Tarot Card Evolution

Most people in the United States think of Tarot cards only as a tool for fortune-telling. But they were used for playing card games long before being used for cartomancy (fortune-telling with cards). There is evidence of using layouts of cards for cartomancy by the early 1700s, but the first books on modern-style cartomancy do not appear until the 1760s. Tarot games are some of the oldest ancestors to modern trick-taking games. The special cards in a Tarot deck, also known as the Major Arcana was the trump suit in these games dating back to the 1400s.

8 of Coins

The 8 of Coins from the 15th century Visconti-Sforza Tarot

The change in usage of Tarot cards for magic is reflected by changes in the symbolism on the cards. If you look at early Tarot cards like the 15th-century Visconti Tarot or the 18th-century Tarot of Marseilles, one of the suits is coins. Whereas, after Tarot cards started to be for magical purposes, a pentacle or five-pointed star begun appearing on the cards as the coins.

Le Bateleur Tarot de Catelin Geoffrey 1557

Le Bateleur playing the cup and ball scam in the
Tarot de Catelin Geoffrey,

One of the other interesting changes happened on the “Magician” card. In the early Tarot decks, the Magician was “le Bateleur,” in French, meaning the juggler,” or sometimes also meaning “the mountebank” or the “sleight of hand artist.” He was a street performer, sometimes portrayed as playing cup-and-ball scam. But as Tarot cards became used more for magical purposes, the items on the table of the Magician, as we call him today, were changed to the tools of ritual magic: a chalice, a dagger, a pentacle, and a wand.

The Magician

The Magician from the Ryder Waite Tarot, 1910

Another card that has changed over time is the High Priestess. In earlier decks, she is the “Popess.” She may represent the “mother church,” or Pope Joan -the story of a pope (Often John VIII), who was supposedly exposed to be a woman. But she was eventually turned into a more “Pagan,” or esoteric figure of the High Priestess that in most modern decks.

The Popess from the 18th century Tarot of Marseilles

So it’s pretty clear that some of the symbolism in Tarot decks evolved to reflect their increased use as a magical tool in fortune-telling after the late 18th century.

If you are interested in some of the early Tarot card games, we have put together a booklet that includes the earliest Tarot games for which there are surviving rules. It is in the Rules and Game Parts area of our website.

The theme music is “Scully’s  Reel/Mrs.McCloud’s/Cooley’s Reel” by the band Slánte from their Album Cup of Tea and is used under a Creative Commons share-alike license.

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Recommended Reading

I’ve been building a bibliography of books on the history of games with Amazon links to most of the books. You can find it on the new Recommended Reading Page

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The Origin of European Playing cards

Game historians have shown that playing cards first seems to appear in Europe in the 1370s. But the riddle has been where did they originate?

There are four common theories: 

  • Cards appeared first in China, and gradually found their way west. 
  • The Roma people introduced them to Europe.
  • Crusaders brought them back to Europe with them from the Holy Land. 
  • Playing cards crossed the Mediterranean from Egypt.
19th century Chinese Money Cards
19th century Chinese Money Cards
From https://www.themahjongtileset.co.uk

China The earliest unambiguous reference to paper playing cards in China dates to a trial in 1294 in which two gamblers, were arrested with their paper playing cards and the woodblocks used to print them. However, while Chinese “money cards” did have four suits (representing coins), there were no face cards and 38 cards in a deck. So China is likely the origin of playing cards, but there seems to be no direct connection between them and Western-style cards.

The Roma The idea that caravans of Roma traveling from village to village could have introduced playing cards to Europe might seem plausible. But the Roma did not arrive in Europe in any significant numbers until the early 15th century. By then, playing cards were well established in European culture. 

Crusaders It has been suggested that cards may have come back from the Holy Land with the Crusaders. But there is no evidence for cards in Medieval Palestine, and the last crusade ended in 1291 almost 100 years before cards seem to appear in Europe. 

The Mamelukes The remaining theory is that European style cards came from Egypt, and it is the strongest one. The Mamelukes ruled various parts of Egypt from 1254 until 1517. A deck of cards in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul called the “Mameluke Deck” dates from the 1400s. However, there are even older examples of these cards dating to the 12th century.

