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About the Cards
The precise history of the playing cards is uncertain. Theories about their origin are as varied as books on fortune-telling. Some authors claim they came from China and evolved from Dominos. Many believe they originated in Egypt, while others allege they came from India. One theory says the playing deck was born of the Tarot deck while another says they emerged separately for gaming purposes.
Every writer on this subject ends up filing a similar disclaimer that goes something like this:
"To the best of my knowledge, and based on my research, the following appears to be the most likely history of the playing cards."
What follows here is my opinion, based on my own research.
My investigation shows the Gypsies brought the Tarot to Europe from Egypt centuries ago. (The word "Gypsy" is a corruption of the word "Egyptian.") The history of numbers teaches us that the Egyptians adopted mathematics from the Sumerians. The Egyptians were so impressed with mathematics that they turned it into a minor religion and a tool for divination to create the science of numerology. They also tracked the stars in the heavens to create the science of astrology, which was the forerunner of modern astronomy. Egyptian numerology and astrology combined to create the Tarot.
•The number of each playing card corresponds to that number's traditional numerological message.
•One astrological element (Earth, Air, Fire, or Water) governs each of the four suits of the Tarot.
•The message in each number is colored to reflect the interests of the suit.
•The combination forms the meaning of each card.
The Egyptians assigned the science of card divination to Thoth, the god of inner knowledge, or intuition. Religious Egyptians believed inner knowledge was the only true knowledge and that Thoth was the custodian of all mystical secrets.
The tradition of the Tarot spread to the Middle East through trade between the Egyptians and the Sumerians, who were a part of the vast Ottoman Empire. Around 1200 a.d., the Crusaders adopted the cards in the Middle East and carried them to the capitals of the European continent. As the Crusaders wound their way through the major cities of Europe, Gypsy fortune-tellers astounded and amused the reigning monarchs. Eventually, every ruler adopted a Tarot card reader as a part of his staff. Foretelling the future became popular among the aristocracy and clergy, and courtesans used the Minor Arcana of the Tarot to invent games of chance. But, as gambling got out of hand and Gypsy fortune-tellers rose to positions of influence, the cards underwent periods of disfavor.
For centuries, the Tarot cards alternated between periods of acclaim and periods of passionate prohibition by the heads of church or state. Card divination has enjoyed a long roller-coaster ride of acceptance and rejection since it first arrived in Europe.
I believe that during a period when gaming was legal but divination was not, the Major Arcana of the Tarot was dropped to create the playing card deck. A trimmed-down deck would have made it possible for the Gypsies to be in possession of the cards without the threat of persecution for telling fortunes. The structures of the Tarot deck and the playing card deck are so similar that they surely must have evolved from one another. Here's what I mean:
A Tarot deck has 78 cards:
•22 picture cards called the Major Arcana (the Greater Secrets)
•40 numbered cards called the Minor Arcana (the Lesser Secrets)
•16 Court cards decorated with portraits
The playing deck has 53 cards:
•One of the Major Arcana cards-the first, known in the Tarot as "the Fool" and in the playing deck as "the Joker"
•40 numbered cards
•12 Court cards decorated with portraits
The Tarot has 22 Major Arcana cards that describe 22 different philosophical principles. The meanings of the Major Arcana string together to describe a journey through life that begins in birth and travels through marriage, children, prosperity, power, and death, and ends with wisdom and maturity. The forty numbered cards, called the Minor Arcana, describe ideas and functions. They don't depict fated, unavoidable events. Instead, they foretell smaller matters. They describe problems and opinions or moods and preferences. The sixteen Court cards illustrate individuals at various stages of life.
The playing deck articulates the same philosophical journey as the Tarot. The twelve Court cards describe individuals at the same stages of life as the Court cards of the Tarot, except by trimming the Court cards from sixteen to twelve the playing deck has edited out one of the intermediate stages.
Both the Tarot and the playing deck divide the numbered cards and the Court cards into the same four groups, called "suits." Although the suits of both decks govern the same aspects of life, they have different names.
•The Hearts of the playing deck correspond to the Cups of the Tarot.
•The Clubs of the playing deck correspond to the Wands of the Tarot.
•The Diamonds of the playing deck correspond to the Pentacles of the Tarot.
•The Spades of the playing deck correspond to the Swords of the Tarot.
Disputes exist over the exact significance of each playing card, but there has been a remarkable consistency in the meanings of the Tarot cards over the centuries. The earliest illustrations of Tarot cards depict images of the Hanged Man and Wheel of Fortune that are consistent with the images used today. But, the playing cards are not so fortunate.
Some scholars believe the playing deck and the Minor Arcana of the Tarot have the same meaning. Those practitioners use the traditional Tarot card interpretations for the Minor Arcana to define their playing card equivalents. I believe the playing deck retains the Major Arcana and therefore has deeper, broader meanings than can be found in the Minor Arcana. However, the messages of the Major Arcana seem to arrive in the playing cards in an obscure, haphazard manner, which is probably a result of being passed down from one generation to the next in an oral tradition. I find that half, or the Upright version, of a philosophical point will show up in one card while the other half, the Reversed version, will appear in another. I also believe the piecemeal distribution of the philosophical points of the Major Arcana is at the root of disputes over the interpretations of the playing deck.
Regardless of which rendition of playing card history you choose to believe, one thing is certain: the ancient interpretations remain fresh today because humanity continues to wrestle with the spiritual and philosophical issues that challenged it centuries ago on the banks of the Nile.
Two ancient disciplines are the basis for playing card interpretations:
Numerology, which explains the meaning of the number on the card
Astrology, which explains the meaning of the suit
Every card in the deck is broken down into two parts, a number or person (the Court cards) and a suit. The deck is divided into four suits or categories, each of which contains ten numbered cards and three Court cards. The message of the number or person shifts to reflect the interest of the suit.
