The earliest European record of playing cards is from 1332 when King Alfonse XI of Leon and Castile banned them. The cards journey (the Saracen deck) is posited to have come up from Morocco into Spain.
These 15th Century Mamluk cards have 4 four suits – cups, coins, swords, and polo sticks.
The Mamluk Sultanate 1250–1517 emerged from Egypt and Syria, spreading across the Middle East. It’s capital, Cairo, became the Arab Islamic world’s economic, cultural and artistic center.
Discovered in Istanbul, The Mamluk cards are thought to be the, then modern, adaption of the cards used in the Chinese (Late Ming) dynasty card game of Mǎ diào. The connection here is that there were established trade between the Middle and Far East.
Chinese cards are documented as early as the 9th century during the Tang Dynasty (618–907).
The argument against the Arabic origin of European cards is that Qur’anic law forbids gambling and creating human images (The Court Cards). The Arab world adopted monotheism under the Islamic (Muslim) religion after The Prophet Muhammad unified the Arabic people under the umbrella of Islam during the 7th Century, meaning that human imagery may have been outlawed since the 7th century.
However, the cards were not necessarily used for gambling. Even today many Muslim families traditionally use playing cards for games that do not involve any gambling.
The alternative origin (of European playing cards) could be Indian playing cards – which had seven to ten suits. So either our cards come from China or from India. There is also the likelihood that that both of these card systems were circulating at the same time.
There is a beautifully reconstructed Mamluk deck published in 1972 by Jan Bauwens and Aurelia Books of Belgium.
It is most likely that many people used many different types of cards for divination, using personal blends of family and folk traditions.
What then, would be older than the cards ?
There are several systems of divination using archetypal ideas, which, when represent by items that could be mixed to form a random pattern, like the runes, the Hebrew Alefbet or the I Ching. The resulting pattern would be used to divine situations or to perform magic. Infact, in 19th century when the Tarot developed it’s complex esoteric correspondence system, many, like Waite and Crowley, associated the Hebrew letters with the trumps.
The history of the cards appear to have more of an alternating, interweaving connection than being a straight line of evolution to modern day cards.
For much more detailed and fascinating reading concerning the history of cards, try these sites: