How were the earliest decks used?


I'm not sure if this should go under Using Cards, but I'm specifically wondering how the earliest decks, like those I'm completely in love with right now which catboxer has explained are Milanese Soprafino-style decks, were used. They were a card game. Then they somehow morphed into divinatory practices. When? Where? By whom?

I've read so many conflicting bits about this my head is spinning. Has anyone ever figured out when the card game Tarrochi went into divinatory use? Was there a chance this was being practiced earlier than the 19th century?

I'm brimming with historical Tarot questions, and sick of reading all the goobldey gook out there. Any good resources one might recommend on the earliest uses of Tarot?

Thanks ever so for any light you might shed for me :D


It is precisely because the question is not simple that there has been so much written. Even the claim that the deck was 'first used for a game' is deduced from certain documents which indicate that the deck was certainly used for such - whether it was its sole purpose, however, remains an assumption some may prefer.

In terms of reference material, it seems that there isn't much out there, or that the same gets quoted and requoted from similar sources.

I'm certain catboxer, ihcoyc, Diana, Umbrae and others would agree on at least these sources as very worthy of investigation:
  • Kaplan's three volume Encyclopedia of Tarot (soon to be supplemented by a fourth);
  • Dummett et al.'s A Wicked Pack of Cards and its sequel (which Umbrae pointed out has recently been released), History of the Occult Tarot; and
  • O'Neill's Tarot Symbolism and its (unpublished) sequel, Catharism and the Tarot.
Looking forward to differing responses!


Two books: Michael Dummett's The Game of Tarot and Dummett, Ronald Decker, and Thierry de Paulis's A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot will answer your questions at much greater length than will fit in this message.

Tom Tadfor Little's site ( ) and James Revak's site, ( ) will tell you much until you can track down those books, which can be hard to find.

Basically, Tarot divination was invented in France at the end of the eighteenth century. Before then, there are some slight indications that the cards may have been used for purposes other than playing the game; but no real tradition as far as we know has come down from then.


Good punctuation is bad HTML. To get those links to work, you will need to omit the commas that have been added into the tag by the tag-flagging code.



Well, there it is. You've asked the $64 question. You've also gotten some excellent responses from two of the more knowledgeable people who post here.

To the questions "Was it just a game at first?" and "When did it become something more than that?" I find my good friend jmd and I share some fundamental disagreements. A place where we hashed this question out in some detail is on the "Le Mat" thread, in this forum. See particularly jmd's last post on the first page and my response immediately following.

As for the sources mentioned by jmd and ihcoyc, Kaplan is the greatest tarot documenter ever. His Encyclopedias are an incredible accomplishment, and he's provided us with tons of information we otherwise would never have gotten. However, his conclusions regarding questions like yours tend to be somewhat tentative.

Michael Dummett is certainly not tentative, but as Tom T. Little has pointed out, his dislike of occultism and his dismissive attitude toward the esoteric content of the trump cards make some of his conclusions a bit hard to credit. Little is a remarkably well-balanced commentator, and his web site (tarothermit) is free and easy, and a wonderful source of historically supportable info. See especially his article which asks whether Marziano da Tortona was the inventor of tarot.

As for the documented evidence, it's brief. The very first document that provides irrefutable evidence of tarot being used for divination is a partial list of divinatory meanings, from Bologna, written in about 1750. It appears on page 49 of "A Wicked Pack of Cards." The first account of an actual reading comes from the memoirs of that dog Giacomo Casanova, and is dated 1765. Thus the best evidence suggests that for its first 300 years, tarot was exclusively a game, and that the first systematic attempts to apply a divinatory purpose from the cards began in the early- to mid-eighteenth century.



Well at least I don't feel like it was just me who didn't understand tarot history! I didn't know I hit on such a quandry ~

I hope to find some time in the next week to really delve into these sites and the info more. Like when my head isn't spinning from cough and cold meds.

But in the short time I wanted to say thank you to jmd, ihcoyc and catboxer for their timely and helpful replies! And I hope more may yet come from others :D


Ok, what about the commercially available historical type decks, which one actually represents the 'oldest' out there?


That would be the Visconti-Sforza, available in several editions. I like the U.S. Games gold edition, restored by A.A. Atanassov.

The Visconti-Sforza deck is dated to around 1450. I've heard there are commercially available editions of the Cary-Yale deck, which was probably earlier, but the Cary-Yale is missing 19 cards. The commercial versions have replacements for those missing pieces by numerous artists. Also, the Cary-Yale is not a standard tarot pack; it had (probably) 86 cards.


