Sorting Through the Games

February 3, 2012

Lovers' Tarot Card
Lovers' trump from Visconti tarot, Italy circa 1445. Photo courtesy of Cary collection of playing cards, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

My very old-fashioned family of origin would casually tell fortunes as they indulged in their passion for card playing. Actually, they called it “what the cards were saying,” and it was based on the patterns that emerged during the game. During my very first game of euchre, my great-grandmother drew cards that disconcerted her and my mother. “I’m sure it doesn’t mean anything,” my mother insisted, though she later voiced apprehension in the car on the way home while my father tried to reassure her. Meanwhile my grandmother, having received a portent that the end was nigh, became nostalgic and sorted through an old box of keepsakes, trying on the wedding ring she no longer wore. We know this because the ring was on her finger and the contents of the box were spread on the bed beside her when she was found the next morning, dead from an unsuspected heart problem. Of course my mother suffered self-recriminations later, having recognized and explained away the signs. I’m not sure that anything could have been done. There is a place in the hospital for people who have received a death message in a euchre spread, but it’s not on the cardiac floor.

Euchre is a game which evolved, like so many others, from the French triomphe: the tarot. While today the tarot is usually associated with divination or instruction, it was once a form of entertainment. The tarot cards, in turn, developed from sets of cards introduced by Arabs into Italy and Spain in the fourteenth century. These Arabic cards had ten numbered cards in four suits–sticks, swords, coins and cups–along with three decorative cards for each suit. These cards were much like the ordinary playing cards we have today.

Conventional wisdom tells us the tarot continued solely as a game for centuries and only much later became a form of divination. This is highly implausible. In the medieval and early modern mind, the world was not divided into discrete categories of meaning and non-meaning. Everything had meaning; and pictures, whether well or badly drawn, were highly symbolic in their content. In a world where God (or the devil) spoke continually, divination could not be delegated to a separate sphere of life. Whatever the four suits meant to the Arabs (and they undoubtedly meant something), the suits in the card deck, the numbers on the cards, and the king, queen, knight and knave all held significance in the mind of the European player. With the introduction of the “trumps” — the major arcana — deeper and more complex meanings could be garnered. Divination would naturally be occurring in the course of a game because meaninglessness and triviality had not yet been invented.

Yet this is not the only reason for supposing the cards were fraught with divinatory meaning from the first time they were shuffled. When historians describe tarot as a “game” this is actually a euphemism for gambling. Early card games — not just the tarot — were a channel for gambling passions. Anyone who has known a gambler knows the extreme significance placed on the elements of the game. Eventually everything
surrounding the bet becomes so steeped in meaning that life outside the gambling arena takes on a comparative sense of unreality. In this regard it is interesting that in China, where the very earliest playing cards have been documented, passion for gambling is longstanding and integral to traditional culture, while divinatory insight is complex, preoccupying and pervasive. Gamblers have no corner on the market for superstition, but to suppose that tarot cards were used for centuries in gambling before they were used for divination stretches credibility.

Several German keys for divination with playing cards appeared between 1505 in 1543, and an Italian system appeared in 1540. These books are usually not considered relevant to tarot divination because they refer to ordinary playing cards. Around 1750 the first written summary of divinatory meanings for the major arcana appeared. This is the sole basis for the common assertion that tarot card divination did not exist for the three centuries following development of the tarot. Why a written manual so late in the game? One explanation is that during the eighteenth century a broad array of sciences were being systematized and recorded, many for the first time. We would expect a tarot key to appear during this time, and the absence of an earlier one does not preclude the existence of tarot divination before this time. Indeed, it says very little one way or the other.

Playing cards and tarot are not much different in origin and early usage, and divination does not occupy a separate, contained sphere of life. It is plausible and consistent with the few available facts to assume that tarot cards were used for divination from the beginning.


Rita Aero. Things Chinese. Garden City, NY: Dolphin Books, 1980.
International Playing Card Society, History of Playing Cards
Jean-Claude Flornoy, Tarot History and Tarot Divination
Mary K. Greer, Lola Lucas, K. Frank Jensen, Timeline of the Occult and Divinatory Tarot
Paul Huson. Mystical Origins of the Tarot. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2004.
Robert Swiryn. The Secrets of the Tarot. Kapaa, HI: Pau Hana Publishing, 2010.
Tarotpedia, Francesco Marcoloni
Trionfi, Oldest Evidence for Divination with Cards