Since the beginning of time, humans have always found ways to have fun with games. Whether with dice in prehistoric times or video games in the modern era, games have always been an integral part of all cultures and are one of the oldest forms of human social interaction.
Gambling has always been associated with card games, and to really understand it, it is necessary to delve into the history of cards and study why they are the way they are. So keep reading this article to discover the origins and mysteries that explain the cards we hold in our hands today.
The origin of the letters
The exact origin of playing cards continues to be the subject of debate among scholars, and even the best theories rely more on speculation than proof. There is clear historical evidence that playing cards started appearing in Europe in the late 1300s and early 1400s, but how did they get there?
Scholars use ancient documents to claim that playing cards came from Ancient China in the 9th century during the Tang Dynasty. The oldest document found is an ancient Chinese text that describes Princess Tongchang (daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang) playing the "leaf game" in 868 with members of the Wei clan (the princess's husband's family). Some experts also argue that the first known book on letters called Yezi Gexi was supposedly written by a Tang-era woman and was commented on by Chinese writers of subsequent dynasties.
Later, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), characters from popular novels such as Water Margin were widely featured on the faces of playing cards. In the 11th century, playing cards could be found across the Asian continent.
Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century, probably from Egypt after spreading to India and Persia. The first European references to playing cards date back to the 1370s and come from Spain, France, Italy, southern Germany and Switzerland. No letters from this period survive, but sources indicate that the letters were being painted "in gold and other colors". The first surviving cards date from the 15th century, and most of them were made from cardboard made from 3, 4 or even 6 sheets of paper glued together. Cards used to be much larger in size than they are today, and images were either hand-drawn or printed in copper engravings.
The suits we have on our cards today are a variation of the suits that appeared on cards from the Mamluk period in Egypt. Their suits were cups, gold coins, spades and polo sticks and their decks also had 52 cards. As cards began to spread across European countries, different suits began to appear. The Germanic countries switched to Hearts, Balls, Bells and Leaves, while France and England opted for Hearts, Spades, Diamonds and Clubs – in other words, the suits that most of us are familiar with.
Popular legends claim that the composition of a deck of cards has religious, mystical or astrological significance. There are many theories behind this, none of which could or can be proven correctly. However, they are still interesting, 52 cards represent 52 weeks in a year. Red and black symbolize night and day. The four suits represent the four seasons; there are 13 cards of a suit to correspond to the number of lunar cycles and 12 court cards that represent the 12 months of the year.