By M. K. Van Rensselaer.
Playing cards may be classified under three distinct heads. First, are those intended for divining purposes; these have descended from an ancient religious cult that would be entirely forgotten were it not for the traditional ceremonies connected with consulting this oracle, or “The Tablets of Fate,” that are known as Tarots, and which are still used for fortune-telling in southern Europe, Asia and Africa.
The second division embraces cards used for gambling as well as for educational purposes, which have a short and easily studied history covering the time of their invention and the amusements for which they were intended. These date no further back than the end of the fourteenth century in northern Europe.
The third division includes the cards used for amusement or gambling, commonly known as playing cards, which are found in common use all over the world, although the designs on them vary with the location, and those familiar in France, England and the United States are unknown in Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Persia, China or Japan, since each of these countries has playing cards peculiar to the nation and quite unknown to the others.
The French and German packs were invented solely for amusement or gambling purposes, while the Tarots, with their typical and heraldic designs, transmitted from early days, are now only to be found entire in Italy, other countries having adopted one portion or the other of the original set as more convenient for games. This separation renders the decks useless for divining purposes; whereas, when intact they are distinctly prophetical or fortune-telling cards, that are derived from ancient mysteries, not only bearing the emblems of the three prophetical gods, but also those of the chief divinities of ancient days.
In some countries, such as Persia, only the emblematic or picture part of the pack, called by the Italians Atouts, is used; but the greater part of the world ignores these entirely and is ignorant that such cards exist, recognising only the pip or suit part of the pack, but in almost every quarter of the globe four suits composing a pack are known, although the symbols on them vary widely.
The oldest emblems are those of the Tarots that are still those most commonly known. These are Swords, Rods, Money and Cups, which are the pips familiar in Italy as well as Spain, Algiers, South America, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and wherever the Spanish language is used, for the Spaniards, when conquering the world, carried their favorite toys with them, introducing them to the natives who accepted the novelty with avidity and used them for games, just as the Spaniards had adopted them from the Italians.
The standard pack has ten pip and four court cards, or fifty-six in all, which are headed by a King, a Queen, a Cavalier and a Knave, and these cards all have names given to them according to the country where they are used. Cards for all parts of the world are made in Paris and local preferences are closely followed, although most countries manufacture their own cards, and a considerable revenue is gained by taxing the product as well as the import of cards. But while the ancient emblems are now commonly used in the countries mentioned, the important part of the ancient pack has been discarded. This comprised twenty-one picture cards, which were a most necessary adjunct to the pip cards, for when the fortunes of the players were to be revealed by reading the prophecies of the gods it was imperative that the two sets should be used in connection with each other, but the complete pack that is still known as Tarots can only be found in Italy.
The German cards were never intended for fortune-telling, but entirely for gambling, and they have devices peculiarly their own. Hitherto no one has explained why or for what purpose these symbols were invented, since they had no particular significance when used in connection with the cards. They are Acorns, Bells, Hearts and Leaves, and are partly heraldic emblems connected with the game of Lansquenet. There are but three male court cards called King, Over Knave and Under Knave.
Atouts of an Early Italian Pack of Tarots
France uses the gambling pack invented for Charles VI about the year 1395. This contains three court cards—namely, King, Queen and Knave, and the cards display Carreaux, Piques, Cœurs and Trifles, or as we know them Diamonds, Spades, Hearts and Clubs. This French pack is the only one confining itself to two simple dominant colours, while all other cards are extravagantly blazoned in variegated tints that are by no means as harmonious as the distinctive French Rouge et Noir, which commends itself so well to players for gambling purposes, that the packs of this nation are being now rapidly introduced and adopted all over the world to the exclusion of native designs, even although these symbols have been inherited from the prophetical cards of prehistoric times. This is due to the fact that the cards used for fortune-telling are not as convenient as those that were invented particularly for gambling.
