During their long hours of boredom between their skirmishes with many foes , the Christian Knights of the Crusades—spared by their high social standing from the menial tasks for survival—liked to play cards with each other and with guests from different nationalities in their fortified redoubts, including the Mamluk Egyptians. The Mamluk Sultanate, based in Cairo, was a Sultanate with strong trading ties to their neighboring nations, including the contested Palestine of the Middle Ages. They inherited many cultural assets form Antiquity, including the Tarot card game.
Surreptitiously introduced in their baggage on their way back home—the European Continent was in the grip of the ultra-reactionary Inquisition that frowned upon almost any vehicle for having “a little fun”—the illustrated cards made their way to the polite nobility gatherings in Bologna, Vicenza, Milano, etc. Eventually some ingenious operators assigned values to some symbols—the divinatory Tarot cards. The earliest patterns of the cards represented Batons, Coins, Swords and Cups; the first documented set of cards appeared between 1440 and 1450 in Milano, Ferrara, Firenze, and Bologna; the Italian Wars disseminated the game all over the continent.
The Visconti-Sforza nobles of Milano—the very same ones that barbarically ate with their hands, which prodded a shocked Leonardo to invent the fork—commissioned the design of a tarot-like 60-card pack with 16 card sporting images of the Roman gods and suits depicting four kinds of birds. The 16 cards were labelled as “trumps” in allusion to the “triumphs” of the generous duke—a little deference for his gesture. Soon there were several Italian regional variants—like the Piemontese, Bolognese or Sicilian Tarocco—the French Tarot of Marseilles, the Swiss 1JJTarot, etc.
The 78-card Tarot deck used by experts has two separate line-ups:
- The Major Arcana: seat of the big secrets or trump cards. It consist of 22 cards without suits that represent The Magician, The High priestess, The Empress, The Emperor, The Lovers, The Chariot, The wheel of Fortune, The devil, the Hanged Man, The Tower, the Sun, the Fool, etc. There are 21 numbered cards using Roman numerals; the Fool is the only one without one.
- The Minor Arcana: seat of the lesser secrets. It consists of 56 cards, divided into four suits of 14 cards each.
The Major Arcana cards represent the major stations of human life as we go on living; they represent all the archetypical situations encountered by The Fool (our proxy traveler) along the Roads of Life, starting at number 0 (himself) up to number 21. When one of these cards appear, something is afoot and we must pay extreme attention to it.
The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits: wands, pentacles, swords, and cups. They are supposed to complement the information provided by the trump cards and focus our attention into possible opportunities and/or avoiding harmful situations.
Aleister Crowley—inventor of the Troth deck—said: “The origin of the pack is very obscure…The only theory of ultimate interest about the Tarot is that it is an admirable symbolic picture of the Universe, based on the data of the Holy Qabalah.”
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