Monday, July 5, 2010

For God's Will or Money: The Long History of the Lowly Pip

In recent years it has become quite widely accepted that tarot cards were not invented for divination, but were in fact added to the standard deck of cards for the purpose of playing a game.  The game of Trionfo (or similar) was most certainly played for money when it first appeared in the 14th Century Italy as were card games in general.  The use of tarot for fortune telling did not come about until several centuries later.

However, a study of the history of gambling and divination reveals that the two pursuits are intertwined and inexorably linked through time and space.  The transformation of the tarot from a tool of gaming to a tool of foretelling is not the first time a practice has shifted from vice to divine or the reverse.  The tools of divination and gambling share certain traits and features.  This allows one to easily become the other.  It seems the two practices also share a certain space in the human mind.  When faced with the uncertain, we respond with an immiscible swirl of hope, fear and fascination.  The tension and distress of this mental state lead people to seek out the fortune teller.  The gambler, on the other hand, seeks the thrill of this internal state and induces it with the game.

The relentless human pursuit of gambling has preserved an amazing persistence in its forms and artifacts through not just centuries, but millennia.  When new features were added to the technology of gambling, the innovations gradually migrated across the Eurasian land mass, following the trade routes.  Thus, we can trace a linear and unbroken history of gambling from the present back to the very beginnings of written history.

If we delve into the deep history of the cards, before cards were in fact cards, we find their origin lies not in gambling, but an ancient form of divination that sought to determine the will of God.  What ties playing cards and tarot cards to this ancient form of divination is the pip.  All decks of cards include ten pip cards (or numbered cards) for each of the four suits.  Although pip cards are marked with the symbol of the suit, the pip originated as a simple dot as they are still found on dice and dominoes.

Before there were pips on dice, before there were dice, there was the casting of lots.  This may be familiar from the bible.  Casting lots was a tradition in the fertile crescent probably well before the ethnic identity of the Hebrews coalesced. Casting lots, or cleromancy, was the practice of throwing items and interpreting the resulting patterns to determine the will of a god.  Although just about any item could be used, the use of small bones became standard, in particular, the use of the hucklebones (or knucklebones) of sheep or goats.  These are also called astragali.

Before long a convention developed regarding the meaning of which side landed up.  Priests or gamers eventually began to file the sides of the astragali to make them roll more randomly and also started marking insignia on the sides to indicate the meaning.  The first pips appeared as patterns of holes drilled into the sides of astragali.  Hucklebones with drilled holes, very similar to these ancient onces, are still used in India to divine illness or the wishes of spirits.  By 3000 B.C.E. we see the appearance of the first cubical dice with pips on all six sides.  Once dice were invented they could be made from other material than bone.

When astragali and dice changed from tools of divination to tools of gambling is not completely clear because there are few if any Mesopotamian records regarding gambling.  There was undoubtedly an overlap.  We do know that dice became increasingly common over time suggesting that they were no longer limited to use by priests.

As a tool of gambling, dice spread both west and east.  In Europe they were popular throughout the Roman Empire and continued to be popular in the Middle Ages despite repeated attempts by the church to repress gambling.  In Asia, dice followed the trade routes and reached China by the 7th Century.  By 900 C.E., the Chinese had transformed dice into bone tablets with pips known as kwat pai or dominoes.  From dominoes, the Chinese invented Mah Jong and eventually transferred the system of pips and other symbols from tablets to cardboard.  Playing cards were said to have been invented in the year 1120 C.E.

The pips were transformed into four suits.  The original suits were (1) coins, (2) strings of coins, (3) myriads of coins, and (4) tens of myriads of coins.  It is easy to see how the round pips became seen as "coins" especially with the association with gambling.  Then playing cards traveled west to the Middle East where the suits became (1) polo sticks, (2) coins, (3) swords, and (4) cups.  Playing cards arrived in Italy by the late 14th Century where these suits were preserved except for the suit of polo sticks which was changed to "batons."  These are the same suits still used in Tarot decks.  The now familiar suits on common playing cards of diamonds, clubs, hearts and spades were later devised in France.

So, there you have it, the pip through 5000 years of Eurasian history, from the casting of lots in Mesopotamia to the suited pips on the everyday deck of playing cards.