In Persia, where only the Atout or figure part of the pack is used, while the pip part is omitted, the figures are painted in harmonious colours and it is left for the tints of the background to indicate the suits. In the Kile Kort or Cucu pack of Sweden (which also has figures) there are no colours whatever, but the designs are printed in black ink on white cardboard. This is also the case with old cards from the Netherlands, but none of these packs were ever intended for fortune-telling.
There have been many persons who have interested themselves in the history of playing cards, and some of them have pierced the veil surrounding their cradle; but, generally, since these students have only been interested in the cards as toys or gambling instruments or as rare specimens of painting, engraving or stencilling, the studies have not extended beyond the time when playing cards became common in Europe, or about the beginning of the fourteenth century. None of these students followed the clues that would have proved the original purport of the “tablets of fate.”
In “Les Etudes Historique sur les Cartes à Jouer,” by M. C. Leber (1842), the question is asked: “Where do cards come from, what are they and what do they say?” These queries the writer proceeds to answer only in part, for he fails to see the connection of the cards familiar to him, that have French or German pips, with the more ancient Tarots, which, in all probability, he had never seen. But Leber states positively that cards “are of ancient origin and Eastern invention, and primarily they constitute a symbolic and moral game.” He professes to be guided by the emblems on the cards themselves, but he fails to decipher or to understand the evidences shown by the heraldic devices peculiar to one of the ancient Greek gods, which would have answered his questions.
According to the Rev. Edward Taylor and other authorities, the emblematic and mystic cards called Tarots were “born long since in the East, from whence they were brought by the gypsies for thaumaturgic purposes.” Although it is declared that the gypsies always carried and consulted packs of cards ever since the wanderers were known in Europe, these people themselves have no history of their mystic book that they will disclose, so the positive historical record of playing cards as used for gambling games or fortune-telling does not commence before the second half of the fourteenth century.
These cards are the ones we call Tarots, which are still common in Italy, and the emblems on the cards themselves reveal their original connection with the worship of Mercury in Etruria, of Thoth in Egypt, and of Nebo in Babylonia. These three gods have the same attributes, and were worshipped for many generations in the then civilised portions of the world; yet the forms of their worship, that have been so strangely transmitted to us through the greatest of their books, the cards are now little understood and seldom consulted.
Indeed, the very name Tarot has been deemed by some authors as positive proof that the cards are the unbound leaves of one of the great books of the Temple of Thoth Hermes Trismegistus, since they derive the word Tarot from Thoth or else from Thror Tahar, which, says Wilkinson (Volume II, page 90), “were the parchment records kept in the Temple, which are mentioned in the time of the eighteenth dynasty that were written on skins.” The same author states (page 207) that “Thoth framed the laws.” In fact, his temple was the seat of all learning, where doctors, lawyers and scientists were able to study and to devote their knowledge to the god they worshipped.
It seems, therefore, that the name is in truth one of the links in the chain of evidence proving that what we use as playthings were once part of the great cult of Mercury and his African or Asian confrères, in whose time the pictures and the emblems were thoroughly understood and were regarded with awe or reverently consulted, since by their means alone could the wishes of the gods be made known to mortals, through the medium of the priests of Mercury, Thoth, or Nebo.
The intimate connection of the triple god is no fanciful suggestion, but is acknowledged by all students. Nebo, of the Babylonians (mentioned in the Bible), Thoth, of the Egyptians, and Hermes, of the Greeks, were all worshipped as gods of speech and inventors of transmitted ideas. It is not credible that in Asia or Africa, even as early as the twelfth dynasty, that voice language or speech was a gift newly granted to mankind, so there must have been some reason for the belief that “these gods gave speech to mankind.” This is one of the superstitions puzzling many modern students who have tried to investigate the mysteries of the Temple of Thoth.
