We’ve all heard of visual aids which various saints have used to teach the Gospel messages. St. Patrick had his clover for the Trinity. St. Julian of Norwich’s hazelnut taught her about God’s love. And legend says that St. Mary Magdalene taught an emperor about Christ’s resurrection using an egg that turned red.
Likewise, while no saint is recorded as using one, there are some lessons people have learned from a pack of playing cards. Since many people travel during the summer, playing cards turn up at a campsite or two. (St. Balthazar, one of the Magi, is the patron saint of playing card manufacturers.)
Origin in China
Playing cards originated in China toward the end of the first millennium and their use spread to the West over several centuries. Modern playing cards developed in Italy and Spain, probably from the influence of the Mamluks, Arabic warrior slaves stationed in Egypt during the time of the Crusades.
The pictures that we recognize on playing cards today developed in France as by-products of heraldry and the symbols and images used by knights in royal courts.
This is when the world started seeing the familiar king, queen, jack of hearts, spades, clubs or diamonds. (The “jack” was originally called “knave” or “valet.”) And, interestingly, the face figures on cards became identified with famous kings and queens of history — including Biblical figures. These included King David (King of Spades), the Biblical heroines Judith (Queen of Hearts) and Rachel (Queen of Diamonds), Judas Maccabeus (Jack of Clubs), the first Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (King of Hearts) and one of his knights, Ogier the Dane (Jack of Spades), as well as one of Joan of Arc’s top military commanders, Étienne de Vignolles (Jack of Hearts).
Mary and the Devil
The Queen of Clubs is sometimes named Argine, which is an anagram of Regina (Queen in Latin) and most often attributed to the Virgin Mary, but sometimes to the Queen of Sheba.
The other face cards honored Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, the Greek goddess Pallas Athena and Hector, the Trojan hero from Homer’s Iliad. All of these serve as a bit of a history lesson. (And, of course, the joker has been considered to represent the devil.)
Using the familiar 52-card deck as a teaching tool seems to date back to at least the Civil War era, but also appeared in Scotland. As a teaching tool, it has become variously known as the “Deck of Cards,” “The Soldier’s Prayer Book,” “Cards Spiritualized” and “the Soldier’s Almanac.” In 1948, country singer Tex Ritter made the country billboard hit list with a song called “Deck of Cards.” Ritter credited his version to T. Texas Tyler in 1788.
However, the earliest version of the story in the song seems to be from a farm wife named Mary Bacon, who lived in 1762 and wrote a ledger account of her life. She included the story of the deck of cards as a morality tale in what is now called, “Mary Bacon’s World. A Farmer’s Wife in Eighteenth-century Hampshire.” Various wars, including the U.S. war in Afghanistan, have been used as the settings for a similar tale for this “Soldier’s Prayer Book,” but the general teaching remains the same.
In it, playing cards are used to teach various Christian doctrines, such as the deuce referring to the Old and New Testaments, and any king being a reminder that God is the king of the universe. Colors and suits are not referenced. In its way, this lesson serves in a similar fashion to the recitation carol known as “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which has been used as a form of a Catholic mini-catechism. For example, its “partridge in a pear tree” stands for Christ on the cross and the “12 lords a-leaping” are the 12 Apostles.
(For a YouTube video of “A Soldier’s Prayer Book” that works as a teaching tool, visit: https://bit.ly/2FMaWgn)
Sources: Snopes.com/fact-check/; International Playing Card Society at i-p-c-s.org/faq/tmfaq.php; quora.com; “Mary Bacon’s World. A Farmer’s Wife in Eighteenth-century Hampshire”; threshold-press.co.uk