A Brief History of the Tarot
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Posted: January 30th. 2005
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I would like to take a brief look at the history of the Tarot Card.
This first part looks at the initial creation of the Tarot in the fifteenth century.
Let me just say by way of comment that looking at the origins of the Tarot does not say anything about present use, though it may help us understand some of the context in which the images were formed. In the same way, an English word may derive from an original meaning in (for example) Greek, but over time, through change in use, the current meaning changes so that it separates from its origins, gaining new meanings; language is the richer for that. Likewise the Tarot is the richer for the change and development in its use and meaning from its humble beginnings.
Revising the history
It is worth noting at the outset that there is a good deal of bogus history about the Tarot. This has been noted by many historians, but Michael Dummett, in "The Game of Tarot", 1980, was probably the first to take a detailed look at the histories given to that date, and check them against sources. He noted that some of the histories, especially those about the antiquity of the Tarot, were dependent on assumptions made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and also that popular writers on the Tarot tended to repeat each other rather than check their facts.
If we look at the late 1880s to the 1930s, we see that during this period in England, ideas about the nature of culture were combined speculation about the occult nature of the tarot. These factors worked to create an esoteric and pseudo-academic legend about the tarot. In this, the mystic tarot origins were said to go back to the Egyptians or the Jewish kabbala. In fact, the cabbalistic and/or hermetic connections made between the tarot and its sources were little more than a series of free associations, usually based on personal surmise.
Going back a little further, we see that writers associated with the French occult revival at the end of the eighteenth century began to link the Tarot, first with Egyptian hieroglyphs, then with the kabbala. Alliette (writing under the name of Etteilla) was probably the most famous of the French writers on cartomancy (divination by cards) Abrégé de la Cartomancie (1753) . This was later taken up by the later English writers on the subject.
But it is now clear that it made the Tarot made its first appearance in Europe, not in the fourteenth but in the fifteenth century, and its original geographical location seems to have been Italy not France, as was previously thought.
The Muslim Connection
It is likely that the ancestors of modern cards arrived in Europe from the Muslim countries, and probably from Turkey. Clearly these cards would not have been anything like later development of the images on the cards - the Muslims had an absolute prohibition on images.
These cards seem to have come into Europe through Venetian trade with the Mameluk Turks. The form in which they came was very close to those in use today. In particular, the Mameluke deck contained 52 cards comprising four "suits": polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups. Each suit contained ten "spot" cards (cards identified by the number of suit symbols or "pips" they show) and three "court" cards named malik (King) , na'ib malik (Viceroy or Deputy King) , and thani na'ib (Second or Under-Deputy) . The Mameluke court cards showed abstract designs not depicting persons. A complete pack of Mameluke playing cards was discovered by L.A. Mayer in the Topkapi Sarayi Museum, Istanbul, in 1939; this particular complete pack was not made before 1400, but the complete deck could be matched to a private fragment dated to the twelfth or thirteenth century.
There is some evidence to suggest that this deck may have evolved from an earlier 48-card deck that had only two court cards per suit, and some further evidence to suggest that earlier Chinese cards brought to Europe may have travelled to Persia, which then influenced the Mameluke and other cards of the time before their appearance in Europe.
The first mention of cards is in 1371 in Catalonia, Spain. Cards at this time were used for playing with, the divinatory aspects came later. In 1377 Florence, Italy, we have an ordinance concerning cards, or "naibbe". This source refers to cards as "a certain game called naibbe, newly introduced in these parts".
Another mention is in 1379, in Viterbo, Italy. Cola di Covelluzzo’s Viterbo Chronicle reports, "In the year 1379 there was brought to Viterbo the game of cards, which in the Saracen language is called nayb." Visual evidence suggests that in Italy these had the suit system of Coins, Cups, Swords, and Batons, similar to the suits found on modern Tarot decks. It was the later French adaptation which changed swords to spades, wands to clubs, cups to hearts, and coins to diamonds.
We now get many mentions of cards, and the games played with them. Many of these are laws banning card-playing on holidays, or for tradesmen, or both, suggesting the broad popularity of the pastime from its very first arrival in Europe. There are numerous references from France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, and the Low Countries. Significantly, there is no prohibitions or mentions of divination, unlike those which abound in later records.
The First Tarot
But the form of cards underwent a change towards the Tarot deck only later, when images were placed on some cards. Around 1440 Decembrio, the official biographer of Filippo Maria Visconti , third duke of Milan, wrote that the duke enjoyed playing a game that used painted figures. Duke Filippo paid 1500 gold pieces to Marziano da Tortona for a pack of cards decorated with images of gods, emblematic animals and figures of birds.
So the year 1440 is about the upper boundary for the invention of Tarot. The earliest surviving deck may date from circa 1441, and the earliest documented reference to Tarot dates from 1442. A lower bound for the date of their invention is harder to determine, but the sources on other cards indicate that the earliest date with any claim to be plausible would be 1410.
Originally the tarot deck was used for the trick-taking game called tarocchi, and later in variations such as tarock, tarocchini, and minchiati (sometimes with modified decks) . Although cartomancy was common enough from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the tarot was not used extensively for divinatory purposes until the end of the eighteenth century.
In the next section, I will focus on two cards, Death and the Devil, and show how the images and meanings were shaped by their historical context.
In this section, I want to focus on just two cards - death and the devil, as they most clearly show their historical origins. As before, I would mention that meanings change, and how the cards were once understood does not mean that we cannot develop the meaning in different ways today.
Background to the Cards: Death
The images on the Tarot reflect their historical setting, and we can see this most clearly if we look at the figure of death.
The modern interpretation of death is not wholly negative: "The Death card does not mean death of the physical body, but merely change and transformation of some kind". This is very much a later development, and I think a very positive one.
