“I know that the spades are the swords of a soldier,
I know that the clubs are weapons of war,
I know that diamonds mean money for this art,
But that’s not the shape of my heart…”
We all know these lyrics from “Shape of My Heart,” the popular song by Sting. He uses very distinct, symbolic imagery, remarking on each card suit – and for good reason. But have you ever thought about the actual meaning behind every image used to mark cards?
Our first encounter with either card games or card tricks happens pretty early in our lives. Somehow, these little pieces of cardboard fascinate us and engage us in a game or simple act of “magic.” But the reason people attribute some supernatural abilities to these simple items is not something to which we give much consideration.
However, there should be a strict distinction between playing cards and those used for spiritual rituals. They differ in size, depicted images, and, of course, purpose. Nevertheless, playing cards are often used for telling fortunes, too, because of their symbolism. And if you have never thought about this, maybe it’s time to discover something new?
Some historians believe that the first cards appeared in ancient China, but due to the similarity of Chinese cards to dominoes, many believe that the history of cards began only at the beginning of the 12th century in ancient Egypt. Historians believe that whenever enemies approached the pharaoh’s kingdom, the Egyptians gathered a council of wise men to decide how to save their precious knowledge accumulated over the centuries from the enemy. So, they decided to use a special cyphering method to depict their knowledge in the form of images on special cards. Then, they used 78 sheets of paper that served as prototypes of Tarot cards, which appeared later on in history.
Tarot cards were mainly used to tell fortunes, and there were four natural elements that helped predict the future: air, earth, fire and water. Later, these elements were replaced by different suits: spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds. In Tarot cards, the suit of spades is represented by swords, the suit of clubs is represented by wands, the suit of diamonds is represented by coins (money) and the suit of hearts is represented by cups.
In India, playing cards show a figure of Shiva with four hands, each holding a sword, a cup, a coin and a wand.
Now, returning to the song “Shape of My Heart,” it starts making much more sense, right?
If you really think about it, playing cards are very multipurpose. You can use them to play games of chance, show tricks and tell fortunes. The latter is particularly interesting, taking into account the fact that playing cards often compete for the title of magic fortune-tellers with Tarot cards.
The history of fortune-telling begins with the first settlements of the gypsies on the territory of Europe. They migrated from the East and brought with them this fascinating and compelling method of looking into the future. What is actually peculiar is that the gypsies used ordinary playing cards – instead of Tarot cards – for fortune-telling purposes.
But the real history of card fortune-telling began only in the 18-19th century, when people started to actually believe in their supernatural abilities. The history of fortune-telling on cards gained a new turn, thanks to France’s Anne-Marie Adelaide Lenormand. When Anne-Marie’s father died, she was forced to interrupt her studies and provide for her family so they could make ends meet.
For this specific purpose, Anne-Marrie decided to move to Paris; there, she learned how to predict the future using different playing card systems. After a while, she opened her own fortune-telling salon, where she welcomed a lot of wealthy Parisian citizens who were preoccupied with their own destinies and were ready to pay good money to use her fortune-telling services. Soon enough, her salon gained unprecedented popularity, and people from high society spent hours in line, waiting for her to tell them something they wouldn’t be able to find out in any other way.
There are some historians who claim that symbols depicted on cards were used to represent four different classes of medieval society: cups (or hearts) were used to represent clergy, diamonds represented merchants, swords or spades stood for nobility and clubs represented peasants.
There’s another belief where the meaning behind the card deck is limited to printing techniques used in the Middle Ages. People tried to keep things simple, so they actually depicted the simplest images on cards in order to be able to reproduce these images on multiple cards by hand. Moreover, various errors were made while duplicating cards, so there were some permanent changes established by error, and what we see now is the actual result of those mistakes.
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