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  • Writer's pictureTero Goldenhill

A Short History of Tarot up to the French Revolution

I wrote this article for the Tarosophist International Spring 2012 issue.

I’ll begin this short introduction to Tarot history with a quote: “The word tarot is ambiguous and complex. For me, for my childhood memories, “tarots” are above all the red oranges of Sicily, splendid and sunny, that the greengrocer broke in two to triumphally show its radiant inside as a ruby and perfect as the rose – window of a Gothic cathedral. And that is such a beautiful and vivid memory that the adjective “taroccato” has always bothered me, which young people, with so much frequency, use to indicate something of forgery and of false, and a cheat… It is evident the dramatic dichotomy of certain their denominations: the “triumphs” recall court images, of victory, of power, of luxury, whereas the “minchiate” speak the language of the vulgar, of the fraud, of street violence, of the nothingness. A language that denounces a bipolar attitude toward the game: fear, charm, challenge and contempt.” (Introduction by Franco Cardini in I Tarocchi – Storia Arte Magia, dal XV al XX secolo / Tarots – History Art Magic, from XV to XX century by Andrea Vitali and Terry Zanetti. Edizioni LE TAROT, 2006. p. 5)

One of the first things that come to my mind when thinking of the history of tarot is the voice of professor Michael Dummett (1925-2011), when he explains in Strictly Supernatural: Tarot & Astrology  documentary, “The earliest actual documentary reference to them [tarot cards] is from 1442 from the account books of the Court of Ferrara, but I think they were probably invented about two decades earlier, sometime in the 1420s.” (You can get the DVD from Amazon. If you haven’t got it, you should, just for the sake that it’s narrated by Christopher Lee)

When speaking of tarot’s history it's important to keep in mind two things: first, the exoteric and the esoteric history of tarot; second, the history of the term ‘tarot’, and the history of a pack of cards called tarot. Exoteric history deals with the actual information that has preserved down to us from the past; with tarot this refers to old cards (completely preserved packs are very rare), dated references to them (who paid how much, when and where and if we’re lucky, for what sort of cards) and their use, possible and pausible links regarding their spreading throughout the world, and so on. The esoteric history, on the other hand, is interested in different and occasionally rather wild theories regarding the origins and use of the cards. Many times this is about revealing the “true origin and nature” of tarot.

Probably the most famous example between the exoteric and esoteric tarot history is the “theory of Egyptian origin”. According to many esoteric tarot scholars, tarot cards were invented in Ancient Egypt and the cards contain the secrets of the universe (or something close to those lines), whereas the exoteric tarot scholars state that tarot didn’t exist before the 15th century. While I myself gladly follow the exoteric tarot scholars, I also keep in mind the fact that Renaissance humanism had its roots in Hellenistic / Ancient Greek philosophy, which in turn had its roots in Egyptian philosophy. So even though tarot cards most likely didn’t exist in Ancient Egypt, the ideas and beliefs that can be found in tarot date back – at least indirectly – to Egypt.

The earliest tarot cards come from mid-15th Century Italy, but at the time were called cartes de trionfi, ‘cards with triumphs’. By the 16th Century this term was replaced by ‘tarocchi’ (still in Italy). The etymology of this word remains unclear. In 1694 the cardmakers of Paris called themselves tarotiers, which probably derived from the French word ‘tarot’. Before, in France the Italian term ‘tarocchi’ became ‘taraux’. There’s a small leap from ‘taraux’ to ‘tarot’.

Card-making in the 18th Century Paris

So, for the first 200 years or so people didn’t know “tarot cards” per se, because the term ‘tarot’ didn’t exist yet. Regarding the term ‘taroccato’ as mentioned in Cardini’s quote, it has also stood for a technique used in Northern Italian courts for decorating illuminated manuscripts by punching and incising. Another possible source for ‘Tarocco’ (singular form of Tarocchi) could also be a dialect word ‘tarocar’, which refers to saying or doing foolish things during game or gambling. Also, there’s the Taro River, which flows into the Po River north of Parma in Northern Italy.

