Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Trumps in a Card Game

The fact that the twenty-two allegorical cards were invented primarily to serve as trumps in a trick-taking game is admitted even by many contemporary occultists. (The alternative view, that the trump cycle was primarily a coded compendium of heretical or occult knowledge, and that their “concealment” in a game was necessitated by the dreaded Inquisition, is still very popular.) But why would a special set of cards with allegorical images need to be added to a deck to serve as trumps? Fifteenth-century Italians could just use one of the regular suits for trumps, as is done in most games with trumps. Doesn’t the fact that a special set of cards were created imply that there was a purpose beyond the mere playing of a card game?

The role of the triumph cards as permanent trumps in the games played with the Tarot pack simply does not, at first sight, provide an adequate motive for the invention and production of a special pack of cards not readily adapted to the playing of games of other kinds. (The Game of Tarot, 170)

So perhaps the trumps were flashcards for a secret sect of heretical, Goddess-worshipping Gnostics protecting the bloodline of Jesus and the Magdalene... or some such lively Da Vinci Code nonsense. But before getting lost in speculation about a hidden purpose to the trumps, one other fact needs to be noted: trumps of any kind were a new invention.

The puzzle is solved once we drop the assumption that, at the time when Tarot was first devised, the idea of trick-taking games with trumps was already familiar. Our difficulties were caused by taking it for granted that card players of the time were already acquainted with games played with the regular pack in which some one suit would be designated as trumps, permanently or for a round at a time: we then could not see why anyone should go to the trouble of inventing a new form of pack in which a quite special set of cards were to serve as trumps. But, if we assume that the idea of trumps was not already familiar, the aspect of the matter is quite altered. In that case, the invention of the Tarot pack must have, at the same time, constituted the introduction of the idea of trumps into trick-taking games, one of the great inventions in the history of card play; and the question, ‘Why bother with a special set of picture cards when one of the ordinary suits would do?’, loses much of its force. (The Game of Tarot, 171.)

Someone had the idea of trumps, a group of cards which would triumph over the regular suits, and the obvious solution was something other than the regular suits. In fact, there were a number of variations on the idea of trumps invented in the 15th century. Perhaps the earliest was similar to Tarot in that a distinct suit was created. Five-suited decks are know from the earliest accounts, and some surviving examples are known. Whether the fifth suit was used as trumps, however, is nowhere stated. An early deck described by Jacopo Antonio Marcello had only four suits, but each suit had two types of court cards. The regular court cards were reduced to just a King in each suit, but above that there were four classical gods. While these cards were associated with the four suits, they also out-ranked cards of other suits as well, making them a kind of trumps. Karnöffel had a kind of partial suits, and at some point the modern version of suits was invented, in which one of the regular four suits is selected.

The invention of the Tarot pack was indeed the invention of the idea of trumps. Trick-taking games without trumps surely entered Europe from the Islamic world with playing cards themselves in the fourteenth century. The game of Ganjifa, brought to India by the Moghuls, is such a game; trumps are a European invention. The idea was borrowed for games with the ordinary pack by making one of the four suits the trump suit -- games such as Triomphe in France (referred to in 1480) and Triumph, the ancestor of Whist, in England (referred to in 1522). The German game of Karnöffel (referred to in 1425) incorporated a presumably independent invention of the idea of trumps, the trump suit being called the erwelete Farbez (chosen suit): but that it was from Tarot that the idea was borrowed by other card games is shown not only by etymology, but by the fact that in Karnöffel some members of the trump suit were only partial trumps, for instance being beaten by the King of the suit led but beating all lower cards of that suit -- a feature not copied in other games. (The Philosophy of Michael Dummett, 915.)

A final point to be kept in mind is that nothing in the standard set of 22 trumps is necessarily connected with the game. In the 15th and 16th centuries the trumps were reinvented a number of time, usually replacing the medieval Christian images with a series more congenial to the humanism of the Renaissance. Trumps like those in the Sola Busca Tarot, those described in Boiardo's poems, those in the so-called Rouen Tarot, all offered a more sophisticated subject matter. In the mid-18th century, the Tarot deck was reinvented again, with double-ended cards, French suit-signs, and arbitrary, decorate subject matter on the trumps, which were identified solely by the large numerals. So from the earliest days until the late 18th-century "heyday" of Tarot, the subject matter on the trumps was always secondary to their function in the game.