For a detailed history of dice and cards, see:

Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cuddly Tarot?

Hanson-Roberts Tarot Deck | Illustrated by Mary Hanson-Roberts.  Published by US Games, 1985.

Historical Significance:  Nil
Artistic Appeal:  High
Symbolic Resonance:  Moderate
Evocative Potential:  High

I have a fondness for this deck because it was the first deck I ever bought and used.  Without any knowledge of Tarot, in 1986, I wandered into Perelandra Bookstore (now defunct) in Eugene, and was immediately drawn to the collection of Tarot.  I don't remember now why I chose this particular deck at the time, but for some reason I selected it--or the other way around.  In any case, I enjoyed learning about the Tarot with this deck, and the readings were meaningful enough to keep me interested.  Before writing this, I did the usual Web survey, and I find it interesting how many other people, in their reviews, also describe this as the first deck they ever had.  I don't think that is a coincidence.  The Hanson-Roberts deck, besides being one of the most popular after Rider-Waite and Marseilles, is very user friendly.  If feels safe and non-threatening.  It is a very good deck for beginners.

The artwork is pleasing.  Ms. Hanson-Roberts used the medium of colored pencil with black ink outlines.  This resulted in images that feel very soft with complex color gradations.  The fact that it was printed with continuous color tone makes it distinct from most older decks printed with solid color using half-tone printing processes.

Hanson-Roberts is a skilled artist.  Her compositions are balanced and appealing.  Compared to older decks, the images feel fresh and contemporary.  There are some Art Nouveau elements, but for the most part, the artwork draws directly from the familiar Rider-Waite images, although the style is quite different.  The compositions are zoomed-in compared to R-W, with more detail, giving the feel of being close to the subjects.  The symbology is very much paired down in this deck.

The style of the art can best be described as cartoonish.  The subjects are uniformly warm and friendly, some so much so they are downright cutesy.  There is nothing overtly scary or disturbing in this deck.  The images and the readings from this deck feel very gentle, sometimes whimsical, and always affirming.

The meanings and symbols are firmly and predictably in the occultist Tarot tradition, most famously realized in Rider-Waite.  There are no surprises or new symbolic schemes.  The meaning associated with each card is much that same as with R-W and derivatives.  As always, this deck comes with its own pamphlet, but if you're familiar with the R-W meanings, you will hardly need it.

It should come as a surprise to no one that Mary Hanson-Roberts, a long-time Florida resident, is an illustrator of comics featuring felines and all things cute and furry.  Her best know comic, called Here Comes a Candle, was first serialized in the comic periodical, Furrlough, and, in 2000, was published as a graphic novel.  She is an active member of the "Furry Art" community and is known to attend, sometimes in a place of honor, furry art conventions such as ConFurence and FurFest.

In any case, the Hanson-Roberts Tarot deck is a little too cute for my taste, but it still holds sentimental value for me, as it apparently does for many others also.  It is a good starter deck due to ease of use and its kind personality.  It is especially recommended for youth and anyone who experiences fearfulness at using a traditional deck.

There is also a companion guide available specific to this deck:  The Hanson-Roberts Tarot Companion

If you like this deck, you might also have a look at her other deck, The Whimsical Tarot: A Deck for Children and the Young at Heart. . . it features, as you might guess, bipedal cats.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Campy Gloom

The Bohemian Gothic Tarot Designed by Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov. Published by Magic Realist Press, 2008.

Historical Significance: Nil
Artistic Appeal: Most High
Symbolic Resonance: High
Evocative Potential: Most High

This is my all time favorite Tarot deck to use. It's evocative, mesmerizing, and moody. It gives (or allows for) nuanced readings. Its images are meaningful as well as beautiful. The images draw the eye in and entrance the mind.

Although the images are darkly Gothic, the readings feel gentle, if sharply insightful. This contrasts with those old woodblock decks from the 17th and 18th Centuries, whose readings can feel heavy, dualistic, and bluntly ruthless. The images and symbols in those old decks have an actual medieval feel and outlook. The images and symbols in the Bohemian Gothic Tarot are only superficially Gothic (there are a lot of bones and skulls) but the details (and the images are quite detailed) are sudtle and complex. While there is use of symbol, meaning is coveyed more by the mood of each image. I have never worked with a deck in which so much can be gleaned from the delicately elusive facial expressions of the figures.