Catboxer's comment that 'the best evidence suggests that for its first 300 years, tarot was exclusively a game' is based, I presume, on similar grounds which Dummett et al. base theirs on: we do not have documentary evidence as to what usage the cards were put to, and thus conclude it must have been solely for a game.

There are, I suspect, only three grounds which would describe Tarot's divinatory usage. The first is a polemic against it, the second explanations as to how to do it, and the third records of what transcribed (eg, á la Casanova). Each of these exists as extent records - but quite late in Tarot's history. For the second of these points, it should be remembered that Divination is such that any methodology used with any tool would only be sparingly noted - not for reasons of 'secrecy', but simply because, as keeps on being mentioned in other sections of this Forum, interpretations remain specific to a situation. That some 'standardisation' or narrow and clear card meanings were postulated by Alliette (and others before him) seems to me, in many ways, a blessing: people would otherwise say that such usage didn't occur because there is no written evidence that it did!

When one looks at the major Arcana of the Tarot in the social milieu of its emergence, its usage as a game seems more likely to have developed from an existing set of significantly meaningful pedagogic/esoteric illustrations then the other way around. To be sure, these may have been added to an independently developed minor arcana...

In terms of the oldest 'commercially available historical type decks', the Visconti-Sforza is undoubtedly the oldest available reproduction of a (nearly) complete extant deck - whether this means that its images are the oldest commercially available ones, or whether it is the Marseilles or one of its variants, remains a postulated claim made from what has survived the ravages of history.


Here's my quiet take:
First of all, I really need to distangle all that is posted on Andy's Playing card site, because its led me into strange historical waters.
Last year I finally obtained the Hofamterspiel from Piatnik in Austria with the copyright of 1976. Michael Dummett is among the historians, all European. Maybe his later book available in December on the History of Occult Tarot will bring the various threads together. In the Hofamterspiel booklet of 130 pages (65 pages in English, the other 65 in German), he and other historians compare the Hofamerspiel of 48 cards circa 1445 to Fillippo Maria Visconti's Visconti gaming pack circa 1412-1447, during this Duke's lifetime.
The Hofamterspiel is compared in context to the Visconti, Mantegna and other portraits and woodcuts and minatures--well-documented art of the time. What is also mentioned is the use of cards as divination, overtaking the popularity of dice as a game and "an allegorical means of divination". This is according to Detlef Hoffman in his essay The Hofamterspiel and its position in the historical development of gaming.
Hoffman suggests from the end of the 14th century onward dicing took second place to cards and bans on dicing were now extended to dice and cards. Fine, I think.
What he applies to divining and the Hofamterspiel is its use in allegory, taken from the tract "Das Goldene Spiel" written in 1432 from Dominican Monk Meister Ingold describing the seven most popular games, including cards and using them as the basis for moralizing, allegorical comparisons using a pack of 52 cards. In his example, the four-suited card deck has four kings with coat of arms of rose, crown, ring and pfenning (I don't know). A game of trumps where the King, Queen and Maiden maintain a social order and lower classes have Knights, Moneylender, Priests, with various associations of one trumping over the other for points. Another sermon by Geiler von Kaiserberg in 1517 described connection between the hiearchy in cards and social order in real life. The rest of the essay describes details, likens the card game to chess..
If one takes this into context, if there are missing links in history of the arrival of allegorical trump and card games in Italy, perhaps one needs to look to the origin of the Empire of the time--- the German state of the Holy Roman Empire, which ruled the lower countries of Switzerland, Burgundy, Savoy and all of Italy as far down as Rome. In the first half of the 15th century, they were still regarded as regions of this Empire. City states of Venice, Florence, Pisa, Genoa and Milan rose in power during the 14th and 15th century and while German kings may had been crowned as kings of Italy, they lost power and dominance in the later 15th century.
In some ways I think, it might explain and link for me historical threads that run in Tarot history: Petrach's triumph/trumps of human passion poetry, the Mantegna cards of Fererra and Germany (Durer), and even my D'Este tarocchi poetry research in the larger context. I don't know if this is such a silly tangent, it might not relate to the history of tarocchi/tarot and the Marseilles pack at all.
I hope this is related to the discussion and opens some interesting's making me look forward to the Dummett and Ronald Decker book.
Mari Hoshizaki