A History of Divinatory Pips

The pip cards in the traditional Tarot of Marseille mostly depict a repetition of the traditional Italian suit symbols: coins, cups, swords, and staffs, with some decorative details, like flowers and vines, to fill in the spaces. These decks were primarily designed for playing card games. In 1909, when Pamela Colman Smith redesigned the deck to express occult philosophy and to be used primarily for divination, she modified the symbols to look like magical tools: pentacles, cups, swords, and wands, and added allegorical scenes to the pips, in which the figures interact with the suit symbols––scenes that were meant to provide a divinatory meaning. When I first became aware of the Tarot in the 1960s it was the common opinion that Waite and Smith were the source of this innovation; and that this unique innovation is what made the Waite Smith Tarot user-friendly and popular with Tarot readers.

The Three of Swords: the Tarot of Marseille, The Waite Smith Tarot, and the Sola Busca

While reading Kaplan’s Encyclopedia of Tarot, many years ago, I discovered that Smith’s pip designs were heavily influenced by The Sola Busca Tarot, a 15th century Italian deck that made use of the same technique on the pips. This is especially obvious when we compare the three of swords from both decks. It is not clear, however, that the scenes on the Sola Busca pips were designed for divination.

My continued study of divination with cards has led me to explore decks in the Metropolitan Museum, the British Museum, and the National Library in Paris, and to follow the discoveries and revelations of the community of scholars studying the history of cards. What I have learned is that before the modern association of the Tarot with divination ordinary playing cards were more commonly employed for this purpose. And as the pips in the minor suits in the Tarot are based on these playing card decks; the pip cards must have had divinatory meanings associated with them from an early date. 

In the late 1700s, decks of oracle cards were created that consisted of a set of meaningful images with a small rendering of a traditional playing card included at the top of the card. The most famous of these decks is the Lenormand, which is based on the Game of Hope, published in Nuremberg in 1799. It seems that these were the first decks designed primarily for divination, and they had imagery associated with the pips. But I am starting to see that decks with meaningful imagery on the pip cards may have an even older history.

Game of Hope Cards, 1799

The latest evidence indicates that the series of twenty-one trumps that are found in the Tarot of Marseille originated in Florence in the first half of the 15th century. In fact, the oldest mention of the term trionfi, the original name of the deck, is found in an account written in Florence in 1440. By the end of the century, the name of the deck in most of Italy changed from carte da trionfi in Ferrara to Tarocchi, and when the cards made their way to France the name was shortened to Tarot. In Florence the name changed from naibi di trionfi to Minchiate, which means something like the Fool’s game. A new version of the deck with forty trumps, including cards for the twelve signs of the zodiac and the four elements, was created in Florence in the early 16th century and the name Minchiate came to become associated with this 97-card version of the Tarot. By the 18th century the Minchiate was more popular in Italy than the original twenty-one trump Tarot and even became popular in Paris. But in the 15th century the original twenty-one trump version spread through northern Italy to Milan, and from Milan to France, when it became the model for the Tarot of Marseille. I find it interesting, however, that the 16th century expanded Minchiate contained meaningful allegorical imagery on many of the pips, often illustrating stories from Aesop’s Fables.  

Three 19th century Minchiate pips

In the 15th century, playing cards spread to Germany, and by 1460, Germans had developed their own set of suit symbols: hawk belles, hearts, leaves, and acorns. But what is interesting is that by the 16th century most of the German decks included satirical and allegorical scenes on the pips. I have seen and read about early card decks that were intended for divination that had the divinatory meaning written on the cards in the form of short poems. Having the meaning written on the cards makes it clear that they were used for divination, and it seemed that this was the norm for divination decks until the 18th century when divinatory pictures started to appear. But the allegorical scenes on the Minchiate and the German cards clearly tell stories that could be used for divination. As far as I know, however, no one has found evidence that they were used for anything other than games.

Recently Fortune Rebecca Buchholtz, a friend of mine in Germany, sent me PDF copies of several German Renaissance lot or fortune books that are in the national library in Germany. These are books designed for divination. They contain pages of divinatory answers, each accompanied by a picture––in one example they are pictures of playing cards. The answers are located by either spinning a wheel with the pictures or numbers on it or by picking a playing card and matching it to the picture in the book. The Mainz Lot Book from 1505 is the one that contains pictures of German playing cards next to the answers. This is a clear example of early divination making use of cards, but the pictures just depict the German suited cards, and the answers are written next to it in the form of a poem. This is not that different from having the meaning written on the card.  

A page from the Mainz Lot Book from 1505

The book that I found most fascinating is Jorg Wickram’s Das Weltlich Loszbuch (the secular fortune or lot book), from 1560. The book contains divinatory answers that are accessed by spinning a wheel and the written answers are accompanied by numerous bizarre comical illustrations. These illustrations are clearly intended for divination, and I was struck by how similar they are to the moralistic allegorical scenes found on the German pips from the same century.

In these illustrations from Das Weltlich Loszbuch we see Fortuna sifting fools, two fools carrying a bee infested heart, a bull playing a bagpipe, a fool riding a pile of feces, and a cat acting as bishop to adoring mice.

Now compare these illustrations to the scenes found at the bottom of the pips from the suit of bells in Hans Schaufeiein playing cards, from 1535. There is a lazy man swatting bees, a fox walking upright carrying hens in a basket, an alchemist examining feces in a flask, a woman trying to milk a bull, a woman blowing air up a dog’s anus, and a man playing a flute while a rabbit dances. They seem related.


About robertmplace

I am an illustrator and author best known for creating the Alchemical Tarot and the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and writing The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination.
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