Tarot Pack of Cards

By M. K. Van Rensselaer.

The complete pack of Tarots (sometimes called “the book of Thoth”) contains seventy-eight leaves, and, of these, fifty-six bear pips, with four court cards to each suit, which show the attributes of Mercury, namely: Swords, Staves, Money, and Cups. Besides these, there are twenty-two cards with emblematic figures, that were also connected with the worship of Mercury or some of the ancient mysteries; and they, as a whole, represent the chief moral or spiritual characteristics of mankind, the cardinal virtues, marriage, death, creation, and resurrection, closely following the attributes of the Egyptian deities. They are presided over and controlled by Mercury himself, the card being named in Italy “il Matto,” or “le Fou”; and we know it as the Joker. This figure was also originally intended for Thoth or Nebo and is often presented as a vagabond or tramp, who typifies irresponsibility, the elements of uncertainty, chance, or luck, that pervade all the concerns of life, and which must be acknowledged and provided for under all circumstances, and in all social conditions from the emperor to the beggar.

The close resemblance of this Matto, in all the attributes bestowed upon him in the card world, to the Greek god Hermes should not be overlooked, for he was so rapid in his movements as to have quicksilver named after him, the mineral that has so many qualifications and is so uncertain. The name was probably given to the metal by the scientists who belonged to the Egyptian temple of learning. Then, too, its healing qualities were recognised by the medical world of ancient days, and, as these wise men were under the protection of the god Hermes, that also may have contributed to its having been named after him. Mercury also was the unexpected and versatile god who attended the dying, although he did not cause the death. He was the inventor and patron of games, although he was no gamester himself, but he personified luck and chance; so, with these and many other characteristics, Mercury was, indeed, the Joker of the pack, “the Trump that captures all other cards.”

The twenty-two Atout cards, as they are called, present allegorical figures in which the attitude, the costume, the accessories, and the attributes each have a significance that may be traced back to their origin, and although some of these symbols are still unidentified, the greater part are recognised, so the value of the figure itself is understood. Some of them were connected with one or the other of the arts, crafts, or sciences that were taught by the priests of Thoth, and by them transmitted to their successors in Italy; twelve of them represent the gods of Olympus; the others are connected with Egyptian gods or can be traced to even earlier ceremonies connected with divination.

Before describing each one of the Atouts and their meanings, it must be mentioned that, while many authors have written of different packs of cards, there are but two authors who have made a study of the Tarots, and that neither of these regards the packs as toys or gamblers’ instruments, but as the outcome of a great mystery or religious cult. Court de Gebelin, as early as 1773, declared: “The complete pack of Tarots, with pip and emblem cards together, were part of the Egyptian mysteries, and particularly of the worship of Thoth,” and he traces the resemblance of the figures and the quality or value attributed to them to Isis, Maut, Anubis, or other personages in the Egyptian cosmogony, which theory is confirmed by Papus in his “Tarots of the Bohemians.” A careful study of Sir Gardiner Wilkinson’s “Ancient Egyptians,” and Mr. Rawlinson’s “Ancient Egypt,” shows how accurate these surmises were, for the origin of many of the figures on the Tarots can be traced in these works, although in the days of de Gebelin, Egypt was a sealed book to students.

Sir G. Wilkinson stated in “Ancient Egyptians” (Vol. II, page 207): “Parchment was used for the records kept in the temples and is mentioned in the time of the eighteenth dynasty, when there were histories written on skins called Thr, or Tahar, and Thoth (Hermes) framed the laws.” This proves that the rules governing mankind emanated from the temple of Thoth (as the name is indifferently spelled), and that, if it were necessary to give publicity to the mandates, it could be done outside of the temple with written characters, or ideographically. Probably letters were not used at the time, although Thoth was the god of letters and the inventor of the alphabet; but symbols and emblems were adopted, since they could be more easily understood by illiterate people. This, then, might well have accounted for the figures of the Atouts, even if there were no other reasons for them.

We are indebted to M. de Gebelin for connecting the Tarots with this cult, as well as to Papus, for the latter, in his “Tarots of the Bohemians,” not only accepts the statements made by the other writer, but tries to prove that the Tarot pack was “the Bible of the Gypsies” and states that “it was also the book of Thoth Hermes Trismegistus of ancient civilization.”

