The History of Playing Cards and Tarot

by Maria Raiser 

Shuffling the cards expertly, the dealer of a commonplace game of Blackjack may not be aware of the rich and tangled thread of history behind the cards he plays with. Where did playing cards originate? Theories are diverse concerning this question, suggesting origins in Egypt, the Middle East, China, or more recently in Italy. The debate about whether Tarot or playing cards were invented first is not unlike the question, 'Which came first, the chicken or the egg?' The one thread that runs common to all theories and debates is that the decks of cards were always works of art from ancient times in far off lands to today all around the world.

In all the tapestry of history, the thread that leads to the origin of both playing cards and Tarot is tangled, intertwined with the weave of nations with each other. The farthest the thread can be traced back though this tapestry of time is to Italy in the late thirteenth century. In a manuscript by Pipozzo di Sandro, dated by Tiraboschi as being from the year 1299, the earliest written mention of cards can be found. This manuscript 'not only proves the very early knowledge the Italians had of cards, but that they were also known by the appellation of carte , as well as that of naibi (Singer, 21).'

The name naibi is an extremely important clue in determining the earlier origin of cards. There is not a reference to cards of any kind in Spain until 1332 when King Alfonse XI of Leon and Castile banned them. However, the Spanish word for cards was naipes , and scholars have found two possible origins for this word. The first possibility is that the word comes from the Biscayan word napa which means flat or even, which would describe the shape of the card to a certain degree. The other possibility is that the word derives from the Arabic word, na'ib . This word means governor, and is the name of one of the court cards in an existing Saracen deck. Spanish scholars are written to prefer the idea that cards originated with the Arabs. According to this theory, the Spanish were the first Europeans to learn of cards, having seen the Saracens' during their possession of land in the south of what is now Spain. The problems with such a theory are obvious upon considering the matter. Firstly, there is no recorded reference to Arabic cards, nor an actual deck until sometime in the fifteenth century, according to Hoffman. This deck consists of forty seven cards divided into five suits, cups coins, swords, batons, and polo sticks, with four court cards, two of which have the word na'ib in the title. Secondly, some cards are illustrated; the Koran forbids both making images and playing games other than chess, rendering the theory that Arabs invented and played cards much less plausible. Yet there is also a weakness in the argument against a Saracen origin of cards, which is that many scholars agree that the etymology of the Spanish word for cards leans more towards an Arabic root for the word than a Biscayan. The Italian naibi is also remarkably similar to the Arabic na'ib , which leaves much room for speculation as to whether the cards came from the Arabic people first. Here then is where one tangle in the thread lies; it is most likely that cards existed in Italy before any of the other European nations, and it is most likely that the word na'ib is the precursor to the Italian and Spanish terms, but the Spanish were more in contact with the Saracens than the Italians. The

Saracen deck had the same suit-signs as the Italian decks plus the extra suit of polo sticks, but did the Italians get the cards from the Saracens or vice versa? The true answer may well be lost in the web of history.

There are many people who associate the Tarot and its creation with either Egyptians or Gypsies. It seems upon a cursory look that the web may be tangled here as well, however, this snarl is not of the lost thread of history, but rather mankind's own making. Court de Gebelin first wrote of his conviction that the twenty two Triumphs of the tarrocco were related to ancient Egyptian initiatory rites in the eighteenth century. He tried to prove his theory using etymological studies as well as comparing the symbolism of the cards with a certain set of hieroglyphics.

The Italian word tarrocco, de Gebelin writes, is related to the Egyptian word Ta-Rosch, which was apparently an Egyptian name for the god Mercury. De Gebelin thought the deck could be a history of the world 'preceding from Mercury himself (Singer, 14),' or a tool related to Egyptian philosophy and religion. He believed that the twenty one cards plus numberless Fool card, now known as the Major Arcana, were 'the steps through which the neophyte passes in his progress towards enlightenment (Butler, 7).' There are several major problems with this theory. First, de Gebelin had no way of knowing the meaning of the hieroglyphics he referred to meant, because his work was done before the discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone. Second, the etymological connection is not very strong. As Singer puts it, 'it seems unnecessary to seek their [tarot cards] origin in such a strange and far-fetched etymology (15).' Third, de Gebelin thought that the Egyptians used cards in the seventh century BCE, which means that the

Greeks and Romans would likely have known of them and adopted the idea, however there is not a snippet of evidence that they did. Fourth, the Gypsies, as most people realize did not come from Egypt but rather India. It begins to sound plausible that perhaps the Gypsies brought cards from India to Europe in their wanderings, especially considering the fact that playing cards were known among the Indians. These cards were broken into different numbers of suits than the European decks that exist, which almost always have four suits, however, the gods depicted on the Indian cards sometimes held a cup, coin, sword, and scepter one in each of the god's four hands, suggesting a possible relationship between these Indian cards and the European suit signs. In relation to the theory that Gypsies brought the Indian cards to Europe, Tilley writes, 'This theory is no longer tenable since it is now known that cards were established in Europe before the gipsy advance-guard reached the eastern approaches (12).'