But at the time that the Tarot was created, death was a powerful agent of destruction, there was nothing positive about it. The time just predating the Tarot sees all kinds with allegories of death in woodcuts, which depicted how grim life was in centuries of recurrent famines and epidemics, climaxed, but not ended by the devastating Black Death of 1348. Death is the grim reaper, scything down everyone.
So when the cards first appeared in the early 15th century, the skeletal figure of Death was familiar. Europe had suffered through a century of the Black Death, and woodcuts depict images of the danse macabre, in which the skeleton is seen cavorting indiscriminately with paupers, kings, and clergy. Death vanquishes the lower cards depicting life’s aspirations, but is itself subject to the greater cosmic powers, such as the Devil, celestial lights, and God.
Background to the Cards: The Devil
Satan, or the Devil, comes historically from the inter-testamental writings, such as the Book of Enoch, and the Book of Jubilees. This has roots in Jewish speculation and development of the angel mythos, in which the Satan is seen as a fallen angel.
As late as the sixth century A.D., in a mosaic in Ravenna depicting the Last Judgement, the devil was still portrayed as a haloed, winged being, standing at the left hand of Christ. Satan is dressed in blue, not red, robes. By the Middle Ages, however, Satan had become a beast with horns and hooves.
It has been supposed that the devil's revised appearance may derive from the great Greek god Pan- half-man, half-goat- and from association with the cult of the forest deity Cernunnos of northern Europe. Yet the many early documents before 1000 AD show that the Paganism was symbolised by a serpent or dragon, and never a horned creature. So although this is theory is often repeated, the documentary sources do not support it.
In fact, up to around the 13th century, the figure of the devil in popular imagination was little more than a trickster, a deceiver, a liar, but hardly the leader of hordes of demons.
What changed? What allowed the devil to reign supreme over his kingdom of the damned? And where did his appearance come from?
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is probably the writer most responsible for the later mythology of heaven and hell. His trilogy, especially his first book, the Inferno, has graphic depictions of hell, and it seems likely that much of this comes from Nordic and Germanic roots rather than Celtic or Greek ones.
It is from the North, and Norse mythology that demonology develops. The very word "hell" is Teutonic, and originally signified a hollow space or a cave underground , and denotes the realm of Hel, Loki's daughter. Moreover, in Dante, hell is not in its deepest layer a burning place, but at its core, the wintry desolation of an ice-palace. Dante’s Devil is three-headed, and this looks towards the three-headed hoar-giant of the Edda, Hrim-Grimnir, who lives at the door of death, and also of the trinity of various pagan gods, especially of Triglaf, the triune deity of the Slavs. Moreover, at this time, there is a drive to civilise the North, and attack the beliefs in Norse gods. In Dante’s time, the statue of Triglaf was destroyed by a bishop.
But despite the immense popularity of Dante, there is one further factor that causes the devil to alter from trickster to lord of this world. That is, again, the black death, sweeping across Europe, a destroyer of all people, good or bad, young or old, innocent or worldly-wise. People asked why this was happening to them, and in grappling with the problem of indiscriminate suffering, they put the cause onto the devil. One anonymous manuscript from the time puts this very clearly:
"I am asked what is the cause of pestilence, what is its physical cause and by what means can someone save himself from it, I answer to the first question that sin is the cause. To the second question, I say that it arises from the sea, as the evangelist says: "There shall be signs in the sun and in the moon and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves." For the devil, by the power committed to him when the seas rise up high, is voiding his poison, sending it forth to be added to the poison in the air, and that air spreads gradually from place to place and enters man through the ears, eyes, nose, mouth, pores and other orifices."
This also leads to an eruption of apocaplytic speculation from the book of Revelation, where there are images of death, the pale rider (which is why death is often depicted on horseback) , and also the loosing of Satan: "When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth." (Rev 20:7-8.) . For a people stricken by this pestilence, seeking to understand it, they saw this as a sign of the end times.
It is from this context that we find the image of the devil, and this also explains the man and woman in chains below him. Death has swept across the world, God is powerless, and the Devil has mankind imprisoned in his dominion.
"The Game of Tarot" by Michael Dummett, 1980
"Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook" by Vicki K. Janik and Emmanuel S. Nelson (1998)
"Daily Life in Chaucer's England" by Will McLean and Jeffrey L. Singman (1995)
"Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France, Volume: 2." by John McManners (1998)
"Living the Enlightenment: Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe" by Margaret C. Jacob (1991)
"The History of the Devil and the Idea of Evil from the Earliest Times to the Present Day” by Paul Carus (1900)
"A History of the Devil from the Middle Ages to the Present" by Robert Muchembled (2000)
"The Origin of Satan" by Elaine Pagels (1996)
"Pictorial Guide to the Tarot" by A.E. Waite (1911)
On the Black Death: Anon. BL Sloane MS 965, folio 144
Useful Internet Links:
On the source documents of the oldest deck, and cards in Europe: http://www.trionfi.com/
General article on the Tarot, using modern history sources: http://www.campusprogram.com/reference/en/wikipedia/t/ta/tarot.html
Good site if you want to see look and feel of original fifteen-century woodblock-printed tarot cards: http://www.telp.com/art/cartae_triumphorum/
A good examination of early images from historical settings can be found at: http://www.geocities.com/cartedatrionfi/Pictures.html
The development of the devil in history: http://www.holysmoke.org/hs00/angels.htm and http://www.sacred-texts.com/evil/hod/index.htm
A.E Waite's Pictorial Guide to the Tarot, 1911, good on modern interpretation (18th and 19th century) and surprisingly good historically: http://www.sacred-texts.com/tarot/pkt/index.htm
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