The History of a Card Deck and Its Symbolism

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The History of a Card Deck and Its Symbolism

Playing cards are known all over the world. Now the majority of card games are available on the Internet, and a player may find online vintage games along with their modern variations. However, no one knows where and when such cards appeared. Some medieval theologians considered them hellish things which Satan invented to multiply human sins.

Deep Symbolism of Playing Cards

According to one of the versions, the invention of playing cards was by the ancient Egyptian god Dhouti. He was considered the ancestor of writing, counting, and calendar. With the help of cards, he told people about the four components of the universe: fire, water, air, and earth embodied in the four card suits. Later, in the Middle Ages, the Jewish Kabbalists interpreted this age-old message. According to them, the suits represent four classes of spirits. Diamonds symbolize salamander spirits. Hearts mean lords of air called sylphs. Clubs stand for water spirits of undines and Spades refer to gnomes who are the lords of the underground world.

Other medieval mystics believed that the cards symbolize the four main aspects of human nature. Hearts mean love, Clubs are the desire for knowledge, Diamonds stand for a passion for money, and Spades warn of death. The extraordinary variety of card games, the convoluted logic of their subordination, the alternation of ups and downs, sudden failures, and surprising luck reflects human’s life in all its complexity and unpredictability. The fascinating excitement hidden in them attract millions of people in their desire to play card games. No other entertainment can rival the one mentioned above.

Also, there is a version which is no less curious. According to it, the cards allegedly reflect time. In fact, the red and black colors are consistent with the notions of day and night. 52 sheets correspond to the number of weeks in a year, and the 53d joker also symbolizes a leap year. The four suits correlate with spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Jack goes after 10 and has the value of 11 points, the Queen – is 12, the King – is 13, and the Ace counts as one. So, the total points amount in the deck is 364. Adding one joker, we get the number of days in a year. Moreover, the number of lunar months (13) is the same as the number of cards of each suit.

Realistic Versions of Playing Cards Origin

If we consider the practical approach, the next two versions are worth attention. According to the first, the Indian Brahmins created them around 800 year A.D.

Another version says that the card deck appeared in China in the VIII century during the reign of the Tang dynasty. The fact is that The Celestial Empire residents used paper money not only for payments but also for gambling. Along with the digital nominations, banknotes depicted emperors, their wives, and the provinces governors which showed the banknotes value. Since the players did not always have enough notes, they used duplicates, drawn on sheets of paper. They eventually replaced real money from the games.

The time when the card deck appeared in Europe is also uncertain. Most historians agree that most likely they were brought along by crusaders in the XI-XIII century. However, it is possible that playing cards appeared as a result of the Saracens invasion of Italy in the X century. Nonetheless, in 1254, Louis the Holy published an edict that forbade card games in France under penalty of a whip.

In Europe, the Arabic original has undergone considerable processing, since the Koran forbade the faithful to draw images of people. Presumably, France was the birthplace of the cards with kings, queens, and squires likenesses. There Charles VI asked his painters to add the mentioned figures to the cards.

Casino Card Deck

The earliest known European card deck is called Tarot. It originated in the 14th century in Lombardy. It consisted of four suits, represented in the form of cups, swords, wands, and pentacles. Each set included ten cards with numbers and four pictures: the king, the queen, the knight, and the squire. In addition to the 56 cards, it also included 22 trump cards with numbers from 0 to 21. They are the Fool, the High Priestess, the Magician, the Empress, the Hierophant, the Emperor, the World, and so on.

The popularity of card games in Europe was growing throughout the fourteenth century. As a result, all the trump cards and four knights gradually disappeared from the Tarot deck. However, the Fool was left which nowadays is known as the Joker. Complete sets are preserved only for fortune telling.

There were several reasons for this. First of all, the desire to separate the world of gaming from the mysteries of occultism and magic. Moreover, so many cards made games rules too complicated to remember. Additionally, at last, the cards were marked and painted by hand, and, therefore, they were costly. So, the deck “lost weight” to the current 52 cards for price reasons.

As for the card suit symbolism, the Italian system included swords – an analog of future Spades, warder – Clubs, cups – Hearts, and coins – Diamonds. Later the other three systems appeared. Swiss had Acorns, Roses, Leaves, and Shields. Germans pictured Acorns, Leaves, Hearts, and Bells, while French had Clovers, Pikes, Hearts, and Tiles. The French system appeared to be the most stable. After the Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648), it ousted the rest and now is widespread almost everywhere.

