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Early Tarot Cards

The Tarot c.1450-present

The Origins of Tarot Cards

ITALY is said to be the birthplace of the tarot, which according to playing-card historians was originally a card game invented in the fifteenth century and whose principal innovation was the introduction of trumps into Western European card-gaming. It may also have had a didactic or educational motivation, similar to the "Mantegna Tarocchi" or other educational games which served as mnenomic pictures. However, the symbolism found on some early tarot cards has led many people to believe that tarot cards are in fact the expression of ancient streams of wisdom... the eternal, esoteric and holy tradition itself. Following this belief, modern tarot packs draw upon the teachings of a tremendous range of traditions, including Kabbalah, Western esotericism and alchemy, Buddhism, Sufism, Egyptian initiations, mystical Christianity, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Celtic mythology… and so on. People have mapped whichever belief system or philosophy they fancy onto the tarot deck. Many people find they can quickly realise and develop an affinity with symbolic images in the deck which become a source of meaning or guidance.

However, the thematic content of early tarot trumps probably reflects the Platonic Catholicism of the time. An interesting early example is the Guildhall Library Tarocchi cards (shown below) believed to have been painted in Spain during the 15th century. The cards contain curious symbols and iconography. The Knave of clubs shows a hunting scene, and in Platonic philosophy hunting was reckoned to develop moral strength and virility. The World card shows the New Jerusalem, the paradise where we are fully realised. The black and white chequered floor tiles on the ace of cups, like in Masonic lodges, suggests the dualistic nature of the material realm upon which we must rebuild the spiritual life through practising higher moral virtues. The ace of swords (or Sun) suggests the idea that the endless cycles of birth and rebirth can only be penetrated or overcome by spiritual wisdom. And we can also observe that the suit symbols were batons, cups, swords… and probably coins…

Guildhall Library Tarocchi Cards

Above: the 4 "Guildhall Library Tarocchi Cards" from the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards collection of historic playing cards. Hand-painted and gilded by an illuminator, these cards are reckoned to be two pairs of cards from two different decks owing to differences in their size. The Guildhall catalogue records both pairs as having been found in an old chest in Seville (Spain). The Page of Batons has a Spanish-type club and is not holding his suit symbol as is common in all known Italian cards. The cards have no titles or numerals, so their sequence or hierarchy was presumably already known by the players. [Images by kind permission of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards Collection and the London Metropolitan Archives, City of London Corporation]. Another similar example are the so-called 'Goldschmidt Cards' (a Google search will find some images. Also see Hoffmann, 1973).

So the question arises, was this merely a game? How do we explain what looks more like Mystery Tradition Symbolism in these early tarot cards?

In those days, the term "psychology" hadn't been invented. What they had was Morality. "Toutes les sciences ont été mises à contribution et rien n'est plus obscur encore que la science de l'homme moral."  (All sciences have been put together and nothing is more obscure than the science of moral man). Ordinary folk were very superstitious, more learned folk read philosophy books. Churches and academies used visual allegorical symbolism to depict moral lessons. Medieval bestiaries depicted various animals as examples of different moral qualities in humans. Astrological symbolism was all about temperaments, passions and moral virtues, etc. There were lots of religious paintings depicting all sorts of sins and virtues… so we should not be surprised that early playing cards and tarot cards also reflected this cultural atmosphere.

In some cases it looks like the artist's own interpretation of the Trump cards. In other cases, we ask whether the artist was trying to express his/her understanding of some religious doctrines, a new philosophical or moral teaching, or maybe a secret esoteric doctrine…?

We might surmise that many contemporary tarot packs are a sort of compendium of living experience, based on the artist’s creative and spiritual perspective of life as a journey.

The universal popularity of Tarot reflects a quest to understand our place in the scheme of things. The images span from everyday experiences to the larger picture of universal or absolute reality. If used imaginatively, Tarot symbolism can be a vehicle for new understanding, awakening or deeper insight. Ultimately it is a question of what you want to believe…

Cary Collection uncut sheet of tarot cards c.1500

Above: detail from the Cary Collection uncut and uncoloured sheet of tarot cards (housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut) probably printed in Milan and possibly dating as early as c.1500. The entire sheet is available for digital download here. The images are untitled and unnumbered, again suggesting that players must have already known the sequence or hierarchy of trump cards in play from contemporary knowledge. Much of the imagery is recognisable as anticipating the more familiar Tarot de Marseille designs (see below) whilst other features are common to other early Italian decks such as the Visconti-Sforza and D'Este decks. Thus it looks like a prototype or intermediate form of the Tarot de Marseille design.

