Over the years, playing cards have served as tools of occult practice, magic tricks, amusing pastimes, high-stakes gambles, and mathematical probability models—even, at times, as currency and as a medium for secret messages.
The decks of cards reveal the uniqueness of their origins. The colors, emblems, names, and designs have changed based on their origin and the whims of card players themselves. These cards aren’t just toys or tools. They are cultural imprints that reveal popular custom.
The absolute origin of playing cards is still a subject of debate among scholars, and even the best theories rely more on speculation than proof. Despite clear historical evidence that it appeared in Europe in the late 1300s and early 1400s, there are questions of how did they get there? It seemed that they came somewhere in the East and may have been brought to Europe by crusaders, gypsies, or by traders. The common consensus appears that an early form of playing cards originated somewhere in Asia, but there can be no certainty. Paper is fragile and typically does not survive well across the ages; thus, substantial historical evidence is lacking.
There was evidence that playing cards existed in the 9th century AD in China during the Tang Dynasty. Scrolls from the Dynasty mentioned a game of paper tiles. These tiles could be a result of the usage of woodblock printing technology available at that time. Games were revolving around alcoholic drinking, which involved playing cards. However, there were no suits or numbers on the cards; instead, printed instructions or forfeit for those who drew them.
In the 15th century, Madiao was one of the earliest games. It is a trick-taking game, which dates to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Lu-rong, a scholar, described it as being played with 38 “money cards.” (click here for more details)
PERSIA AND ARABIA
However, in the late 14th century, many European literary references pointed to the sudden arrival of a “Saracen’s game,” suggesting that playing cards came not from China but Arabia.
There was the consistency of structure despite the various patterns. There were 12 cards in every suit with court cards of king and zivier being the top two, and the pip cards being at the bottom ten and half of the suits used reverse ranking for pip cards. Many icons for the suit pips included coins, clubs, jugs, and swords, which later look like Mamluk and Latin suits. Michael Dummett speculated that Mamluk cards might have descended from an earlier deck, which consisted of 48 cards divided into four suits, each with ten pip cards and two court cards.
The Mamluk court cards had calligraphy or abstract designs but without persons. It could be due to the religious prohibition in Sunni Islam. But they also bear the ranks on the cards. In two suits, panels on the pip cards show they had a reverse ranking, a feature found in madiao, ganjifa, and old European card games like ombre, tarot, and maw.
In the early 15th century, a fragment of two uncut sheets of Moorish-styled cards of a similar but simpler style was found in Spain. After the fall of Mamluk in the 16th century, exports of the cards from Cairo, Alexandria, and Damascus had stopped.
These playing cards had spread throughout the Asian continent by the 11th century and later came into Egypt.
The 54-card deck that we have now was a preservation of the four original French suits of centuries ago: clubs (♣), diamonds (♦), hearts (♥), and spades (♠). These pips or symbols bear a likeness to the things they represent, such as stars and birds to goblets and sorcerers. Historically, these pips were highly variable, giving way to different sets of symbols rooted in geography and culture. They bore symbolic meaning, much like the trump cards of older tarot decks. Unlike tarot, however, pips were used for diversion instead of foretelling. Even so, these cards preserved much of the iconography that had fascinated 16th-century Europe: astronomy, alchemy, mysticism, and history. (click here for more details)
Some historians believed that suits in a deck were representations of medieval society’s four classes:
⦁ Cups and chalices (modern hearts) represents the clergy
⦁ swords (spades) stands for the nobility or the military
⦁ coins (diamonds) for the merchants, and
⦁ batons (clubs) for peasants
But the differences in pips from one deck to the next contradicts this categorization. For example, in early German “hunting cards, bells would have been a more fitting symbol of German nobility than spades because they were often attached to the jess of the hawk in falconry, sports reserved for the Rhineland’s wealthiest. On the other hand, diamonds could have represented the upper class in French decks, as paving stones used in the chancels of churches were diamond-shaped, and such stones marked the graves of the aristocratic dead.