Playing Cards and the Fifth Suit of Eagles
For a good 40 years now, complete game fanatic that I am, I've been wondering what the fifth suit of eagles looked like. Well, now at long last I know. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I know what the suit of eagles looked like.
See, back in the 1930s they briefly came out with a
A fifth green suit of eagles! I was galvanized. Already at that age I had awakened to the aweful platonic mystery that burns at the heart of all games. That there had once, however briefly and fleetingly, been a suit of eagles... to me, this came as a mystic revelation on par with news of a fifth element ranking alongside earth, air, fire, and water.
Over the years I kept an eye out for any further notice about this fifth suit of eagles. I'd run across mention of it every now and then, usually in some book about card games. Always the mention was terse and nondescript. What did the suit sign for the suit of eagles look like? Other than that it had been green, no description.
Around age 12 or 13, I sent a letter to the United States Playing Card Company in Cincinnati, asking if they had any five-suit decks with the suit of eagles. They wrote back to me that their stock from the 1930s was long since exhausted, and they didn't know where I could obtain a deck.
I made a few attempts myself at designing a suit of eagles. The two cards on the left are from a complete
I was very much into the idea at that age that suit signs, wherever they wafted out there in Platonic hyperspace, had to be iconic and at the same time archetypal in some deep, resonant sense. I assumed (as I still in some sense assume) that "deep" suit signs are real, real in some almost Platonic sense, and that our task is but to intuit them by seining and dredging deep within. (As you can tell, I have never been altogether brought over into the realm of deracinated Western modernity: there is an atavistic premodern streak in me a mile wide, and I have always been quite at home with it.)
Then some time into my high school years, early 1970s, I made another try at designing a green eagle suit sign. Note the card on the right, the seven of eagles with the swirling, curving abstract eagles. Much more of a piece with the curving, abstract design of clubs, spades, hearts, diamonds. My curving eagles looked like triskelions, only four-armed: three arms swirling counterclockwise and the fourth arm curving the opposite way, clockwise, to form head and wings and tail. I think I was onto something here.
(And if I remember correctly, this playing card— with swirling green eagle suit signs and blue clouds in the background— came to me originally in a dream.)
And there matters stood. For decades. Wondering what the suit of eagles looked like, wondering but never knowing. Brief references, never any description. No description, not even in James Blish's science-fiction novel Jack of Eagles, an earlier and shorter version of which was entitled Let the Finder Beware. (Hence the name of my blog.) Even when I eventually got on the Internet, I searched and searched but came up empty: hundreds of brief references to the fifth suit of eagles, sounding most of them pretty much alike; but no pictures, no descriptions.
Until just the other day, when I stumbled across a picture on the BoardGameGeek site. Then that picture led on to several more, to pictures of old playing cards, 1930s vintage, with the green fifth suit of eagles. I was electrified! After 40 years, here right in front of me was the original green fifth suit of eagles! It seems a single user uploaded several pictures of the American green fifth suit of eagles, and the British blue fifth suit of crowns.
You can find a large, full-sized picture of the suit of eagles here, and all the assorted fifth-suit pictures here.
I must confess, I never would've guessed what the suit of eagles looked like. I like the design, but it's more complex, not as iconic as I would've expected; and yet at the same time rather suit-sign abstract, in ways that only really sink in after you look at it a while.
And after 40 years and more, a longstanding burning Platonic mystery has been unveiled to me. Long have I dreamed of that fifth green suit of eagles; and now at long last my eyes have beheld it in its original form.