If the Gypsies could not have been responsible for the spread of cards throughout Europe, could not the cards have originated in India and been spread by other means? The Indian playing cards had seven suits, which Singer believes to have been an allegory for the societal hierarchy. Had Europeans taken cards from such a source, reducing the number of suits would make the deck an allegory for European societal structure as well; spade of swords for nobility, coppe or cups for the clergy, denari or money for the merchant class, and bastoni or batons (or clubs) for the peasantry (Singer 51).

It seems more likely that the Indian cards were the inspiration for the early Italian cards than the Chinese cards. Playing cards in China were in existence contemporary to the genesis of the Italian decks although they were different; cards were divided into varying numbers of suits but had no numerical values. In fact, the Chinese cards resembled strips of paper more than what one typically thinks of playing cards looking like, whereas the Indian cards in shape, size, and illustration are much more reminiscent of the European design. On the other hand, there is a reference to playing cards in China in the seventh or eighth century, meaning that the idea of cards as a game could have spread to India or the Middle East and been changed over time and to befit the particularities of the cultures which possessed them.

But where does the identification of the chronological priority of China take us? Does this oblige us, wherever playing cards are found, to trace them back to China and ignore all the various independent developments? Certainly not. The playing card is not the only thing for which China has been awarded priority. Gunpowder is the best-known example of the many things which were independently invented in Europe but which can be proved to have existed in China at an earlier date (Hoffman, 52).

It is not impossible that the thread weaves from China to India, from India to the Arabs, from the Arabs to the Europeans who fought in the Middle East during the Crusades, arriving in Italy first because the Crusaders had to sail on Italian vessels to get to and from their wars. What is impossible is to know for certain from which skein the thread we seek comes from, and how long a thread of history playing cards possess. It seems too many other threads of history are intertwined, obscuring the source.

What can be told for certain is that the earliest deck known in Europe was the Venetian Pack, according to Benham. It was produced in Lombardy around the year 1320 and consisted of four suits of ten cards with four court cards per suit. It also included the twenty-two trump cards which in modern Tarot are known as the Major Arcana. This earliest known European deck is the same as the modern Tarot in setup, and many of the original symbols remain the same in modern decks, although the interpretation of these symbols has changed over time.

The law of evolution suggests that the simplified four-suit pack, prevalent all over Europe for six centuries, was evolved from a more complicated and less convenient packÉIt seems probableÉthat the earliest European cards were the more cumbrous, complicated, overcrowded, monstrous tarot packs, and that the smaller and simpler and less costly packs of four suits were a later improvement (Benham, 7).

Although the origin of cards in indeterminable, it seems most likely that the early Tarot was an antecedent to the simpler decks of playing cards. Considering the rapidity with which the popularity of playing cards grew, decks could not afford to be so 'costly' and 'cumbrous' as Benham describes them to be; cards were in demand by both the rich nobility and the poor working class. As the cards were known throughout Europe, people made changes particular to their own values and lifestyles. For example, the Spanish would not let a female figure on the cards, and replaced the Queens of the suits with caballeros . The Germans substituted acorns and hearts for a couple of the Italian suit-signs. Fearing this new way to succumb to the vice of gambling, clergyman and Kings outlawed the production, importation, or use of playing cards. Some areas had regulations relating to the importation of foreign cards to protect the businesses that produced cards in their cities or countries.

Some people found uses for cards other than for gambling and idling away their time. Hoping to combat the evils of playing cards, a Franciscan monk by the name of Thomas Murner invented a card game which had the aim of educating its players of proper morals and helping them memorize the Institutes of Justinian, while simultaneously entertaining them. The idea of using cards to help educate has known widespread use ever since. In 1644, the six year old Dauphin Louis XIV of France was taught using four different educational packs, made by Stefano della Bella. Such useful things as geography flashcards and the game Memory, now commonly used for educating children, had their root with the earliest educational cards.

Another way people began making use of cards was for propaganda. These cards would have both words and illustrations promoting or denouncing wars, monarchs, and religious groups. Propaganda cards were not as easy to play card games with, because the political message overshadowed the practical design of such cards, by obscuring the differences between suits and differently numbered cards. Cards advertising businesses or products often were more effective because the back of the card was used for advertising while the front was used only for the usual card design variations.

One cannot forget to mention the use of cards for the purpose of divination. According to Hoffman, the first use of cards to tell the future was in the 1480's when a German 'Book of Fates' was published. One shuffled a deck of customary playing cards, drew one, and then consulted the book to determine one's fate. It was only later when Court de Gebelin tried to prove an Egyptian origin to the Tarot that people began viewing them as so magical, and attributed to them the ability to tell the future. Ironically, the first cards extant in Europe, the tarrochi which was ancestor to the modern Tarot, was used only for playing games, yet now the modern Tarot is used nearly exclusively for the purpose of meditation and divination. It was the simplified playing card deck that was first used for divination, yet now it is nearly exclusively used for playing games.

