A quick look through tarot over the ages. So many blogs and authors completely miss how far back tarot goes and confuse a model of card imagery with card history. Going all the way back is far more fascinating and through preserved images it becomes clear that the minor arcana hasn't actually changed all that much until this century where original artwork to provide a clue to concepts has opened up due to the ability to put ones ideas into print or online cheaply, and more importantly, easily.

The argument continues to rage as to where tarot comes from, I find that difficult to understand as getting the correct information via museums and trusted encyclopaedia online resources is pretty easy. It is unlikely as paper was invented in china thousands of years before and they already had cards with lucky coins numbered that presented from 1-10... they also had picture cards of beautiful quality. It is more likely that pentacles come from the lucky chinese coin. and most interesting in modern playing cards the design of court cards still have a similar style to those origins, they also had a suit of fishes,, (cups/water maybe an extension). Paper was so valuable that they could be exchanged for money which could also be how gambling with cards came about. The cards were sometimes used as the exchange or a form of IOU and could be exchanged as currency, possibly the first paper money. interesting history.

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Most chinese cards had 3 suits but 'money' cards had four. These were the ones often used to gamble and offer as valued exchange. (money) Unlike modern money of zero value, even though it once represented gold, the paper and cards themselves did have a lot of value making them prized possessions for some.

All human communities loved divination we took sticks, smoke and stones and use them for divination, even clouds get a look in. Tarot or playing cards that evolved were already being used and arabs were credited with bringing a new type of card game into europe in the 15th century (1400's) there is a surviving card showing the four of cups. To note, it has a very similar design to the fish of the chinese cards already in existence. I would say that tarot is an evolution not a moment of creation coming via a variet of cultures as they created their own. The koreans were printing with movable type in the 13th century, to understand what the technology means is to know that if you can't make paper and print on it, you can't have cards.

tarot decks cups circa 15th century

There is an accepted historical story of a saracen introducing tarot to europe. They argue how that happened but don't refute that it did happen that way, as opposed to europeans going out into the world and bringing them back. In reality, the cards and their evolution into tarot literally draw from everywhere in the world.

In the images of cups above the similarity of design to the chinese cards is unmistakable albeit with that beautiful Arab twist of colour and complexity. There is no doubt at all that these cards were intended for giving messages long before the word 'tarrochi' was established via Italy as is the popular recounting. This all simply means it may not have had that name, but it was all in place and in play not quite but almost globally. Because you know, they hadn't found New Zealand yet......

The calligraphic texts along the tops of the cards consist of rhyming aphorisms which are often very enchanting, sometimes strange, but always interesting: “With the sword of happiness I shall redeem a beloved who will afterwards take my life“ - “O thou who hast possessions, remain happy and thou shalt have a pleasant life.” - “Let it come to me, because acquired good is durable; it rejoices me with all its utility” - “Pleasures for the soul and agreeable things, in my colours there are all kinds” - “Look how wonderful my game is and my dress extraordinarily beautiful” - “I am as a garden, the like of which will never exist” - “O my heart, for thee the good news that rejoices” - “Rejoice in the happiness that returns, as a bird that sings its joy”.

Frieda Harris 8 cups Thoth Deck

This type of message is reminiscent of the I'Ching which is also an earlier divination or self improvement tool citing the issue in the first part of the enneagram and the solution in the second originally from the the teachings before but later attributed to the writings of Confucious. It comes from an ancient Chinese text, one of the Five Classics (Wujing) of Confucianism. The main body of the work, traditionally attributed to Wenwang (flourished 12th century BC), contains a discussion of the divinatory system used by the Zhou dynasty wizards. Later scholars were a bit uncomfy with the divination aspect but it is how we all evolved and interesting if one considers religion over millenia being nothing much more than divination via terminology. IE it is okay to say god told you to do something or prepare for something but not to grab that information from any other source which technically should be the same source. That is a whole different discussion. The point is, they are really affirmations that help to firm up a weak person or fearful soul.

