The history of playing cards

November 16, 2009 |


Different theories of the origin of playing cards

The modern deck of cards is a result of a complex development. Cards have ancient and very dramatic history. Claude-François Ménestrier, the famous heraldist and Jesuit monk claims that cards were invented in France. The unfortunate year was 1392 and the King Charles VI of France became insane. In order to entertain him in a moment of disease, the cards were invented. According to Claude-François Ménestrier, the four suits symbolize the four great empires: the Jewish, the Greek, the Roman and the French; The four Queens, on the other hand symbolize the four basic womanly virtues: piety, beauty, motherhood, and wisdom. Other authors believe that the Queens symbolize Marie of Anjou (wife of Charles VII of France), Agnes Sorel (his mistress), Saint Joan of Arc and Isabella of Bavaria-Ingolstadt (wife of Charles VI of France and mother of Charles VII). The hypothesis of the Eastern origin of the cards is based on more specific data. This version suggests that the cards were first invented in China. It is the following: the Chinese have created the game of domino by transforming the game of dice and when the domino was transferred to paper, they created the cards. In ancient Chinese manuscripts there were records relative to card games. Chinese archeologists believe that the cards were invented long before 11th century and were not made of paper but of ivory or planks of wood, on which there were depicted figures. The first cards were approximately 23 cm long.

So, no matter how beautiful is the story that the cards were invented in France in order to entertain King Charles VI of France also known as the Mad, it is just a legend. Long ago in ancient Egypt people played with cuttings with designated numbers on them, in India they played with ivory plates or shells, and in China they played cards similar to the modern. In a chronicle of one of the Italian cities it was found an entry saying: “It was introduced a game of cards originating from the land of Saracens and called by them “Naib”. Apparently, the game was of military nature since Naib is the Arabian for “captain” or “chief”. On Arabic cards were designed only numbers since according to the Law of Mohammed depicting persons was prohibited. That is why we can say that cards were not invented in France. It is more likely that the already existing cards were decorated with figures there.

Cards quickly spread in all European countries, the gambling games were created and soon authorities take rigorous measures in order to ban them. Nevertheless, more and more new card games were created. In Germany there were craft shops engaged in the manufacturing of cards and the methods of manufacturing were improving. In the 15th century, in France, was introduced the type of cards which still exists today.  It is believed that the suits symbolize the four main attributes of chivalry: clubs – the sword, spades – the spears, diamonds – the flag and coat of arms, hearts – the shield. It is assumed that the deck is not just a set of cards. The number of cards in the deck is 52 like the number of weeks in a year; there are 4 suits like the four seasons; each suit consists of 13 cards like the number of weeks per season; all the cards are worth 364 points i.e. the number of the days per year (without one).

Cards were invented in 11th– 13th centuries in different parts of the world. History does not say where they appeared for the first time, although there is another legend that they appeared for the first time in ancient Egypt. For example, a legend says that when the enemy approached the border of the Kingdom of Pharaohs, they called the Council of the Wise Men in order to decide how to protect from the enemies all the knowledge accumulated over the centuries. By knowledge they understood the system of relationship between God, the Universe and man. Thus the knowledge was transformed into drawings displayed in cards. This deck had 78 cards called Arcana. The deck was called Tarot. It was used for divination on the four elements of the universe: fire, water, air, and earth. The deck consisted of Minor Arcana and Major Arcana. The Major Arcana consisted of 22 cards. The most popular names and numbers of the cards are as follows:

  • 1 – the Magician
  • 2 – the High Priestess
  • 3 – the Empress
  • 4 – the Emperor
  • 5 – the Hierophant
  • 6 – the Lovers
  • 7 – the Chariot
  • 8- the Justice
  • 9 – the Hermit
  • 10 – Wheel of Fortune
  • 11 – the Strength
  • 12 – the Traitor
  • 13 – the Death
  • 14 – the Temperance
  • 15 – the Devil
  • 16 – the Tower
  • 17 – the Star
  • 18 – the Moon
  • 19 – the Sun
  • 20 – the Angel
  • 21 – the World
  • 22 – the Fool

The Minor Arcana consisted of 56 cards and the suits were called Wands (Clubs) associated with Fire, Pentacles or Coins (Diamonds) associated with Earth, Chalices or Cups (Hearts) associated with Water and Swords (Spades) associated with Air. The Minor Arcana cards are closely related to the modern playing cards. Each suit contained 14 cards: from Ace to 10 and Page, Knight, Queen and King.