Tarot de Marseille, Jean-Baptiste Madenié, Dijon probably before c.1739

Above: Tarot de Marseille by Jean-Baptiste Madenié, Dijon, early 18th century. The trump cards are named and numbered to designate their value during play. Images courtesy Frederic C. Detwiller.

Tarot de Marseille, N. Conver, c.1770. Reprinted by Camoin et Cie, c.1870

Above: Tarot de Marseille by N. Conver, 1760 but probably a Camoin (Marseilles) edition of c.1870 from the original woodblocks. Stencil colouring.

The 16th century had witnessed a renewed interest by scholars in classical historians, along with the study of archaeology, philosophy, ancient religions, etc. This was accompanied by the publication of new treatises on all sorts of emerging scientific subjects. The Romantic Movement gave rise during the 17th century to renewed interest in antiquarian topics (stonehenge, druids, etc) and has exercised a strange power over popular imagination ever since.

In the 18th century the trump cards became the focus of esoteric investigations and since then the tarot has become a sort of popular religion or healing tool for mind, body and spirit. French occultists were largely responsible for this, notably Court de Gébelin, Eliphas Levi and Eteilla, who saw correlations between the tarot trumps and ancient mysteries. During the 20th century the literature on “esoteric tarot” has grown spectacularly and fantasy is given freedom to create every imaginable type of tarot card, from the “72 names of God” to the Maya Calendar. These new tarot decks are usually accompanied by booklets explaining the rationale and meaning of the symbolism chosen in the images.

There has also been a distinguished output of ENGLISH TAROT CARDS. By the 1870s a number of English occultists had begun taking an interest in the tarot more…

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The Tarot c.1450-present

Tarocchi di Mantegna   Visconti Tarocchi   Tarocco Piemontese   Tarocco Bolognese   Mitelli Tarocchini   Tarocco Neoclassico   Tarocchino Lombardo   Tarocco della “Corona Ferrea”   Serravalle-Sesia Tarot   Dondorf's “Tarot Microscopique”   Polish Tarot   Épinal Tarot   Thomson-Leng Tarot   Ramses II Tarot   Egyptian Tarot   Austrian Tarock   Danish Tarok   Minchiate   Rider-Waite Tarot, 1909   Insight Institute   Stairs of Gold   Russell Grant Tarot   Super Pop Tarot   Self-Guided Tarot   The Fortune Teller's Deck72 Names Cards   Silicon Valley Tarot   Watersprite Tarot   Inner Realms Tarot   Fortune Telling

Visconti Tarot “Tarocchino Lombardo” c.1835

"The primordial image or archetype is a figure, whether it be a daemon, man or process, that repeats itself in the course of history whenever creative fantasy is freely manifested. Essentially, therefore, it is a mythological figure. If we subject these images to a closer investigation, we discover them to be the formulated resultants of countless typical experiences of our ancestors."   C.G. Jung

“Tarocco Neoclassico Italiano”, c.1810 Charles Cheminade Marseille Tarot, early 18th century Charles Cheminade Marseille Tarot, early 18th century Thomson-Leng tarot “Stairs of Gold” Tarot

During almost 600 years the tarot cards have undergone a transformation from renaissance card game to new age spiritual treasury. Every age gets the tarot that it deserves or desires.

Mitelli’s “Tarocchini di Bologna” Tarocco Piemontese | Piedmontese tarot Watersprite Tarot, 2012 Cartomancy and Divination Cards Rider-Waite Tarot, 1909 Insight Institute Tarot Épinal Tarot 1830 Wüst “Encyclopedic Tarot” French tarot Kart do Tarota Inner Realms tarot Housewives Tarot, 2004 Vergnano Tarot 1826-1851 Nine Lives tarot, 2013
Last Updated September 26, 2016 at 12:09pm


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