If you believe the esoteric idea that the Ancient Egyptians knew tarot cards then it follows that tarot is much older than playing cards. Here the exoteric history again says the opposite: playing cards were invented in China around the 11th Century, and from there they travelled towards the west. A more direct link to European playing cards comes from the Egyptian Mamluk playing card deck a.k.a. mulûk-wa-nuwwâb, ‘Kings and viceroys’. A lucky incident happened in 1939 when archaeologist Leo Ari Mayer discovered an almost completely preserved pack of Mamluk cards in the Topkapi Sarayi Museum of Istanbul. Even though there are no humans depicted in the Mamluk cards (as the Koran favours aniconism) there are many similarities with the first European playing cards, some of which come from Moorish Spain. From here they spread out to Italy and elsewhere in Europe, or then the cards first came to Venice (as Venetians were busy doing trade with the Mamluks; check out Venice’s Principal Muslim Trading Partners: the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and the Safavids) and then travelled “back” to Spain. Now we already have the four suit signs which are similar to those found in tarot, although Europeans mistook the Mamluk polo stick for a baton or wand. The first European references to playing cards date from the 1370s.

Mamluk playing cards

Michael Dummett and many other tarot academics believe the 22 trump cards (which later became known as the Major Arcana) were added to the recently introduced playing card deck sometime before 1440s in Northern Italy. The wealthy and ruling Visconti, Sforza and d’Este families commissioned artists to paint exquisite cartes de trionfi for them. These cards were most likely used in a card game similar to modern day Bridge. From these Visconti cards we have two almost completely preserved sets, which are amongst the oldest known tarot decks to date; the first one is the Visconti di Modrone a.k.a. ‘Cary-Yale’ deck (dated 1441 by Dummett) and the second one the so-called Pierpont Morgan-Bergamo Visconti-Sforza Tarocchi a.k.a ‘Colleoni-Baglioni’ deck (dated 1450 by Dummett). The trump cards portray figures of both temporal and celestial powers, virtues, and biblical scenes, and show iconographical resemblance to other works of art from the same period (compare e.g. to Giotto’s frescoes).

'Charity' from the Cary-Yale deck

The only two completely preserved decks from the 15th Century are the so-called Mantegna Tarocchi (ca. 1460), and the Sola-Busca deck (ca. 1491) which shows characters and warriors from ancient Rome. The Mantegna Tarocchi is rather misleading for a title, as the deck isn’t a typical tarot deck, nor was it devised by Andrea Mantegna. Instead it has 50 cards grouped into five series (E-A) with 10 cards in each group. The deck is sometimes called “Neoplatonic ladders”, as it is possible to “travel” up and down the cards, as they show the evolution (or involution) from the lowest state (Il Matto, the beggar or Fool) to the highest (Prima Causa, first cause). These two very different decks – as well as the more traditional Visconti cards – attest to the possibility of tarot and likewise sets to have been used as mnemotechnical devices (Ars Memoria).

The availability (and hence, popularity) of both playing and tarot cards is directly linked to the development of paper industry. The Visconti type cards were expensive works of art unavailable to anyone save the nobility. As the paper mills spread throughout Europe, printing of cards became a trade, and so the cards reached all levels of society. It is probably not a coincidence that both playing cards and paper reached Europe the same route (though paper preceding the cards); from China to the Islamic world, and then to Europe.

As the mass production of tarot began in the 16th Century, the Tarot de Marseille became the standard pattern. Simple and yet enigmatic images brought to life by woodcut printing ganed huge popularity – soon the Marseille tarot appeared here, there and everywhere. Standardization was the key, and the same happened to playing cards, too (two colours, simple images). For now, the age of hand painted works of art was over (see e.g. the Ambras deck (ca. 1445), Hofämterspiel (ca. 1460) or the Stuttgarter Hofjagdspiel (ca. 1431)).

Michael Dummett has estimated that in the 16th Century around half a million Tarot de Marseille decks were made in France, and in the 17th Century around a million – out of these, only three or four have made it to our days (and not all in a complete form). It is also important to remember that tarot was still a game during this period, at least for the majority, although other uses most likely coexisted too. The fact that the Mantegna Tarocchi looks the way it does, Tarocchi appropriati (16th Century) or Le Sorti intitolate Giardino di Pensieri by Francesco Marcolino da Forli (1540) speak of other uses of the cards, from cultivation of the mind and spirit to entertainment to fortune-telling.

