It's in the Cards

[Warning! Will annoy fundamentalist Christians]


Oh, the imagined sins of others pointed up by fundamentalist Christians. 

All things not in keeping with their buttoned-up, sphincter-tightened (and slammed shut for good measure) world of strait-laced behaviors and sniffing smugness is cause for condemnation. 

Many pastimes enjoyed without any other goal but to make a person happy – for no good “Christian” reason, in other words – are evil, the works of Satan in his ongoing efforts to steal souls.  

Fun is wrong.  And because so many fundamentalists are abjectly miserable (leading their pious lives of judging others) they want to insure the rest of the world is miserable, too: “So, it looks as if you’re having fun with that—here, let me take it away!”

In the world’s history, such priggish self-righteousness has led to castigation of many people and even entire cultures.  These sticks-in-the-mud at various times declared many things as “sinful”: dancing, dice, alcohol (even though the Christians’ founder, Jesus, drank wine and beer), smoking (not known to Jesus; Christians learned to condemn that once tobacco was discovered and cultivated), women wearing pants, and even the use of the table fork.

Perhaps one of history’s most frequently rebuked items, though, was a tool of gaming, a simple piece of thick paper stock with coloring and pictures on it. 

This is Satan’s tool of soul possession and eternal damnation: the deck of playing cards.

Playing Cards of SinCredit: Vic Dillinger, 2013
Shake a Leg
Christian beefs with many things can be randomly justified if anyone looks long enough and hard enough in their handbook for oppression, The Holy Bible
Though tobacco was not known to the myriad writers of the Old and New Testaments, Christians can point up the “body-is-a-temple” idea espoused – the human body is not to be defiled whether or not one’s actions harm only oneself.  Therefore, smoking tobacco is a “sin” because it is bad for one’s health.

Christianity is firmly rooted in the suppression of paganism and all things perceived as pagan.  In fact, the very word “pagan” was invented by later Christians as a disparaging term applied to polytheists or others who didn’t believe in their god, Yahweh.  The Romans occupying Israel during the time of Jesus had never heard the word, nor had the Greeks or Egyptians.  [Christian fundamentalists, in their ignorance about all things related to Islam, will often call Muslims “heathens” or pagans, not knowing that the Islamic god, al-Lah, is the exact same god they worship.] 

One of the many forms of ceremonial celebration of pagan ritualism was dancing.  Ceremonial dancing is known to all cultures throughout history, carrying over into modern times as a form of entertainment and socializing in group settings. 

Fundamentalists hate dancing, not because of the presumed (albeit wrongheaded and incorrect) assumption that lascivious shaking around leads to promiscuous sex but because they carry the indoctrination of centuries: dancing equals pagan celebrations.  Therefore, it is a “sin”.

The Shakers, a sect that flourished briefly for nearly two centuries, was established in 1747 by two British zealots.  The true name of the group is the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. 

The Believers (as they styled themselves) lived communally under harsh fundamental doctrines.  However, there was no mixing of the sexes.  While members might work together on assigned tasks in the group, there was strictly enforced segregation.  Men and women lived in separate dormitories, only seeing each other at worship, meals, or working in the commune.  Pre-existing marriages were annulled upon joining the sect, and members could not marry.  Nor was there any sexual intercourse within the ranks (at least, no doctrinally approved sexual intercourse—clandestine liaisons were not uncommon in such circumstances). 

Dancing, in its way, was part of the Believers’ worship.  Members met in a communal hall and separated into men on one side of the room and women on the other.  Scriptural readings, sermons, and hymns filled the congregation’s time.  During their religious fervor, members twitched, jerked, and flailed: these spasmodic movements led to their common name of “Shakers”. 

Sometimes, if the “fever” was high, women and men boldly approached each other’s sides of the common room.  Crossing of the imaginary gender line was called “The Promiscuous Dance”.  The men and women never touched, though; each merely did his or her own shaking in the other’s assigned floor space.

Shakers, their mode of WorshipCredit: public domainThis celibate cult was brought to the US in 1774, and caught on in the Northeast.  However, considering sex was not allowed, the only way to gain new members was through conversion or by adopting orphaned children into the faith.  From a peak of 5,000 members in the US in 1840, membership dropped to 140 by 1930.  By the 1960s there were only 50 Believers left.  In recent years there remained a handful of elderly women living as the Shakers did on a Maine commune.

