Origins of the suit symbols


This thread is in response to some questions set forth by ihcoyc:

It seems most would accept these symbols as is with little discussion of where they came from, and there's a lot of sense in that. I don't necessarily want to know how my transmission works before I drive my truck.

Having said that, I think questions like these could be as important to Tarot as the given interpretations of the cards themselves. Maybe by finding the answers, we might discover new (to us) dimensions of Tarot that prove to be very useful.

I think I agree with this page: when it guesses that cards probably orginated in China and carried suit symbols as they made their way to Europe in the 12th century.

It's the only reference on the net I can find directly relating to suit symbols.



I used the same sources when I did the history section of my Tarot course and I too tend to favour the migration from China.

The most likely progression would be along the silk route and its also likely that it took some time to complete the journey and therefore may have evolved as it travelled.

Given the extensive travels and explorations of the Venetians in pursuit of trade it would not be surprising if that City were its point of entry into Italy, leading to its subsequent surfacing in the Visconti deck and in the D'Este estate in Ferrara. Another possible route is that it came in from Constantinople as the Turks began there push west and as Orthodox Christians began to move out, anticipating the eventual fall of the Byzantine Empire.

However we don't have any certain knowledge and probably never will, which is one of the fascinations of Tarot.



Astrology, games and numbers...perhaps their influences and history might also suggest paths that are similar to card games/images/ideas?
Two current magazines, Renaissance and The Mountain Astrologer, had interesting articles. I was buying the new Visconti Gold set, so I skipped the magazines.
Anyway, the Mountain Astrologer pointed out the popularity of astrology up to the 1500s---than the Papacy was uneasy about it's popularity, although Popes continued to have astrological charts drawn up. I wasn't able to pinpoint exact dates, but I'm wondering if Counter-Reformation/Inquisition periods dampened some of the popularity of Astrology later on. By the 18th century, the historians said that version of historical astrology just was considered old-fashioned because the Enlightenment favored a different view of the universe/heavens.
The Renaissance magazine pointed to a popular game called Zodiac, misnamed Chess by some writers of the time. Zodiac had seven spheres and was popular in the 12th century. It had an astrological bent.
I don't know if it was the same article, but the use of Arabic and Roman numerals had a juxtaposition somewhere between the 1000s and 1200s---the Popes favored the Roman heritage, but after awhile, it became clear that Arabic numerals were harder to forge or misrepresent. In the 1300s, the rise of double-entry bookkeeping from merchant banks---yes, the Venetians included--promoted the use of Arabic numerals.
The early tarocchi sets might have great similarities to other art symbols, astrology and gaming, even numbering systems of the time...I've started reading the translated book that came with the new Lo Scarabeo 2002 English edition of the Visconti. Art and poetry references of the time are making more sense to me now.
Mari H.


That IPCS history page is a very good reference.

The idea of suit signs, and the suit of coins, may have originated in China, but the suits that made their way into Europe are a direct adaptation of the Islamic cups, swords, coins, and polo sticks. The Europeans didn't understand what the polo sticks were, so they simply made them into batons.

Playing cards were imported into Europe probably about 1370. An illustration for a late 14th-century work, "The Romance of King Meliadus of Leonnoys," shows a King and two attendants playing at cards upon which the suit signs of batons and coins are clearly visible (but unfortunately they aren't easily seen in the attachment I've added here). This picture is on page 39 of "A History of Playing Cards" by Catherine Perry Hargrave. Stuart Kaplan has questioned the validity of this picture, however, saying that illustrations to late medieval works were often added to manuscript copies long after the originals were written ("Encyclopedia" V. I, pps. 31-32).

The modern, or French suit signs of hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs were invented in France about 1470 for pragmatic reasons. The pips of those suits can be easily produced using only stencils, enabling the card makers to skip the woodcut printing step in the card making process for 40 cards out of however many a given deck contained.


  • suits.jpg
    41.4 KB · Views: 254


I don't have any proof or anything..

but I say theyre based on society..

Hearts go with diamonds

clubs go with swords.



That could be. Some people say that cups/hearts represent the clergy, swords/spades the nobility, coins/diamonds the merchant class, and batons/clubs the commons.


That sounds good with me. Yeah. Makes sense.

Sure. Why not?


I think there was a picture of Shiva in Nigel Pennick's book about games on which Shiva was depicted with holding a ring, a clublike thing and a sword (i can't remember it exactly but I have to see if I can get a scan of this picture to post).

I mainly second Minderwiz theories.


Yeah, I know the one you're talking about.. but I don't think it's shiva.. it's Lakshmi .. but nevertheless, were thinking about the exact same thing..

the deity striking a pose... has 4 hands.. holds cup, knife, disk and wand.. yeah.. that's the one.

I found the picture in the book, "Tarot, Lore and Legend" Something like that.