Historical question re the minor arcana


I'm not sure when the minors & majors were first put together to form the Tarot we know today, but I do know that Pamela Coleman Smith was the first person to illustrate them for the Rider-Waite (I prefer Smith-Waite) in 1910, leading me to believe it was the Golden Dawn crowd who first assigned them meanings. I could be wrong on that.


Major and minors...the 52 cards...hold on a second!
So...when did regular playing cards become oracular devices?
Long before the Anglo's got a hold of them.
We tend to be 'hung up' on Tarot...however what about straight 52 card cartomancy. There are at least nine different (some very different) sets of interpretations to them, having evolved amongst different cultures (apparently simultaneously).
Tarot is nice, has cute pictures, we can buy little fairies and angles, historical reproductions blah blah blah.
Sometimes it helps to go back to basics; to look at how the tarot represents aristocracy, and normal playing cards the plebes. The social outcasts who used oracular devices, could they afford the tools of the aristocracy or not?
To sit here in the catbird seat of 2002, look back in time and theorize, quoting from books that "tell us", does not lead us to the truth. Facts obfuscate the truth, cloud the issue. To find meaning, and the history of meaning, you need to look first at the social, economic, and cultural climes that prevailed. This also brings in the error of mixing cultures. To look at eastern cultures through western eyes usually produces a kaleidoscope of illusions dancing around an illusive truth.
Wow I am ramling…gotta go…


Schools tend to break knowledge and experience into subjects, turning wholes into parts. History becomes events without continuity.
What was it that had Europe in the Dark Ages while the rest of the world flourished with great advances in Medicine and Science (especially Astronomy and Mathematics)? What was the significance of Constantinople? Can we ever say the word "Theocracy"?
We know that Fibonacci brought back from Egypt the concept of the Zero, that started the Banking Industry in Tuscan in the early eleven hundreds but we remember him for the "Golden Mean." But who remembers where the Arabs got the concept of the Zero from (The Chinese is the correct answer)?
They sent Marco Polo out for Chinese Food. Now we think that eating Spaghetti is to dine Italian!
Some Rabbi in Tiberias translated the works of Plato from Arabic and then the works made their way to Europe (a little after Fibonacci and his Zero) and Europe began to experience their renaissance (It is still taught as though they thought of it all on their own. To imply otherwise is to imply that the Europeans [i.e.: white man] could not bring about change on their own and that is blasphemy).
Parents look at falling SAT scores and cry for more of the 3R's and then don't bat an eye when Art is the first subject dropped from the curriculum when budgets become tight.
I oft times think that it is the fault of journalists and historians, which has left us with such a fractured view of history.
Example: The Wright Brothers are known as the fathers of flight. They invented the Airplane. Not true. The first powered flight actually occurred in May of 1901 in Bridgeport Connecticut by a Gustav Whitehead. But you will never find him in history books. Why? Perhaps to give credit to a German immigrant named Gustav Weisskopf would be un-American. As for the Wright Bros.. Aeroplane, it was unable to fly unless it had a 25-27mph headwind that aided in overcoming ground drag since it was underpowered. Wright brothers flights after Dec 17, 1903 were aided by a weight-driven catapult.
In dealing in the Financial markets over the last 10 years many times I have read in Barron's, or the Wall Street Journal about "Why" a particular issue went moved in the direction it did. Very often, the "Why" is so far removed from fact it becomes laughable. Example: July 1996 Wheat crop. It was reported that the crop had blight. It was reported the crop had Grey Mold. Fact: There was no winter wheat crop. Most of it froze due to no snow cover, and the wind blew the sprouts into other states.
Then they turn journalists loose onto the unsuspecting public in the political arena. Holy God these folks know nothing about history, make up stuff and print it as fact! They should be pillared and stocked!
Many folks of today wonder why older black Americans are staunch Republicans, when the Democrats "Care and do so much for the disadvantaged minorities." Many older black Americans remember that it was Woodrow Wilson who segregated the Federal government and government offices, encouraged the resurgence of the by then dead KKK (lynchings became rampant as far north as Duluth), set up the Creel Commission, railroaded the Espionage act of June 1917, and the Sedition act the following year. Wilson’s postmaster general used his censorship powers to suppress all mail that was socialist, anti-British, or pro-Irish. As a staunch nativist he questioned the loyalty of any of those he called "hyphenated Americans." "Any man who carries a hyphen about with him, carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready." The Creel Committee saturated the United States with propaganda linking Germans to barbarism. The Democratic Party has never apologized, nor do history textbooks educate our budding journalists the truth.
But the journalists who write history will pen words of partisan politics, and election year drivel.
I feel for poor dead Gustav Weisskopf, who flew and died in obscurity.
There is a continuity in all events. It is the continuity that is history. These times will be skewed by the journalist/historyians as they skewed most of the past.
Guess I got off subject...history folks...It is about taking history out of context...
History or Journalists? What is the point? How many times do you encounter the out of context saying "History repeats itself..." As though history runs throughout the events of man with a mind of its own. History is not a thing. It does not stutter.