 I See Your Future
Concurrent with a general distrust and hatred of dancing, fundamentalists also eschewed games of chance, gambling, and other frivolities.  Gambling is a pastime indulged in by humanity since antiquity.  Hard-core Christians love to condemn the practice, though there is no basis for this condemnation in their accepted sacred writings.  

There is no specific Biblical prohibition to gambling per se.  Christians force a taboo where there is none by “interpreting” the Old Testament’s Exodus 20:15 and Leviticus 19:11 as one basis for proclaiming gambling a sin. 

The Exodus “verse” merely consists of the line “Thou shalt not steal”; the Leviticus verse uses the same line and adds another about not speaking falsely to other people.  [Since when is gambling “stealing”?  Since, uh . . . never!  How is gambling theft if all parties involved in a gambling transaction agree to a pay-out to a winner (who clearly did not steal the winnings)?  For that matter, how is gambling lying to another?]

In addition to those two citations, another tasty excerpt tossed out as “proof” that gambling is a sin is from the New Testament, Romans 12:17.  This text only speaks of not repaying an injury with an injury and keeping one’s appearance honorable.  Again, this has nothing to do with gambling—one can be an “honorable” gambler (as long as he or she isn’t a welsher).

One would like to believe that it is the gambling for money or other goods that Christians hate (“ill-gotten”—though legitimately won—gains and all).  Certainly, gambling itself is harmless, except for those who are idiots and gamble away their homes, wives, dogs, or children’s college funds.  And presuming Christians’ professed love for all their fellow humans, it would be an admirable sentiment if the prohibition was truly about watching out for another’s best interests, keeping a person from genuine harm (in the case of gambling, financial harm).     

But it isn’t the monetary gains or losses that the conservative Christian worries about or finds “sinful”.  It isn’t the gambling away of the family home that twists their collective panties into Gordian knots.  It is the accoutrements of gambling—wheels of chance, cards, what have you—that offend tender Christian sensibilities. 

What their Christian “race memory” holds for them is the simple fact that many tools of the gambling trade, such as dice, also once served as divination devices for pagan cultures.  Casting of bones—and the earliest dice were made from knuckle bones of pigs—were a means of answering the unanswerable, predicting the future in addition to being gaming pieces.  [And “craps”, the word for the popular gambling game of dice, has nothing to do with fecal matter.  It is a bastardization of the Louisiana French word, crabs, which means “losing throw”.]

Divination was found in the casting of rune stones (of Occult Egyptian origin) and in the Chinese practice of tossing sticks, the I Ching.  Other methods involved removing the entrails of certain animals, usually birds, and “reading” them.  [This is why Christianity loathes Voodoo; it isn’t the senseless slaughter of a chicken that bothers them, it is the practice of reading the animal’s innards for signs of things to come, and that’s pagan!]

Silent-screen vamp,Theda Bara (promo shot)Credit: c1915-1920The ancient fortune-teller, using animal entrails or other devices of prognostication (scrying, dowsing, et al), was also persecuted for the perceived practice of paganism, though other excuses for such persecution were always contrived. 

It wasn’t that the “Gypsy” was doing anything truly wrong or “sinful”: it was the audacity of the act, proclaiming he or she could predict fate, such utterings having nothing to do with asking for guidance of, or intervention by, the Judeo-Christian god Yahweh.  [And true Bible thumpers will put up a fuss about witchery, quoting a mistranslated phrase they read as “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.  Scholars have interpreted that phrase, from its oldest sources, as properly reading more along the lines of not suffering a “fortune-teller to live”, not a witch.  And, again, the prohibition against fortune-telling had nothing to do with evil, only the soothsayer’s presumption of having powers of divination the zealot believes are only rightfully in the hands of their god.]

One of the more mistrusted, and hated, fortune-teller’s tools of the trade was a pack of painted cards.  And it is with this ancient usage that fundamental Christians developed the idea that playing cards were Satan’s playthings.