It is clear that the use of cards as a tool in a fairly recognizable way, was well and truly established before it found it's way to Europe. While europe was drawing on stones (runes) and Egypt was using heiroglyphs on parchment, printed paper was changing how the world was able to reproduce images and ideas. pretty cool really.

I have often mentioned and been shot down a bit that gypsies and average folk didn't read cards until last century most likely as paper runs, even in Waite's time, were limited for cost reasons, printing was slower and the buyer market was thin. It made tarot a rich mans game which is why the creators of card decks were all well to do types and not your average person. This also means that the cards themselves are geared to their lifestyles and abilities making them a bit too posh for the likes of common folk. Just as the golden dawn whose members (crowley and waite for starters) twisted their dogma into interpretations secret societies and occultism itself took off in the mid to late 1800s. This era was the beginning of popular occultism with so many coming forward and trying to create their own organizations. Some went worldwide like the Theosophical Society, open to men and woman thanks to Madame Blavatsky, and others held the men only rules which drove them underground into secrecy and self aggrandizement.

It was a time of developing new religions and there are plenty of those, as well as many new forms of divination. Mediumship was the most popular, cards even tarot, were treated more as games overall and an exciting bit of fun until Lenormand got her reputation and the rich of europe flocked to get readings from her long before any tarot card you have seen became more than illustrations in a book available to a very few. It could be argued that if Arthur Waite hadn't been researching and translated Eliphas Levi's books, we may never have heard of him in a modern world beyond scholars and occultists even though he penned over 30 books in his lifetime.

It was through this period that development of a major arcana and occultism found its way into the pre existing decks, even though they were already being used in various ways for divination and already known as cartomancy the addition of the picture cards and higher spiritual concept development does seem to start around the 1700s-1800s mainly due to the flare up of occultism. The imagery and concepts of the cards are not that unique as the development of man through divination is as old as time.

It is noted that very little of levis depictions have changed with additions due to his images being drawings only, no colour printing or high numbers of reproductions. They were well travelled men, levi added sphinx into his card drawing of the chariot, it is a king and none of the individuals are looking where they are going, it says it all but that gets lost in later decks which is a bit of a shame. The king forgets what he knows or doesn't know what he wants, his hand on his hip suggests arrogance so maybe not open to taking in information, the sphinxes are distracted. pretty cool. good fun to explore that is for sure. this card in its original form is self explanatory upon looking at it, later depictions try to be a bit clever and herein lays the reason the golden dawn dissolved, they argued over semantics of spiritual experience and tied to create a secret society so only the initiated understood their symbolism. epic fail.

Notably levi refers to descriptions by a prior author likely the Marseille original creator but possibly earlier as no one has been able to identify who he referenced for the card images or descriptions. Born in 1810 and classically educated in France he would have had access to books and images that most did not. His esoteric interest was quite fascinating as he started in a religous order and decided it was all a con shifting to judaism and in particular fascinated with the mysticism of the kabbala then changing his name and ultimately becoming an occultist believing more in psychology of man leading to the spirituality of man. A theme we see in the early chinese iching and later arabic cards.

He was very keen on the kabbalistic attainments which are essentially the attainments of man in any case regardless of spiritual or occult interests. Levi watched end experienced readings by lenormand (both being in france of course) and made some interesting public commentaries suggesting 'she didn't understand cards but was surprising in her accuracy, ' a bit of ad hoc memory stuff there for me but he was published in the paper mocking her knowledge while conceding in a backhanded way that her readings were accurate. He didn't believe in psychics just to be clear, he thought we had the intelligence to grab clues and explore them coming to a conclusion and cards were a way to ignite that knowledge from an inner level. Or it seems that way when you read his stuff. It is pretty dry...

As we move on to Waite and Crowley we start to uncover the influences that were related to Frieda Harris the illustrator of Crowley's Thoth deck. It is very clear that he had little influence but comparing the Steiner influence with the earlier cards of the Mamluk deck produced around 300 years earlier is undeniable. This matters because Frieda Harris was an adherent to Rudolph Steiner and Mary Baker both into chrisitan sciences. We need to go back in time and forward again to see the influences through time and a move beyond hand illustrated cards which would have been prized and rare. Each deck being unique.