It is now believed that one of the priests who was connected with the cult conceived the bright idea of communicating the wishes of the planets, of the vegetable and the animal kingdoms, as well as those of the patron gods, to mankind through a well-arranged system that had the Temple of Thoth for a centre and its priests as interpreters. The power that this system would give to the learned men congregated in the vast Temple of learning would be great, and would increase their prestige to a wonderful extent. Before that time the primitive people were content with simple means of consulting the wishes of the gods, or with the decrees written at the birth of each child on the tablet of fate by “the writer of Esigalia, who was called Nebü.” The means generally resorted to were those still common in Korea, Japan and China, where the oracle is consulted by throwing a handful of sticks before a shrine. Among the Arabs a sheaf of arrows is used. Gordon Cummings describes his negro servants using sticks which were marked and then thrown on the ground, when the natives desired to be told by their gods where the game lay and what direction to take when hunting.
The scientific arrangement devised by the priest of Thoth that earned for his god the reputation of giving speech to mankind was done through placing on the walls of the temple a series of pictures representative of the chief gods, such as Thoth, Isis, Maut, Phthah and Ammon, as well as various virtues, vices, etc., either pictorially or through heraldic and emblematic devices. These mural pictures could be consulted by the priests by casting on a central altar a handful of arrows, straws or rods, that were always connected with the magic of the Egyptians, as is mentioned in Exodus. As these rods fell they naturally pointed toward the pictures on the walls, and since these represented nearly every event in human life the “speech or commands” of the gods were readily interpreted by the priests, who thus proved that Thoth was the “God of speech” with themselves for his mouthpieces. This superstition was carried out even to the sacrifice of tongues, which was customary as late as the days of the Roman emperors, when tongues were used as one of the sacrifices to Mercury.
It can easily be seen that the primitive arrows were incomplete without the interpretation of the pictures on the walls used in their connection, just as the pip part of the Tarot pack is useless for fortune-telling without the Atouts, which are supposed to be crude Europeanized copies of the pictures on the walls of the Egyptian temples representing their deities. It will also be seen that the cards bearing the comparatively modern pips of Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs and Spades, or of Acorns, Bells, Hearts and Leaves have no power whatever of translating the wishes of the gods, since they were invented for another and widely different purpose.
Some old and beautifully painted Tarots have been found in Italy, so it is assumed that their use was common among the upper classes in that country, who could afford to buy the beautiful unbound leaves of the great book of Thoth, long before there is any historical record of cards either for gambling or for fortune-telling, and that these cards were probably used for the latter purpose whenever any wandering priest of the cult could be induced to interpret their meaning.
We find that these mediæval Italian Tarots are usually painted on cardboard by a skillful hand, and that when they were used for amusement the game was called “l’Ombre” (or The Man). The rules for playing it show plainly that it was not originally intended for amusement, but for a serious consultation of the wishes of the divine powers. In short, the game was identical with fortune-telling, since the most important rule determines that only two persons took part, the one to inquire the future, and the other to interpret the meaning of the cards that were dealt. Both the rules for laying out the pack and the value or significance of the cards point to the occult meaning of the game, which is still played with somewhat the same laws, although alterations and modifications have crept in that obscure the original intention, of consulting an oracle which is probably not even conjectured by modern players of Tarocci, as the game is now called.
The arrangement of the unbound leaves of the book of Thoth Hermes Trismegistus, that is regarded to-day as a mere pack of playing cards, enabled the priests (or initiates, as we may call them) of ancient days to carry a pack on their persons, so that the wishes of the gods might be consulted at any place. This rendered it needless to enter the Temple of Mercury for the purpose, which had been the custom before the Christian era. After this time secrecy was probably necessary, since the priests of the Roman Catholic Church naturally discouraged any consultation with the gods of ancient mythology, although the people might cling privately to the cult that they had enjoyed and had believed in since prehistoric ages. Through appealing to the prophets (or fortune-tellers, as the priests of Mercury would be deemed at present) the superstitious people believed that they were actually receiving divine guidance, and this belief is secretly held by many, even in the twentieth century; although few of those who consult diviners through playing cards realise that they are worshippers at the shrine of Nebo, of the Babylonians; the great god Thoth, of the Egyptians, or their successor, Mercury, of the Romans.