I admire the artist/designers. They clearly spent a lot of time on the artwork. Overall, images evoke the feeling of a gothic romance or a campy but mysterious old horror movie. Some of the images appear to be directly influenced by old movies. The images are never gory or repulsive, they all seem to draw the viewer in and leave you daydreaming about the story behind it. Each card seems to have its own story. Every time I look at one of these cards, I have the feeling I am looking through a window, seeing just one small part of something much larger and mysterious.

The symbols and meanings of the cards are only nominally of the Rider-Waite tradition. Some cards present a visual allusion to that tradition. With other cards, the images are wholly unique without apparent reference to previous decks. In most cases, the meanings, as defined in the accompanying book, appear to derive, at least in part, to the occult tradition that spawned the ubiquitous Rider-Waite, but also make clear reference to the image on the card. I can't say that I fully appreciate the subtle symbolism in every image, but it seems clear to me that much thought and care went into every design.

Karen Mahony and Alex Ukulov both live in Prague, but neither of them are natives. Mahony is from Dublin originally, then lived in London after the age of 17. Ukulov is an ethnic Russian from Yalta in the Crimea. They both came to Prague on what appeared to be parallel spiritual journeys. They met in Prague where they fell in love with the city and with each other. Their first Tarot deck they collaborated on was the Tarot of Prague.

Mahony's background is web design. Alex is a photographer and an acolyte of photoshop. They are both artists. Their method is to take original photographs and combine parts of various images into a seamless and naturalistic scene. They are methodical and very thoughtful in this work. Mahony works mostly on composition while Ukulov works on the details of bringing the image components together. You can read their interview on Aecletic Tarot: Interview with Karen Mahony and Alex Ukulov.

Overall, I enjoy using this deck very much. I ended up buying this deck twice (new) because my first deck was left out in the rain.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Occult Collage

The Archeon Tarot, by Timothy Lantz.  Published by U. S. Games Systems, Inc., 2005.

Historical Significance:  Nil
Artistic Appeal:  High
Symbolic Resonance:  Moderate
Evocative Potential: Moderate

What drew me to this deck was the art graphics which are quite unique as far as Tarot decks go.  The style is more along the lines of graphic illustration used in magazines than the more common iconographic line drawings we've come to expect from Tarot cards.  The images are pleasing and sometimes dramatic.  They have an unspecific and nebulous quality typical of such graphics.

Lantz started his work on this deck in 2003.  Of it he says:
Each of the 78 images in the Archeon Tarot relies heavily on the collection of symbols that inhabit my mind.  It is a curious mixture of traditional and non-traditional imagery from varied sources thrown into the blender of my subconscious. There will be things that you recognize, cultural and social conventions, but their interpretations may not always be what you would expect.

Personally, I like the artwork, but not everyone seems to.  The problem for me with this deck is that, although the photoshoped graphics are appealing, they lack depth.  The use of symbols is suggestive and thin without clearly tying symbol to image content. The evocative quality that is so important in divination does not work so well with this deck for me although one might expect it to as the images are certainly more evocative than linear. It could be that I simply haven't used it enough for evocation to develop.

The pamphlet is thin with two to three paragraphs per trump and only a few sentences per pip card.  The meanings described in the pamphlet do not correspond with the images as well as they could.

Overall, I like the artwork but have not found the deck to be very useable.  But, you might have a different experience.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Remains from a Celtoid-Hippy Dark Ages

The Complete Merlin Tarot: Images, Insight and Wisdom from the Age of Merlin

Historical Significance: Low
Artistic Appeal: Moderate
Symbolic Resonance: Moderate
Evocative Potential: Moderate

This was one of my first decks.  It appears to be out of print at this time.  Overall I liked it and used if for quite awhile.  I was drawn to it out of an old interest in the Arthurian tales--after reading Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave (The Arthurian Saga, Book 1), etc.

The trump cards are decently executed color paintings, and better than many decks currently out there.  The images feel very earthy.  They give one a sense of a kind of hippy-Celtic dark ages.  The standard suits are replaced with Birds (Swords), Serpents (Clubs), Fish (Cups), and Beasts (Coins).  The pip cards are simple flat diagrammatic line-drawings on single-color backgrounds.

