What Do the Four Suits on Playing Cards Stand For?
The idea of marking playing cards with diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades originated in France during the 1500s. The four suits depict the four classes of 16th century society. Hearts stand for the clergy and diamonds stand for merchants. The tip of a pike is shown on the spade suit. Spades come from the Spanish “espada” (sword), and indicate soldiers.
A cloverleaf object marks the club suit, and stands for the peasant class. The figures on the face (picture) cards – the jack (knave), queen and king – wear costumes of the 16th century.
In playing cards, a suit is one of several categories into which the cards of a deck are divided. Most often, each card bears one of several pips (symbols) showing to which suit it belongs; the suit may alternatively or additionally be indicated by the color printed on the card. The rank for each card is determined by the number of pips on it.
Ranking indicates which cards within a suit are better, higher or more valuable than others, whereas there is no order between the suits unless defined in the rules of a specific card game. Unless playing with multiple decks, there is exactly one card of any given rank in any given suit. A deck may include special cards that belong to no suit, often called jokers.
Various languages have different terminology for suits such as colors, signs, or seeds. Modern Western playing cards are generally divided into two or three general suit-systems. The older Latin suits are subdivided into the Italian and Spanish suit-systems. The younger Germanic suits are subdivided into the German and Swiss suit-systems. The French suits are a derivative of the German suits but are generally considered a separate system on its own.
If you count up the numerical value of a whole pack of cards – reckoning on 11 for a jack, 12 for a queen and 13 for a king – you reach 364, which with the addition of one for the joker makes 365, the number of days in the year.
The four suits can also be read as symbols of society and human energy: clubs representing both the peasantry and achievement through work; diamonds, the merchant class and the excitement of wealth creation; hearts, the clergy and the struggle to achieve inner joy; spades, the warrior class institutionalized into the nobility and the fractious problems of life.
The pack of cards came to Europe sometime in the 14th century, imported by Italian merchants who discovered their use during trading missions to the cosmopolitan cities of Mameluke Egypt. The symbols they imported – swords, batons (or wands), cups, and coins (or rings) – are still used in Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy.
The modern four suits which evolved in France, specifically Paris and Rouen, in the late-15th century were quickly taken up by the English.
The French also added the concept of the Queen, for initially the court cards were based on the sequence of king, cavalier and servant – or, as the original Mameluke Egyptians had it, malik (king), naib malik (viceroy) and thaim naib (deputy). The triumph of the ace was another French innovation, traditionally added after the revolution in honor of the rabble toppling the king.
The Egyptians themselves seem to have developed the pack of cards from China, where numerically printed sheets grouped into four divisions can be traced back to the concubines of the Tang dynasty (618–907).