Card Cosmology, Part I

During my year abroad in Taiwan diligently studying Chinese and building Gundam models, I had a good deal of free time on my hands. That Summer I had taken an interest in Poker and other card games, and even developed a game of my own called The Duel. Taking my favorite deck with me to Taiwan, I spent many of the quiet hours of the day learning how to shuffle properly and playing my favorite card game, Solitaire.

By way of preface, recall our overview of Wayne Proudfoot's argument about how religious ideas come in to explain agitations or disruptions of our regular experience.

Much as Proudfoot suggests the considerable time spent by a Nichiren Buddhist chanting their mantra would lead the chanter to become attracted to ideas which could give meaning to their apparently meaningless activity, the long hours I spent playing Solitaire led me to experience a similar psychological inclination to explain or account for my actions, and to supply meaning for them.

Beginning with the unintentional mapping of the Chinese cosmological duality of yin (陰) and yang (陽) onto the cards' black and red suits, I ultimately fabricated (or, depending on how one looks at it, discovered) an elaborate cosmology which the deck of cards represented and embodied. Encoding a cosmology into the cards transformed Solitaire from an idle game into an active cosmological process for divination or a kind of apotropaic spellcasting.

Besides pre-existing cosmological ideas like yinyang, this cosmology drew on elements of superstition known to me from other cards games, my intuitive impressions of traditional gender roles, and even on the lines from Sting's song "Shape of my Heart": "I know that the spades are the swords of a solider, / I know that the clubs are weapons of war; / I know that diamonds mean money for this art, / but that's not the shape of my heart." Though as a student of religion, and thus one familiar with many traditions' cosmological notions, I probably could have deliberately constructed a clean-cut cosmology for the cards, what I came up with is instead syncretic and accreted over a period of time. While I was etically aware of what I was doing, I did not willfully build a cosmology as such, but rather observed as my mind and habit seized upon material from various sources, emically layering and blending to conceive a small idea system which, though it were new, was not cut from new whole cloth.

Our next post will be devoted simply to an account of the details of this cosmology of cards. Subsequently, we will consider the possibility of an actual religion built around that cosmology, and in so doing consider the implications for the formation of any 'new' religion.


  1. I have been redirected here by a friend from TV Tropes, and all I can say is that I am amazed. Have you considered working for such companies as Wizards Of The Coast or Games Workshop? I am sure they could use your skills to induce awesome in their work.

  2. I'd be delighted to find such an occupation, to be sure. In any case, the suggestion is quite flattering.

  3. So i'm a little confused. I thought you said that when a male face card, a jack or a king, was black it would be positive as it was balanced with the feminine, and if a queen was red the same but balanced because of the association with the masculine. So why is it that in your descriptions you have both positive and negative sides described for each of the face cards. If they were to be visually represented in a deck would their negative or positive association be ambiguous or would it be evident in the art of the cards?

  4. I'm sorry. I had meant to post that on Part II. But the question remains.

  5. You're right about the positive characterizations of black kings and jacks and red queens on one hand, and red kinds and jacks and black queens on the other. While those characterizations are the most prevalent (especially in the context of Apotropaic Solitaire), each of the cards have potentially positive and negative aspects which can be emphasized differently in different circumstances (which is crucial to Divinatory Solitaire). I hope yesterday's post might clear up that point.

    Meanwhile, I suppose a deck could be made which visually emphasizes the positive and negative traits of the face cards. However, I prefer traditional card art, and I don't think such embellishment would be necessary. Nevertheless, the suggestion is an interesting one, and I can imagine that in a full-fledged card cult such decks could surface and even become prevalent. I'll keep it in mind for next week's discussion.