[NB] Old Decks of Cards

One of the things I enjoy about taking a dive into the lived history of an object or idea is how often we discover a rich variety behind the seemingly simple facade of a standard account. It’s true of things like chakras, and it’s true of things like playing cards and tarot. There is a new history of European playing cards out there looking to sample the earliest survivors they can find (The World at Play: Luxury Cards 1430–1540 by Timothy B. Husband). This note from the November 4, 2016 TLS shares gems like this from it:

Husband starts with the earliest preserved set of cards, known as the Stuttgart Playing Cards, dating from about 1430….These were almost certainly executed by a workshop rather than a single artist. The suits are Falcons, Ducks, Stags and Hounds, and each comprises thirteen cards: falcons and ducks have a mounted king, an upper knave and a lower knave plus nine pip or number cards; stags and hounds have an enthroned queen, an upper dame and a dower dame, plus nine number cards.

I’m assuming that there is an ace which the author does not count as numbered (since otherwise we only have twelve cards), but it is an intriguing object from a structuralist perspective, a little window onto the folkloric landscape from which these images are drawn. We have in each a set of gendered divisions (leading to a parity of male and female figures); ecological distinctions between that which flies and that which runs that map directly onto the gendered ones (male=flying, female=running); and a division between hunting companion and hunted that bisects the gendered roles (there is a male hunting animal and a female hunting animal, a male hunted animal and female hunted animal).

Considering that the Courtly Hunt Cards (also German) from a decade later feature “Falcons, Herons, Hounds and Lures,” there also seems to be an important category of that which is found in heaven, earth, and water (Herons and Ducks). The play of the hunt imagery and courtly love is noted, but if my undergraduate history lessons haven’t been too distorted by time, this is also contemporary with a burgeoning alchemical scene.

Thinking about the cross-fertilizations of these different imaginaries might throw a little light on the alchemical marriage, as well as leave us wondering how deeply the entanglement between card and magical thinking more generally might go if we aren’t expecting it all to look like (over)systematized postGolden Dawn tarot assignments.

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