Many links in the chain connecting playing cards with the ancient mysteries can be separately taken up and studied. In the first place, the histories of Mercury show him as being worshipped under several distinct attributes, combined with that of being the Interpreter or Messenger of the gods, and the students who were of his cult learned twenty or more of the arts and sciences which Thoth or Mercury was supposed to have invented, such as speech, music, painting, agriculture and astronomy, all of which were under his protection. Virtue, vice, death, temperance, health, joy and sorrow each had an emblematic figure peculiar to and connected with it, such as a hanged man or a skeleton. Each of these figures, if displayed on the walls of a temple could be recognised even by an unlettered congregation, so the people would have been accustomed to these representations, even after they were removed from the walls to the flat surface of the cards and no longer displayed in their exalted positions.
The emblematic figures found on the Tarots and called the Atouts are still known by the names given to them when the Egyptians introduced them to Europe, and are as familiar in Italy to-day as when worshipped under the protection of Mercury. After a little study the attributes displayed on the modern Tarots show most plainly their Egyptian origin, and mutely declare their pedigree—the image, value and position of each card, unchanged for ages, all silently pointing to this. Yet, while strangely conforming to all the attributes, decorations and posture of the gods as represented in the Egyptian temples, the designs have been so modernised as to be at first difficult to recognise.
It is supposed by several authors, notably by Court de Gebelin, as early as 1773, when he published “The Primitive World,” that originally the twenty-two figures of the Atout or emblem part of the Tarots were painted on the walls of the temples, a fashion inherited from Biblical times, to enable the worshippers to recognise gods, sciences, arts or conditions represented by the figures and their attributes when it was wished to consult them. Discoveries in Babylonia and Egypt since De Gebelin’s time have confirmed his suppositions.
These figures in themselves were insufficient for communicating with the gods, for they were speechless, so for the purpose of transacting business with them the second volume of the book of Thoth was adopted by taking from the peasants their ancient fashion of consulting the gods through the throw of arrows or rods. These were marked with figures representing a father, a mother, a child and a servant, and four tokens or heraldic devices were also scratched on the rods, dividing them into the suits that have been so universally retained. These symbols were always connected with the worship of the gods, and ivory rods bearing these devices have been found in the tomb of King Qa, who is supposed to have lived about 4000 B. C.
Thus, the ancient divining arrows became the pip cards now in general use, while the pictures on the walls, or the Atout part of the pack, is unknown except in Italy, where the complete book of two volumes with twenty-two Atouts and fifty-six pip leaves is still found.
Originally what we call the suits or pip cards were probably simply rods inherited from Moses and Aaron, or perhaps only a quiver full of arrows, or a bundle of straws, which we know were used at the Delphic oracle; and out of these primitive articles the cards were evolved. On them were placed the four heraldic emblems of Mercury by which any statue or painting of him may be readily recognised. These emblems are convincing proof that cards were part of the worship of Mercury, since the four suits of the Tarots represented the four chief attributes of the god, those symbols by which he is universally recognised, which are Espadas (Swords), Denari (Money),Bastoni (Rods), and Coppas (Cups).
Any one familiar with the many beautiful statues of Mercury that are scattered through the great museums of Europe, or the funeral urns or sarcophagi on which Mercury is represented, is aware of this. First, he appears as Argiphontes, with the harpé or sword at his side, given him by his father, Jupiter. Second, he is shown as Cyllenius, or Agoneus, holding a purse, through the meshes of which round coins can be seen, signifying the protector and representative of merchants. Third, he appears as Caduceator, or the messenger of the gods, bearing aloft the caduceus, or magician’s rod. Fourth, he is represented as Chthonius, presiding at birth or leading the soul to the unknown regions, when his emblem is the Cup of Fortune.
