Flavin's Corner



While moving into the new digs in Salem over Halloween weekend my gal-pal noticed a deck of tarot cards among my possessions. "Do me--come on!?" she pleaded. I'd bought the deck at an occult bookstore in Harvard Square some twenty years ago, however the small black bag with the long ties I use to store the cards in had been purchased in Salem shortly thereafter. Witch City sychronicity, I'd imagine. I've been successful at avoiding the gal-pal's request to read her cards, but the problems attached to our understanding of tarot, playing cards, calendar mysteries and the alphabet persist, and have troubled me for the last several days. I understand with the recent election, problems in the Mideast, and the like, I should compose a column concerning contemporary issues, yet I choose not to. I'm dealing myself a workable trump and damned if caught.

As the histories of cards, calendars, and the alphabet generally appeal to specialists, with most layfolk guessing some hoary age of invention, mentioning religion, and starting to look uncomfortable because such trivial, yet basic, background has passed them by, this column herein ranks an 8 on the Rick Yawn-O-Meter. Standard disclaimers of accidents occurring while some are bored out of their minds during the reading of this column are implied, but would never be explicitly stated, as that's way silly to an extreme even I'd be hesitant to accept.

Conventional histories of playing and tarot cards point to 1371 (Spain) and 1377 (Italy) as the earliest references of playing cards in Europe, with a model of invention in China, then diffusing to India, and Islamic culture as the active agent between East and West. Some hold the early playing cards were calendars and used for divination and tarot is some ancient Egyptian magical "book." Calendars can get way mysterious, but most now accept tarot as based on the Italian "tarocco," invented around 1410-1430, which incorporated and expanded on the 52 cards of gaming playing cards. A claim of Egyptian priority (though with a Medieval Islamic provenience) is argued for a fragment of a playing card tentatively dated to the 12th or 13th centuries and is eminently comparable to a full deck discovered in 1939, which dates from sometime shortly after 1400 and was used by the Mamlűk Dynasty. As paper is cited as essential for the mass manufacture of cards, China and the Marco Polo media-experiment occurring in chronological proximity, an ultimate Eastern origin is believed for playing and perhaps tarot cards. Such an advancement is comfortably vague, contains a modicum of investigative pop-read, and reveals in suggestiveness. I'm troubled with directions of diffusion between East and West, and I'll play the skeptic and inquire if the math fits.

Playing cards emerge fully realized as a working system in Europe in the fourteenth century. Interaction with Islamic culture, with extensions to North Africa, across Central Asia and into the Far East, undoubtedly facilitated this. Small cups of thick, burnt coffee for the house. The 52 playing card system aligns itself with a calendar based on the weeks of the natural year and would seem to testify for some final adaptation by a culture keen on solar reckoning. There're 4 suits representing either an average number of weeks in a month or the seasons of the year, and 12 court cards seem to point to the months in a year. Not much evidence for a calendar relationship, but at least it's something! [Note: Totaling the number of individual number spots (or pips) in a modern deck results in 365 (including The Joker, with a single pip value), but as The Joker expanded the deck to 53 cards, and was introduced in 1860 as an American way to enliven the Franco-Germanic game of Euchre, this calendar trivia is recent and of no help.]

Sir Michael Dummett, Emeritus Professor of Logic (Dept. of Philosophy, Oxford), has suggested a prototypical playing card system in Persia and Central Asia with 48 cards in four suits. Dummett traces the Persian "Ganjifeh" to both the Indian "Ganjifa" and the Arabic "Kanjifah," a word appearing on one of the Mamlűk cards.