52 Card Pick-Up
Playing cards date to antiquity in one form or another.  The origins of them are obscure.  Some believe playing cards are of Asian origin.  Some authorities claim more specifically they developed in China in the 12th Century, became known to the Moors, and were then later introduced by them into Europe.  The earliest reference to playing cards in Europe occurs in Italy in 1299. That would give the origins of playing cards a fairly recent history. 
However, there is sufficient evidence to support the contention that decks of cards were devised by the ancient Egyptians (most likely), the Persians, and Hindus as well.  This would place them as much older as a gaming device.  Because of cross-cultural contacts and trade, it is possible playing cards were very nearly spread, seemingly all at once, throughout the known world.

Early Playing CardsCredit: United States Playing Card Co.Using playing cards for both divination and games seems to have happened concurrently, meaning cards were used for both purposes almost from inception.  [Many inventions achieved dual purposes early on.  This is true of the invention of motion pictures.  Almost as soon as hand-cranked film cameras were reliably available, porn – in addition to “regular” films – was produced.]  Like early baseballs, bats, and baseball gloves, the ancient players of card games often made their own recreational materials.  

A deck did not always contain its current configuration of 52 cards in four suits of 13 cards each.  The suits (hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs) have rarely shifted from the number seen today.  At different times, though, these were represented by acorns, batons, bells, cups, leaves, money, and swords.  The forerunners of face cards, or “court cards” (also known in the past as “trumps” or “stouts”), also varied in number before settling into the three familiar ones of today, the King, Queen, and Jack (or Knave).  The Jokers (usually two in a deck, there as replacements in case other cards are lost or damaged) were added much later; these portray medieval court jesters.   

The deck was standardized before the 16th Century.  The use of several plies of paper made for a more durable card.  Wood engraving lent itself to printing them in uniform quantities in one of the earliest forms of publishing.  And the design on the back was inaugurated as a means of foiling card cheats. 

Minor changes included the addition of numerals and letters in the corners and symbols to help players easily recognize the value of the cards held.  And, in the last significant design change (sometime after 1500) it was the French who standardized the deck to 52 cards and who created the two-headed face cards so these could never be dealt “upside down” (always properly oriented on the deal). 

Whether intentional or not, there is a curious correlation between a deck of cards and some natural phenomena.  The 52 cards in a pack correspond to the 52 weeks of the year.  The four suits mirror the four seasons.  The 13 cards inGypsy Fortune TellerCredit: public domain a suit equate to the 13 lunar months.  Finally, the 12 face cards are symbolic of the 12 signs of the zodiac. 

And it is the use of face cards as symbols of astrological signs with which early fortune-tellers concerned themselves in card readings and in casting horoscopes.  [The standard pack of fortune-telling Tarot cards developed from playing cards, not the other way around.  They came from late-14th Century Italy and France.  Though in use slightly earlier, the oldest known extant pack dates to the reign of French King Charles VI (“Charles the Silly”, 1368-1422).  Tarot cards were also first used as playing cards before they came into vogue as a divination tool.  It was only in 18th Century England that Tarot cards became imbued with certain esoteric associations.]

“Shut Your Bloody Pie Hole!”
In the late 17th Century, the upper classes of Britain played Whist. 
This game had roots in three earlier games (triumph, ruff, and honors) that the lower-class rabble played earlier in the century.  Because of its genteel setting, gamesmen were very serious about maintaining decorum: the word “whist” comes from the hissing sound made to shush noisy onlookers while play was in progress.  [Another theory holds that the game was named for the onomatopoeia of “whisking” up the cards from the table.]

The Englishman, Edmund Hoyle (1672-1769), was a rabid player and also taught the game.  In 1742, he published a definitive guide called A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist.  This was used as the game’s bible until the 1860s.  He later wrote similar tracts on other card games and popular board games.  Over time, he was considered the last word in rules of such diversions, and the phrase “according to Hoyle” passed into the vernacular to mean something was authoritative.

Benjamin Franklin, on a trip to England, became familiar with Whist.  He introduced it in Philadelphia, and it became very popular in the Colonies before the American Revolution.  And many of today’s modern games derive from Whist. 

Jezebel!  She-Devil!
Modern times did not change the image of card-playing idlers in the minds of “good” Christians.  Anyone indulging in cards (most notably Poker) was deemed a miscreant or no good; engaging in any games with a deck of cards was “sinful”.  Professional Old West gambler and gunslinger Doc Holliday (though his game of choice was Faro) and others of his ilk did little to change that image. 

