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CARDS function in the religious context both as instruments for performing divination rituals and as repositories of esoteric sacred teaching. Current historical evidence suggests that cards originated in China and that their sacred usage developed from shamanistic or Taoist divinatory rituals that predated cards themselves. The oldest extant card, found in Chinese Turkistan, dates from no later than the eleventh century. The design of Chinese cards was copied from paper money first used in the Tang dynasty (618908 ce). The design of an arrow on the back of the oldest Korean cards suggests that those cards developed from a divination technique for interpreting the pattern of arrows randomly cast onto a circle divided into quadrants.

Number and pattern, and their orderly transformations, are in sacred mathematics symbolic expressions, or hierophanies, of the eternal divine essences and processes that manifest themselves to us in time as the visible cosmos. The pack of divination cards is a homologue of the set of divine mathematical potentialities that can manifest itself in the time and space of the cosmos. The spontaneous play of the cards, like in any other particular act of divination, reveals a meaningful structure homologous to the divine creative process, which manifests itself within worldly events. The interpretation, or reading, of any particular play of cards is essentially a matter of intuiting from the sacred mathematical symbolism of the cards the worldly events whose structure corresponds to that symbolism.

It is not certain when and where cards first appeared in Europe. One hypothesis is that they were brought into southern Europe by the Moors as early as the eighth century. The earliest mention of numbered cards is in Covelluzzo's Istoria della città di Viterbo (1480). Covelluzzo says that they were brought to the city of Viterbo by the Saracens in 1379. In her extensive study A History of Playing Cards (New York, 1966), Catherine P. Hargrave says that these early numbered cards were probably European copies of Chinese cards that arrived through Venice. The oldest extant European cards are several tarot cards from a pack designed for Charles VI of France in 1392.

The two most prominent packs of cards used in Europe for divination are the ordinary pack, consisting of fifty-two cards, and the tarot pack, consisting of seventy-eight cards. The ordinary pack is divided into four suitsdiamonds, clubs, hearts, and spades. Joseph Campbell (in Campbell and Roberts, 1979) has suggested that the four suits represent the four estates, or classes, of the medieval social order: clergy (hearts), knights (spades), merchants (diamonds), and peasants (clubs). The four suits of the ordinary pack possibly developed under Protestant influence from the earlier tarot suits of chalices, swords, coins, and staves. The fact that the four suits of the ordinary pack culminate in the figures of knave, queen, and king leads Campbell to suppose that the pictorial symbolism of the cards expresses a medieval esoteric initiatory tradition wherein ascent along any of the four lines represented by the suits leads to spiritual realizations of equivalent value and importance.

The tarot pack falls into two sections: the "minor arcana" of fifty-six cards, divided equally into four suits, and the "major arcana" of twenty-one numbered picture cards and one unnumbered card, the Fool. The origin of the tarot deck is not known. The first history of the tarot, Le jeu des tarots (Paris, 1781), was written by Court de Gebelin. Gebelin claims that the deck originated in ancient Egypt and represents the esoteric teaching of the god Thoth, recorded and expressed in a hieroglyphic alphabet, in which all the gods are symbolized by pictorial signs and numbers. While Gebelin's theory of Egyptian origins is clearly itself of a mythic nature (the Rosetta Stone, which made translation of hieroglyphics possible, was not discovered until 1790), the evidence of recent research on the history of symbols indicates that the deck is indeed, as Gebelin supposed, a repository of sacred teaching and esoteric knowledge. The pictorial symbolism of the deck is known to have much in common with the symbolism of spiritual initiation rites and instruction in Hellenistic mystery cults, ancient astrology, and medieval alchemy, wherein the processes of manifesting divine energies are represented in the progression of visual and numerical symbols.


Tarot Revelations by Joseph Campbell and Richard Roberts (San Anselmo, Calif., 1979) is a detailed work summarizing the phenomenological evidence linking the tarot to Hellenistic religion and alchemy as well as the tarot's place in nineteenth-century esoteric societies.

New Sources

Baird, Merrily. "Card Games." In her Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. New York, 2001.

Giles, Cynthia. The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore. 1992; reprint. New York, 1994.

Preston, Cathy Lynn and Michael Preston. "Catholic Holy Cards: Visual, Verbal, and Tactile Codes for the (In)visible." In their The Other Print Tradition: Essays on Chapbooks, Broadsides, and Related Ephemera, pp. 266283. New York, 1994.

Richard W. Thurn (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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