This emblem inspired the shape of the beautiful Etruscan funeral vase, which is in itself symbolical and derived from the worship of the Assyrians. He is frequently represented by a cup or chalice, since Mercury was also the cup bearer of the gods, like the butler of the Pharaoh (Genesis xl), who protected his master from poison. When he was the messenger he held to the lips of mortals the seven-ringed cup of sorrow or joy, and the many significances of this cup, although now nearly forgotten, were realised by the ancient worshippers as an important emblem of the functions of the god.
If the Tarots are the direct descendants of the occult images in the Temple of Thoth, as is conceded, it must also be acknowledged that then these cards each has a meaning or intention worth studying, if only to discover their secret; and that if they are connected with the ancient mysteries they represent human life in all its phases. To wrest their secret from them has been the endeavor of many writers, some of whom have learned their portent traditionally, others through careful historical investigation, while some confess to inspiration without authority or support, but not one of these authors discovered the important connection between the emblems on the cards and those representing Mercury heraldically under his chief guises, although such a discovery would have been conclusive proof that their surmises were correct and that cards were the survival of the cult of Mercury and his predecessors.
Nevertheless, a thorough examination of all these writers shows that through different channels they all come to the same conclusions, and by comparing their writings with that of the original rules for the game of l’Ombre (or The Man) quite a definite idea of the value and meaning attached to each card by the initiates or priests of Mercury may be reached.
Raymond Lulle (1235-1315) gives an historical account of Tarots in his “Ars Magna.” Jerome Cardeau (1501-1576) writes of the historic pack in his work “Subtility.” An English writer named Mathers has written exhaustively about the great book of Thoth Hermes Trismegistus, chiefly with the view of explaining fortune-telling through a correct reading of the mysterious leaves.
Court de Gebelin, although sneered at by the authors who followed him, who found his learning too deep for their understanding, has given a lucid account of Tarots and their connection with divination, while Boiteau, in his “Les Cartes à Jouer et la Cartomancie”; Merlin, in his “Origin des Cartes”; Chatto, in his “Facts and Speculations About Cards,” and Taylor, in his “History of Playing Cards,” agree that cards appeared suddenly in Europe early in the fourteenth century, that the cards of that day were the Tarots, or the fortune-telling cards, that they were altered to suit Dutch, Swedish or German tastes, or the fancies of a French king, following also the desires of each nation that adopted them for gambling purposes, with no thought of the ancient cult to which they had belonged. Not one of them, however, pointed out the connecting link with the emblems of Mercury, or explained the reason for this sudden appearance in civilised nations of these fortune-telling packs, except De Gebelin, while even he failed to connect the attributes of Mercury with the pips on the cards or the emblematic figures on the Atouts that still show the attributes of the chief gods of Egyptian mythology, that would have been such convincing proofs of their origin.
We are indebted to Papus, in his “Tarots of the Bohemians,” for clearly pointing out that the cards are derived from the book of Thoth and for explaining the meaning of each leaf. But even Papus, shrewd and far-seeing as he is, does not bridge the chasm lying between the temples of the Egyptian deities and the introduction of cards into Europe, although he recognises the paramount importance of the emblem of Rods, which he wisely calls Sceptres, since he sees the value that such a symbol of power was to the ancients, and he never condescends to call the pip by its vulgar name of Club.
It is the more strange that the surviving signs connecting the ancient worship of Mercury with the emblems on the pip cards remained unnoticed, for the old Temple of Mercury at Baiæ remains with its vaulted roof in a fairly good state of preservation; and on the ceiling of this temple can still be seen traces of pictures resembling those on the Atouts. Almost obliterated and difficult to see, since the place is dark and there is no means of lighting, they can yet be discerned, even though it would be impossible to reproduce the emblems.
