What’s In The Cards?

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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Playing card games are some of the most popular pastimes around the world. I dare say there is not one person who has not played at least one kind of card game. We all take cards for granted; not too many of us know how the specific cards originated or how they so uniquely relate to our life.

It is estimated that there are close to 10,000 card games in existence, even though no one knows for sure since new ones are invented by individuals every day. A deck of cards is most commonly known as pieces of specially prepared heavy paper, thin cardboard, or plastic coated paper marked with distinguishing motifs usually used for playing card games.

Although card games are the most popular use for cards, there are others. Cardistry combines cards and artistry. This skill uses a person’s hands to create cuts, displays, fans, patterns, and sequences. The intent is to create a captivating motion and beautiful display. It resembles juggling, mime, or similar entertaining activities. The effects are only limited by the types of cards used and the imagination and degree of manual dexterity of the performer.

Cartomancy is a fancy name for fortune telling using a deck of cards. Who hasn’t wandered into the fortune teller’s tent at a local carnival to have her display the deck of cards out in front of you to tell you the rest of your life’s story? This use of cards appeared after playing cards themselves were introduced in Europe in the 14th century.

Building card structures is another use of playing cards, where they are balanced on top of each other to form structures. Contests are held to see who can construct the largest.

Memory sport is another card use where participants attempt to memorize and recall different forms of information under certain guidelines using cards. One type of memorization is where the order of random cards is memorized. National and international championships are held in this category.

Unless it is a specialty deck, a deck of cards has 52 cards, four suits (hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs), and 13 cards in every suit. The suits date back to the 14th and 15th centuries and were introduced by the French. It is thought by some scholars that each suit represents a different social class of the time: hearts represented the church or clergy; spades represents swords for nobility; diamonds represent coins or money associated with the merchant class; and clubs represented the batons of the peasant class.

The numbers in a deck of cards are in truth symbolic representations of our calendar, used for centuries by priests in temples to work with the planetary motions and the earth’s cycles. Numeric values in a deck of cards match the calendar perfectly; the common deck is not so common after all. Here are some of the common denominators:

• There are 52 cards in a deck and 52 weeks in a year.

• The 4 suits match the four seasons.

• The 12 court cards — all the Jacks, Queens and Kings — correspond to the 12 months of the Gregorian calendar or 12 zodiac signs in each year. The average value of all the court cards is twelve. There are 12 hours in each day and each night. There are 12 animals in the cycles of the Chinese calendar.

• There are 13 cards in each suit. In a lunar year, the moon goes around earth 13 times. There are 13 weeks in each season.

• Start with a full deck of cards without Jokers. Deal them all one by one into two piles, and then put the second pile on the first pile and start over. Do this a total of 24 times, and the entire deck will be in the same order as it was before you started dealing. There are 24 hours in a day.

• The two colors on the faces, red and black, symbolize day and night.

• Consider Ace as 1, Jack as 11, Queen as 11, and King as 13. The middle number between one (Ace) and thirteen (King) is 7, the number of days in a week. If you add up all 52 cards in the deck you’ll get 364 … plus one for a Joker is 365, the number of days in a year. Here is another way to get there: 4 = the number of suits (or seasons); 7 = the average value of a card (or days in a week); 13 = the number of cards in each suit (or months in the lunar calendar year); 4 x 7 x 13 = 364, plus one for a joker = 365 — the number of days in a year.

Pretty cool, isn’t it? If you want to go a little further, there are some theories as to what the different face cards symbolize. The King of Spades is said to resemble David, the king of the Hebrews. His sword is modeled on the weapon he took from Goliath upon slaying the giant with a slingshot, which was shown lower down on the card. The Club King is depicted as a stylized Charlemagne, the King of Diamonds as Julius Caesar, and the King of Hearts as Alexander the Great. The four kings represented the Jewish world, the Holy Roman Empire, and pre-Christian Rome and Greece — the four main wellsprings of western civilization.

The queens and jacks did not align so well. The Queen of Spades was based on Pallas Athena, the goddess whose warlike spirit called to mind Jeanne d’Arc. The Queen of Diamonds was modeled on Rachel, the beauty whom Jacob had to wait fourteen years to marry. The Queen of Hearts inspired by Judith, the Jewish heroine who got the Assyrian general Holofernes drunk on false pretenses and then cut of his head, saving Israel in the process and rating the widow her own book in the Old Testament. The Club Queen paid homage to “Argine” — from regina, the Latin word for queen.

The four jacks are featured, full-length depictions of famous knights whose names were printed next to their pictures: Lancelot, Ogrier, Roland, and Valery. Each of these long-haired, beardless, young warriors sported a battle axe, except for Valery, who was attended by a hound.

Who knew our playing cards had such a colorful past? Steeped in tradition and history, today they also play an important part in bringing people together for hours of fellowship and merriment.

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