Other writers who have studied the cards believe that they “are the key to forgotten mysteries”; but none of them have pointed out the significant facts connecting the emblems of the suit cards with the heraldic attributes of Mercury, and none have noted the value and connection between the different figures of the Atouts with those of the gods of Babylonia mentioned in the Bible, yet they are so remarkable that it seems incredible that they should have been so long overlooked by those who were searching for the origin of Playing Cards.

It is quite evident in the first place that the Staff, or magic wand, must have been inspired by the caduceus, or, perhaps, by the stylus, which is also emblematical of Thoth and was used by the Babylonian god Nebo to write on his tablets of fate. The Sword was derived from the Harpé presented by Jupiter to his son, Mercury, and was also used by Nebo. The purse of Money, and the Chalice, have from the earliest times been connected with spiritual uses and the mysteries of the three prophetical gods. Any one of the four denoted Mercury, while not one of the other gods of Olympus, Babylonia, or Egypt was ever so marked, and none of them combined all the sciences and arts that were practised by his priests and dedicated to the honour of the god who was worshipped as the prophet and messenger from gods to men.

The connection of the Tarot cards with astronomy and astrology is a study by itself, but, since these sciences were part of the course of studies pursued by the priests of Thoth, many emblems connected with them are found on the Atouts. These had meaning for those learned enough to read the signs. But each Atout, be it connected with kabbalism, demonology, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek or Roman mythology, is written in a language now partly forgotten, but once widely known and revered.

At first the book of Thoth, or prophetic cards, was only in the hands of the priests; but as the meaning of these detached leaves was from time to time revealed to the educated classes, these persons learned to consult the Tarots for themselves when desiring to know the wishes of the gods. A systematic arrangement of the cards could be made by a couple of players, and this tête-a-tête method of asking for divine guidance is a very ancient custom, and must receive due recognition when studying the cult of Mercury, for it must be particularly noted that all the earliest known games with cards are invariably for two persons and two only, so that when more players were added to the game its name was altered.

It will be recalled how many times magical performances are mentioned in the Bible, one of the most notable being in Numbers xxii, when Balak consulted Balaam. The whole ceremony is there graphically described, but these two men were the only ones who took active part in the ceremony, although Balak sent “the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian to Balaam with the rewards of divination in their hands.” By some people it might be supposed that Balak intended to bribe Balaam for a favorable report from his god, but “When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments” (Numbers xxiv:1). The whole history of the occult transaction shows that these two men alone took part, although others stood aloof and watched from afar.

Prof. Samuel Daiches, in his essay, “Balaam a Baru,” declares that “Balaam was a sorcerer pure and simple,” quoting from certain Babylonian tablets written in cuneiform characters, to prove his resemblance to the “baru” of the ancient ritual who would be deemed a magician in these days. Professor Daiches also states that, in the Babylonian Ritual Tablets lately deciphered, is found the statement that “the diviner and the inquirer in the ceremony have both to be engaged and present when the wishes of the gods are to be consulted,” and that “this was followed in religious ceremonies in many other countries.” This custom is adhered to at present in the Roman Catholic Church when the penitent confesses to the priest, the two people being alone and shielded from observation.

All the early games for the Tarots were arranged for two persons. The modifications that crept in after 1400 allowed other players to join, when different names were given to the newly invented games. The main rules were but little altered and the play was only changed in order that others might take part, which is one of the clearly defined marks indicating the period when the Tarots were discarded by initiated persons and adopted by people in general, who accepted the cards for amusement, leaving the prophetic mysteries to the superstitious. The complete pack of Tarots, as it came from the ancients, consists of two parts, twenty-two Atouts and fifty-six suit cards, or seventy-eight in all; but these are used only in Italy.

