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.
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 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.
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