They are in the shape of the old Atouts, that is to say, the figures are enclosed in a well-defined line the shape of a card, and the same size if considered in reference to that of the emblematic pictures. Two of them are distinct enough to show a figure, although which one of the Atouts is intended it is now impossible to say. Traces of other Atouts may be discerned all along the roof of the building, although they are being rapidly destroyed by the weather.
Enough evidence exists now to show that, in this house erected to Mercury by the rich merchants of Rome, the emblematic figures were displayed as ornaments on the ceiling and were not concealed in alcoves or curtained niches, which some writers have supposed was done in the more ancient temples of Egypt where pictures have been discovered that have puzzled the savants who have not connected them with the worship of Thoth or Serapis.
Why the emblems of Mercury did not receive recognition from the authorities on playing cards of the past three centuries, or from others, remains a mystery, since it seems to be quite evident that, while the Atouts show the various virtues, vices, arts and crafts, which were under his protection, the pip cards display his four chief attributes, and that these were evidently placed in the book to represent the god when it was necessary to call on his good offices to protect or guide merchants, to direct love affairs, to encourage warriors or to inspire scientists. No other derivation for these devices has even been suggested, and these self-evident links in the chain of evidence connecting playing cards with the worship of Mercury have been totally ignored. Many students have, however, pointed out that the Tarots are the survivors of his cult and were originally the Book of Thoth Hermes Trismegistus.
In the “Catalogue of Playing and Other Cards in the British Museum,” by William Hughes Willshire, M. D. (1876, page 52), he shows a picture of Addha-Nari, saying, “she is the Isis of the Hindus, a pantheistic emblem typifying Nature, Truth and Religion.” In this Hindu emblematic figure the four symbols of the ancient Tarots (now the suit marks of the numeral playing cards of the Tarots and of Italy and Spain) are placed in the four hands of the figure that has the crescent or emblem of prophetic power on her head—namely, the Cup, the Circle (or Money), the Sword and the Magician’s Rod. “These are recognised,” says Mr. Willshire (page 62), “as being the symbols of the four chief castes into which men were divided on the banks of the Ganges and of the Nile. Accordingly, the Cup denotes the sacerdotal rank or priesthood; the Sword implies the king, a soldier or military type; the Circle or ring of eternity (that in the hands of the protector of commerce became Money) typifies the world or commercial community, and the Staff is emblematic of agriculture or the tiller of the soil.” This connection between these symbols with those on the Tarots has been copied slavishly by many authors as the only explanation for the adoption of these devices. That there were in early days these principal caste divisions is unquestionable, and men of the different professions selected their heraldic emblems when consulting the oracle to worship or consult Mercury as Chthoneus, Argiphontes, Cyllenius or Caduceator.
The bridge connecting the great goddess of India with Mercury has not yet been built, although the foundations have been laid and will soon be given to the world. It is sufficient to say at present that the mythologies of Babylonia and Egypt have mingled mysteriously, and that the mother of Thoth is connected with the Indian deity so that symbols and rites common to one country are often found in the sister continent.
Before the era of printing men crystalised their ideas by making pictures to portray the thing or person that it was desired to represent. Thus the heraldry of to-day is simply this crude idea scientifically treated and classified, and a coat-of-arms is the name of a family pictorially represented. The totem of the North American Indian displays his family cognomen in this way, as do the various symbols of uneducated people all over the world who are unable to express their ideas in written characters.
Signs over the doors of tradesmen carry out the same plan, as the barber’s basin or pole (the latter being really the caduceus of Mercury, that was inherited from the doctors who studied at the Temple of Thoth). The bunch of grapes or bush of a wine dealer shows an inn, and a well-known saying of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu recalls this, for she remarked, “How should we know where the wine was sold if we did not see the bush?”
