Playing cards came from Italy. Or France. Or Islam. Or China. The Internet will give you all those answers. But, in Europe, the first cards used were called trionfi also called tarot or tarock, and they reflected the 78-card tarot deck which became familiar to cartomancers across the centuries. At the time, they weren’t used for divination. Later folks claim they went back to the pharoah’s Egypt which has been disproved. No one seems to know why the Mamluk Egyptians had them, but they weren’t from Hermes Trismegistus.
When They Weren’t Riding Horses, They Needed Other Pastimes
The oldest surviving European decks came out of Milan from the early part of the 1400s. They are named the Visconti-Sforza deck, after Fra Lippo Visconti who commissioned them and his son, Francesco, of whom his later son tried to get Leonardo to build a bronze statue of horse. See L is for Leonardo. (I’m getting late in the alphabet–everybody seems to know everybody else).
The cards were exquisitely painted, sometimes with jewels. (What did a 14th century glue gun look like?) They even painted members of the duke’s family, which makes them historical documents. No complete deck has survived; multiple museums have incomplete decks.
There were originally 78, though they never found the cards with The Devil and The Tower. (For non-tarot officianados, the Tower is the scariest card in the deck because it presages Big Time disasters, like the collapse of banking in 2008, the election of Trump, COVID. It’s not a surprise that no one kept that card).
But I mention presage… I’m getting ahead of myself. These cards, in their Renaissance versions, were used to play games, often for money. Sometimes the priests warned about time spent with them, as gambling led to avarice and idle playing meant sloth. Some say they were banned, but it was probably mostly the Dominicans grumbling. Spoil sports.
Tarocchini: Gin Rummy on Steroids
What distinguishes a tarot deck from our modern 52-card deck is the trumps, also called the major arcana. There are 22 of these cards with personas or archetypes, if you want to get Jungian about it. Many of them would be familiar to you like the Fool, the Lovers, Death, or the Magician. Regardless of their origin, these were playing cards and assigned point values, depending on the game. Usually the trumps had higher point values than the number cards.
Tarocchini, or a similar version called ottocento, is still played today in Bologna. It seems to be a combination of rummy, bridge, and canasta. Cards are dealt to four partners. Each partnership sees if they have card combinations that they can pull out (3 of a kind etc), after which they play to see who can take tricks. All the trumps have high points as do the face cards, with the smaller cards either discarded or counting in the melds. My Fool takes your Jack unless you have a Priestess with the Ten of Cups, which means the Holy Grail.
The Islamic Version of Bejeweled Cards
While one source says these cards originated in Europe, another says they emerged out of Islam, specifically Islamic Egypt, ruled by a group called the Mamluks at the time. As frequently happens, European historians claim something originated spontaneously in Italy when there’s evidence that the much more sophisticated Arabian civilization might have “brought” it to Europe. See The Map of Knowledge. A brief Google session didn’t tell me how long the Mamluks had these cards, but it did mention that the Chinese wrote about playing with cards back in the 9th century. So actually, China predated every other civilization in use of cards, though few seem to give them credit.
The Mamluk cards were also beautifully hand-painted, with no faces because painting images were a no-no. Instead, the artwork includes intricate calligraphy with positive affirmations like “Rejoice in the happiness that returns, as a bird that sings its joy.” I wouldn’t mind some helpful sayings on my Queen of Hearts: “You can rule the world, if you know the source of ice cream…” etc.
Not for Fortune Telling
When I was younger, I was very into tarot decks and had about a dozen decks. I enjoyed learning about them, and their archetypes. Reading cards always gave me ideas on how to have a more successful future–what’s wrong with that? I still do occasionally read a set called “The Voyager Tarot.” They were really fun in staff meetings. If you know what you’re doing, you can provide an insightful reading that gives people things to think about, kind of like social media posts today. The process designers loved them!
But these early tarot cards from Italy were definitely not for fortune-telling. In fact, scholars can pin down the date of fortune telling with tarot cards to the writing of Antoine Court de Gebelin in 1781. This dude in the French court wrote a multi-volume set “creating” the mysterious secret cabbalistic hermetic meanings of these cards. But he was no historian; he was making it up. Nevertheless, many societies of esoteric knowledge picked up the idea, and by the late 19th-early20th century people like Aleister Crowley were going to town, which meant Jung would go crazy with it, and Joseph Campbell, and so on.
One fascinating essay on the “Sociology of Tarot” then asked the key question: does the tarot contain esoteric truths from ancient Egypt? The answer is No. So why did it suddenly become part of all these rituals in the late 18th century? Researcher Mike Sosteric argues that as the feudal system broke down, to be replaced by nationalism and the industrial corporate order, there was a the rise in lodges, secret societies, and occult groups. These helped foster the idea of brotherhood to replace the familiar hierarchies which were disappearing. Oh, but now we’re getting way too far away from the Renaissance. That will have to be during my A to Z on the Industrial Revolution, circa 2025.
Suffice it to say that they didn’t use tarot cards for telling fortunes in the Renaissance. They did play fun games with them, if they could remember all the point values of the trumps.
So if someone at a Renaissance or medieval fair tries to read your fortune, tell them they’re full of it. They can read palms, tea leaves, coins, sticks or what have you, but if they’re not dressed an outfit dated after the French Revolution, you should refuse to pay. Or give them a lecture on the origin of the tarot.