Thanks for asking.

When I said elsewhere that the pips have no intrinsic meaning, I didn't mean to imply that they have no capacity as a divinatory tool. They can be adapted to divination fairly easily via numerology, because each of them possesses a number. And if a person assumes that there is some essential quality or meaning belonging to each suit, then each pip would have a distinct meaning that could be applied for purposes of cartomancy.

I was only pointing out that while the trumps obviously were designed with and intended to convey symbolic content of some sort, the pips are abstract patterns, and in themselves contain no intrinsic symbolic meaning, although such meaning can be easily read into them. Decker, DePaulis and Dummett put it this way:

"The leading French occultist of the late XIX and early XX centuries, who wrote under the name of Papus, rebuked certain of his colleagues for using only the major Arcana for divination, and insisted that the entire pack is essential; and all occult theories of the Tarot assign symbolic significance to the suit cards or minor Arcana. But those whom Papus rebuked were in better accord than he with the true facts of the matter. The suit cards are in no way special to the Tarot pack; its inventor can have imbued at most the trump cards with esoteric meanings, since the others were not of his invention, but only faithful copies of the Islamic cards from which European ones were derived." ("A Wicked Pack of Cards," p. 38.)

The beginnings of divination are very obscure. A sort of semi-divinatory poetic form, tarocchi appropriati, involving assigning cards to individuals, then writing a poem about each of them using the cards as prompts, dates from 16th-century Italy and employed the trumps only (see Kaplan, V. II, pps. 8-9).

The earliest evidence of full-fledged divination only comes in the mid-18th century, but that doesn't mean the practice was non-existent before that. It might have even been widespread, leaving no traces. A single sheet which assigns divinatory meanings to cards in the 18th-century Bolognese deck, including some pips, has survived. Giacomo Casanova has also left a description, from 1765, of readings performed by his 13-year-old Russian mistress (what a dog that guy was).

Certainly the most tantalizing clue pertaining to this subject, and one that was talked about at length on another thread (which I can't find now) is the now-lost Sola Busca Tarot. This is a complete Italian deck dated to the 15th century whose suit cards are illustrated with pictures which appear intended to convey symbolic meaning, in the same manner as PC Smith illustrated Waite's deck. It implies symbolic meanings for both pips and courts, and to some extent implies the practice of divination as well. As the earlier poster pointed out, this was the only deck of this type in existence until the creation of the Rider-Waite. It's pictured in full on pages 298-302 of Kaplan, V. II.

I've never seen anything like it, and since a reprint edition is now available through Scarabeo (I think), I believe I've got to have it.

IMHO, that's your best evidence that the suit cards were used for divination at an early date. Can somebody help me find that lost thread? (Who was that masked man/woman?)



Okay, I admit it. I did more than ramble. I ran off on a tangent, with little clarification. My apologies, I sometimes get annoyed.
A picture can be painted many ways.
Most use a broad brush; painting a wide stroke colored with opinion stated as historical fact.
Few post history. Unfortunately, most post either opinion as fact, or opinions of others presented as fact. Fact becomes farce.
I started off, and got lost. Words began flowing, and I lost the point
Catboxer is one of a handful who has a grasp of history, its context, and continuity.

Therefore, I will step back a tad.

Diana asked, “Catboxer pointed out that originally the minor arcana didn't have any intrinsic symbolic meanings, as they started out as playing cards…”

I think before the question is examined, it should be expanded.