Thus, also, at a cross-road where directions from the god Terminus (Mercury) were required, his pointing finger (which was also the Yod found on the Tarots) was a pictured sign that all could comprehend. It is the same with all the other emblems connected with this ubiquitous deity, and the ancients understood these devices far more easily than we of to-day, as the lapse of time has caused the intention of many of them to be forgotten, and none more so than those of Mercury on the pip cards of the Tarots. That their meaning is forgotten is not the fault of those who credited transmitted knowledge through pictures instead of written words, as the devices remain as a simple key to the origin of cards that originally were intended only as a means of communicating with occult powers. (See Numbers xvii.)
In order to come closely to the meanings attributed to the devices as well as to the figures on the Atout part of the Tarots, each one must be studied separately, and close attention must be given to the other connections with the cult of Mercury that have not been dropped from the cards in the course of ages, but which remain to enlighten us.
Thus, the girdle or cestus that Mercury stole from Venus encircles the deuce of Money, and all the oldest cards retain this symbol as well as those manufactured now. This card plays an important part in the soothsayer’s pack. Under some conditions it signifies thieving, which probably refers to the theft of the girdle. A pig is always displayed on the two of bells of the German pack that was evidently derived from the Tarots, since it was sacred to Nebo. Pigs and tongues (representing speech) were always part of the sacrifice to Hermes at his annual festival, and both were sacred to Proserpene, whose descent to hell was celebrated on the day she was dragged from her mother, Ceres, and conducted by Mercury Chthoneus, to the arms of Pluto.
A gazelle under a palm tree is placed on the knave of Money, which recalls the worship of Osiris, in which Thoth plays such an important part. According to a legend, the gazelle gives notice of the rising of the waters of the river Nile by fleeing from its wonted feeding grounds on the banks to the recesses of the desert, long before the first signs of the coming flood are noticed by mankind. The gazelle acts in this way as a lieutenant to Hermes, or as a messenger from the gods to humans, and it is sacred to Thoth, who was afterwards, by the Romans, merged into Mercury. Thoth is also represented on the Fool or Joker.
The number thirteen has always received mystic reverence, and the reason for this has been sought by many. Among the Atouts that number is on the card representing Death. Mercury’s festival falls on the thirteenth of the fifth month, so the thirteenth card has more than one significance to the believers in the old pictured symbols, particularly when connected with the Tarots.
The card known to us as the Joker combines in itself all the versatile qualities attributed to the god Hermes himself, and it is small wonder that it was so regarded, as he was supposed to represent in his own person so many and such different things. Among the Atouts it is called Le Fou (the Fool). It has no number in the pack and was not one of the pictures that were placed on the walls, but was probably a statue occupying the centre of the temple, where it might be separately approached. Among the cards it outranks all others, and is as volatile and as little to be depended upon as the god of Quicksilver himself. It controls and dominates every card in both the pip and Atout parts of the pack. It represents the unforeseen, the unexpected, uncertainty or uncontrollable fate, and the destiny that presides over every walk in life. It stands for Destiny, whether it be called Kismet, Luck, Chance, Fate or Mercury, who alone could tell to mortals what he had foretold at their birth, when as “the Writer” he inscribed on his “tablets” all the events of life.
Through studying the Joker and the value bestowed on him in the old as well as in the modern packs the similarity of the powers that he wields with those that were attributed to the Hermes of the Greeks may be recognised, and this representation of irresponsibility, of chance or of luck, is found in every part of the world where divining cards are used. It marks the difference between the Tarots and the French, German and Swiss packs that were invented for gambling only, and were never intended for fortune-telling. That packs in the United States, with French pips, have a Joker, does not prove that in France the gentleman is known, for he made his appearance here after 1850, as will be related later.
The way that the Joker is represented varies most strangely. Sometimes the card shows a group of huddled imps. Sometimes it is a blank like that of Korea and Japan, or it may show the figure of a clown or a jester like that of Austria. It would be interesting to follow the history of jesters through the troubadours from Mercury himself. But each and all representations have the same value when luck rules, and the Joker takes every card in the pack.
This is taken from Prophetical, Educational and Playing Cards.
Copyright © D. J. McAdam· All Rights Reserved