For example, Fours are cards of constructive, physical effort. When the emotional suit of Hearts influences the Four, it becomes the card of caretaking and describes our efforts to nurture. But, when the practical, material suit of Diamonds influences the Four, it becomes the card of physical labor and describes our efforts to make money.
The following chart shows the correspondence between the suits and their astrological counterparts.
Each suit governs a different aspect of life as follows:
HEARTS: Heart cards address our feelings and the emotional connections we make throughout our lifetimes. They represent intimacy, romance, permanence, pain, joy, love, and lust. The King, Queen, and Jack of Hearts describe our family members, spouses, lovers, and children. They include the zodiac signs Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces, and correspond to the element of Water.
DIAMONDS: These are the cards of the material and physical. They seek stability and describe our efforts. The Diamonds portray our health, money, labor, and our basic need for food, shelter, and clothing. The King, Queen, and Jack of Diamonds represent employers, students, professionals, and entrepreneurs. They include the zodiac signs Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn, and correspond to the element of Earth.
CLUBS: The Clubs are the cards of our culture. They oversee our intuition, our spirituality, our ethics, and our sensuality. Clubs describe the way we navigate our society. The King, Queen, and Jack of Clubs represent our peers, friends, movie stars, and what we call "the Beautiful People." They include the zodiac signs Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius, and correspond to the element of Fire.
SPADES: The cards of the mind define our problems and solutions. They govern our outlook and attitude. Spades urge discriminating thought and depict our daily struggle with anxiety, patience, boundaries, and power. The King, Queen, and Jack of Spades represent doctors, therapists, writers, scientists, and government officials. They include the zodiac signs Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius, and correspond to the element of Air.
The numbered cards in the deck describe a journey through life that begins at birth with the Joker and reaches maturity in the Nines. The Tens represent the completion of the journey and the beginning of a new cycle.
Each number in the deck incorporates the lesson or message of all the numbers that came before it, and expands on that information to create a new principle. For example, every Three contains the knowledge and experience of the Joker, Ace, and Two. In this fluid blending of one lesson into the next, we see the meanings of the numbers grow and deepen as they progress.
The numbers on the cards correspond to the numbers of numerology. Numerology as a science was adopted from the Egyptians by Pythagoras around 600 b.c. Pythagoras wrote, "Evolution is the law of life." He believed everything in the Universe was subject to predictable, progressive cycles. His means of measuring those cycles were the numbers one through nine.
Pythagoras taught that numbers have a significance apart from the values denoted by figures. Numbers represent qualities; figures represent quantities. Numbers operate on the spiritual plane, while figures are for measuring things on the material plane. He taught that with a comprehensive knowledge of the meaning of numbers, one could understand the orderly progression of all life cycles.
The journey through the numbers unfolds in the following order:
THE JOKER REPRESENTS THE NUMBER ZERO: Since his number has no content, he is the soul of newborn innocence. The Joker has neither history nor plans. He's pure spontaneity. The Joker is the first card in the journey through the numbers and as such, has no knowledge of the world. He describes the beginning.
THE ACES REPRESENT THE NUMBER ONE: Aces symbolize the masculine, yang, principles of raw energy, progress, and creativity. They define the essence of the suit and represent the highest possible achievement within the arena governed by the suit.
THE TWOS: After the individual brilliance and accomplishment of the Aces, the Twos turn away from the self. The Twos describe the way in which we seek union. They represent the feminine principle of receptivity, the yin, which seeks a union of two distinct entities.
THE THREES: Once we connect with others, we expand to include one more person or thing. The Threes expand the partnerships established in the Twos.
THE FOURS: The Fours represent solid action and introduce stability through effort. The Fours are practical, productive, systematic, and constructive.
THE FIVES: Action breaks free with the Fives. The Fives depict our struggle for autonomy or separateness. They are the cards of our willingness to fight for our beliefs, or to break away from those who oppose them.
THE SIXES: Peace reigns with the Sixes because the greater picture is seen. The Sixes restore our faith in humanity and in the future. Therefore, the Sixes stand for harmony and comfort.
THE SEVENS: Once we find peace in the Sixes, we turn our attention to perfected thinking. A period of reflection can manifest as self-absorption, anxious rumination, or revelation. Every man sees things in his own way and protects his interests with the Sevens.
THE EIGHTS: The Eights are cards of warmth and heart. They are philosophical, generous, modest, and represent the need to satisfy the soul.
THE NINES: The Nines integrate effort with wisdom and determination. They are the culmination of all the cards that came before them.
THE TENS: The Tens are doorways. They represent the end of one cycle and the beginning of another.
The Court Cards
The Court cards are decorated with pictures of Kings, Queens, and Knaves. Unlike the numbered cards, which represent ideas and functions, the Court cards describe the people we encounter as we function in the arenas depicted by the suits.
Remember, each suit corresponds to an aspect of life:
•Spades govern our intellect and correspond to the element of Air.
•Hearts describe our emotions and correspond to the element of Water.
•Clubs rule our social and cultural endeavors and correspond to the element of Fire.
•Diamonds represent our money, our bodies, and correspond to the element of Earth.
For example: The Spades represent the Air signs of the zodiac: Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius. We encounter the King, Queen, and Jack of Spades when we go to a doctor and therapist or when we read and write. Spade people are chatty, clever, and witty, but they can also be cold, aloof, and indifferent.
One of the primary attributes of the Court cards is their system of rank. The Kings are the highest, the Queens fall in the middle, and the Jacks are the lowest. This order allows for such considerations as age, power, and experience. Skill and achievement in the aspect of life described by the suit builds through the ranking structure of the Court cards.