The Magical History of Modern Playing Card Design

Today's game lovers take great delight in designer decks and luxury playing cards. Luxe design has always been a hallmark of what makes a card a card.

The history of modern playing card design really is epic and magical. The furthest reaches of ancient history studies leave us wandering in the mists of time wondering about those very first cards. Details about the origins of our first playing card designs have been lost to recorded history, or have yet to be re-discovered.

Ancient Origins of Modern Card Design

Several theories are supported by evidence that show that the designs of our earliest cards had their origins in diverse countries and cultures. One theory credits ancient Egypt, designers of some of the world's oldest known papers, with the honor of being the birthplace of cards.

Other theories suggest early Islam as the originator of playing cards, and others give the honor to the ancient Celtic druid tradition. Druidry has a bardic focus, meaning the spoken word is valued more highly than writing; so the ancient texts of druidry have a uniquely powerful and magical juxtaposition with the culture they were created in.

The Mystic Tarot Card, Druid Lore and the Library of Alexandria

Ancient druids passed on knowledge and wisdom, prayers and medicines in the form of rhymed verse, intonations and song. For them, the word and the medicine were one. They also used physical medicines and other healing strategies. One theory tells us that the first playing cards were actually passed on by Druids and their followers.

Cards were intricately painted using herbal remedies of the time and even held important planting information and architectural data. As the Dark Ages threatened the keeping and teaching of any unapproved information, books were being destroyed and great libraries, like the one in Alexandria, were burned to the ground.

Ancient card exchanges via game playing and early card collecting was an effective means of preserving and transferring important health and cultural information, especially in the absence of libraries and schools.

The card deck revered by occultists and mystics, known as the tarot card deck is often credited with being the precursor design for modern playing card decks.

Playing Cards as Political Instruments and Historical Markers

The history of modern playing cards brims with royal intrigue, magical battles, secret libraries and scandal. The church and the state have struggled to control knowledge and control games since ancient times.

As political instruments, cards helped to defeat ideological hegemony post the razing of Alexandria and the Dark Ages and throughout Medieval times. Card playing and collecting promoted knowledge sharing and commerce. During times when people could not read or even speak freely, they were still able to engage in card play.

With the advent of the printing press and the proliferation of printing, cards took on even more political functions. Royal portraits graced card decks, personalized decks were designed for the wealthier families. Some historians have noted that early printed playing cards might also be some of our earliest political cartoons.

Ancient Card Games That we Still Play Today

Historians have uncovered fragments of ancient toys and pieces of apparent games that we no longer understand how to play. Other ancient games are still with us. By hook or by crook, rules and unique game features have persisted and evolved into popular pursuits.

We can note the longevity of some card games by their depiction in early artwork, or by their presence at specific archaeological sites.

The following card games were designed by our ancient ancestors and they still bring us fun, challenge and excitement today:

  • Poker
  • Euchre
  • Gin-rummy
  • Blackjack
  • Cribbage

If you love card design and find it as fun as we do, you might be curious about our best selling card designs. For a modernized interpretation of a classic deck, check out our DKNG Playing Cards. This deck pays homage to the traditions surrounding the history of card design. To experience a card deck that shows ultimate artistry and intricacy of design, see the astonishing Ultimate Deck.

Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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