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The History of Tarot, Part II: From Symbols to Playing Cards

In the 14th century, the first playing cards for gaming and gambling entered Europe via the Near East.

These cards featured the basic suits we still see in Tarot decks: Batons (now "Wands"), Coins (now "Disks" or "Pentacles"), Swords, and Cups.

At first, people merely used these cards to play various games or to gamble, no different from how we use simple playing cards today.

Within a couple of decades, new Tarot decks arrived, which included "trump cards" featuring images derived from the late Middle Ages, Greek mythology, and Christian theology.

Gaming rules appear to have developed alongside the addition of these symbolic cards: a certain card could "trump" or beat another because its symbol could "overcome" some other symbol. For example, a card depicting God's wrath or judgment would be able to overcome a card showing a mere medieval knight.

As the Tarot decks became ever more complex and the art became ever more intricate, a strange thing happened, probably as a result of increased commerce and movement from the East to the West during the decline of Constantinople, the rise of the Orthodox Christian Russia, and the later Crusades.

As early as 1377 (and possibly much earlier), when a German monk wrote about a set of cards useful for the purposes of spiritual growth, some people began using these cards as though they were "portable Church icons", able to be transported during a long journey across Europe and the East. This was a sensible development, because artists designed many of the images on the Tarot cards after the Christian icons on display in both the Western and Eastern churches.

Rather than only being able to view and meditate over an icon of Apostle Mark, Christ, or Mary within the confines of a church building, by the 1400s a person could carry a deck of "icons" around and use them as tools for prayer and meditation on the go.

Of course, because some---if not most---people were using near-identical cards for the purposes of playing games and gambling, not everyone looked upon card decks in a positive light. In fact, to the general public, separation between Tarot cards "for gaming" and Tarot cards "for prayer and meditation" was probably difficult to recognize. This may have made the situation look even worse, because someone gambling with what were essentially miniaturized Church icons seemed outright blasphemous.

Still, it is clear that, even from Tarot's earliest days, the Tarot was more than mere "playing cards" to many people, used for conferring spiritual benefits and promoting personal growth.

As the years passed, Tarot's path diverged sharply from that of other "playing cards," and Tarot's early use as portable icons developed into a full system for meditation and self-empowerment.

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