Tarot Cards – Their History and Use
Playing cards came to Europe through the Islamic world in the mid-14th century. These early cards, known as the Malmuk cards, had the same structure as our regular playing cards today: four regular suits, each containing 10 pip cards and three court cards. The original signs of the suit were cups, coins, swords and polo sticks. Polo was not played in Europe at the time, so they were made into poles. These suits are now known as Latin suits and all of Europe wore them, although they are now only worn by Latin countries. The court cards were a king, a horseman and a footman. All men’s court cards are still used in the Latin suits, as well as in the German and Swiss packs.
The Queen makes her first appearance in a Milanese pack featuring six cuts in each suit, one male and one female of each rank. Two of the extra courts were removed, and for a time the 56-card pack was standard in the region. It was to this deck that an additional set of picture cards was added in the mid-15th century. These additional cards took as their theme a traditional Christian trump procession, which is why they were called trionfi, which means trumps, and from which we get our word trump: it was the invention of the tarot that marked the invention of trumps in card games! cards! Later, the game took the name of Tarocchi, probably from the old Italian vernacular Tarocus, which means to play the fool. This name became Tarock in other countries and only France dropped the guttural at the end to make Tarot.
The tarot has no occult origin and, contrary to popular myth, the church never took offense to the cards because they were recognized as Christian. Seen through modern eyes, some of the ancient designs seem mysterious, even heretical, but examined in the context of when they were created, we get a different picture. For example, the Woman Pope raises many questions, and yet in the 15th century she was a common figure in Christian art, symbolizing things like the New Covenant and the virtue of faith. The Hanged Man has also received attention, suspended by one foot! However, in Italy, this card was called The Traitor, and this is how traitors were killed, hung by one foot and left to die slowly and publicly. No mystery at all!
However, as the cards spread to other regions, new players and card creators were unfamiliar with some of the images and, in a climate of religious caution, altered some of the cards. The Belgian pattern replaces the Pope and the female Pope with Bacchus and the Spanish Captain. The Besancon pattern replaced the same cards with Jupiter and Juno (this is still found in the Swiss 1JJ). In Bologna, due to politics rather than religion, the pope, emperor, empress, and pope were replaced by the four Moors, four trumps who are treated as having equal rank.
Other major decks include the Florentine Minchiate, this tarot has an additional block of trumps to make 97 cards in total. Another is the Sicilian Tarocco, a 63-card deck, about as small as a patience pack, and features some unique trumps along with a few borrowed from the Minchiate.
In the early 18th century, German playing card manufacturers began producing French suited decks with new trumps that featured a range of original trump designs. French suits were much cheaper to produce, requiring only templates rather than carved wooden blocks, and the new trumps allowed card makers to show off their skills in a time of great competition. These cards are now used for most games, with France being the last to adopt them in the early 20th century.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the Paris-based occultist Antoine Court de Gabelin wrote an article on tarot cards for his Encyclopaedia The Primeval World. He declared that the cards were the codified wisdom of the ancient Egyptian priests, essentially a series of hieroglyphs that were very much in vogue at the time. He offered no evidence for his theory, but it became a popular myth. For about a century, occult tarot and card divination was only known in France, it wasn’t until members of the Golden Dawn, who based much of their occult beliefs on the cards, began importing them, publishing translations of the French. texts, and redesign them specifically for occult practice, that the myth reached the English-speaking world.
Today, English speakers still know the cards from their occult myths and, of course, divination. However, Europe continues to play an impressive variety of card games with them. France, Austria and Hungary maintain a particularly strong tarot gaming tradition, as does Bologna in Italy.
The main countries where tarot is played today are: Italy, Sicily, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Germany, France and Denmark.
The games are largely what we call point-trick games. That means that, just like whist, bridge, and spades, players win cards at tricks. Unlike those games, different cards have different point values, so it’s not how many tricks you do that wins the game, but how many card points you earn on them.
Some games, such as Ottocento and Minchiate, also score points for card combinations and sequences won in tricks, adding an extra dimension to the game. Others rely much more heavily on earning advertised bonuses for scoring the most points, by far the most interesting of these is Royal Tarokk which removes points from cards altogether.