It was in the Age of Enlightenment in France that the Big Bang for the esoteric tarot happened, and when tarot began to be used for fortune-telling – even tarot academics are happy to admit this. Antoine Court de Gébelin (ca. 1719-1784) was a freemason and a protestant pastor, and it was he who first wrote about the Book of Thoth [read: tarot cards]. According to him, tarot was invented in Ancient Egypt and it contained, quite simply, the wisdom of the world. He published his theories in the massive encyclopedia, Le Monde Primitif (1777-1796). The 8th volume (1781) contains the seminal essays: Du Jeu des Tarots written by Court de Gébelin himself, and Recherches sur les Tarots, et sur la Divination par les Cartes des Tarots by his friend Comte de Mellet (Louis Raphaël Lucrèce de Fayolle, 1727-1804). Here, for the first time, the relationship between tarot and the kabbalistic Tree of Life were published. The age was ripe for secret societies, and tarot made its way into the occult world. It was gladly received.

Antoine Court de Gébelin: Monde Primitif, engraved frontispiece

Instead of focusing on Court de Gébelin’s and Comte de Mellet’s achievements, I’ll dedicate this final paragraph to someone less famous and less fortunate: Jean-Baptiste Alliette a.k.a. Etteilla (1738-1791). He had been a fortune-teller in the past, using ordinary playing cards. After the essays expounded in Le Monde Primitif, he became one again, this time using tarot cards. Etteilla is to be thanked for the many “firsts”; new ideas he brought into reality and which have since then become standard tarot practise. His name already reveals one of these “firsts”: by reversing his surname he began a tradition of pseudonyms, which e.g. Eliphas Lévi (Alphonse Louis Constant) and Papus (Gérard Encausse) continued. Etteilla also invented the first tarot deck specifically designed for esoteric purposes and fortune-telling (Grand Etteilla: Ou Tarots Égyptiens), as well as the first tarot book for the exact same purpose (Manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes nommées tarots, ‘How to entertain oneself with a deck of cards called tarots’, 1785).

Jean-Baptiste Alliette a.k.a Etteilla, 1738-1791

His deck bore many innovations; firstly, he numbered all the cards from 1 to 78 (the Fool occupies the last position). Secondly, all the cards have keywords written on them, both upright and reversed. Thirdly, his deck was the first to combine zodiacal signs and the four elements to specific cards. Other “firsts” include e.g. inventing the term cartonomancie which then became cartomancie and from here we get the English word ‘cartomancy’. Etteilla also was – most likely – the first person to promote card reading as professional activity. He even set up a school with his son, Société des Interprètes du Livre de Thot (1788), and also deviced the largest tarot spread ever known, the Great Figure of Destiny, which uses all of the 78 cards.

“Etteilla knew how to capture the imagination and minds of the populace of his time. He adapted the tarot pack to his own system and promoted cartomancy to its fullest… During the perilous days of 1789 he forebode the fate of many Frenchmen who would fall victim to the events of the times.” -Stuart R. Kaplan: Tarot Classic

Six Major Arcana cards from Etteilla's deck

Later tarot generations would come to accuse Etteilla of many things, denigrating his achievements to nothing, calling him an opportunist – perruquier Etteilla – who betrayed the “True Tarot” just like the Hermit with the keyword traitre on the cover of this Tarosophist Magazine. But Etteilla was no traitor (nor was he a wigmaker). He was a tarot pioneer in so many ways, looking into the past with the light of his lantern, trying to find the long lost wisdom of the ages. In doing so he in fact reached into the future, and changed the future of tarot itself forever. The year Etteilla published his tarot deck, 1789, was the year the French Revolution began. Etteilla truly mirrored the spirit of his Age. As the Cries of Paris reached the rest of Europe, so would tarot reach across the Channel, and spark another sort of revolution in the lives of the members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Bibliography: -Caldwell, Ross Sinclair – Depaulis, Thierry – Ponzi, Marco (edit.): Explaining the Tarot – two Italian Renaissance Essays on the Meaning of the Tarot Pack, 2010 -Decker, Ronald – Depaulis, Thierry – Dummett, Michael: A Wicked Pack of Cards – The Origins of the Occult Tarot, 2002 -Denning, Trevor: The Playing-cards of Spain – a Guide for Historians and Collectors, 1996 -Dummett, Michael: The Game of Tarot, 1980 -Dummett, Michael: The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards, 1986 -Farley, Helen: A Cultural History of Tarot – From Entertainment to Esotericism, 2009 -Huson, Paul: Mystical Origins of the Tarot – From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage, 2004 -Kaplan, Stuart R.: The Encyclopedia of Tarot (Vol. I – IV), 1975 – 2001 -Mayer, L. A.: Mamluk Playing Cards, 1971 -Moakley, Gertrude: The Tarot Cards Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family – An Iconographic and Historical Study, 1966 -Place, Robert M.: The Tarot – History, Symbolism, and Divination, 2005

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