Masonic Playing Cards by Yasha Beresiner

Playing cards have been around for centuries. The earliest report, in Florence at the end of the 14th Century, is an edict banning their use because they are ‘The Devil’s Picture Book’. Not surprisingly, there are such things as masonic playing cards.

First however the more esoteric aspect of the subject: Tarot Cards.

Waite Tarot and masonic association
The tarot pack does indeed lend itself to the fanciful imagination of the enterprising artist. One should bear in mind, however, that ‘tarot’ was, and still is, a game. The 78 cards in a tarot pack are relatively ordinary playing cards with a number of trump cards added. They were not originally intended to have any esoteric or divinatory significance, unlike fortune telling cards which date as far back and were designed especially for prediction.

The embellishments of the tarot have evolved over time. Today we are faced with hundreds of different tarot packs and many irrational and speculative theories as to the tarot’s true origins. One factor has been faithfully preserved by makers and designers over the past 600 years playing cards were first mentioned in an ecclesiastical edict in Florence, banning their use in 1377 and that is the same characteristics of the standard court pack and the 22 major arcana of the tarot.

The latter, from earliest times, has had biblical symbolism incorporated into the designs. There is a danger of giving such symbolism unintended and non-existent masonic significance if you are really serious about your collecting.

For example, the ‘Insight Institute Tarot’ published in the 1970s has a back design of the all-seeing eye flanked by two Solomonic columns. The Empress of the pack has pillars on either side named BOA and JAK, and on her lap the Empress holds the VSL named TORA. Masonic? Seemingly, but not so. The symbols are either purely biblical, or the artist is using allegories that appeal to him personally, within the artistic context of the theme.

Masonic Playing Cards

On the other hand, the French Masonic Tarot deck, by Jean Beauchard published by Grimaud in 1987 France is clearly masonic in its design. So were some of the cards in the Italian 22 arcana pack titled Le Mani Divinitori published by Oswaldo Meneghazzi in 1979. In the latter the Hanging Man card XII in standard packs is represented by a plumb rule hanging over a black and white chequered floor. Card XIII Death is a leaf of acacia, while card XXI depicts compasses. These, Mr Menegazzi told me, were intended as masonic symbols within the masonic ritual. An accompanying leaflet published with the cards explains the associations.

Early fortune telling packs are rare and there is no standardization. Generally, some statement is made on the face of the card as to its significance. I have found a deliberate masonic symbol on only one such pack: it is dated circa 1780, and card 84 of the 86 cards that comprise the pack, is titled ‘An Grand Orient’. It depicts a masonic apron crowned with the letter ‘G’ and is embellished with many masonic symbols.

Of most interest to the collector is the 52-card non-standard pack. ‘Non-standard’ is defined as a pack where the familiar court cards – kings, queens, jacks – have been changed in design. Of these the Royal Masonic playing cards are the most important and interesting. They have been described at length in the December 1979 issue of Masonic Square.

This pack was designed by John Leignton, manufactured by Chas Goodall, and published by John Hogg in 1886. The kings depict Edward VII, who was installed as Grand Master in 1870 and was yet to become king. The letters SKI are prominent on the sash he is wearing. The queens, titled ‘Sheba’, are portraits of Princess Alexandra and the jacks show Prince Arthur of Connaught and Leopold the Duke of Albany. The former has a sash sporting HKT and the latter HAB. The back of the pack is profuse with masonic symbols, including the coat of arms of the United Grand Lodge of England.

A contemporary and rarer 32 card pack was published in Paris, France in 1889 by Emile Lenoir titled Jeu Républicain a emblemes Maconiques Because it is printed by wood block, it has the appearance of being earlier. The cards have substituted suit designs. Instead of the standard spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs, we have ‘Masonic square and compasses’, ‘handshakes’, ‘five-pointed stars’ and ‘pharyngian caps of liberty’. George Washington is the king of the ‘square and compasses’, and William Tell, Brutus and Camille Desmoulines, French revolutionaries, are the other three. The queens are all identified by virtues, while the jacks are allegorical.

In 1980 J M Simon of France published a pack designed by Julien Lebleu to commemorate the history of Freemasonry. This attractive pack has the kings as masters of the lodge, the queens and jacks are other masonic officers while the jokers are two operative masons.

A third group of Masonic playing cards is one where the back of an otherwise ordinary pack is used to publicise or commemorate a masonic item or event. In 1985, for instance, the celebrations of the centenary of the Provincial Grand Lodge of the Isle of Man were commemorated with such a pack. Only a few packs were produced offered for sale through the Masonic Square, and they are now a true collectable item. There are a large number of such advertising packs.

My favourite is the personalized pack with the portrait of Walter M Dill, the 1970 ‘Potentate’ of the Medinah Temple in Chicago. His fez, with the Shriners’ emblem prominent, matches the mason’s expansive smile.

LIST OF MASONIC PLAYING CARDS: (Please e-mail your additions to the list to yasha@intercol.co.uk )

a. Masonic Tarot and Fortune Telling cards:

  • Grimaud
  • Meneghazzi
  • Empress Tarot
  • Early French

b. Masonic non-Standard cards:

  • Goodall
  • French Revolutionary
  • Australian
  • American
  • Grimaud

c. Masonic Advertising and Commemorative cards:

  • Toye
  • Isle of Man
  • Provincial