St Bernardino of Sienna in 1423 is reputed to have described the playing cards as an invention of the devil ‘in which various figures were painted, just as they are in the breviaries of Christ, which figures show the mysteries of evil’, and set them ablaze in a bonfire in Bologna. The Church may have been discomfited by the fact that a large number of its scholars were indebted to Arabic sources of knowledge, through Spain and Montpellier, and ‘alchemy’ posed a threat to the Church’s worldview, as much as it did to orthodox Islam in its Sufi guise.
When the Renaissance did erupt in Italy it was fuelled by of hundreds of alchemical and magical Greek texts – many of Alexandrian origin that had been preserved by the Byzantine Empire during the period of the Roman Church’s persecution in the West. These were the same texts that Caliph Mamoun had got translated in his Academy of Wisdom.
When the Turks sacked Constantinople in 1453, fleeing refugees sold many of these texts to Cosimo de Medici, then the Lord of Florence.Among them was the ‘Corpus Hermeticum’ written sometime in the 1st or 2nd century AD, but at that time attributed to an ancient sage called Hermes Trismegitus. This was full of alchemical recipes, rules for the invocation of planetary deities, steps on the transmutation of metals, and how one could transform fate through magic etc.
For a while, this material along with works of Plato were translated into Latin, and for a brief while ‘alchemy and magic’ came out in the open in Florence and other Italian city states. The first mentioned record of tarots available is in Ferrara where account books record orders for Tarot packs in 1452, 1454 and 1461, and it soon became popular with other nobles in Milan etc. Marsilio Ficino who translated these texts became enamoured with what they suggested: “man is a magnum miraculum, a great miracle: a creature worthy of worship and honour. For he shares in the nature of God as though he himself were God. He shares the substance of the daimones, for he knows he has a common origin with them.”
“The world of images for Ficino – whether of myth or dream, were a middle ground between the world of imageless ideas and the world of matter. The planetary images for him were the bridge between worlds, through which the individual can slowly unite ‘what is below with what is above’”: (L Greene)
“Hence such Images would become forms of the Ideas, or ways of approaching the ideas at a stage intermediary between their purely intellectual forms in the divine mens and their dimmer reflection in the world of sense, or body of the world. Hence it was by manipulating these images in the intermediary ‘middle place’ that the ancient sages knew how to draw down a part of the soul of the world into their shrines” (Frances Yates)
There is no evidence of the church persecuting the cards as heresy though in the 16th century alchemy became heretical and Bruno Giordino was burnt at the stake. The worldview of alchemy resists the idea that humans are contaminated with Original Sin and can only be redeemed through the Church. On the contrary, man is a proud and noble-cocreator in God’s cosmos and by his efforts reunite body and spirit so they are not always torn apart.
By 1528, the inventory of the engraver, Francesco Rosselli, reveals plates for printing a number of games – the game of the truimph of Petrarch; the game of Apostles with our lords, the game of seven virtues and the game of planets with their borders.
The origin of playing cards is then best left to the imagination – could playing cards have travelled from India to Egypt in the years before Europe discovered the sea route? A 10th century Arabic text by Muhammad bin Umail – called ‘Senior Zadith’ in earlier latin translations, more recently translated by the Asiatic Society in Calcutta in 1927- refers to stories he had heard of an Indian climbing the pyramids.This document also refers to Hermes the Babylonian, keeper of the Mercury temple, buried in Cairo (Misr), who was named after the Chaldean Hurmus! In more recent years Amitav Ghosh has demonstrated the links between India and Egypt through old documents, but we are back to a puzzle without end, except that we know that astrology and alchemy, like playing cards, had many enthusiasts, and travelled across many borders and religions…
Perhaps we could begin with Harran, known to have been continuously inhabited from the 3rd century BC to the 13th century AD. According to Al Biruni, Harran was first dedicated to the moon because it resembled the moon in shape.On the banks of the Euphrates,in modern Turkey, it was a trade centre for metals and seven metals (based on the seven planets) were used to construct temples for invoking cosmic powers.
“So many references to Harran, either under its own name or in the classical guise of Carrhae, occur throughout the length of Mesopotamian, Roman and mediaeval Arab literature, that it has acquired a strong historical personality of its own”(S Lloyd and W Brice)
“the Harranians were, as the Christians called them pagans,viz.a community who had retained a mixture of Babylonian and Hellenic religion,over which there had been superimposed a coating of Neo Platonic philosophy” (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics)
“From Harran, alchemy spread to Egypt”, says H E Stapleton, who says Harran “continued till the 10th century AD to be the last outpost of Sumerian, Hittite and Babylonian civilisations”
Reading the Ain-i Akbari and the Akbarnama gives me a clearer sense of how deeply rooted astrology and alchemy were in the mediaeval world view , whether in India or westwards through the Middle East and Europe and my guess is the ‘four ways’ refer to the four elements as understood by astrology and alchemy.
Ain-I Akbari :
“ The Creator by calling into existence the four elements has raised up wonderful forms. Fire is absolutely warm, dry, light; air is relatively warm, moist, light; water is relatively cold, moist, heavy, earth is absolutely cold dry, heavy” Examples like this can be found extensively through the texts. Another reference that recurrs frequently is to ‘Jamshed’s cup’ that reveals the secret of the seven heavens, and could well be the source of the ‘suit of cups’ in the Tarot
“ In the same year (991) his Majesty built outside the town two places for feeding poor Hindus and Muhammadans, one of them being called Khairpura and the other Dharmapura…As an immense number of jogis flocked there, a third place was built which got the name of Jogipura.His Majesty also called some of the Jogis and gave them at night private interviews, inquiring into abstruse truths; their articles of faith; their occupations; the influence of pensiveness; their several pracices and usages; the power of being absent from the body; or into alchemy, physiognomy, and the power of omnipresence of the soul.His Majesty even learned alchemy, and showed in public some of the gold made by him”
The passion for astrology in later times is attested by Bernier who published his travelogue in 1684:”Most people of Asia are so infatuated by Judiciary astrology, that they believe there is nothing done here below, but’tis written above (for so they speak.) In all their undertakings therefore they consult Astrologers. When two armies are ready to give battle, they beware of falling on, till the Astrologer hath taken and determined the moment he fancies propitious for the beginning of the combat. And so when the matter is about electing a Captain General of an army, of despatching an ambassador, of concluding a marriage, of beginning a voyage, and of doing any other thing, as buying a slave, putting on new apparel, &cnothing of all that is done, without the sentence of Mr Stargazer ; which is an incredible vexation, and a custom drawing after it such important consequences, that I know not how it can subsist so long: for the Astrologer must needs have knowledge of all that passeth, and of all that is undertaken, from the greatest affairs to the least”(The History of the Late Revolution of the Dominions of the Great Mogol)
The Akbarnama also refers to abjad – the employment of 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet as numerals and seven of the letters allotted to each element, the art said to take its name from Jafar Sadiq, the 6th Imam, though Henry Beveridge the editor adds: “no doubt the art is much older and was in great vogue among the Jews” (as Kabbala)…