With the invention of paper suspected of occurring with Ts'ai Lun c.104 CE, the subsequent refinement of technique in the following centuries, the process became perfected enough by 969 CE to allow a popular pasteboard game for Emperor Mu-tsung based on dominos. Later the Chinese played a game called "money cards," which had a four-suit division. The Arabs knew papermaking technology by the tenth century and were beginning to experiment with linen instead of wood. A Chinese invention of playing cards seems reasonably certain, Dummett's work draws the deck through India into Persia, and the Arabs introduce an adapted version of the 48-card deck into Europe based on the 52-week solar year. I guess that's about it… Well, no…

Astrology and astronomical calendrics are attested to in China at very early dates. A significant division occurs between a conjectured prehistoric period (before the "oracle-bone" inscriptions of c.1600-1200 BCE) and the hypothetical usage of a 28 sectioned lunar calendar (sometimes incorrectly referred to as a "zodiac" because of some animal characters), followed by a marked astronomical reform with the diffused knowledge of the grid-map, mathematical, duodenary zodiac of the Babylonians c.700-600 BCE. There was then a further revision of lunar calendar sections (called "mansions") influenced by subsequent Greco-Arab lunar (-solar) systems. It looks like there was a lot of give and take. Knowledge often passes back and forth like Charlie Brown waiting nervously for the Red Haired Girl. That we can separate historical periods on the presence or absence of knowledge of certain mathematical principals is way cool.

May we safely say our current 52-card playing deck originated in Islamic culture and passed to Europe at points in the 14th century? Sure, but this appears to be an adaptation of other gaming systems based on multiples of 12 and consisting of 48 cards, a sure indicator of knowledge of the duodenary zodiac, which Arab intermediaries originally passed on. That pasteboard gaming systems began in China and India is due to the invention of paper, but the immediate math involved originated in the West, specifically with Babylonian, Greek, and later Arab applications. An appropriate question would be: Is there evidence of any numeric systems in China predating exposure to the duodenary zodiac (and the accompanying sexagesimal, base-60 computation still in use with Chinese calendars) that could have significantly influenced post-zodiac systems?

Geoffrey Ashe's Dawn Behind The Dawn (New York: Henry Holt, 1992) suggests a tradition of the heptad (7) and it's association with the seven brightest stars of Ursa Major, the Bear, beginning 25,000 years ago in the Altai Mountain region near Lake Baikal, where Siberia abuts Mongolia, and diffusing into China, India, Sumeria, the Mediterranean, and possibly to the Hopi of the New World. The suggestion, though tenuous, gains in possibility by recent work on the so-called Tocharians (see: The Tarim Mummies, by J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair, London: Thames & Hudson, 2000) and the amazing evidence of extremely early interaction between East and West. We need to get past the Marco Polo media-experiment and not look back. There's always been truck between East and West, despite Kipling's whine.

A model proposing the alphabet as a lunar calendar was advanced by Hugh Moran in 1953, received the support of David Diringer (the 20th century's leading alphabetologist), and later expanded upon with tantalizing New World parallels by David H. Kelley in 1969 (see: The Alphabet And The Ancient Calendar Signs, by Hugh A. Moran & David H. Kelly, with an introduction by David Diringer, Second Edition, Palo Alto, CA: Daily Press, 1969). Dissatisfied with claims of an alphabet origin derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs, Byblos Linear, cuneiform or other scripts, Diringer wanted a system which "…must show great antiquity, widespread diffusion, and some cohesive principle outside of itself which has held the various signs in their established order under varied circumstances, over wide areas, and through long periods of time." That forms of the early alphabet show similarity in appearance and name to certain Chinese lunar calendar symbols and some letter-names (i.e."Q," Koph or Qoph, said to be based on the Indian Sanskrit "kapi," an ape) evidence contact between Sinai and India pre-1400 BCE, were facts not lost on Diringer and he was cautiously excited by Moran's thesis. [Note: for more on the alphabet and lunar calendars, see my "The Oldest ABC's: The Ugarit Cuneiform Alphabet" here.]

While investigations of the diffusion of significant traditions between East and West continue to be rewarding, the only area which could possibly have substantive value regarding a Chinese origin of the 52-card playing and the subsequent 78-card tarot deck, would be as stimulus or indirect diffusion. Like Galileo constructing a telescope after hearing of a description of one, Islamic culture was exposed to the gaming cards of China and India and adapted the idea of playing cards (as well as the 4-suit division), added a court card to each suit in a redesign which fortuitously matched a 52-week solar calendar.

