Playing Your Cards Right

Delve into the intriguing history of the Tarot, as seen in Outlaws

David Beckham, Katherine Waterston and the Tarot reader in Outlaws

One of the more esoteric attractions of Spain's Basque country is the Fournier Museum of Playing Cards in the wonderful city of Vitoria-Gasteiz. Housed in a beautiful galleried Renaissance palace, it covers the history of playing cards (which have been produced in this Basque capital since 1868) around the globe. The storied courtyard is home to various specialist rooms, one of them devoted to the Tarot. But those seeking full enlightenment on the origins of the famed fortune-telling cards will be disappointed. As the Fournier guide says: 'Nobody knows anything about the Tarot for certain. All is speculation.'

Indeed, that is part of the fascination with the oversized illuminated cards. It is why, over the years, it has been suggested that the Tarot has its origin in Ancient Egypt or Persia or India or the Roman religion of Mithras. Others suggest the cards were spread across Europe by gypsy fortune-tellers (even though they preferred scrying - the use of crystal balls - and regular cards). But, one thing is certain: attribution of archaic occult use is misplaced. Tarot packs belong in the museum simply because they were once playing cards.

The first mention of the Tarot dates back to the 14th century. The name probably comes from the Italian for cards, tarocchi, a dialect word that originated in the valley of the Taro river. The cards were used to play games, probably among Italian nobility, albeit with rules that are lost to time.

Tarot Cards

Although we think of the intricately illustrated cards or 'trumps' (which may derive from 'triumph') when we think of the Tarot, they are just part of the 78-card pack. Known also as the major arcana, there are 22 of these in the standardised deck, which first appeared in Marseilles in the 15th century. But there are also 56 lesser players in the pack, the minor arcana, which consists of four suites (wands, cups, words, pentacles) with both pip (number) and picture (court) cards - usually, but not always, page, knight, king and queen. There are geographical variations on this format, some of which are clearly cousins of the Tarot, including Mexico's Lotería, a game that requires 54 picture cards with iconic illustrations (the Heart, the Mermaid, the Rooster, the Dandy) and which appears to have been exported from Italy and Spain in the 18th century. Lotería is multi-purpose in that it can be used for a bingo-like game, as a source of riddles or for prophesying.

One thing is certain: even when used for playing games, the Tarot was considered to have unseemly power and influence. We know this because in the mid-15th century, a Franciscan friar in Italy gave a sermon denouncing the Tarot as the work of Satan. Handily, he went through the offending major arcana one by one: all the usual archetypal characters, such as the Lovers, the Hanged Man, the Fool, Death and the Devil, were present and correct. Some beautiful hand-painted examples from this time (the so-called Visconti-style Tarot) survive in the Fournier museum.

It wasn't until the late 18th century that the cards began to be used as a means of divination or fortune telling, with the major arcana giving the broad brushstrokes of future events and the minor arcana offering a more nuanced interpretation. This change in emphasis is credited to two Frenchmen: Antoine Court de Gébellin, who linked the Tarot to Egyptian magic, and 'cartomancer' and occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette, who produced the first decks specifically designed for divination readings. It was the start of almost every recondite religious group, from the Kabbalah to the Rosicrucians, claiming the Tarot as its own, usually attributing a detailed quasi-mystical backstory to the pack.

The Outlaws Tarot cards

It is easy to dismiss this as equivalent to the Victorians belief in fairies or the conspiracy theories about the illuminati - a fad too far. And yet, as we know from popular culture, the Tarot still has a strong suggestive power, whether in literature (relatively recent novels such as Chocolat, The Night Circus and Sepulchre all feature tarot readings) or movies and TV productions such as The Red Violin, The Devil Rides Out, The X-Files, Mad Men or the new short film from Belstaff, The Outlaws, written by Geremy Jasper, which features powerful iconography from Lotería.

The Outlaws draws upon the unease even the most modern mind feels when the Tarot and its relatives are used to predict the future. Yes, in the cold light of day we know it started as a game for the idle rich in Italy and has been ascribed arcane and occult origins and powers it probably doesn't deserve, but there remains something tantalisingly ambiguous and unsettling about the Tarot pack. As the Fournier guide says: 'If we knew everything about the Tarot, it wouldn't be a mystery any more, would it? And life without mysteries would be very dull indeed.'