Complete Merlin Tarot

I liked this deck at the time because it resonated quite well with Mary Stewart's portrayal of Merlin as a type of late druidic, post-Roman prophet, his nebulous prophetic power tied to the old traditions and to the earth.  The symbols are a bit of a mix.  They maintain only a fleeting formal relation to the classic occultist decks.  There is a fair amount of celtic imagery incorporated but not as much or as well thought out as one might expect.  My biggest complaint with using the deck for divination is that the pip cards are so "flat" in their look and feel that they don't really evoke much when reading with them.  One is left to rely on the written explanations.  The accompanying book is somewhat detailed and expands on the themes of the cards fairly well.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Spider cartomancy in Central Africa

There is a small body of literature on this subject, mostly written by anthropologists. Anthropologists tend to explore the social, political, and healing implications of divination, but they are also pretty good at providing basic description of practices. This particular practice is usually referred to as "spider divination" but might be seen as a form of cartomancy and has also been referred to as arachnomancy.

African spider divination is interesting to me because it uses a system of leaf-cards marked with symbolic "ideograms." The cards are usually made with tree leaves or raffia palm ribs. The ideograms are traditional symbols with specific meanings. It is interesting that the practice has changed somewhat over the years. Contemporary diviners use a reduced set of about 76 cards, but accounts from the 1960's describe sets of 200-300 cards.

These cards are used in combination with large African pit dwelling spiders. A spider hole is found and the area surrounding it is cleared of grass and debris. Generally, an old pot that has its bottom broken out is used to contain the spider.

After hearing the question, the diviner places a set of leaf-cards along with some other objects in the pot-enclosure based on the client's query. For instance, rocks might be used to represent individual people related to the question. The leaf-cards have predetermined meanings indicated by their ideograms. Other objects, usually sticks, may be added to the mix to indicate specific factors related to the question. One or two cards are placed over the spider hole that may have special pertinence to the query. The rest of the cards are stacked.

Once the cards and objects are placed in the pot-enclosure, the diviner will rub a stone around the rim of the pot and blow into it, saying "come out, come out." The question is chanted under the breath and the stone is tapped on the rim in rhythm with the chanting. Then the pot is covered and left undisturbed, sometimes overnight. Once enough time has passed for the spider to emerge and to rearrange the cards and objects by its movements, the lid is removed. The diviner interprets the answer by the pattern and arrangement of cards and objects. The ideograms on the cards have very specific meaning, but talent and experience in the diviner is required to understand the meaning of how the cards have been rearranged by the spider in relation to the other objects.

This type of divination is found primarily in lower Cameroon. Like most pre-modern traditions there is a lot of variation from place to place. For instance, near the coastal areas, land crabs are sometimes used instead of spiders. Some diviners give less weight to the meanings of the ideograms and more significance to the overall rearrangement.

The most common type of questions have to do with health or witchcraft. Often these two things go hand-in-hand as illness is often thought to be a result of witchcraft. The gradual advancement of the medical model in these areas does not necessarily negate the belief in witchcraft as people are perfectly capable of harboring dual explanations. For instance, even if I accept that malaria is caused by a parasite, I can also believe that the reason I contracted it is because my neighbor has caused a curse on me.

The spider has special significance in myth. They are believed to never lie. That being said, it is interesting that the many and varied mythical stories about Anansi (the spider) in West Africa paint him as a trickster similar to Coyote in North America. For instance, Anansi fooled the sky god into giving rain. There are also stories about him fooling people.

In Cameroon, the spider of myth has a chthonic quality. It lives in the ground and it comes out at night. It is symbolically associated with wisdom, high rank, and the dead. The spider can cross between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The association with rank might have to do with the frequent use of spider divination by the higher social ranks. Historically, the spider appears to have been a creator god in its association with weaving and has also been associated with war as well as beginnings and endings. You'll note on the Cameroon spider mask, the spider is pictured with six legs instead of eight. This is the traditional iconography and is still seen quite frequently in Cameroon.

The classic anthropological work on the subject is Paul Gebauer's Spider Divination in the Cameroons. You can still find used copies around. The link goes to, but there may not be a used copy posted there consistently. Gebauer goes into quite some detail about the leaf-card ideographs and their specific meanings. You'll not find this level of detail anywhere else.