Mamluk Cards Hand Drawn early 15th century (1400's) Mamluk was an early Arab empire that ruled Egypt before it was Egypt. They can be viewed at the museum in Istanbul.

The shape of the cup (as well as the overall card design) is basicaly the same as in the Topkapu Museum example, probably representing a traditional form which can be traced back to ancient glass forms. This suggests that the style of Mamluk cards may not have changed much over time, and that these card patterns spread from the Islamic world via Italy and Spain into Europe. Indeed, it appears that people in Spain and Italy in the late 14th and 15th centuries were aware that playing cards were also used in the Arab world, and came from there, seeing that in 1379 the Chronicles of Viterbo record that a new game called 'nayb' was introduced by a 'Saracen' (= Oriental, Arab or Muslim). In other words, playing cards had just been imported into Italy.

The early history of cards in Western Europe was related to the invasion of North Africa, Spain and Sicily by Islamic forces during the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt which ended in 1517. This coincided with the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada in Andalusia (13th - 15th century), the last Islamic stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula. Spain was the point of contact with the Arab world, where cultural, military and commercial interactions occurred. The game of cards became established in most West European countries by c.1375, but was being banned by the authorities shortly afterwards which suggests their rapid popularity. Ruh Roh. There is little doubt that more religious depictions on cards were seen as a way to get around the authority of the church but you can't hold people down for more than a few thousand years at a time right?

Below are images of actual cards created in europe in the 1400s, a similar time period to the introduction of paper, arab card games and printing presses which did not become standard before 1430 and were single print. (that is, one piece of paper at a time as opposed to mechanized which came much later) The cards below are considered the earliest 'official' tarot deck most likely created by Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan. The truth is no one knows but we do know again it would have to be someone not fearful of catholic retribution or being tortured for herecy as Italy and France were major players in punishments of devil worshipers in the middle ages. It makes sense that no one was putting their hand up to admit they created something that could be used for divination or spiritual development outside the church.

The trump figures were understood as analogies of universal principles, depicting man's place in the cosmos and the divine order of things in the world of that time. Their imagery was not an integral part of how the game was played, but merely decorative, although there was an instructive or moralizing aspect to the imagery, perhaps aligned with the philosophical or spiritual yearnings of the Duke of Milan's élite circle. This made Tarot a form of cultural expression in itself: an identity statement. In short this is pretty much the same as the arabic cards and the chinese cards before them so I am happy to challenge the idea that this is the birth of tarot and not just a westernization of previous cards. The fountain design is very similar to the Mamluk card design. The majority of surviving cards from this time were in fact hand painted.

Hand-painted and gilded by an illuminator The Guildhall catalogue records both pairs as having been found in an old chest in Seville (Spain). The Page of Batons has a Spanish-type club and is not holding his suit symbol as is common in all known Italian cards. This indicates as history shows, that travellers were taking cards out into the world at around the same time and then they were being reproduced to represent the local symbols.The cards have no titles or numerals, so their sequence or hierarchy was probably secondary if as Arthur Waite purported, 'the cards have no more meaning than their image'

I have mentioned many times that pip cards (suits) had different representations in various regions and countries and here we have a clear example of that. As you head into the 1500's you start to see more religious concepts in play but also some naughtiness in the images. The Moors were known to travel to spain, were well known during the crusades and basically were a hub of trade throughout the middle ages. Their influences are everywhere. Take a look at the card background imagery and then have another look at those Mamluk cards above.

