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During recent decades a variety of very distinguished academics have taken time off from their learned pursuits to write imitation Agatha Christie detective stories, so when I first learned that Michael Dummett, widely regarded as the most formidable philosopher of his generation, was about to publish a book about Tarot cards, I rather naturally assumed that it must be an exercise of this same recreational sort.
In a certain very off-centre sense, my assumption was correct. In , he spent three months in the United States. It was a year of political disaster. But for Dummett things were even worse at home. Dummett was in deep personal distress. But when one is engaged in what produces constant emotional anxiety, there is need for some kind of refuge, and my new hobby became for me a refuge.
The new hobby concerned cards of a different denomination. The resulting product is altogether astonishing: encyclopedic in its scope; monumental in its learning. The pages of The Game of Tarot are printed two columns to the page with learned footnotes by the hundred, some of them over a column in length. Let me emphasise from the start that the book is a history of the game of Tarot; it is not a history or analysis of the designs of the Tarot cards, a quite different topic which might turn out to be more interesting than Dummett himself considers at all likely.
One of a set of playing-cards, first used in Italy in the 14th c. Also used in fortune-telling. The bulk of the book consists of a meticulous description types of pack, values and denominations of the cards, rules of play of all the variations of the game of Tarot so far as they are now identifiable. One way or another, that includes pretty well every card game involving several players that anyone has ever heard of, as well as a great many that they have not.
Insofar as these matters might aid our understanding of the rules of the different games, Dummett also discusses the structure of the different types of pack and, in a general way, the typology of the suit designs and of the pictures on the various triumph cards.
Both books are generously illustrated. The books are not a guide to the specialist problems faced by collectors of playing cards. This presumably accounts for the issue of the shorter and cheaper volume. If you simply want to learn how to play Tarot, then a selection of the more interesting variations is provided in Twelve Tarot Games in paperback.
This consists of extracts from the larger work pasted up with connecting argument. But you must also, of course, find or construct for yourself appropriate packs of cards. And this may prove quite a problem.
The 12 games described require packs of various sizes: 78 cards, 62 cards, 63 cards, 54 cards, 42 cards, 36 cards. But that is only the beginning.
Here, in summary, is a description of the Tarot pack known as Tarocco Bolognese, which you can, it seems, readily acquire if you first make your way to Bologna. The pack has 62 cards. There are four suits: Swords, Batons, Cups, Coins, each consisting of four court cards, Ace and 6 to In Cups and Coins the order is: King high , Queen.
Cavalier, Jack, Ace, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 low. There are 21 trumps which rank: Angel high , World, Sun, Moon, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, four Moors of equal rank , Begato. Finally, there is the Matto Fool , which has a quite special role. But all that is for the addicts. What about the fortune-telling, and the fables that Tarot originated in Ancient Egypt or Persia or India or China or wherever? Here Dummett is ruthless and devastating. His guiding principle has been total scepticism.
Believe nothing unless there is clear positive evidence. If you find such evidence, look at it through a microscope. All, or very nearly all, conjectural history must be totally rejected. The question of just where card-playing, as such, may have originated depends to some extent upon our definition or terms. What constitutes a game of cards? What constitutes a pack? Card-playing in this form probably first reached Italy around , by way of Mamluk Egypt and Venice.
Dummett makes a further case, very elaborately argued, for supposing that the card game that was then introduced was a trick-taking game which shared a common ancestry with games played in India with a card pack ganjifa. But this was not Tarot. On the contrary, it is quite clear that the Tarot pack, much as we now know it in England, was invented in Italy around The innovation was evidently associated with the simultaneous introduction of a new trick-taking game for several players which required the use of 21 trump cards triumphs.
The triumphs were a sequence of picture cards not identified by a suit sign, like the ordinary suits, and not divided into numeral cards and court cards. There was nothing mystical about the designs on these cards: but they needed to be easily identifiable, easily distinguished from each other, and easily named. But fortune-telling is an extremely peripheral element. The earliest reference to the use of cards for fortune-telling in a European source is in an Italian work published in , but the cards used came from a regular pack and not from a Tarot pack.
The earliest recorded English publication of a pack of cards specifically intended for fortune-telling dates from Again it was not a Tarot pack. Cartomancy with regular playing-cards became regularly established around , but the Taro pack was not used for this purpose until about twenty years later.
The contemporary belief, which is current throughout the Anglo-Saxon world, that the Tarot pack was specifically designed for use in occult practices or in divination is not only quite without foundation but also quite recent.
The Tarot cards were incorporated into this rigmarole, and it was in this form that Tarot occultism reached England under the patronage of Kenneth Mackenzie, who, in , had been one of the founders of a Masonic-cum-Rosicrucian Society known as the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia. This is, incidentally, the only point in the book where Dummett, the philosopher, and Dummett, the historian of Tarot, come face to face. But even this is relatively ancient history. The now widespread British belief that Tarot is an ancient form of cartomancy dates, in the main, from after the Second World War.
