication Carte ® (1999, ISSN 1126-3415).
the king of Cups,
from the Mulûk wa-Nuwwâb
And a similar Arabic term actually exists: the verb taraqa, meaning "to hammer", reveals a close resemblance with the Western root. Could the similarity between taraqa and tarocco be a mere coincidence?
ABOUT THE ORIGIN OF THE WORD "TRUMP"As mentioned above, the name trump has an early Italian root: the 22 illustrated cards of the deck were called trionfi ("triumphs"), and the whole 78-card deck too originally had this name, as the early name of the playing card game Gioco dei Trionfi ("Game of Triumphs") clearly suggests.
Although this theory cannot be proven, there might be a link between this name and trump number VII, the Chariot.
In roman times, when generals particularly distinguished themselves in wars, they were credited a triomphus: during this celebration, the leader of the army entered Rome riding a chariot driven by four white horses, passing under an Arch of Triumph especially built in memory of his deeds, while the people hailed him. On this occasion, the general wore a special robe and a crown.
Trump number VII, in its classic version, shows several similarities with such a scene: the card features a chariot, driven by a character who in some decks is male (the general), but sometimes is female (common allegory of Victory), and often wears a crown, symbol of leadership, in an attitude of command; the number of horses is two, although this does not really affect much the symbolic meaning of the card.
In some esoteric versions of the deck, the meaning of this trump, "triumph, victory", is clearly stated on the card's edge.
notice the character's
robe in ancient roman style
THE CHOICE OF TRUMP SUBJECTS
Death, whose name was
sometimes omitted for
A common question about the tarot deck is "why non-playful subjects such as the Hanged Man, Judgement, Death, the Devil and others, were originally chosen for a deck of cards supposed to be played games with?".
As many other details concerning the tarot, this one too is still debated. However, the 22 trumps quite evidently refer to man's condition, from the first card of the series, the Magician (referring to a conjurer, i.e. a trivial activity) through different levels of power (the Empress and the Emperor representing temporal authority, while the Popess and the Pope hold the spiritual authority), through stages and conditions of human life (the Lovers, the Hermit, the Hanged Man, Death), cardinal virtues (Justice, Temperance, Fortitude), ancestral fears (the Devil), up to the cosmic heights of the Stars, the Moon and the Sun, ending with the biblical Final Judgment (the Judgment), and finally the World, ultimate subject of the series, which should be actually looked at as "the Universe": in the game of tarot, the latter trump would take any other card, almost as if a symbolic synopsis of all the previous subjects embraced (thus took) all of them.
Such a highly symbolic pathway in a game of cards should not really surprise, if we keep in mind the important cultural changes in progress by the time the tarot game was likely invented.
The humanistic movement (14th century) had already exalted man's superiority over nature, in sharp contrast with the long-lasting humble condition which man had been confined to during the Middle Age. Scholars were also rediscovering many classic Greek texts that had fallen into oblivion. About one century later, this deep change would have led to the flourishing of Renaissance. Meanwhile, Neoplatonism, once again a leading philosophy by the 15th century, had brought back the concept of Universe as organized in increasing levels of vicinity to God. This gives enough reason for the set of trumps to be arranged as a series of subjects whose value in play increases according to the moral or spiritual value they represent (see also the following paragraph).
A few more samples are shown in the Visconti Tarots - part III page.
young female figure
The sources most subjects were taken from are mediaeval works of art, such as paintings, frescoes, and especially illuminated books, which the renewed interest for fine arts had brought into many scholars' and painters' consideration. It is not a coincidence that some of the finest early tarots, such as the famous Visconti decks, were made by artists who also worked as book illuminators, the same cards actually being a similar form of painting.
The pictures on both sides show details from a 13th century book (left), and an even earlier one (right), which clearly remind us of classic Temperance and Fortitude trumps, respectively.
Samson and the lion, recalling the
Fortitude trump's personage
For many traditional pastimes (not only playing cards), an important element which enhances the players' interest is an imaginary theme or setting for the game: for instance, Chess represents an ideal battle between two armies, while Backgammon and other similar games mimic a race, and so on.
Therefore, in the 15th century, could a new game have chosen a better theme than human life to become a success in most noble courts?
Both the rules and the subjects may have needed some time to find the ideal arrangement, until a golden standard was reached: once this happened, no major change was ever carried out to the tarot deck's structure, and today most tarot games are still based on trick-taking rules which can be traced back as far as the 17th century, or earlier.
TAROTS FOR TEACHING ?One of the most interesting theories about the choice of trump subjects is that the 22 picture cards might have been an early educational instrument.
An interesting early document, whose reliability though is far from being proven, is the travel diary of a party of Frenchmen who in 1227 visited Italy: their papers mention that in noble courts, children played with small finely decorated illustrations, which are reported as "carticellas", a name suggesting small pictures made of paper or pasteboard. The same term, surely referred to playing cards, yet with slightly different spellings, such as cartulae, cartexelle, etc., is found in several 15th century documents.
Although this might be a fantasy, it is exciting to imagine these illustrations as the ancestors of modern trumps, undergoing some changes in time, and slowing becoming the set we know today, or at least providing inspiration for such cards.
The idea that card games may have been devised as means of education, though, is not completely gratuitous. Among the playing cards manufactured during the Renaissance, the famous deck known as Tarot of Mantegna, though not a real tarot, dates back to c.1460-70. It has 50 cards that feature the hierarchy of the universe, from the humble human beggar to the very structure of the heavens. The cards are divided into groups or "levels", in accordance with the afore-mentioned Neoplatonic philosophical beliefs.
Mantegna's subjects and their arrangement strongly suggest a didactic purpose. A similarity between these cards and the tarot trumps is undeniable, as discussed in the relevant gallery, and although the arrangement and number of cards mismatch, the progress is basically the same, and analogies can be found between several illustrations belonging to this special deck and standard tarots.
Other existing records tell us how during Renaissance some tutors used illustrated cards for teaching the children of the noble. But this does not prove a true connection between those illustrations and playing cards.
It appears likely, though, that 15th century playing cards may have not been looked at merely as a trivial pastime (as commonly happens today), but as an activity whose dual purpose was to entertain and to provide a source of moral precepts, what nowadays would be called an "educational game". This explains well the choice of additional trump subjects introduced by the Minchiate, about 150 years later, as a variant of the standard tarot deck.
Had the early carticellas too been a similar instrument, their being found in the hands of children would find a plausible explanation. Several scholars, though, tend to reject this theory, denying any connection between this record and the 22 tarot trumps.
the deck by
the Italy 2
THE FOOL &