<Previous Page

The Shakespeare Art Museum   Home Page

Next Page>  

Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  The History of Playing Cards



he exact origin of playing cards is not known but there is evidence that they existed in China, Egypt, Arabia and India between the 7th and 10th centuries A.D.

   They appeared in Europe around the 12th century; perhaps brought back from the Orient by Niccolo Polo and his son Marco.

   The Saracen invasion of Sicily and the Moorish conquest of Spain were other ways they were transported to Europe as well as by travelling merchants, gypsy tribes, soldiers and the crusaders.

   The 14th century Saracen card game was called "Naib": probably from the Spanish word 'naipes', for playing card. In Hebrew, a similar word "naibi" means sorcery.

   The ancient Oriental cards were circular in shape consisting of 10 suites, 12 cards in each. The 10 suits were emblematic of the 10 incarnations of Vishnu, the Hindu diety. The early Chinese cards resembled their paper money.

   In India there was a diety called Ardhanari with two heads and four hands in which he held symbols of the 4 chief castes of people living on the banks of the Ganges and Nile rivers.

   The 'sword' was for kings or soldiers: the 'cup' for the church: 'rings & coins' for merchants, and the 'batons' or 'wands' for agriculture. These same symbols appeared later on the early European Tarot cards.

From 15th Century European Tarot Deck
From 15th Century European Tarot Deck


  Of the many conjectures on the evolution of cardgaming, one claims it may have derived from chess, which emerged from a game of pebbles played by shepherds of Western Asia.

   Cards also have a traditional association with divination, evolved from divining rods. Communication with the gods was made by casting rods with four different symbols upon an altar. Priests interpreted the commands of the gods according to the way the rods fell.

   When cards first appeared in Italy they were called "Tablets of Fate" or Tarrocchi, or Tarot cards and were used primarily for divination.
Such cards were engraved by artists like Mantegna, Botticelli and Baldwin. They were done in water-color on an illuminated ground and varnished.

   These designs were symbols of material forces: Virtues, Vices, Muses, Planets and allegorical and mythical subjects. The Fool was seen as "Everyman" on the Path of Life which was Folly.

   The Tarot deck contained 56 cards in the Lesser Arcana and 22 cards in the Major Arcana. Some believed the Majors held occult Egyptian secrets, a transposition of all the wisdom from the Temple of Thoth after it was destroyed. Other scholars claim that the Tarots are intricately involved with secrets of the Kaballah.

   All the Majors go in numbered sequence, except the first card which was un-numbered and called "il matto", the Fool, who was the precursor of the modern joker.



La Hire, a famous French knight introduced the suit marks of Piques (lance points), Cours (hearts), Carreaux (diamonds), and Trefles (clovers). The English adopted them and gave them the modern names of Spades, Hearts, Diamonds and Clubs. American suits were patterned after the British.


Copyright © 1990 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved. 


   <Previous Page

The Shakespeare Art Museum   Home Page

Next Page>