The twist into relgious connotations representative of that time is quite fascinating.

four cards from the Sola-Busca Tarocchi, Ferrara, 1491

I want to draw the attention to the horse, If you have ever seen an arab horse, that is it. Many depictions of horses in paintings through this time are plodding war horses. they are giants in the horse world but here we see bagpipes, arabian colt, a medieval king holding a shield in a throne that is very interesting, and a cherub helping a man with his chores, the man is unclothed as it the cherub. it is a clean representation of toil. and here we see the 4 urns. the same style as the kings urn.The Sola Busca tarot could have constituted an alchemical guide to esoteric initiation for a secret society, but no one really knows there is a bit of conjecture here.

Detail from the Cary Collection uncut and uncoloured sheet of tarot cards (housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut) probably printed in Milan and possibly dating as early as c.1500. that really means they could also be later. Note the imagery for the swords yet again exactly the same and reminiscent of earlier eastern cards. We are seeing more imagery even if some of it is bloodthirsty, note the man on a stake in the fools image.

There are more feminine inclusions, this is likely due to a number of powerful women in various parts of the world from Queen Isabella of Spain and Queen Elizabeth 1 of England and Catherine medici of italy all being in power over a similar period of history, Be it on your head if you ignored women in your cards. Note the woman with the two cups (later becoming the foundation for the Temperance card and switching out the queenly figure for an angelic being. and finally after all that, comes the Marseille deck in the 1600s. The first tarot deck or origins are hotly debated but I can't see any reason to start in Europe at all. Here we do see a strong religous theme creeping into the deck and royalty is prominant and the French revolution is on its way. No one looks too happy in these cards but they tend to have authority stamped all over them.

Tarot de Marseille by Jean-Baptiste Madenié, Dijon, early 18th century. The page of cups holds his cup upwards, open to above, whilst the Magician also holds his wand aloft and the queen her sword. They all glance downwards. The trump cards are named and have Roman numerals to designate their value during play. Images courtesy Frederic C. Detwiller.

But here we see a return to the symmetry and design of earlier playing cards and one can't help but wonder at the persistence of the coins, cups and sticks. the original three suits in the chinese deck. We have modernized and made them less attractive in the reproductions. less complex and less valued in appearance. but we also haven't quite let go of the origins dating back to chinese origins. Pentacles were referred to as coins and many still do, or disks as in the Thoth deck as they all fought for dominance in the occult card printing market. If we are to acknowledge that the Saracen bought the cards into Europe and introduced the card games (and historical references suggest that we really should) it dates all European cards after that known period of time.

An 11th century source reports that the game of cards appeared in the middle of the T'ang dynasty (613-906) and “that a certain Yang Tan-ien greatly esteemed the playing of cards”, and that these cards had markings taken from dice. This evidence suggests that card playing began in China at an early date. Printing had also been developed in China as early as the eighth century for printing Buddhist texts, and later, banknotes or money printed on paper. At some point playing cards were also printed from woodblocks. Another report dates from 1294, when Yen Sengzhu and Zheng Pig-Dog were apparently caught gambling in Enzhou (in modern Shandong Province). The law case notes that nine paper cards and thirty six taels of zhong tong period (1260-1264) paper currency were seized, along with wood blocks for printing cards. Our next source is from the writings of the Ming dynasty scholar Lu Rong (1436-1494), who notes that he was sneered at for not knowing how to play cards when he was a government student at Kunshan in modern Jiangsu Province.

Some packs were made of up of one hundred and twenty cards composed of four identical sets of thirty cards each and here we find the foundation of suits. These cards were narrow, flexible strips of cardboard. Often the cards contain illustrations alluding to traditional literary scenes or folk stories. hmmm just like tarot right? The minor arcana often depicts the struggles of the common folk, while the court cards of course represented the ruling classes and the major arcana depicted combinations of relitious leaders and kingly or authoritarian figures. here we are heading into the early 1900s with a history of consistent card printing and divination for nearly 2500 years in China making it over 3000 years in the 21st century.

The word for playing cards used in the Italian Renaissanc (naibi) and in Spain even today (naipes) is of Arabic origin and derived from nā'ib.

[Images of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards Collection and the London Metropolitan Archives, City of London Corporation].