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History, Meaning, and Uses of a Deck of Playing Cards

History, Meaning, and Uses of a Deck of Playing Cards

Everyone’s played a game of cards at some point or another. There are tons of games to play, often with regional rules, so there’s always something to do. From solitaire to poker, a deck of cards can be found in almost every household. But, many people don’t know the history behind the cards or what the cards might mean. Playing cards have been around for more than 600 years and have a significant amount of significance behind them. 

The History of Playing Cards

Historians don’t always agree on when playing cards first appeared, and there are a few different theories that are likely. What is known, however, is that they have been around for at least 600 years and were most likely brought to Europe from the Middle East. There are some records of playing cards in China and the Far East even earlier than that, as they may have been around for more than 2000 years. 

Cards were first seen in Europe around 1360 and did resemble the cards used today. The original card suits from the 1400s in France were based on classes, including spades for royalty, clubs for peasants, hearts for clergy, and diamonds for merchants. Another meaning for the suits could be the major parts of the economy in the middle ages, including spades for the military, hearts for the church, clubs for agriculture, and diamonds for merchants. Either way, the suits were based on the way society worked when they were created, and though they may not be thought of in the same way today, the suits have stayed the same for hundreds of years. 

Cards as an Agricultural Calendar

It has been theorized that the deck of cards has the number of suits and cards that it does to represent the agricultural calendar. There are 52 cards, one for each week in a year. The red and black colors of the cards represent the night and day, and the four suits can represent the seasons. They can also represent the elements, with hearts being water, clubs being fire, diamonds being earth, and spades being air.

For the cards themselves, there are 13 cards in each suit, which represents the weeks in each season or the number of lunar cycles during the year. There are also 12 court cards in a deck, which represent the 12 months in a year. Though the cards were used for games as well as fortune-telling and in other ways in the past, they could be used to teach the agricultural calendars. 

Symbols in a Deck of Cards

The face cards for each of the four suits are symbols of someone important from history. For the kings, each one represents a different king from history. Clubs symbolize Alexander, King of Macedonia. Hearts are for Charlemagne, King of France. Spades are for David, King of Israel, and Diamonds is for Augustus, a Roman Caesar. On top of this, the queens and jacks represent someone, as well.

For queens, spades would be Pallas, hearts would be Judith, diamonds would be Rachel, and clubs would be Argea. For Jacks, spades are Ogier the Dane, hearts is La Hire, diamonds is Hector, and clubs is Judas Maccabeus or Lancelot. Though these are the common people symbolized with the face cards in a deck, there are variations based on where the deck of cards is from and when it was created. For instance, the jack of hearts could be one of two people, depending on who created the deck of cards and what would be more important for them. 

The Meaning of the Suits

The current suits used for playing cards were first seen in France in the late 1400s. They symbolized the major pillars of the economy. Some areas, however, had a fifth suit in the deck of cards, which was often referred to as leaves. Different areas may have different meanings for the suits, but the main premise was that each suit represented a different level in the economy, from royalty to peasants. Though the look of the symbols used for each suit has changed some in the years since they were first used, there are still the same four suits that have been in playing cards for hundreds of years. 

Using Cards for Fortune Telling

While tarot decks have been around for many years, playing cards can also be used for Tarot or fortune-telling. The fortune-teller would flip over a set number of cards, look at each one, and tell the person what the meaning was. While there is a lot of room for interpretation, the numbers and suits all represented something specific that could be combined together to tell the future of the person. The hearts represent spring and the childhood phase of life, along with the fire element. Clubs represent summer or a youth phase of life and the earth. Diamonds symbolize fall as well as the young adulthood phase of life and air. Spades, the last suit, represents winter, old age, and the water element.

Each of the numbers stands for something on its own. Depending on the number, this could be union, satisfaction, new beginnings, success, adjustments, changes, and more. The fortune-teller would look at the number or face along with the suit to determine the meaning of each card, then look at them together as a whole to determine the person’s future. This is something that has been done for many years and is still done today. 

While a deck of playing cards may seem simple enough, there is a huge amount of history behind all of the cards, as well as a lot of symbolism that is deeply rooted in their history. The standard deck of playing cards has actually changed very little in hundreds of years and has been used throughout the world for a number of different reasons, from being used as an agriculture calendar to being used for fortune-telling or just for a game of poker.

Derek Monk

Jun 17, 2021