A great on-line source is by another anthropologist, David Zeitlyn: Zeitlyn, D. 1993. Spiders in and out of Court or 'the long legs of the law.' Styles of spider divination in their sociological contexts. Africa 63(2), 219-240. I summarized some of his article here. He also goes into some depth on the social and political role of spider divination in Cameroon as well as the process of becoming and diviner and the details of interpretation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fortune-telling, freedom of religion, and fraud

Fortune-telling-as-fraud has been in the news recently. There is some political push and pull around local anti-fortune-telling ordinances and laws around the country right now. The political pressures are complex and do not always fall into the typical pattern of Left versus Right or religious versus secular. The implications of these laws strike at some fundamentals of the American political identity, including the freedom of religion and freedom of speech. On the other side of the issue is the need to protect citizens from scams and con artists.

First of all, I think we need to acknowledge that there is a basis for concern, not only for out-and-out fraud, but also a concern for our seniors and others simply being taken advantage of.

Take the case of Lola Miller, AKA "Miss Donna." She is alleged to have accepted $500,000 from her client for the service of cleansing a curse that Miller claimed to have divined in the abdomen of the client. The $500,000 curse removal was not helpful, however, in protecting the client from the cancer to which she succumbed three years ago. You can read the full story at the Mercury News. Of course there are other cases of a similar flavor. It's these kind of news items that keep the ordinances in place.

On the opposing side of the issue there are a myriad of very serious issues around fairness, religious bigotry, the nature of religion, and the definition of fraud. But, before we get into that, we should take a closer look at these laws.

According to a recent AP article on the subject, the City of Philadelphia has lately "discovered" a decades-old prohibition against fortune-telling for profit and, despite years of disregard, the State Law was suddenly enforced with a crack down on "psychics, astrologers and tarot card readers." Meanwhile, just last year, Livington Parish, Louisiana newly enacted an anti-fortune-telling law. It's difficult to say how many towns, counties or even states have such laws on the books, and complicating the picture further, one never seems to know what local government entity might choose to enforce the law or when.

There is, apparently, some resistance to such laws. One such law, in Lincoln, Nebraska, was struck down in Federal Court as unconstitutional. According to the same AP article, similar laws in several states are also being challenged in court.

Such laws can have an obvious and direct impact on tarot card readers, psychics, urban shamans, and other soothsayers, but can also impact therapists, clergy and others. For instance, therapists have been know to use techniques such as I-Ching, Tarot and Feng Shui among others that have been identified and targeted under some of these laws. Likewise, some evangelical and Pentecostal churches are known to "prophesy." Even more at risk are the "prosperity gospel" churches that have recently come under scrutiny by the media as well as some law makers.

The legal arguments against these laws are of two sorts. Firstly, the argument goes, that predicting the future is free speech. The government has no ability or right to govern it even if people are charging money for it. Secondly, insofar as divination is a religious practice, it is protected under our constitutional right to freedom of religion. This argument is being made by a Wiccan priest who is challenging the Louisiana law.

Beyond these basic constitutional arguments, there needs to be more attention paid to the issue of fair enforcement and religious bigotry. Regardless what direction you lean toward religious freedom versus protection from fraud, there needs to be objectivity and discipline, especially among prosecutors, with even and fair enforcement of legal principles.

How can we prosecute people like Lola Miller for claiming to lift a curse, when televangelists such as Pat Robertson are allowed to claim to influence the outcome of someone's medical illness by praying to God and taking peoples' money for his "service?" How much money, I wonder, gets paid to preachers and televangelists who present very similar claims to "Miss Donna's." How often do seniors and vulnerable individuals give large sums of money? Is anyone paying attention? Is anyone protecting their "victims?"

If communities are going to pass such laws to protect their vulnerable citizens, the laws and the principles on which they are based must be enforced evenly and fairly across the religious spectrum. To do anything less is a form of blatant religious prejudice as well as an attack on our constitution.

The fact that a few fortune-tellers are unethical does not mean that every Tarot reader or dowser is a con artist any more than every pastor is a fraud just because Oral Roberts fraudulantly claimed he would be struck down by God if he didn't raise ten million dollars.