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The taxonomy of decks of cards

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What does middle eastern judges have in common with German Jacks and Spanish playing cards? (So many decks 1)


Scandinavianhermit

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Decks, decks, decks. There are so many of them. How do you tell them apart? Where did it all begin?

 

From the late 18th century to the mid-20th century there circulated a hypothesis, wild as it may seem now, that the tarot deck was invented in ancient Egypt – and with ancient Egypt I mean the time period c. 2700 BCE to 395 CE, but please remember, that Egypt was under foreign administration (Persians, Græco-Macedonians and Romans) from 525 BCE.

 

Today, we know more about both ancient Egypt and the history of playing cards, than what was known in the 1780s. The Rosetta Stone and all that. Handbooks about card games available during my childhood often repeated the claim, that the ordinary 52 card playing card deck began as a simplification of the tarot deck, but it is now attested, that it is the other way round. Decks for card games consisting of 52 cards existed in Egypt during the high middle ages, and reproduced in Spain and Italy from the 1370s. The guesswork in the 1780s had been correct about the geographical origin, but missed the chronological mark with somewhere between 4100 and 700 years, and the significance of this is, that the raise of playing cards didn't occur in a pre-Christian polytheistic setting (as the Enlightenment Era thinkers had presumed, thinking that all the nice symbols on tarot cards are surviving hieroglyphics), but in a predominantly Islamic culture (with a significant Coptic Christian minority) and without the 22 trumps that makes tarot decks so famous. Both Egyptian, Spanish and Italian playing cards had four suits, easily recognised by today's tarot readers: Swords, Sticks, Cups and Coins.

 

All court cards were originally male: A sultan and two officials with the title nā'ib, which means 'representative'. In the past, that word could, among other meanings, refer to an assistant judge, but it could also refer to a vice-regent or other types of officials. Today we are mainly familiar with a court consisting of a king, a queen and a jack, but some traditional German decks (and I will return to them in a later blogpost) still preserve one male Ober (Upper) knave and one male Unter (Lower) knave, which is a remarkable example of how slowly the taste of card game players may change over centuries. As for the word nā'ib, it still survives in the Spanish word for playing card, naipes.

 

In due season, I will focus my attention on tarot decks proper (the well-known 78 card version, of course, but also the less known 64 card version from Sicily, the 62 card version from Bologna and some other overlooked versions or derivations). Before that, I will take a look at how ordinary playing cards evolved. They do not look the same everywhere. Though the four old suit marks survived with only minor changes in Spain, in most-but-not-all parts of the Italian peninsula, in the tarot deck, in the minchiate deck and in the aluette deck, already in the mid-15th century they were adapted into (Spade-shaped) Leaves, Acorns, Hearts and Bells in many German-speaking principalities. This latter German set of suite marks formed, in turn, the basis for the French suits, which are well known in many parts of the world today: Spades, Clubs, Hearts and Diamonds.

 

Something often forgotten by the present generation, particularly outside of Italy and Germany, is how late Italy and Germany became united countries, in 1861 and 1871, respectively. Gaming habits do not die swiftly. The former countries, out of which Italy and Germany were united, still cultivate regional identities, and the decks and games popular in any particular region often go back for centuries. This factor also cause consequences for divination methods. Regional cartomancy methods in the past were, of course, based on the particular deck or decks popular among card players in each of these regions at the time. Foreign decks lost competitive strength, because of customs duties, even if the place of origin of these decks were just in the neighbouring principality, where decks looked differently, and other card games were popular. Therefore, it isn't irrelevant for card readers to know something about regional playing card decks. It was out of them many decks, later designed for explicit cartomantic use, evolved.

 

To be continued.

11 Comments


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Fascinating, I can't wait to read more! I wonder why there's different numbers of cards in some decks?

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So exciting.

Very interested in seeing the different decks and system. 

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Scandinavianhermit

Posted

21 hours ago, OTarot said:

Fascinating, I can't wait to read more! I wonder why there's different numbers of cards in some decks?

That's one of the questions, I plan to answer in due course. Hint: It has to do with the regional popularity of piquet and tapp during certain time periods.

 

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Looking forward to it, thank you for such a wonderfully informative blog!

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Scandinavianhermit

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5 hours ago, OTarot said:

Looking forward to it, thank you for such a wonderfully informative blog!

I'm glad, that someone find it informative.

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Great blog you've got here @Scandinavianhermit!

 

Looking forward to hearing more about the Tarocco Siciliano as I recently found a book in Italian that talks about using it for divination (the only one I could find). The Bolognese tarot is another that's a favourite too. Vitali has some interesting theories about its creation. 

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Scandinavianhermit

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3 hours ago, akiva said:

Great blog you've got here @Scandinavianhermit!

 

Looking forward to hearing more about the Tarocco Siciliano as I recently found a book in Italian that talks about using it for divination (the only one I could find). The Bolognese tarot is another that's a favourite too. Vitali has some interesting theories about its creation. 

I'm glad to hear, that you appreciate the regional tarot decks. I do not read Italian, I'm afraid, but that book sounds fascinating. This blog is intended to assist persons newly arrived in the cartomancy world –the guidance I would have appreciated in the beginning– so some forum users might find much of its content too obvious. 

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40 minutes ago, Scandinavianhermit said:

I'm glad to hear, that you appreciate the regional tarot decks. I do not read Italian, I'm afraid, but that book sounds fascinating. This blog is intended to assist persons newly arrived in the cartomancy world –the guidance I would have appreciated in the beginning– so some forum users might find much of its content too obvious. 

I don't read Italian either, but thankfully it's quite a simple book so it's easy to translate with dictionaries and Google.

 

I think people who aren't new to cartomancy may find some interesting stuff here too. Can't wait to see how this unfolds! Having it all in one place will be valuable too 😊

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Scandinavianhermit

Posted

2 hours ago, akiva said:

I think people who aren't new to cartomancy may find some interesting stuff here too. Can't wait to see how this unfolds! Having it all in one place will be valuable too 😊

I'm glad to hear that.

 

2 hours ago, akiva said:

I don't read Italian either, but thankfully it's quite a simple book so it's easy to translate with dictionaries and Google.

By the help of a dictionary, I once managed to understand the main general thoughts of a book by Oswald Wirth translated into Italian, so I can relate to that. The finer points were probably lost. 

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Wonderful!   A perfectly informative history summary for a super lazy history readers like me. Thank you so much - I shall be following with interest 👍🙌.

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Scandinavianhermit

Posted

18 hours ago, Tanga said:

Wonderful!   A perfectly informative history summary for a super lazy history readers like me. Thank you so much - I shall be following with interest 👍🙌.

You are welcome.

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