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Why king of hearts doesn’t have a moustache? Is he stabbing himself to his head?

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Posted October 4, 2018

Everyone is familiar with playing cards. We use them from a very young age and they are so deeply rooted into our civilization, people kind of take them for granted. However, there is a lot of symbolism involved in playing cards. Have you ever noticed that the king of hearts is the only king in playing cards with no moustache? He also appears to be piercing his own head with a dagger. Why was it drawn that way?

King of hearts sometimes is called the “suicide king”. He is also the only one without a moustache. Image credit: Enoch Lau via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Although cards were probably invented in ancient China, they reached Europe from Persia. A game called Ganjifa involved colourful disks with various figures drawn on them. There were some kings, which were ranked higher than knights. In fact, king card is probably the oldest one in playing cards, so it had a lot of time to evolve and change. Long time ago kings in European cards were sitting, but in 15th century standing Kings were drawn in Spain. French used Spanish design for quite some time, but then at the end of 15th century they invented their own.

British used French cards – they were importing them from Rouen. However, in 17th century import of playing cards was banned. Regardless, there was enough time for the French design to spread across the British world, which was dominant back in the day. This is why today we are still using the traditional French design, although different countries have some different features. For example, in Russian playing cards, all kings have moustache and no one is killing themselves.

If you take a look at the king of hearts of playing cards, you may notice that he is quite unique. He is the only one without a moustache.  In 15th century French manufacturers assigned actual historical figures to each of the king card. King of hearts became Charles the Great, who most likely had moustache. In fact, the drawing had moustache too at first – they disappeared over time due to manufacturing imperfections.

This is how the king of hearts evolved over time. Image credit: various via Wikimedia

At that time playing cards were stamped using wooden stamps. They were carved by hand, copying the previous design. Over time these wooden blocks would be worn down, making the drawing less and less vivid. When copying these cards, manufacturers started skipping the moustache, because it wasn’t visible anymore. This is also the reason why king of hearts looks like he is stabbing himself in the head. Originally he had an axe, but at some point the axe head disappeared and the handle turned into a dagger, which kind of looks like he is killing himself.

Playing cards are beautiful pieces of human culture and art. They have a lot of history and symbolism. However, some mysteries could be explained through simple manufacturing imperfections.

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