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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a fascinating (and extremely well-written) article!