Some interesting historical facts

In Europe and the Muslim East cards have appeared, according to historians, in the 13th century and were brought by nomadic tribes. The authorities of many countries initially were indifferent to the cards but after some time for cards they began to pursue, since it was assumed that cards are an evil spirit.

Based on the aforementioned, we can assume that the cards have appeared in different countries and different continents approximately at the same time. The cards of any country or continent carry their own specific culture and reflect the spiritual and material existence in the drawings. According to Claude-François Ménestrier: “Cards are not only a means of entertainment, but also symbolize the political and social structure with its kings, queens and vassals. The Hearts symbolize the clergy, the nobility is symbolized by Swords (spades) which are the arms of the officers, the Diamonds symbolize the bourgeois, the stones of their houses and the “Clubs” – peasants. After the French Revolution all the monarchist symbols disappeared: crowns, scepters, royal lilies, etc.  The artists were wandering what to draw instead of kings and queens. However, since 1813, jacks, kings and queens have returned again.

Over the years and centuries the deck of Tarot reduced the number of the cards from 78 to 52 cards and in time to 36 and 32 cards. Then the cards were mostly used for divination. Why the Tarot reduced the number of the cards? Because there are 52 (the number of the cards) weeks in a year, 4 (suits) seasons, 13 (the number of cards in each suit) are the weeks in any season. Each suit contains cards from 1 to 10 and if we count the Jack as 11, the Queen as 12, the King as 13 and the Ace as 0, the total number of points is 91 (for one suit) which is the number of days in a quarter of a year. Thus, for the four suits the total number of points is 364 i.e. the number of days in a year (minus one day). Sometimes to the deck is added another card – the Joker, which is used for different purposes.

In 14th century the Jacks, the Queens and the Kings were named after legendary heroes. For instance, Julius Caesar – King of Diamonds, Alexander the Great – King of Clubs.

In 17th century they began to design the back side of the playing cards in small dotted patterns. It was a protection against cheaters (this way the cheaters were not able to put marks on the back side).

In the beginning of the 20th century the cards have become such as we see them today.

In Russia the cards appeared in the early 17th century.

There is a theory that the card games were brought by the Poles, Ukrainian Cossacks and Germans. This theory is based on the government prohibitions of card games. The first card games were introduced in Russia in the middle of 17th century during the reign of the first tsar of the house of Romanov – Mikhail Fyodorovich. The games became very popular among the soldiers, especially in the Foreign Quarter.  Soldiers played secretly at night. During the reign of Peter the Great the strict laws against card games were completely forgotten and the card game fans were no longer hiding from anyone. Even among the soldiers the games were not banned, but it was forbidden to bet their military uniforms, weapons and money. During the reign of Peter the Great was issued one decree only in 1710 “Instructions and Articles of War of Russia military navy”, where it was forbidden to have cards on the ship. During the reign of Peter II card games were included in the repertoire of ordinary pleasures of the imperial palace, and they become so necessary that they were played even during the court balls and meetings.  There were no laws prohibiting the card games and the games were played by everybody.

How were the rules created?

Theoretically, we can assume that fist appeared combination games like canasta. In such games, it was necessary as quickly as possible to combine cards by pictures and colors. Later appeared the solitaires, which were a kind of card games and which were based on divination. In the ruling circles most often the card games were played for money, and ordinary people were playing simple games just for entertainment.

What types of cards are there in the world?

