Forgotten Symbolism in Playing Cards

Forgotten Symbolism in Playing Cards

Although there is some dispute as to where playing cards come from, there is no question as to the sheer variety of playing cards that have existed throughout history. Nearly every region in the world has laid some claim to this global pastime, and if it isn’t true of the past it certainly is of the present.

Playing cards are a household item and have immortalized gambling halls, or in recent years online casinos, drawing people to the tables to play games that have been around for hundreds of years. But how did the playing card evolve into the many modern and mostly standardized styles we see today?

Familiar Foundations

Some playing cards were used as a form of currency, tracking debts and winnings in gambling circles. Today the idea of playing cards has transformed with the accessibility of printing, giving way to any number of outrageous and ingenious card games. But the most recognizable playing card deck by far is the 52-card deck or French deck.

This modern deck is split into four suits, signified by distinct patterns of “pips” or dots which determine the numerical value of the card: hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades. Pip designs have varied historically depending on the region and deck style, including symbols like cups, coins, batons, bells, shields, roses, and many others.

Some of these design variations were probably the result of the preferences of the wealthy families and individuals that were able to commission different deck styles. Cultural norms and local folklore most likely also influenced suit design and as playing cards became more popular their uses began to change with the times. 

Another type of Game

Tarot cards were a type of playing card originally used to play specific card games and there are some places where these games, like Tarocchini, have persisted. But in places like France, tarot cards slowly became a tool of the occult due to the popularity of Spiritualism. Divination is still a common use for tarot cards in most English-speaking cultures today.

Now, tarot decks may vary drastically in theme and style, even more so than the French deck, a trend that is only encouraged by the nature of the tarot. But the original tarot is still widely recognized and the deeper meaning of the cards often the subject of speculation.

Signs and SymbolsThe occult tarot is typically divided into four recognizable suits: cups, swords, pentacles (sometimes disks), and wands (sometimes staves or batons). Sound familiar? One could theorize that these images, like the pips on other playing card decks, were chosen because of preference and pleasing aesthetic design of the era. But the occult associations of the tarot have led to some more interesting interpretations of the meaning of these symbols.

The cups, for instance, can be read as an upside-down triangle which is the alchemical symbol for water. Alchemical symbols are often thought of to be used to communicate hidden meanings or spells in the occult. Also pictured as a chalice, the cups suit aligns symbolically with the heart pips in the 52-card deck, with the heart often serving as a metaphor for a vessel or another kind of cup. Observations like these certainly add intrigue, but some style decisions are a little more practical than that.

New Technology and New Techniques

Today’s decks can have more complicated, symmetrical patterns printed on both the front and the back, a feature that is particularly useful for gambling since this makes individual cards less recognizable. Many casinos will regulate the type of decks they use in tandem with perceptive dealers to try and prevent cheating. But sometimes the best in standardization and supervision can work against them in the case of advantage players, as some casinos find out. Recognizably complicated card edging, human bias, and manufacturing variance of only 1/32 of an inch can end up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in winnings.
This might not be an issue digital casinos have to worry about, but you’ll still find plenty of playing cards and dealers in online casinos and game rooms. The image of the playing card is timeless, so much so that we’ve gone out of our way to recreate it in pixels on a screen, preserving its role in entertainment.

The long documented history of playing cards can tell us one thing for sure–they will continue to distract and delight for decades to come, whether from the tables of casinos or the comfort of our own homes. 

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