This very recent efflorescence seems to be the result of some skilful operations in the publishing trade which Dummett understandably dismisses as unworthy of consideration. I have only one comment to make on the history side of the argument. This is a point of etymology and I would be the first to agree that etymological evidence is, on its own, quite notoriously weak.
For all I know, Dummett may have good reason for rejecting it. Whist and Bridge are both trick-taking games. Unimportant, but, if valid, worthy of inclusion in the record.
On the anthropological side my views as an anthropologist are, perhaps naturally, rather more mixed. I miss any account of participant observation. Dummett started out with a contemporary form of Tarot as played in France and worked backwards, so it is not surprising that he ended up by making a survey of European card games resembling modern French Tarot in one or more fairly obvious ways.
But it is not self-evident that either card games, as such, or European card games, as such, make a particularly interesting category. But how do we define dominoes? I have no idea as to what kinds of game card or other are permitted in contemporary Communist China, but in the backwoods rural areas of that country which I visited at various dates between and it was normal to find gambling marquees set up in market centres or travelling fairgrounds.
As in a European casino, the visitor was offered the choice of a great variety of ways in which to lose his money. Some games were much more popular than others, and in some games the stakes were much higher than in others, but the rules of the different games were often very similar. What I am getting at is that I do not feel convinced that the two hundred-odd games which Dummett describes in detail really belong to a closed set. If he had considered European games which are not played with cards at all, and also early Italian games which were not played with cards at all, he might have found the linkages with 14th-century Ferrara working out to a different pattern.
Or, to put it differently, despite the vast learning that Dummett displays, he never gives the reader a feeling of what the game might mean to the players. What is the social context in which the action takes place? The Tarot packs which have survived from early times are mostly fragmentary and most of the fragments come from upper-class households. For this and other reasons, we can learn very little about how the game might then have been played simply from a study of the cards.
But much that is relevant might have been learned from an observation of modern Tarot players. Dummett gives us the formal rules of how a great variety of modern derivatives of early Tarot ought to be played, but he does not tell us anything about how these games are actually played.
He does not describe the atmosphere of play. Gambling of one sort or another is found in all forms of human society. Moreover, wherever there is gambling you will also find magical procedures for controlling the laws of chance and for making predictions about particular gambling strategies. And that brings us back to fortune-telling. Dummett could not go back to 14th-century Ferrara to watch the action, but Tarot, he tells us, is still played in modern Bologna.
But that is a carping comment. Other hobbyists may envy Professor Dummett for having a publisher willing to invest capital in such an enterprise, and maybe this is not the book for which he would wish to be remembered in future years.
But in its own very special way it is a major achievement of which its author can be proud. Our familiar pack was symbolical to start with; nobody in the Renaissance would invent such a random thing without making it symbolical, or claiming to.
And the picture cards of the Tarot are rather aggressively mysterious. Professor Dummett flails the 18th century and later occultists mercilessly for their duplicity in propounding an antique. Egyptian origin for the Tarot and for their belief that the Tarot trumps embodied the secrets of an ancient wisdom. My own view is that the delights which they have produced and who dare say these are not creations?
She sees the occultist movements in terms of an imaginative creativity, and this is arguably at least as important as the social intercourse, intellectual exercise or sheer escapism of card-playing. That card-playing was of pre-eminent importance in relation to the history of the Tarot Michael Dummett leaves us in no doubt. Indeed, it is his contention that the Tarot was invented as a new card game embodying a hitherto unknown feature, the principle of trumps, and he stresses that it was not until the late 18th century when occult revelation pronounced the cards to be of near-diluvian antiquity that the Tarot was used for any purpose other than card-playing.
Now, the invention of trumps must rank as the most significant development in the history of card-playing since the introduction of playing-cards to the West in the midth century. It is not strange that someone should have conceived of the use of master cards in a trick-taking game, but what I do find strange is the form in which the invention is embodied and the fact that the inventor is not known.
Game of Tarot
Welcome sign in sign up. You can enter multiple addresses separated by commas to send the article to a group; to send to recipients individually, enter just one address at a time. In the Cards from the February 19, issue. On the contrary, the chapter on the origin and development of Tarot occultism was a digression from the main concern of the book, namely to give a detailed history of the game in all its forms, as H. Murray did for chess. A further purpose was to reconstruct the history of the cards and of the different types of design used for them, something not previously attempted. Such a history forms an essential basis for any theory about their iconography; because Dame Frances ignores, not merely my answer to the question when and where the Tarot de Marseille designs originated, but the question itself, her observations on the subject lack the credibility they might otherwise have had.
Dummett and the Game of Tarot
The passing of Michael Dummett , especially at the turn of a new year, is a reminder to those interested in Tarot history of what has been accomplished and what remains to be done. I want to emphasize one of his less well known areas of contribution, post some passages and comments, and recommend his findings as a starting point for further study. But first Dummett collected, collated, and analyzed a great body of evidence and drew the most plausible and defensible conclusions.