Of course, there are many and different types of cards in the world. For instance, in Korea, the playing cards represent 8 figures: a man, a horse, an antelope, a rabbit, a pheasant, a crow, a fish, and a star. There are 10 cards of each figure in the deck i.e. it consists of 80 cards.

In China, the playing cards represent 16 figures in four colors (suits) – red, white, yellow and green. The figures are as follows: a General, 2 Councilors, elephants, horses, war chariots, gun, 5 soldiers. The number of the cards in the deck is 128. Chinese cards are long and narrow.

In India, the cards can be round or square. Long ago the cards were in 12 colors (suits). Each of them had 12 cards and the number of the cards in the deck was 144.

Today the suits are four, each of them has 13 cards and the number of the cards in deck is 52.

Madame Lenormand Cards

These cards are little known, but in 19th century they were very popular in foretelling salons. There are 36 cards of Madame Lenormand that are used for divination which are quite possible to replace with a conventional deck of cards numbered from 1 to 36. Only two cards in the deck – the Lady (29) and the Gentleman (28) represent the people whose fortune is to be told. The Lady and the Gentleman are the key cards, and all cards surrounding the key cards mean different events.

Marie Anne Adelaide Lenormand was born on 27 May 1772 in Alençon, a small town near Paris. Her father was a wealthy merchant. Even at the Benedictine monastery school, she became famous for her successful predictions: for example, to the headmistress, a little Marie predicted that she will stay no much longer at the monastery and indeed, the headmistress was soon transferred to another place.

Soon after the death of her father, the Lenormands move to Paris. There she worked as a saleswoman at first, but very soon her unusual talent for fortunetelling was discovered and in 1790 together with her friend, she opened her own salon where she predicted the fortune of people using cards, astrology and other methods. Very soon the salon of Mademoiselle Lenormand gained enormous popularity. In 1793 the salon was visited by Jean Paul Marat, Louis de Saint Just, and Robespierre. All of them she predicted a violent death. A few months later Marat was mortally wounded by Charlotte Corday and Saint Just and Robespierre were arrested and executed in a year. But the greatest fame, of course, brought Mary Lenormand the friendship with Josephine de Beauharnais, the wife of the young General Bonaparte. The young fortuneteller predicted her the crown when they first met. Neither Josephine nor Napoleon believed the famous fortuneteller then, however, in less than a decade the divination came true. Coming to power, Napoleon did not forget the fortunate fortuneteller. He gave her a million franks and she became a personal fortune-teller of the Empress Josephine. Then she predicted Josephine not only the divorce with Napoleon but even the defeat of the French army in Russia.

The cards used by Marie Lenormand were ordinary cards only the interpretation was her own, largely based on the rules of divination used by the French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette also known as Etteilla (he issued the first Tarot deck for occult purposes). Lenormand made a lot of notes but after her death in 1843 none of her notes or special cards was found.

The most successful reconstruction of Marie Lenormand reading system was made by the Flemish fortuneteller and writer Erna Droesbeke von Enge. She was born in 1952 in Antwerp (Antwerpen), in Belgian-Dutch family. She is an artist and she was drawing cards since childhood. She has created the system of divination as well as the deck “Tarot of Isis”. Since she was interested in the history of Marie Lenormand and had good occult skills, she tried to restore the Lenormand system of divination based on the memoirs of her contemporaries.

Cards today

There are currently about two hundred very popular card games in the world, although their total number is probably about five hundred. There are also about one thousand solitaires. Three hundred solitaire games have been handed down to us from generation to generation, all the other were made up by the authors of solitaire game computer programs. Cartomancies were also handed down from one generation to another although there are various interpretations. Today card readers use standard playing card decks of 52 cards but Tarot readings are also very popular. With the development of technical progress and ingenuity of the human mind, the tricks techniques are still modifying. Sometimes is enough to have a reliable assistant and an invisible hidden camera (in a form of a pin) or some special items for tricks and the audience is yours. Card tricks remained virtually the same as they were handed over to us by previous generations. After all, the development of card tricks depends only on the twist of the wrist and the gift of a trickster.

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