Being Carded

Just recently, my wife asked me an interesting question, which is how the standard suits on playing cards originated. I knew that there were some decks with different suits, like your basic Tarot deck, but not how anybody decided upon what they should be. So I did a little Internet searching, and found some theories, one being that they represent the different classes of society. I’ll have more on that later, though. For now, I think it might be a good idea to look at the origins of playing cards. The general consensus on the Internet seems to be that they originated in China, perhaps as early as the Tang dynasty. Early Chinese cards are said to have been based on paper money. They did have suits, but those suits were all variations on the same theme: coins, strings of coins, and myriads of strings of coins.

India also adopted playing cards fairly early on, but they appear not to have been introduced in Europe until the fourteenth century. Exactly how they were introduced there isn’t known, but the most popular theory seems to be that they’re from Egypt, which at the time was ruled by the Mamluk Sultanate. Occultists used this idea to posit connections to Hermetic magic, but the evidence suggests that these cards weren’t used for any more magical purpose than playing games. The Wikipedia article on Tarot identifies what we now know as the Major Arcana as first having been created in fifteenth-century Italy as trump cards, although other sources say that at least some of these cards were being used earlier than that.

While cards were used for fortune telling as early as the sixteenth century, it wasn’t until the eighteenth that the current ideas of Tarot card reading really developed.

The suits in the Mamluk Egyptian deck were cups, swords, coins, and clubs (or possibly polo sticks, depending on whom you ask).

These suits were maintained in Italian and Spanish decks, while the French and Germans changed them somewhat.

The most common system used today is derived from the French, although I believe they referred to spades as pikes and clubs as clovers, the latter of which makes a lot more sense. It seems likely that the reference to the suit as “clubs” comes from the Italian and Spanish decks, which used actual clubs. The class theory holds that the hearts represented the clergy, pikes (and hence spades) the knightly nobility, diamonds the wealthy, and clovers the peasantry. There’s some debate on which suit represents which class, though, which could count as a point against this idea.

While we’re on the subject, what about the different ranks of cards? It seems to have been pretty standard to have a certain number of face cards, their identifications varied somewhat depending on the society. Kings were pretty standard, but queens weren’t always included. Other face cards that showed up fairly often were knights, knaves, and pages. It appears that the change in English from Knaves to Jacks was simply because the original abbreviation was too similar to that for “King.” At one point, it was popular for the French to associate the face cards with various historical personages (the entire chart is on the Wikipedia page on playing cards). As Snopes explains, however, this was merely a passing trend, which ended at the time of the French Revolution.

Other sources consulted for this post:
Elliott Avedon Virtual Museum of Games
The Online Guide to Traditional Games Poker

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2 Responses to Being Carded

  1. vilajunkie says:

    Tarot was originally an Italian game called tarocchia, where the Major Arcana weren’t much of anything special, but the Fool and the Magician had special properties that determined who won based on what the final hand was.

    I’ve learned you can use regular playing cards in the same way as the Minor Arcana, so basically you have a Tarot deck without the trump cards. Jacks can stand for Knights or Pages, whatever your preference.

  2. Pingback: Nothing But a Pack of Cards | VoVatia

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