Tuesday, September 18, 2012
The Tarot's origins are perhaps as misunderstood as the mystical symbols on the cards themselves. One of the earliest decks of Tarot cards to be documented was a hand-painted set created around 1440 for the Duke of Milan. However, these cards were not used for intuitive or ‘reading’ purposes as the Tarot cards of today are. They were used for a card game similar to bridge, and as a muse to inspire and create entertaining poetry.
Lots of people through the ages have promoted the images and text on some of the early decks as having really ancient origins or gypsy ancestry. We have all seen the movies about the early gypsies traveling around in their wagons reading peoples fortunes with Tarot cards, and several ‘scholars’ even claimed to have ‘proven’ that the Tarot was developed by the priests in ancient Egypt! While these tall tales are all very nice, and some are even convincing, they are all romanticized versions of how the cards came to be in the form that we now know them. Most serious sources agree that the roots of these symbolic cards can be traced to traditional playing type cards, developed for traditional card games popular at the time.
The Tarot deck itself is actually made up of two decks, which are called Arcana’s. The “Minor” Arcana has fifty six cards that fall into four suits, and is likely the predecessor of the modern deck of cards that we are familiar with. These cards are numbered one through ten, and the reason that it has fifty six cards instead of fifty two is that each set of court cards has the usual Knight (Jack), King, and Queen, plus an additional card called the ‘Page’, who is the messenger to the court. This deck was used to play games that would be recognizable even today. The ‘Major’ Arcana is a deck of twenty two cards numbered zero through twenty one that carry images such as ‘The Fool’, ‘The Magician’, ‘The Lovers’, etc. This deck was created later and added into the larger deck to be used as trump cards in games that require that.
Now you may ask, if this was a deck of cards used for playing games, when did it turn into a deck of cards used for divination? I will explain that, but be warned, there are a few references coming up to writings and people with very long and possibly funny names, but we’ll get through it quickly!
Divination using playing cards is documented as early as 1540 in a book entitled “The Oracles of Francesco Marcolino da Forli”. Manuscripts from 1735 (The Square of Sevens) and 1750 (Pratesi Cartomancer) document simple divinatory meanings for the cards, as well as a system for laying out the cards. Giacomo Casanova wrote in his diary in 1765 that his Russian mistress frequently used a deck of playing cards for divination; but that tale has far more interest to it than what applies to just the cards!