I remember hearing that in a deck of cards, the face cards refer to specific historical figures, so today I finally looked up information about playing cards. The history was surprisingly long and with many variations from country to country, all of which was too long to read let alone write detailed accounts about. But I’ll try to go over some of the more interesting points.
Playing cards are thought to have originated in Asia, either in China (man, they try to take credit for the invention of everything) or India. The Chinese cards were much different from the deck we use today, but they had four “suits”. Cards were thought to have been introduced to Europe from Egypt around the late 1300s, with a deck that had 52 playing cards and four suits (polo sticks, coins, swords and cups).
The royal court cards were a European addition, but instead of the jack, queen, king we use, they used the knave (slave), chevalier, and kings. Queens were eventually introduced (in early German card decks, the Queen card was worth more than the King), and by the 14th century, decks with the King, Queen, and Knight and Valet became more common.
Suits also varied from country to country, but the club, spade, diamond, heart we use today came from France. There isn’t any particular interesting reason for their origins, they were chosen because they could be easily reproduced using woodcuts.
The figures on cards are commonly attributed to being David (King of spades), Alexander (King of Hearts), Caesar (King of Diamonds), and Charlemagne (King of Clubs) for the kings, Ogier the Dane (comrade of Charlemagne – Jack of spades), La Hire (comrade-in-arms to Joan of Arc – Jack of hearts), Hector (Jack of Diamonds), and Judas Maccabeus (Jack of Clubs) for the Jacks, and Pallas (equivalent to Minerva/Athena – Queen of spades), Judith (Queen of hearts), Rachel (mother of Joseph– Queen of Diamonds), and Argine(anagram of regina, latin for queen -Queen of clubs) for the queens. At least, that’s who they were attributed to being before, apparently today’s cards aren’t meant to resemble anyone in particular.
There some question as to the accuracy of the figures. For example, there are questions as to why an anagram for the latin word queen was used for the Argine, the Queen of clubs. Or who Judith was (wife of Louis I or the warrior Judith). Since the illustrations of the queens are rather combative, it is thought that Judith was the latter, and Argine may have been derived from Argeia, a legendary princess from Greece. Which leaves Rachel, mother of Joseph, which may have been mistaken from Ragnel, wife to Sir Gawain, one of the Knights of the Round Table. La Hire, another rather anonymous historical figure, may have originally been mistaken from Aulus Hirtius, a comrade of Julius Caesar. Assuming the above deductions are true, there would then be a balance in historical figures – 3 Jewish, 3 Greek, 3 Roman, and 3 Christian.
During the French revolution, Kings became Liberties, Queens became Equalities, and Jacks became Fraternities. I have no idea how they were depicted, but I guess it was to demonstrate a good revolutionary would not associate with royalty. And they made fun of Americans for changing French fries to freedom fries. Tsk.
Joker is an American addition. It was made for a then popular game called Euchre, and spread from America to Europe.
Alleged significance of cards – the 13 cards per suit can be seen to represent the 13 phases of the moon, red and black to symbolize day and night, and the 52 cards to represent the weeks in a year. Also, if the value of the deck is added up, plus 1 (said to be the joker), it equals 365.
Suicide king. If you look at the king of hearts, he has a sword in his head, leading to the nickname “suicide king”. Unfortunately, the story behind this one is rather dull as well – apparently, the King of Hearts originally carried an axe, but due to the poor quality of reprints, the axe gradually became less and less visible, eventually becoming a sword. The Jack of Diamonds is sometimes referred to as the laughing boy, and the Queen of Spades, who carries a scepter, is sometimes referred to as the bedpost queen. I haven’t heard of either, though.
Curse of Scotland. I’ve never heard of this before, but apparently the nine of diamonds is sometimes called the Curse of Scotland. There are several explanations, none of them authoritative. Some of the suggestions include: the nine of diamonds refers to the Pope in one game, the ‘antichrist’ of Scotland at the time, the orders for the battle of Culloden were wrote on the back of the card, the orders for the Massacre of Glencoe were signed on the back of the card, diamonds imply royalty, and every 9th king of Scotland has been a tyrant, etc.
Ace of Spades. I’ve also failed to notice this, but the Ace of Spades is significantly larger than all the other spades. It’s because when England was levying taxes on the playing cards, the Ace of Spades would get stamp to show the taxes had been paid. Many forged copies of the Ace of Spades were created in order to evade the taxation, leading to more elaborate designs on the Ace of Spades. Dumping all the tea in Boston Harbor must not have been a strong enough stance against taxes.
Which ties us, and the way your tyrannical country imposed levies on our colonies, causing us to rebel, win, and gain our spankin’ new country, making us citizens from different countries and unable to find employment in each other’s respective countries.