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The Card Suits and Their Symbolism

If you are not living under a rock, then you have probably seen traditional playing cards. No, not UNO cards, the grown-up ones. Games played with cards have an enriching history, especially in countries like China, where they had a popular game called the “Leaf Game.” Moreover, a great example of a popular card game is the “Carte a Jouer” in France, the earliest kin of tarot cards. 

Nevertheless, have you ever wondered how such a popular game came to be? Especially how they came up with the symbols that we see on the cards in the first place? Even the earliest card games are now being actively promoted by USA online casinos. Yes, you may know that cards are a staple of various games like poker or blackjack, but playing cards have a richer and more varied history than most people can imagine. They have traveled through the occultists, the magicians, the drunkards losing everything on a poker table, the usual. Cards have also been through espionage missions, statistical probability models, and sometimes as currency too!

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Unlike roulette and blackjack, the modern game of cards cannot be clearly traced to a certain background, for it has always been shrouded in conjecture and obscurity – similar to porcelain, chinoiserie, and gunpowder. However, one thing is absolutely clear that modern playing cards have an ancient origin.

Do Playing Cards Have Chinese or Arabian Roots? 

The answer is yes, and probably. Scrolls excavated from the Tang Dynasty illustrate a game played with paper tiles (although we can say it looks more like dominos rather than cards), which is considered to be the oldest documentation about playing cards. European literature, however, refers to something called the “Game of Saracen” in the later 14th Century.  This is where things get interesting-it traces the game’s origin to Arabia, not China. It is also said that the Arabians brought clairvoyant cards from the Indian subcontinent. This hypothesis could almost be true, as there are many documents about card games in Indian mythology. 

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Card Symbolism

For a novice, there are four basic symbols on a card:

  1. Diamonds
  2. Hearts
  3. Spades
  4. Clubs

Each of these cards has 10 cards with a numerical sequence, as well as a king, a queen, a jack, and an ace. The images of the cards bear minuscule resemblance to whatever they stand for, but the primary factor behind printing them on cards was nothing but ease. They were easy to print, and with the Printing Revolution, they began appearing everywhere. The four suits were also easier to copy, rather than extravagant motifs if we talk of pricey hand-drawn cards. However, they all had a variation of some sort of symbolism rooted in (a) Geography and/or (b) Culture. 

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It is interesting to note that all of these motifs correspond to the four major trends of sixteenth-century Europe, namely:

  • History
European (it is important to note that Europe was the largest colonizer in the 16th century). 
  • Alchemy
The fascination with alchemy comes mainly from the Eastern world of the occult and alternative medicine. Almost all ancient civilizations had a deep-rooted belief in alchemy, beginning with Arabia, India, and China. 
  • Mysticism
The romanticization of mysticism was a habit of the European colonizers, which originated, as usual, in their Eastern colonies.
  • Astronomy
The Renaissance facilitated a widespread interest in astronomy.

Symbolism Distinctions

The fascinating fact is that modern face cards are those played by European concubines.

  1. King Cards: The King cards are the four Great European Kings, namely – Alexander the Great, David, Charles, and Julius Caesar. It is, however, sad that Queen cards haven’t enjoyed a similar fate. The Spaniards and Germans had their own way of playing cards, which was that they swapped the queen cards with the horses (Spaniards), and the Germans divided them into Lower Man, Upper Man, and King. This is where we can say modern-day Jack-cards came into existence. Once again, the French reintroduced the Queen, and the British swapped the utility of the King and Queen cards whenever the Monarch was a Lady. 
  2. Aces: The existence of Aces came when England began paying taxes on playing cards for the very first time. The Ace was a denomination to show that the taxes have been paid, and thus, forging one was a heinous crime (precisely why Spade Aces are designed to stand apart). 
  3. The Suicide King: Well, this is the King of Hearts. He earned this moniker because he is the only King symbol who (a) has no mustache and (b) stabs his head. The interpretation is less dramatic, we promise. This happened because of the rapid growth of printing, which led to a decline in creativity and originality. Thus, when cards from the deck wore out, people greedily replaced them with duplicates of other cards, reinforcing the errors-the king’s sword tip disappeared!

Final Thoughts

James Musoba
James Musoba
Studying Africa's startup and technology scene. I always look forward to discovering new exciting inventions and vibrant entrepreneurs.

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