I love a game of cards with friends or my boys, and it got me wondering where the idea of cards came from.
Well, I suppose it is no surprise that playing cards originated in China, as early as the 9th Century. Two centuries later, they were widespread across the Asian continent.
During 1368-1644, which was the Ming Dynasty, the faces on the playing cards were characters from popular novels, such as the ‘Water Margin’.
The ancient ‘Money’ cards, as they were known, had four suits: coins (or cash), strings of coins, myriads, and tens of myriads. It is thought that the cards may have been actual paper currency being used as the tools of gaming, as well as being played for.
The designs on the modern Mahjong tiles probably evolved from these early playing cards.
It is thought that the first deck of cards ever printed was a Chinese Domino deck, where all 21 combinations of a pair of dice were depicted.
Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th Century, probably from Mamluk in Egypt. The suits used in these cards were very similar to the Tarot card suits: Cups, Coins (also known as disks or pentacles), Staves, and Swords. These symbols are still used on traditional Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian playing cards.
Next on the scene were the Mamluk deck, of cards, made up of 52 cards with 4 different suits: coins, cups, swords, and polo sticks. Each suit contained 10 ‘Spot cards’ which were identified by the number of suit symbols they showed. Then they had a King card, a Viceroy or Deputy King, and then a Second, or Under-Deputy.
There are no surviving decks, but some did bear the names of Military officers.
What interested me, as I am now living in Turkey, was that a complete set of Mamluk cards were found by Leo Mayer in 1939 in the beautiful Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. They had been made just before 1400 but matched a deck made in the 12-13th Century.
As I said earlier, the use of playing cards had spread all across Europe such as France, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland. These first decks were extremely expensive as they were hand made, so only the wealthy would own them.
Then printed wood-cut decks appeared in the 15th Century. Around the time of 1450, the professional card makers, Ulm, Nuremberg and Augsburg produced the first printed cards. They would be coloured after printing, either by hand or with stencils.
The four suits now changed to what we know today as Clubs, Spades, Diamonds, and Hearts, originating in France. It is thought that the Club came from the acorn and the Spade from the leaf used in the German suits. At this time, the picture cards changed to represent the Royalty and Attendants.
But guess what? When the French Revolution happened, these picture cards changed to get rid of the royalty. Kings – Liberties,…Queens – Equalities…..Jacks – Fraternities.
The Americans introduced the Jokers to the cards, as they played a really popular game called ‘Euchre’. This game had come to the USA from Europe after the American Revolutionary War in the 19th Century. In Euchre, the highest trump card is the Jack of the Trump suit, so they needed the Joker as a third Trump card.
There is a popular legend that states the makeup of a deck of cards has mystical, astrological and religious significance.
If you think of the 13 cards of each suit as the 13 lunar months of the Earth Year. Since the sidereal lunar month may be thought of as 28 days, then each deck of cards is equal to the 364 days of the year.
In the same way, the 52 cards of a whole deck represent a whole year, and the 4 suits are the four seasons. The Ace is symbolic for the ‘Beginning and the End’. I like this idea. Interesting, as some Fortune Tellers use a deck of cards to give their readings.
Anyway, now the next time you get out your cards to have a game with friends, you will be able to tell them a little of the history of a deck of cards.
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