Monday, 26 January 2009

The Turfan Card

I really like this Chinese card found at Turfan in 1905, by Albert von Le Coq, head of the German archeological expedition there in the early part of the last century. It is probably the oldest surviving playing card. It is probable that there is a common ancestor to the Persian and Indian Ganjifah, and Mamluk packs (also called Ganjifah), and that that is the Chinese “Money Pack”. This card resembles the figure called "Red Flower" in the Money Pack.

I agree with the consensus opinion of Carter, Bernhardi, and Dummett against that of von Le Coq and Culin, that the card dates to the 13th or 14th centuries (von Le Coq thought it was from the eleventh century). I follow Michael Dummett’s reasoning in “The Game of Tarot” (pp. 38-39, and 38 note 15) –

The Chinese money pack cannot have been the immediate progenitor of the European pack; but that does not rule out its having been its remote ancestor, through various intervening intermediate forms. Whether this is a real possibility depends upon the antiquity of the money cards. A single Chinese playing card was found in 1905 by von Le Coq at Turfan. He tentatively dated it to the eleventh century. It shows a human figure, which strongly resembles that which depicts Wang Ying, one of the Shui hu chuan [Story of the Water Margin] characters, and appears, in a number of money packs, on one of three extra cards, inscribed simply ‘Wang Ying.’ The Turfan card has an inscription at the top, in a tilted rectangle, which, unfortunately, is hard to read, at least in the illustrations, because it is overprinted by a seal. If it does represent Wang Ying, the card cannot possibly be as early as the eleventh century; Carter assigned it to the fourteenth. [(Dummett’s note to this): T.F. Carter, op. cit. [The Invention of Printing in China and its Spread Westwards, New York, 1925], 1925 and 1931 editions, plate opposite p. 142, and 1955 edition, plate opposite p. 184. Carter states that there were two Chinese playing cards found at Turfan, but I do not know any confirmation of this; I have also been told that there is an early Chinese playing card in a museum in Bombay, but do not know if this true. The Turfan card is also illustrated in C.P. Hargrave, A History of Playing Cards, New York, 1930, 1966, p. 7, and in A. Bernhardi, ‘Vier Könige’, Baessler-Archiv, vol. XXIX, 1936, pp. 148-80, plate 9a. Bernhardi also gives it as his opinion (p. 164) that the card is to be dated to about 1400.]
Both the sixteenth-century Yeh tzu p’u and, according to Prunner, the fifteenth-century Shu yüan tsa chi of Li Jung describe the lower two suits as having suit-signs and the upper two as showing Shui hu chuan figures; if we assume that the association with these figures was a feature of the pack from its first invention, then this association sets a bound to its antiquity. The Shui hu chuan is the outcome of numerous legendary accretions that have attached to a historical nucleus, the exploits of a Robin Hood-like band of robbers in the early years of the twelfth century. The version that is now read dates from the seventeenth century, but has been expanded from earlier versions, the first of which,, the Hsüan-ho i-shih, dates from the early Yüan (Mongol) dynasty; plays based on the story were performed at the same period, and portraits of and poems about ‘Sung Chiang and his Thirty-six’ dating from the later Southern Sung period (1127-1279) are well attested. Given our hypothesis that the association with the Shui hu chuan characters is an original feature of the money pack, that pack can in no case be earlier than the twelfth century, and can hardly be later than the fourteenth: its most probable date of origin lies in the late Southern Sung, that is, in the thirteenth century.
Albert von Le Coq at Turfan

About the "Water Margin", which has been made into TV series in China and Hong Kong (before the reunification), and also dubbed and shown on UK television, see wikipedia - here

For Wang Ying, the wikipedia article is here. Wang Ying's character is rough, greedy, lustful, skilled in martial arts and very strong. Why he (and the other characters chosen out of dozens from the story) was chosen to be a card in the pack I don't know.

The card was first published, to the best of my knowledge, by Stuart Culin in 1924 (just a year before Carter’s work cited by Dummett).

From “The Game of Ma-Jong”

By Stuart Culin, Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, Volume XI, October 1924, pages 153-168.
(article from the University of Waterloo’s “Elliott Avedon Museum & Archive of Games” - Game of Ma-Jong )

(10. Dr. Le Coq, to whose courtesy I am indebted for this illustration, informs me that this card was found by him in 1905 while digging in the loess and debris from the mountain side, deposited on the N. terrace of Temple No. 10 in the glen of Sangim Aghyz between Murtuq and Qara Khoja near Turfan. "Unfortunately I am not sure that this locality, which is close to a road has not been invaded by treasure seekers. Still the objects found with it, a pen and ink case and some fragments of Uigur mss. belong without any doubt to the Uigur period." From these indications it would appear to he at least of the 11th Century.)

“Found in 1905 by Dr. A. von Le Coq with fragments of manuscripts of the Uigur period in the glen of Sangim near Turfan, Chinese Turkestan. This card, which corresponds with the red flower of the present Chinese pack (Plate 1), presumably is not later than the 11th century AD, and probably is the oldest known playing card.

The seal over the man's head contains a denomination of money, three fan, and the characters at the top and bottom give the maker's name.

The form and general appearance of these cards suggests a high antiquity. A presumably old card (Plate 2)10 in the Museum of Ethnology, Berlin, found by Dr. A. von Le Coq among the Uigur ruins in the oasis of Turfan in Chinese Turkestan, which must have belonged to a similar money-derived pack, varies but little from cards now current.”

Andy gives a colour image of the Turfan Card that shows the Chinese characters more clearly than most published versions; as Dummett laments, the seal over the figure's head is still difficult to make out, although Culin/von Le Coq explain it as "Three fan", a denomination of money (the cost of the pack?) -

As Andy notes at his page on Chinese cards
Uyghur was never (that we know) written in Chinese characters – unless there were a local manufacture of Chinese cards (not likely), it must have been imported. The Mongols swept in in the the middle of the 13th century, and I would be inclined to date it to the Mongol period. But le Coq found the card amongst Uyghur documents and artifacts near Turfan, which according to him contain Manichean and Buddhist writings. The Manichean writings date to the 10th and 11th centuries, while the Buddhist date from the 10th to the 14th. Since I can’t find out which texts he found with the card (Culin gives the precise location from le Coq, so it should be able to be found with enough research), I can’t make a guess on the date – if Buddhist, and the card dates from the time of the texts (not certain at all), then it could be as late as late as 14th century. Until I find out more, I’ll have to go with Dummett's argument about the Shui hu chuan limiting the date to around 1300 at the earliest, give or take a few decades.

A comparison of the "Red Flower" cards in (a) a pack published by Breitkopf, "Versuch, den Ursprung der Spielkarten" (1784), plate VI; (b) the Turfan Card; (c) a modern Red Flower, "Double Elephant" brand

For much more information than you probably want to know about the discoveries in Turfan and the region, see the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften website –

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Wisdom plays

I was with him forming all things:
and was delighted every day,
Playing before him at all times;
Playing in the world:
and my delights were to be with the children of men.

cum eo eram, cuncta componens.
Et delectabar per singulos dies,
ludens coram eo omni tempore ,
ludens in orbe terrarum;
et deliciæ meæ esse cum filiis hominum.

Proverbs 8:30-31; English translation Douay Bible

One particularly stubborn little nugget of misinformation gets put forth every so often when an allusion is made to the so-called Tarot of Mantegna, more properly known as the E- (and S-) Series. This is the assertion that the Mantegna series was invented during the course of the Congress (or Council) of Mantua, which took place in 1459.

It should be pointed out that the art historian Heinrich Brockhaus (1858-1941) was the first to present this theory, in 1933, in the article "Ein edles Geduldspiel: 'Die Leitung der Welt oder die Himmelsleiter' die sogenannten Taroks Mantegnas. Vom Jahre 1459-60" (Miscellanea di Storia dell'arte in onore di Igino Benvenuto Supino, (Florence) 1933,pp 397-416)
which you can read here
(with English summaries by autorbis). He based his argument on the confluence of what he took to be the meaning of the Series, with the mystical interests of some members of the Congress, including Pope Pius II and the two Cardinals Bessarion and Nicholas of Cusa.

Repeating Brockhaus' assertion is misinformation because there is no reason to believe that the E-Series was a card game, no evidence that the Congress or any of those participants had anything to do with it, and no reason to think it existed yet by 1459. Among Brockhaus' claims for linking the Series and the Congress, is that Cusa was to write about a game he invented a few years later, in a little book titled "De Ludo Globi". This book describes a peculiar bowling game, in the form of a dialogue, on the symbolism - theological, mystical and philosophical - of playing it. Brockhaus is particularly impressed by the "globes" that many of the Series figures hold, and manages to draw comparisons with particular figures and the doctrines asserted by Cusa (and others whom contemporaries would have known).