When did cartomancy with a 52 card deck begin?
Did the 52 card deck precede or follow the Tarot?
Did the 52 card deck as we know it begin with 56 cards?
Since divinatory meanings are not standardized with the 52 card deck, are the divergences based on geographical or socio-economic variations.
Further, what Masonic influences did both the Majors and the Minors experience prior to RW & Colman Smith?

I just want to be assured that we are getting historically accurate information, and not what passes for history…I am rambling again…



Casanova's 1765 encounter with the cards is detailed in Vol III of the modern edition of his memoirs on pages 407-8. Unfortunately, I have only Vols. I-II, but the incident is cited in Decker et. al. on page 74. Casanova says that the slave girl he had purchased and renamed Zaire had a "blind faith in what the cards she consulted every day told her." When he returned to his lodgings one morning after spending a night out without her, she began raising a ruckus, and "She points to a square of twenty-five cards, in which she makes me read in symbols the whole of the debauch which had kept me out all night...I saw nothing; but she imagined she saw everything...(I) threw her accursed abracadabra into the fire."

Twenty-five is a significant number, because it indicates that Zaire was either using a full 78-card (or more) tarot deck, or a pack of regular playing cards. In either case, she was using at least some suited cards for this reading. I don't know Zaire's ethnicity. Was she a Gypsy? If so, I'd bet money she was using a 52-card pack. I need to get hold of Casanova, Vol III and find out more about her. I know she was with him because he bought her, and would imagine he disposed of her by selling her.


Your questions are all good ones, and have mostly been answered at length in places such as Tom Tadfor Little's TarotL History Information Sheet at www.tarothermit.com and in Decker, DePaulis and Dummet: "A Wicked Pack of Cards." However, to recapitulate just a bit...

Playing cards, the 52-card deck, arrived in Europe from the Muslim world during the last half of the 14th century, probably about 1375, either through Venice or by way of Islamic Spain. This deck used suits of cups, coins, swords and polo sticks, and each suit had three court cards consisting of a King (or Caliph) and two of his deputies. Since Italians didn't recognize polo sticks for what they were, that suit was modified into batons, and, in Spanish- speaking countries, clubs.

A French miniature in "The Romance of King Meliadus of Leonnois" of about 1390 shows the King and two attendants playing cards, and the suits of batons and coins are clearly visible. It's reproduced in Catherine Perry Hargrave, "A History of Playing Cards," page 39.

The set of 56 suited cards only came into existence with the invention of the tarot pack, about 1440-50, so there was never a free-standing 56-card deck. Queens were added to the suits which, along with the female figures among the trumps, relieved the monotony of the male-dominated Muslim-derived cards.

No firm date can be established for cartomantic divination of any kind, so by extension we really don't know when divination using a 52-card deck may have begun. It may have started with the Gypsies, who began arriving in Western Europe in large numbers late in the 15th century. They, of course, were well known as fortune tellers, but had no familiarity with cards when they first moved into France, Germany, Italy, England and the Low Countries. At that point they only did palmistry, tea-leaf reading, etc. When they discovered people expected them to use cards as well, they adopted them, although when they did so remains an open question. It is known that until this century they used only standard 52-card decks of playing cards for their readings.

My introduction to this whole subject was a reading done for me by a woman at the college I attended, known around the department only as "Gypsy," which she was. She used a spread of 25 regular playing cards, and her reading proved to be amazingly accurate. This was 36 years ago, and it initiated my lifelong fascination with card reading.



catboxer said:
No firm date can be established for Playing cards, the 52-card deck, arrived in Europe from the Muslim world during the last half of the 14th century, probably about 1375, either through Venice or by way of Islamic Spain. This deck used suits of cups, coins, swords and polo sticks, and each suit had three court cards consisting of a King (or Caliph) and two of his deputies. Since Italians didn't recognize polo sticks for what they were, that suit was modified into batons, and, in Spanish- speaking countries, clubs.

Does anyone know references about historic Islamic sources concerning the suit cards prior to their arrival in Europe?


There have been a number of references to Mamluk cards in these threads in the past, though I'm not sure if that is what you are after.

Basically, there seems to be general concensus that the pips in tarot are derived from Mamluk decks that made their way to Europe by possibly a number of routes, including Moorish Spain, Italian sea ports, and returning armies. All these may independently have provided Mamluk cards to various parts of Europe.

There are also etymological evidence that cards - very likely Mamluk type - were seen as of moorish origin, including their name as naïbs (and cognate terms).