Mostly, the incensed religious person sniffed and believed the morals of the world’s children were somehow corrupted or compromised by handling these ancient tools of the Devil.  And for an example of stuffy-fundamentalism-gone-amok over nothing, a personal anecdote will suffice.

A woman had owned and operated a small-town candy store in the late 1930s to mid 1940s.  She was 90 at the time of meeting 25 years ago, she chain-smoked Carleton 100’s, and she was every bitAunt FritziCredit: Ernie Bushmiller as crusty and cantankerous as legendary screen actress Bette Davis was in her later years.  

At the time she ran her sweets shop, particularly during the years of World War II, the locals (of whom she was not one) were very suspicious of her.  She was a single woman in an era when most women were married.  She was attractive.  She smoked cigarettes.  She was independent.  Sometimes, she even wore pants.

But her biggest social crime had to do with her candy store and its clientele.  Pioneer film-maker D.W. Griffith (1875-1948) – who had been born and raised in a nearby town – frequented her store on those occasions when he was in from Hollywood visiting family in the few years before his death.  He bought candy in quantity at her shop, loitered and gossiped, and shared his stash with whoever came through the door. 

It wasn’t D.W. Griffith that made this liberated woman a social outcast, though.  It was the town’s boys.  For years, she let the local teens and young adult men use a back room of her candy store.  In this back room – gasp! – these renegades and rebels, these outcasts of society, these hard-cases, this group of disaffected youth . . . they smoked cigarettes and – Oh, the horror! Oh, the humanity! – played cards!  [They were also probably swearing—also bad in Christian minds—while they played, probably saying things like, “There’s my gol-danged trey” or “Shecky-dern, you got my ace, you so-and-so”.]  The town’s bible-thumpers were fit to be tied: she was aiding and abetting the corruption of the local youth.  But because this woman cared little for their opinions, she continued to let the boys use her place as she saw fit.  For this she was made a pariah. 

Grab a Deck
Card games still remain very popular.  Poker is now a spectator sport, with championships broadcast on television with jackpots in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.  These tournaments sometimes feature celebrities who took it up (actor Gabe Kaplan of the mid 1970’s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter springs to mind).  Card playing is one of the few enjoyable ways to pass the time in jail.  And if you are a man, there’s not much better in this world than playing Strip Poker with women (as long as it is only women – if there are other men playing the game or even in the room, then that’s just gay). 

Most children learn to play games such as Go Fish or Old Maid by the age of 5 or 6.  Slap Jack is a very simple card game that can be taught to a two- or three-year old, and they enjoy the action of the game play.  [Slap Jack is a game more about reflexes.  Any number can play.  The entire deck is held by a “dealer” who places them face up in a discard pile one at a time.  When a Jack is thrown down, the first person to slap his or her hand down on it gets the discard pile.  The person with the most cards in hand Satan's PlaythingsCredit: Vci Dillinger, 2013when the deck runs out is the winner.]

Bridge, Rummy (and its dozens of variants), Canasta, Pinochle (which uses a special, non-standard deck), Hearts, Tonk, Euchre and hundreds of other games are still enjoyed.  It’s a good way for families to turn off the ever-lovin’ TV and the brain-damaging video-game station and settle in for some “sinfully” good fun.  It’s also a good way for families to reconnect as a unit.  And with today’s ridiculously high costs of entertainment, it’s free – yet another bonus of card playing. 

Go ahead.  Tell your fundamentalist Christian neighbors to go pound sand.  Grab a deck of what once was (and in some tiny minds, still is) a tool of paganism and evil and sin, just a hoot-and-a-holler from the Eternal Fires of Hell’s Everlasting Torments, Satan’s playthings.  Settle in for a few hands of anything you like. 

You know you want to (heh, heh, heh) . . .  


Thoth Tarot Deck
Amazon Price: $25.95 $17.35 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 19, 2016)
Ellusionist Bicycle Shadow Masters Playing Cards
Amazon Price: $9.94 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 19, 2016)

by the author

Trucker Man
Amazon Price: Buy Now
(price as of Jul 19, 2016)