Although popularized by Seznec, among others, Brockhaus' theory about the E-Series has not been accepted by scholars, and it is not my point to discuss it. My purpose is to clarify something about a quote attributed to Nicholas of Cusa:

"This game is played, not in a childish way, but as the Holy Wisdom played it for God at the beginning of the World."

This is given by both Brockhaus and Seznec as:

Luditur hic ludus: sed non pueriliter. At sic lusit ut orbe novo sancta sophia deo.

Now Seznec attributes this directly to Cusa, from De Ludo Globi; Brockhaus already indicated that it was in "the middle" of the book, but from another source (note 22 of his paper).

The trouble was that, in my desultory searches before, I had not been able to find anything like it in Jasper Hopkins' translation of De Ludo Globi, "The Bowling-Game",
and anytime I had looked at the Latin I had forgotten to search for this quote. So when a member of Aeclectic Tarot Forum last week brought it up again, in defense of both the link of the E-Series to Tarot, as well as Tarot to Egypt, I was determined to find the answer this time.

I had forgotten that Seznec quotes it in Latin, so I went to the Google armed with only the English. This brought out a few things, but the best was a Google Books quote from Ioan Culianu, "Eros and Magic in the Renaissance", who reports the verse was not by Cusa, and is "inserted" in the De Ludo Globi (Eros p. 38); in the note (number 35) Culianu says that Edgar Wind attributes the authorship of the verse to Cusa's "disciple", John Andreas of Bussi.

I don't have Wind (Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance) on my shelves, so I wondered who "John Andreas of Bussi" was, how he or anybody could know the verses weren't by Cusa, what Culianu meant when he said the De Ludo Globi - editio princeps, manuscript, what? (since my De Ludo Globi didn't have it), whether it was a late addition or a scribbled contemporary note, on what basis Wind made such a precise identification, etc.

So, armed with the Latin, I went looking again. This time around I gave a second look at the humble "Suche" out of the 34 responses Google throws up for "Luditur hic ludus". It leads to the "Cusanus-Portal" - his complete works, in Latin, according to their editio princeps in most cases.

This page
shows the verses, indeed "in between" books I and II of the De Ludo Globi; our verses form lines 13 and 14 of a 66 line poem.

So one question is answered - the quote comes from the editio princeps.

The poem praises the game described in the book, and recommends it to a Prince of Bavaria. So another question answered - Cusa's interlocutor and probable dedicatee is Duke Albert of Bavaria, so the poem must be contemporary with the main book.

In line 61, the author calls himself Ioannes, so another question is answered - it can't be Nicholas of Cusa.

Finally, at the end of book II, there is another, shorter poem, which calls the prince directly, "Dux Alberte", so there is no question to whom the poem is addressed.

Also, Wind's reasoning must involve the close working partnership that Ioannes Andreae (of Bussi) and Nicholas of Cusa had (something that became clear reading about the former).

So all of my questions about a pretty obscure subject were answered fairly quickly on a Google search.

What about my AT friend? Well, he had asserted that the "Luditur hic ludus" quote reminded him of Thoth:
...sounds a little bit like Scribe of the Gods, Thoth, measuring and manifesting Time & Creation as he writes

I knew already that the answer to THAT assertion was that it was simply alluding to Proverbs 8, given at the head of this post - and there it's Holy Wisdom playing, not Thoth. But it was a pleasure to be able to clarify and correct another little thing that had been bugging me, and to learn a lot in the process.


Tuesday, 13 January 2009

The need for a decent forum for research

My friend Michael J. Hurst has complained, eloquently and frequently, on the need for a place for serious discussions of Tarot history. There aren't many serious Tarot historians out there, and all the most active history forums are, or quickly become, dominated by card-readers and occultists. They soon drive out the historians who only want to discuss the evidence, the real history, and new discoveries in the light of that history.

I don't have to go into it. The point of this blog is to present my own discoveries and opinions, and to allow others to comment on whatever I post here. Or to ask sincere questions. Real discoveries will be rare, but there's enough in what's already known to keep the discussions going for a long time.