Card Figures Characters

Card DeckOver the next 300 years, many artists tried to introduce a new card symbolism. From time to time, the decks with animals, plants, birds, fish, household items, and so forth appeared. At the very beginning of this process in Germany, the suits depicted were in the form of church donation boxes, combs, blacksmith’s bellows, and crowns. In France, the allegorical figures of Freedom, Equality, Fraternity, and Health appeared as well. Later, the adherents of socialism even tried to issue decks with images of presidents, commissars, industrialists, and workers. However, all these inventions were too artificial and, therefore, did not take hold. On the contrary, things worked out differently with the standard playing cards.

Nowadays, players are rarely interested in the biographies of the long-disappeared characters of card figures. You may notice that the drawings on the card-pictures in modern decks are not much like real people. These images represent nothing more than stylization which is infinitely far from the prototypes. Meanwhile, initially, the four kings symbolized the legendary rulers of antiquity that Europeans used to admire in the Middle Ages. Charlemagne, the king of the francs, led the Hearts. The shepherd and the singer David led the Spades as thanks to his exploits he became the legendary Hebrew king. Julius Caesar and Alexander of Macedonia respectively were given a Diamond and a Club suit.

However, in some decks, the Hearts King was alternately depicted as a hairy Esau, then – as Constantine, then – Charles I, then – Victor Hugo, then French General Boulanger. What is more, in the dispute over the possession of the crown, a bloodless victory was won by Charles the Great. Modern card decks keep the memory of the heroic features of this illustrious person, depicting him as a wise old man, wrapped in an ermine robe – a symbol of wealth. In his left hand, he has a sword – a symbol of courage and power.

The image of David was originally adorned with the harp. It was a reminder of his musical talent. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Spades king was portrayed as Napoleon Bonaparte in France and the Duke of Wellington in Prussia. But then justice triumphed and David again took his rightful place among card royal persons.

Although Julius Caesar was never a king, he also entered the crowned Areopagus, and usually, depicted in profile. On some older French and Italian cards, Caesar was portrayed with an outstretched arm, as if he intended to grab something. Having an outstretched arm was to signify that Diamonds were traditionally associated with money and wealth.

Alexander the Great – the only card king who holds the symbol of the monarchy. However, in some modern decks, the emblem is often replaced by a sword in some modern decks. It should be a testimony of his military talents.

Helen of Troy was the first Queen of Hearts. Elissa, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I of England, Roxana, Rachel, and Fausta acted as the pretenders to this throne too. However, the heroine of the biblical legend Judith, whose image was roaming from deck to deck for centuries, turned out to be long-lived.

Card Deck Cards

It was customary to portray the Queen of Spades as the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, Athena Pallada. Also, the Teutons and Scandinavians preferred their particular mythological characters, personifying the war.

In the XIV-XV centuries, artists could not come to an agreement whom to choose as a prototype of the Queen of Diamonds. The exception was France, where the Queen of the Amazons became the Queen of Diamonds. In the XVI century, someone made Rachel, the Queen of Diamonds. According to the legend, the biblical character was a greedy woman, so her role of the Queen of money was to the taste of the general public.

For a long time, none of the mythological or historical heroines claimed to be the Queen of Clubs. Sometimes the figure of Hekuba flashed in the decks, but she failed to establish herself in this role. In the end, the French came up with the idea to portray the Queen of Clubs as a sex bomb and call her Argina (from the Latin word “regina” – “regal”). The idea was so successful that it took root and became a tradition.

Ogier Danish was the prototype of the Jack of Spades. According to historical chronicles, in numerous battles, his weapon was two blades of steel which usually were painted on this card. In various tales, this hero performed many feats. He defeated the giants, returned the bewitched princes their possession, and enjoyed the protection of the fairy Morgana, the sister of the fairy-tale king Arthur, who gave him eternal youth.

Ogier Danish was the prototype of the Jack of Spades. According to historical chronicles, in numerous battles, his weapon was two blades of steel, which were usually painted on this card. In numerous tales, this hero performed numerous feats. He defeated the giants, returned the bewitched princes their possession, and enjoyed the protection of the fairy Morgana, the sister of the fairy-tale king Arthur, who gave him eternal youth.

Roland, the legendary nephew of Charlemagne, was the first Jack of Diamonds. However, later, he was succeeded by Hector de Marais, one of the Knights of the Round Table. This hero is associated with the Jack Of Diamonds today.

Sir Lancelot, the eldest knight of the Round Table, was selected to be pictured as the Jack of Clubs. Initially, he was the brightest of Jacks. However, gradually the manner of drawing changed, and the Jack of Clubs lost his luxurious jacket. Nevertheless, a bow symbol of his superior skill as an archer remained in his hands. However, it is difficult to recognize that mighty warrior in the modern Jack of Clubs.

The history and symbolism reflected in the gallery of portraits in a deck of cards are something of which none of the players think about while taking in hand the card deck.

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