Once Upon A Time In Egypt?
Desert Siren -- Part 1
The Art of Sidney Sime
Guilt and the Artist
Making Green Art & Staying Healthy
EMG news for June 2008
Once Upon A Time In Egypt?Myths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
The Tarots: what are they?
A deck of 78 cards divided in two groups: the 22 Major Arcana (figured cards, also called Trumps) and the 56 Minor Arcana, divided in the 4 suites of pentacles (originally coins, or, in Italian, ori, or 'gold pieces'), cups, swords and clubs, each series is composed by numbered cards (from 1 to 10) and the so called face or court cards (king, queen, page and knight).
But much more has been said about them. For instance:
These are just two examples, but most of the books on Tarot offer similar overviews of the cards' history. The Egyptian-Indian origin is often mentioned and Gypsies are seen as the main owner/custodians of the Tarot tradition. About the second quote, it might be interesting to remember that the historical first deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs in the modern era is dated 1822.
What is known of Tarot history? What can be verified about their origin? Where did they surface first, in modern knowledge?
The very material of which playing cards are made, implied from their name in many languages to be the original one (carte in Italian, cartes in French, Karten in German, cards in English, all derive from Latin cartha, or paper), may serve as a pointer: the first known mention of playing cards comes from China, during the Tang dynasty (3), the first Chinese cards (just like dominos) are an evolution of dice games.
Playing cards did not arrive in Europe directly from China, though. From there they travelled West towards India and Persia and were changed and adapted to the different milieus. In the 13th century they were known in the Near East, as proved by Islamic cards from that period, now housed at the Benaki Museum in Athens.
Playing cards were then introduced in Europe by the so called Saracens, the name then given to the Islamic peoples of Southern Spain and Northern Africa. The oldest mention of playing cards in Europe is in the Diccionari de Rims (Dictionary of Rhymes) written by the Catalan poet Jaume March in 1371, where he uses the term naips. From Spain the new pastime rapidly spread to Northern Europe.
For Italy we have a date in a Chronicle of the city of Viterbo (the original book did not survive, there are later copies though) that for the year 1379 says:
By the end of the century one could play cards everywhere in Europe, from the palaces of princes to the lowest drinking den. Rather soon the apparently innocuous pastime became a gambling opportunity. We can follow the development of games and the popularity of cards by the edicts and laws that almost everywhere tried to curb the card-addiction.
Not many cards survive from that time. There are two uncut sheets in Barcelona’s Instituto Municipal de Historia, dated about 1390. Those are some numbered cards of the Clubs, Swords and Cups series. A moral tract written by the Swiss monk Johannes of Rheinfelden in 1377 (5) mentions playing cards and maintains that cards represented faithfully the social composition of the times, since they portrayed kings, queens, nobles and common folk. Johannes doesn’t elaborate on the deck’s composition, but for mentioning numbered cards and figured ones, historians think the suites were the so-called Latin ones (cups, swords, clubs and coins).
Quite soon, in the first half of the 15th Century, variations born of local interests started to appear; for instance, the German hunting decks, chief among them the magnificent Stuttgarter Kartenspiel (the Card Game from Stuttgard), composed of 52 cards divided into Stag, Hound, Duck and Falcon suites.
From the 15th Century is also the eldest surviving example of a Tarot deck: the Cary-Yale Tarots (also known as the Visconti di Modrone Tarots), now at the Beinecke Library, Yale University. The deck has been dated with certainty on iconographic evidence: the coin suit portrays the golden Florin of Milan, first coined in 1442 and gone out of use in 1447.
Our space for this month is finished. The Visconti deck, other early Tarot decks and the fortunes of Tarot in the later centuries will be explored in our next issue.
(1) From The Labyrinth Tarot, Luis Royo Heavy Metal.
(2) From I vecchi Tarocchi Italiani di Gumppenberg, Isa Donelli, De Vecchi Editore 2006 (translation from Italian by the author).
(3) Tang Dynasty, 618-907.
(4) Data taken from Storia dei Tarocchi, Giordano Berti, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore 2007.
(5) Here too the original book is lost. Four copies made in the 14th Century exist.
Chinese domino cards from http://www.cs.man.ac.uk/~daf/i-p-c-s.org/faq/history_1.php (International Playing Card Society).
Card of the Duck suit of the Stuttgarter Kartenspiel from http://www.landesarchiv-bw.de/sixcms/detail.php?template=hp_artikel&id=16185&sprache=de
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