A modern facsimile of the Mameluke deck from the Topkapi Museum, Istanbul form https://www.wopc.co.uk

The Mameluke Deck closely resembles the earliest European cards. It is a deck of 52 cards divided into four suits. Each suit is numbered 1 to 10, with three court cards: a “King,” “Viceroy,” and an “Under Viceroy.” The resemblance to the earliest surviving Italian decks is immediately clear right down to the shape and arrangement of suit symbols. The court cards are similar as well – not figures of nobles yet, but as abstract geometric designs. The Mameluke Deck is close enough to the cards we have today that you could play any modern card game with them.

It is reasonable to suspect that Mameluke cards evolved from Chinese money cards, perhaps through trade contacts between east and west on the Silk Road. But so far, we don’t have any examples of transitional decks illustrating that evolution. So, it seems clear that the Mameluke decks are the most direct ancestors to the playing cards we know today.

The theme music is “Scully’s  Reel/Mrs.McCloud’s/Cooley’s Reel” by the band Slánte from their Album Cup of Tea and is used under a Creative Commons share-alike license.

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Gambling in 1777

The Jas Townsend & Son company has been putting out a lot of videos of interest to historical reenactors. They recently did this short one on gaming/gambling in Colonial America. They mention Backgammon and here is one of the quotes they probably are referring to written by an Englishman wrote home to a friend in 1768:

They have a vile practice here, which is peculiar to the city (New York). I mean that of playing at back-gammon (a noise I detest) which is going forward at the public coffee-houses from morning till night, frequently a dozen tables at a time.


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16th Century Satirical German Playing Cards

A look at the symbolism of the illustrations on the deck of 16th century German cards.

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Tabula Ancient Roman Backgammon

We picked up a new event out side of Chicago this weekend, so I’m unexpectedly having to have re-stock some of our games earlier than normal, and a  little behind on the the blog/podcast. I’ll be back next week with a new audio episode, until then here is a look at version of Backgammon that dates to Ancient Rome.

Backgammon games traveled to the Near East from India, and may have been imported to Europe by the Romans. Emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54) was fond of an early version of Backgammon called Tabula. Emperor Zeno (A.D. 475-81) once had such bad luck playing Tabula that the positions of his men on the board were described a century later by Agathias, a scholastic of Myrine, in Asia. This 6th century record has enabled scholars to recreate the game of Tabula with what is believed a fair degree of accuracy. We have included the rules for Tabula as well as 31 other national and historic variations on Backgammon, which can be played on a standard board.


Three dice are used in Tabula, and the roll can be used to move, 1, 2, or 3 pieces during the turn. For example, a roll of 2-4-5 can be used to move a single piece the total of 11 spaces, or two pieces could be moved: 1 moving two spaces, and the other nine spaces (4+5). Any similar combination could also be used. Or three men could be moved 2, 4, and 5 spaces each.

All the pieces start off of the board, and both players start in the same corner of the board, and unlike the modern game both travel counter clock-wise around the board to bear off. A player may not advance his men until all of them are on the board. Blots are hit as in modern Backgammon, and hit men must re-enter the board before any other men can move. A player must use all of his roll of the dice even if it endangers his men. Any part of a throw is lost if it is blocked by the other player’s pieces.

An optional rule is that no piece may be borne off of the board until all of the player’s pieces are in the home table. If a blot is hit, no more pieces may be borne off until that man has re-entered the home.

Remember, you can submit an audio question about the history of games to be used on an audio episode using the button in the upper left, or use the Submit a Question form if you’re bashful.

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I just put together a little video look at the rules of our Ringo game.

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So how old is Pente?

Since we use glass drops as game piece for some of our portable fabric games we often have people think a couple of our games have something to do with the game Pente which was sold with glass drops as game pieces.

The theme music is “Scully’s  Reel/Mrs.McCloud’s/Cooley’s Reel” by the band Slánte from their Album Cup of Tea and is used under a Creative Commons share-alike license.
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Peter Flötner Playing Cards

My next audio episode will be out in a couple days, until then here’s a little look at one of the decks of cards we reproduce: http://www.wopc.co.uk/germany/flottner .

We went with blank backs on our decks both to keep the price down as well as avoid having them be “marked cards” which would happen with the different musical scores on the backs of one of the surviving examples.

See our version of the cards here
Peter Flotner playing cards

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Submit an Audio Question

Don’t forget, you can leave me an audio question to use on the podcast by clicking on the “Send Voicemail” button in the upper right.

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