Tarot Cards – Their History and Use

Playing cards arrived in Europe via 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 with 10 pip cards and three court cards. The original suit signs were cups, coins, swords, and polo sticks. Polo wasn’t played in Europe at the time and so they became batons. These suits are now known as the Latin suits and all Europe used them – though they are now only used by Latin countries. The court cards were a King, a Rider, and a Footman. All male court cards are still used in Latin suits, as well as in the German and Swiss packs.

The Queen makes her first appearance in a Milanese pack that features six courts in each suit, a male and a female of each rank. Two of the extra courts were dropped and for a time the 56 card pack was standard in the region. It was to this pack that an extra suit of picture cards was added in the mid 15th century. These extra cards took as their theme a traditional Christian triumph procession, hence they were called trionfi, meaning triumphs, and from which we get our word trump – it was the invention of tarot that marked the invention of trumps in card games! The game later took the name Tarocchi, probably from the old Italian vernacular Tarocus, meaning to play the fool. This name became Tarock in other countries with only France dropping the guttural at the end to make Tarot.

Tarot has no occult origin and contrary to popular myth, the church never took offence at the cards because they were recognised as Christian. Looked at with modern eyes some of the old designs look mysterious, even heretical – but examined in context of when they were created we get a different picture. For example, the Female Pope raises a lot of questions and yet in the 15th century she was a common figure in Christian art, symbolising things like the New Covenant and the virtue of Faith. The Hanged Man also has received attention, suspended by one foot! Yet it Italy, this card was called The Traitor – and that’s how they killed traitors, 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 makers 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 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 Female Pope, the Emperor, Empress, and The Pope were all replaced by The Four Moors, four trumps that are treated as having equal rank.

Other significant packs include the Florentine Minchiate, this tarot has an extra block of trumps to make 97 cards in all. Another is the Tarocco Siciliano, a pack of 63 cards, almost as small as a patience pack, and featuring some unique trumps along with some borrowed from the Minchiate.

In the early 18th century, German playing card makers began to produce French suited packs with new trumps featuring a range of original trump designs. The French suits were much cheaper to produce, requiring only stencils rather than carved wood 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 of the games, with France being the last to adopt them in the early 20th century.

Toward the end of the 18th century, occultist and resident of Paris, Antoine Court de Gabelin wrote an article on tarot cards for his Encyclopaedia, The Primitive World. He declared that the cards were the codified wisdom of ancient Egyptian priests, essentially a series of hieroglyphs that were much in vogue at the time. He offered no evidence for his theory but it became a popular myth. For about a century, the occult tarot and divination with the cards was only known in France, it was not until members of the Golden Dawn, who based much of their occult beliefs on the cards, began to import them, publish translations of the French texts, and redesign them specifically for occult practice, that the myth reached the English speaking world.

Today, English speakers continue to know the cards for their occult myths and, of course, the fortune telling. However, Europe continues to play an impressive range of card games with them. France, Austria, and Hungary maintain particularly strong tarot game tradition as does Bologna in Italy.

The principle 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 like whist, bridge, and spades, players win cards in tricks. Unlike those games, different cards carry different point values, so that it is not the number of tricks you take that wins the game but the number of card points you win in them.

Some games, such as Ottocento and Minchiate, also score points for card combinations and sequences won in tricks, adding an extra dimension to play. Others rely much more on winning announced bonuses for scoring most of the points, by far the most interesting of these is Royal Tarokk that does away with card points altogether.

You can find rules to games and further history in these books:

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