On the Cards and Dice
Sir Walter Raleigh
Before the sixth day of the next new year,
Strange wonders in this kingdom shall appear:
Four kings shall be assembled in this isle,
Where they shall keep great tumult for awhile.
Many men then shall have an end of crosses,
And many likewise shall sustain great losses;
Many that now full joyful are and glad,
Shall at that time be sorrowful and sad;
Full many a Christian’s heart shall quake for fear,
The dreadful sound of trump when he shall hear.
Dead bones shall then be tumbled up and down,
In every city and in every town.
By day or night this tumult shall not cease,
Until an herald shall proclaim a peace;
An herald strange, the like was never born,
Whose very beard is flesh and mouth is horn.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently proposed building a casino complex to revive the moribund Israeli resort town of Eilat. The religious parties in the coalition and the social affairs minister from his own Likud party immediately condemned the idea.
American gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, one of his major backers, has no interest in a casino project in Eilat, Netanyahu claims. Leaders never lie but Adelson’s indifference doesn’t preclude encouragement from other cronies, such as Australian media and gambling tycoon James Packer, who recently bought a home near the Netanyahus’ private residence in Caesarea.
Be that as it may, gambling has a long association with the nexus of power, money and favors. Sir Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh, ca. 1554-1618), soldier, swashbuckler, poet, courtier and explorer was a “favorite” in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. No one knows exactly what intimacies being a favorite entailed, but among Sir Walter’s lucrative rewards was a monopoly on playing cards. His view of dice and men is commensurately suave.
Raleigh, a Protestant, was concerned more about politics than pietym but he knew the stories very well. His observations on gambling are framed around events surrounding the birth and death of Jesus.
The date mentioned in the first line, January 6, is the Feast of the Epiphany in Western Christianity, marking the appearance of the three Wise Men (or Magi or kings) bearing gifts for the newborn child. The “strange herald” at the end of the poem “Whose very beard is flesh and mouth is horn” has the wattle and beak of the cock who crowed on the morning after the Last Supper, just before the Crucifixion, when the disciple Peter denied knowing Jesus and then repented, subsequently founding the Christian church.
Raleigh employs double-entendres for kinds of gaming. The kings are the three in the Epiphany story plus Jesus himself, as well as the four on playing cards. “Crosses” are troubles by extension from the Crucifixion and also from “cross and pile,” the Elizabethan version of heads and tails. “Trump” is both in the sense of last trumpet and winning card. (Not Donald.) “Dead bones” will rise again at the Second Coming and are also dice made of bone, possibly the lots Roman soldiers cast (Matthew 27:35) for the possessions of those they crucified.
*Bonus: Kenny Rogers sings “The Gambler”
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