A pack called Tarok or Taroc is a favorite in Austria and Hungary, though unknown elsewhere, a fact of which the Viennese are inordinately proud, for they declare, and with truth, that their game is scientific and requires keen intellects to play it successfully. But their handbooks on the game do not recognise the fact that their cards are copied from the ancient Book of Thoth, and that their game is almost identical with the original one of divination called “L’Ombre.” The Austrian Taroks have the same numbers as the originals, and retain twenty-two Atouts, but only “le Fou” or “Mercury” has an emblem resembling those on the old leaves. The designs have within fifty years changed from the German or Italian pips to the French devices of Cœurs, Carreaux, Trifle and Piques.

“Le Fou,” or the Joker, is called Skus, Skis, Skys, or Stüs. The Juggler of the old pack is named Pagat, and although the lowest in number it has peculiar values that recall the fact that when used for fortune-telling it represented the inquirer into the wishes of the gods. The card of highest value in the Austrian Taroks is the World, and is called after its predecessor, retaining the name, as well as its position in the pack, with the value of its namesake, but the picture on the card does not resemble the original, and it requires the inspection of an expert to connect these two packs, since the Austrians have strayed so far from the old designs as to make the emblems hardly recognisable.

The pictures on the rest of the Atouts are not even copies of those that formerly were used in Vienna. One of these packs is now in the writer’s collection, bearing the date 1780; and showing some faint resemblance to the Italian Tarots, proves its descent, for in it the figures of Death and other characters are retained, while the card makers of the twentieth century adorn the Austrian Taroks with pastoral views, which mislead students who have not older packs with which to compare them, so the book describing the Wiener Tarok games claims that these cards and games originated in that city and are peculiar to that locality.

The Austrian Taroks, given to the writer in 1890 by an old lady in New York, were wrapped with a faded green ribbon and accompanied with a note describing how they had come into her possession. It seems that her father left Vienna when a young man, having got into some scrape through playing cards. Before leaving he bade farewell to his betrothed and begged for her garter and her miniature. These he placed with the fatal pack of cards and kept in his desk. After several years the young man, having made a fortune in America, wrote to his ladylove, begging her to cross the ocean to marry him. The answer was that, not having heard from him since he had left, she had married. Her lover consoled himself with an American wife, and had many children, the descendants of whom are now well-known people in New York.

There are several complicated and interesting games played with the Austrian Taroks derived from “l’Ombre,” or “the man,” and originally intended for two players only. One is called the “Great Tarok,” another retains the old name “Tarok l’Ombre,” while a third game (a modification of the last and arranged for more players), is called “Tarok for Four.” The game called “Tapp Tarok” requires but fifty-four cards; it is only a variant of the others and is most popular. “Styrean Tarok,” like the Tapp game, requires three players, the fourth one being a silent partner or dummy. These games are so intricate, and have so many rules, that none but Austrians play with these adapted cards.

In the “Illustrirtes Wiener Tarokbuch,” by Ulman, we find this statement: “Two centuries had not passed after cards were introduced into Europe, when Francis Fibbia, Prince of Pisa, Italy, arranged from the oldest of all games, called Tappola, a new one called Tarok, which is found in Bologna as a favorite game during the fifteenth century. This was played with Trappola or Trappelin cards, when the original suits were retained, which were Cups, Money, Swords, and Staves, but after wood engraving was invented, the French pips were adopted and are now the only ones used in the Austrian Tarok pack.”

It is noteworthy that the Rev. Edward Taylor, in his “History of Playing Cards” (pages 209 and 457), mentions an interesting pack of cards, “the imprint of which states them to be sold by John Lenthall, stationer at the Talbot over against St. Dunstan’s Church, London, who carried on business there from 1665 to 1685, so the cards were probably issued immediately after the Restoration.” They were prophetical or fortune-telling cards, and their use was described in directions published with them. The pips were French; the emblematical figures were imitations of the Atouts and evidently had been copied from part of a pack of Tarots, but the figures had names applied to them that were not exactly like the originals. The Ace of Hearts had a figure that was named Hermes Trismagus, which leads to the supposition that the original connection of Mercury with the Tarots was not entirely forgotten in the seventeenth century, but was known in connection with fortune-telling. As a prophet he was still an important personage. The other figures on the cards represented Roman Catholic saints or modern heroes, so that of Mercury was entirely out of place, unless in connection with his cult.


This is taken from Prophetical, Educational and Playing Cards.





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