The Tarot: A world heritage

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In Cartas Philippinensis, the first Philippine Tarot cards by historian and lawyer Saul Hofileña Jr., painted by Guy Custodio, we have a newborn with a long, illustrious world heritage.

Tracing its genealogy has been quite an adventure. Thanks to the Internet filling in historical blanks, it recently linked ancient Egypt to Europe in the first playing cards to enter Christendom in the 14th century.

These cards were much older than that, however. Lore always said the Tarot was born in the Library of Alexandria. Now we learn that this major center of learning in the ancient world was created by Alexander the Great’s successor, Ptolemy I, in 3 BC. Lore adds that constant threats from Egypt’s power rivals compelled its keepers to a daring move.

They synthesized the library’s contents in symbols hand-painted on playing cards, gambling that whatever happened, a card game would keep Alexandria’s world view alive. Indeed, after earlier fires set by two Roman emperors and a Coptic Christian pope, the Muslims, another power rival, completely destroyed the Library of Alexandria in 642 AD. Whatever it was these powers thought they were destroying must have been key, in their eye, to their ceaseless struggle for territory.

Five centuries later, Christian-Muslim power struggle saw Egypt’s Islamic Mamluk Sultanate invading North Africa, Spain and Sicily. Now we find the Tarot’s earliest extant traces–the card game “Nã’ib” (deputy sultan in Arabic), a “game of lieutenants” played by the sultanate’s army in between wars.

The Mamluks were coeval to the deputy sultan Nasrids ruling Granada in Andalusia, the last Islamic stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula— Spain’s point of contact with the Arab world. Entering Europe through the Strait of Gibraltar, Nã’ib spread throughout the continent, as the ancients of the Library of Alexandria must have envisioned.

Now began a rich encounter between warring Christian and Muslim cultures in what would ironically become the European Renaissance in the 14th to the 17th centuries. A war game would evolve into the mystical Tarot in those centuries, a shorthand history of European Renaissance art and philosophy.

Remnants of a Nã’ib pack dated Mamluk XV to early Mamluk XVI, with Islamic geometric designs hand painted by court artists in Istanbul’s Topkapi Museum, hint not only at the Muslim-Christian ancestry of our modern playing cards but their first origin.

The Renaissance that began in 14th century Florence flowered in the first documented Tarot packs hand painted by artists in mid 15th century Milan, Ferrara and Bologna. The oldest surviving cards commissioned by the Duke of Milan now had 16 cards with allegorical images and suits marked by four kinds of birds. Poetic, social, philosophical, heraldic and astronomical images, Roman, Greek, and Babylonian heroes from Europe’s own prehistory were added. Christian Europe’s mythology was taking over a war game.

Inspired by I Trionfi, a poem on Christian virtues by “the Father of the Renaissance,” Pertrarch, the new deck called carte da trionfi–triumph cards–were actually triumphs of art. Translated into English, trionfi became “trumps” in the world of playing cards.

True to the spirit of rebirth, trionfi drew motifs from the trionfo, the traditional theatrical procession we still see in the splendid Carnival of Venice as well as in the grand murals of the duke’s palace in Ferrara.

Hand-painted cards were an upper class privilege but Europe’s paper manufacturing and printing could now mass produce them. More hand painted 15th and early 16th century cards have survived than late 16th or 17th century cards, but gambling with trionfi became wildly popular. Even a preacher’s fiery sermon on the evils of gambling in the devoutly Christian 14th century was largely ignored.

So how did the game of lieutenants become the Tarot? One theory: the name came from the Taro River in northern Italy where the game first caught on. From there it acquired regional names as it travelled south through the Papal States in Italy and Southern France, the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, the Savoyard states ruled by the Duke of Savoy in the Middle Ages.

Trionfi became a craze in 16th century Europe, as popular as the older tarocchi in various regional names–tarocho in Brescia, Northern Italy, tarochi in Ferrara, tarocchini in Bologna, Piedmont and Sicily, taraux in the Papal State of Avignon, tarock, tarok, and tarokk in the widely played regional games of the former Austro-Hungarian empire in central Europe.

Like Nã’ib the new decks had four suits—coins, cups, swords and polo-sticks—each with 14 cards numbered 1 to 10 and four court cards. The Islamic King, Lieutenant, Second Lieutenant and Assistant gradually turned into the medieval Christian King, Queen, Knight and Page. There, too, was much inter-cultural borrowing—French suits in Northern Europe, Latin suits in Southern Europe, German suits in Central Europe. Trionfi travelled even during the Italian Wars northeast to Venice, Switzerland and France, becoming famous as the Tarot de Marseilles.

A unique feature of the game was a humorous note—the word taroch, a synonym for foolishness, was attached to The Fool card as the main trump card excusing a player from following suit.


Like The Fool, the Tarot’s voyage through time is both a beginning and an end. After centuries as playing cards, Tarot divination was recorded in mid-16th century Europe. Rudimentary meanings for each card in 1750 were fleshed out by the first deck for Tarot divination in 1785, closing a circle with its mystical Egyptian roots.

Etteilla, the author of the new deck, was the pseudonym of the occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliettea, the first known professional Tarot reader. His deck now linked the Tarot with astrology and Greek medicine’s “four elements and four humors” practiced in ancient Egypt. It came with instructions, on card layout and their meanings, upright or upside down, still practiced in Tarot divination today.

The new 78-card Tarot deck had two distinct parts: the Major Arcana (Greater Secrets) with 22 cards and the Minor Arcana (Lesser Secrets) with 56. Here was the heart of Tarot divination. Hermeticists, both Hebrew Kabbalist and Western Christian, interpreted the Major Arcana cards as markers of spiritual growth. Numbered I to XXI,The Magician is I; The World is XXI. The Fool sometimes begins the deck as 0 or ends it as XXII, both the beginning and the end.

  • As the 18th century ended, discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Egypt by a soldier of Napoleon’s invading army in 1799 now yielded the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. This would open the mysterious “Book of Thoth” to foreign eyes, beginning a deeper understanding of ancient Egypt’s inner world.

Over 30,000 Egyptian texts stored in libraries of temple complexes called “Houses of Life” were attributed to Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and knowledge. The Christian missionary Clement of Alexandria, a future saint, mentioned 42 books with hymns, rituals, astrology, geography, medicine, temple construction, aspects of their gods, sacred animals, and the realm of the dead.

The church father Clement also wrote that they were all by Hermes, an earlier Greek god the Greeks likened to Thoth. Whether he meant not “by” but “inspired by” or even “dictated by” remains an unanswered question reminiscent of the Mayan Popol Vuh.

Meanwhile the artist’s eye for symbols and the meaning of myths continued deepening the Tarot’s influence. There was only a passing mention of the game tarau in the 16th century French Renaissance writer Rabelais’s novel about the travels of two comical giants. By the 20th century, the German composer Carl Orff’s haunting Carmina Burana, part of his Trionfi trilogy, created an unforgettable musical niche for the Tarot. Equally dramatic is the contemporary French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden in Italy with 22 major sculptures of the Major Arcana created for two decades.

And the voyage continued.

To be continued




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