To answer the above question: "Not enough…" Many cultures combine words, graphemes, numbers, music, and calendars in unique, esoterically annoying, and investigatory challenging arrangements. The Pythagorean observation that the distance between musical scales and calendars could scarce accommodate a hair's breadth, while tragically insightful, can't assist in establishing a Chinese calendar and playing card alignment. The Mamlűk deck may have been designed with a calendar in mind, though the evidence it was purely for gaming outweighs any tenuous symbolism.

Everyone understands the concept of 'day', as well as the longer 'year', with the interim period of a 'week', now modeled on the Semitic example consisting of seven days, as generally accepted due unrelenting exposure. The 'week' was carried along with the alphabet and religion to the lonely corners of Mom Terra. The Hebrew calendar (along with the related Islamic) depends on the imaginary 'week', though primarily figured by the sighting of a New Moon, a period of variable length, requiring intercalary (read: pain-in-the-butt) or "extra" days. A 'year' of 354 days in need of adjusting would seem to necessitate an improved calendar, but …I would never be arrogant enough to advise cultures on their calendars.

China has been doing the same thing since c. 1400 BCE. A lunar year of some 353-355 days (leap-years of 383-385) occurring in China, though faced with problems shared with other lunar-based calendars, may be understood as developing independently, rather than having been directly or indirectly influenced. The heptad may have arisen influentially in the shaman-driven cultures surrounding Lake Baikal, diffused in wonderment far afield, however connecting the Chinese/Sumerian '7' fascination with the Babylonian/Semitic seven-day week, remains an intriguing work-in-progress. Better, I believe, would be an approach which allows for a commonality of experience due the inherent variations of the lunar cycle. If by some eerie happenstance China did participate in focusing attention on the heptad and wished to lay claim to influencing the development of the Hebrew 'week', it would be a wasted effort. Number symbolism arising independently from observational variances of the lunar cycle doesn't require intrigue or rely on imaginative hyperdiffusion. Simply put: '7' symbolism by itself, however developed, doesn't do it . But, oh, how things changed after exposure to the Babylonian 12 and 60 system! Sort of…

Though some number symbolism in Hebrew scripture is acknowledged, I suspect much was inspired by the Babylonian 12 and 60 system. Still, Hebrew mysticism and later Islamic variation, held fast to their alphabets as number allegory. What mnemonics could have been attached is probably lost forever. The addition of 22 trumps to the 56-card "tarocco" deck was probably mindful of the importance of alphabet symbolism, as European intellectuals were all closet cabalists at the time. Ouch… That's right--this is supposed to be about tarot cards…

Contemporary mystics still practice tarot card divination, but have backed off on any fantastic claim as to its origin. See, it's not the cards that are working magic, or those tea-leafs, cigarette ashes or elbow wrinkles, but rather the practitioner who gets the credit for being plugged into The Beyond.

I suppose I could do my gal-pal and play Regis on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire Psychic? Describing the various associations of numero-alphabetic lore might possibly satisfy her, …or put her to sleep and I could then lie, claiming my "reading" was superb! Tarot cards are cultural artifacts of parlor tricks and not many folks have a "parlor" anymore. Right, it's because my apartment is so small! 2000 words to come up with "I can't read your cards because I live in a studio apartment…"? Sure, why not…

As I write this there's a blank space of wall that will soon be occupied by a signed print of Jeff Jones' "The Black Rose," cover-art for Roger Zelazny's first Amber novel, Nine Princes In Amber (paperback, New York: Avon, 1972). Over the last twenty years I've had various posters, prints, as well as a signed photo-print (which got damaged), and I look forward to gazing up and once more and being reminded of Zelazny's sci-fantasy Amber series. See, Amber is this other, "real," dimension and some of its notable inhabitants can shift through various "shadows" (alternative Earths) with a trump. An image, be it on a pasteboard or sketched with the mind, a symbol which allows magic. What I would give for a workable trump! Ah, fantasy belongs on the walls!

Not in the parlor…

Shuffling priorities,


Return to main page