The four suits in a deck of playing cards -- Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs and Spades -- are more than just convenient divisions for game purposes. The symbols have a long and complex history, and each suit has acquired additional meanings over the centuries. The suit of Spades has a wealth of symbolic associations, from clarity and truth to military nobility to omens of death.
The Spades suit comes from the French system of playing cards. Traditionally, each of the four suits represented a different group within society, although this may be a later interpretation of the symbols. Spades -- called "piques" in the French system -- represented the nobility, standing in for the lances of knights. Although the name of the suit resembles the digging implement, the name "spade" actually comes from the Italian "spada," which means "sword," the corresponding suit in Italian card decks. In English, as in French, the Spade suit represents weapons.
Swords in the Tarot
The traditional Italian suits -- Cups, Coins, Swords and Staves -- are preserved in modern Tarot decks. Originally used for card games, the Tarot is now mainly used as a method of divination, with each card having its own symbolic meaning. There are many different interpretations of the Tarot suits, but Swords, associated with the element of air, usually represent logical and rational thought, cutting through uncertainty and slicing truth away from falsehood.
History of Spades
The history of modern playing cards begins in the middle ages, when cards were introduced into southern Europe, probably from Mameluke Egypt. The earliest suits were Cups, Coins, Swords and Staves, but different parts of Europe quickly developed different suits. For instance, in Germany, the typical suits were Hearts, Acorns, Bells and Leaves. The French system influenced English card players and, by extension, the whole English-speaking world.
The Ace of Spades
Probably no playing card is more weighted with symbolism than the Ace of Spades (unless it's the Queen of Hearts). The Ace of Spades is seen as symbolizing death. American soldiers used the Ace of Spades as a menacing image in Vietnam, and images of the Grim Reaper superimposed on an Ace of Spades are common. Why exactly the Ace of Spades represents death is unclear; it may be that as the highest card in the suit, it's associated with the number 13, traditionally considered unlucky. It is also traditionally an ornate card compared to the other aces. This custom derives from the tradition of stamping a duty-paid mark on the uppermost card in the deck.
Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.