Although faced with a few tough tangles to until in the course of seeking the origin of playing cards and Tarot in all the tapestry of time, every card is a work of art. In seeking the genesis of playing cards, one also seeks the genesis of an entire art form. This art form seems to be known throughout the world; its widespread appeal due to the fact that it is functional art. Unlike many forms of art contemporary to the existence of cards, there was a universal appeal, so that it could be enjoyed by anyone. The nobility could have fine decks hand-painted for their use, the commoner folk could buy less expensive woodblock printed decks, and even faithful clergymen could attach moral significance and endorse the use of cards. Perhaps playing cards and Tarot, with their tangled thread of history, can help unravel the mystery of the future as the Fates weave the tapestry of time.


Beal, George. Playing-cards and Tarot. Aylesbury, Bucks : Shire Publications, 1988.

Benham, W. Gurney (William Gurney), Sir. Playing Cards : History of the Pack and Explanations of its Many Secrets. London : Spring Books, 1931.

Butler, Bill. Dictionary of the Tarot. Schocken Books, New York: 1975.

Hoffmann, Detlef. The Playing Card; an Illustrated History. Greenwich, Conn. New York Graphic Society, 1973.

Singer, Samuel Weller. Researches into the History of Playing Cards. T. Bensley and Son, London: 1816.

Tilley, Roger. A History of Playing Cards. New York, C. N. Potter; distributed by Crown Publishers, 1973.


Playing and Tarot Card Timeline

1120AD-China- One legend alleges invention of cards by an 'inmate' of the Imperial harem (Tilley,7)

Late 13th Century- Likely time of invention of the Tarot by an unknown (Butler, 13)

1291-Europe- Last Crusade ends (Benham, 1)

1299-Italy- Manuscript 'Trattato del Governo della Famiglia' by Pipozzo di Sandro, earliest written mention of cards in Europe (Singer, 21)

Early 14th Century-Germany- 'The migration of cards from Italy to Germany may be presumed with some degree of certainty (Singer, 40).' Supported by other sources

1320-Italy- Early Tarrochino (Tarot) deck of 78 cards made (four suits) (Benham, 5)

1332-Spain- Earliest reference to cards in Spain (Butler, 5)

1361-France- The 'knaves' of the suits' court named for a contemporary band of robbers (called Tuchim) (Singer, 3) Cards known in southern France probably came from Italy (Benham, 30)

before 1375-Germany- Cards popular in Germany (Benham, 12)

May 23, 1376-Florence- Game called 'naibbe' is forbidden in decree which refers to the game as 'recently introduced' (Hoffman, 12)

1377-Germany- Monk describes cards to be used as a guide to morality (Butler,3)

1377-Europe- Earliest documented reference to cards according to Benham, who guesses the first cards must be about 50 yrs earlier (Benham, 10)

1379-Italy- Chronicler Covelluzzo (d.1500) says this is when game of cards brought to Viterbo by Saracens (Benham, 2)

1387-Spain- Prohibition of cards by King John I of Castile (Singer, 6)

1392-France- Charles VI commissions the Gringonneur Tarots (Butler, 3)

1397-Germany- Earliest record of German regulations about playing cards (Benham, 13)

1400's- Saracen deck of 47 cards with five suits (Hoffman, 19)

1400-1500-France- French made cards best in Europe (Benham, 12)

1400 and after-Italy- Suit emblems interwoven in card illustration (Benham, 9)

1409-England- Cards not mentioned among forbidden pastimes like dice, probably were not yet popular there (Benham, 25)

1423-Italy- St. Bernard's sermon against playing cards (Benham, 1)

1441-Italy- Remonstrance presented to senate of Venice by card-makers (Singer, 24)

March 4, 1463-England- Prohibition of import beginning at Michaelmas (Sept 29) of cards (Benham, 25)

1450- England- Playing cards likely began being produced in England (Benham, 25)

1464-England- Parliament rolls of year say not to import decks (Singer, 20)

1480's-Germany- Book consultation for fortune from cards (Hoffman, 51)

Early 16th Century-Germany- Back of cards begin to be decorated to hamper cheating through marking cards (Hoffman, 9)

1502- Franciscan monk Thomas Murner invents cards for education (Hoffman, 38)

1629-France- Desmartes developed 4 packs of educational cards which were used in instructing the 6 yr old Dauphin, made by Stefano della Bella (Hoffman, 38)

1645-France- Rouen cardmakers move to Belgium, Holland, and Germany (Benham, 12)

1696-France- Cards top trade of Rouen, makers move to England, Portugal, and Spain (Benham, 12)

18th Century- Contemporary rumors suggested that Tarot is an ancient book of knowledge from Egypt (Hoffman, 51)

1748-France- Tarot simplified and more standardized in the Marseilles Tarot (Butler, 4)

1750-1780-France- Precursor to modern 54 card playing deck developed (4 suits, 3 court, 2 Jokers) (Hoffman, 37)

1800-Rome- 40 card playing deck illustrated with 'who looses pays (Benham, 8)'