Seated woman studying a card layout
The Fortune Teller (circa 1869) by Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870).
Cartomancy is the art of fortune-telling or divination using either a regular deck of cards, tarot cards, or a special fortune-telling deck. The popular use of cards for fortune telling only goes back as far as the use of printed cards in Europe, which follows from the invention of the printing press there around 1440. Early decks – including tarot – were originally created for games, not divination.

Cartomancy includes all kinds of card reading of which tarot card reading is just one.

Cards can be read for any reason: from revealing past lives, to finding a love match, problem-solving, to telling the future. While its use was contrary to Christian instruction, neither was it – or is it – necessarily taken all that seriously. For many, card reading is just a bit of fun to pass some time.1 For the more dedicated cartomancers, there have evolved books that help the card reader to understand the meaning of the cards according to different systems, but there are no hard and fast sets of rules.

Some think card readers must be psychic, connected to an ethereal force; a spirit world that reveals the future, and can see into the mind and soul. Others think that’s ridiculous: that cartomancy involves methodology and the sensitive application of psychology.

“Do not have recourse to the spirits of the dead or to magicians; they will defile you. I, Yahweh, am your God.” —Leviticus 19

“Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.” —Deuteronomy 18:10-11

It’s a Sin

Certain religious sources believe cartomancy, like all forms of divination, is a sin. In fact, the Bible is quite clear on the matter: it is prohibited.

Any sort of divination or serious pretense to tell fortunes was contrary to God’s instruction in Leviticus 19:26 to “not practice divination or sorcery.”

One objection follows that against Faust – it is an attempt to interfere with God’s plan, to gain knowledge by peeking behind the scenes. Furthermore, say some, it feeds Satan’s power – it will defile you. It rarely involves addressing God, instead, if a spirit is invoked it is some other non-Christian spirit that is invoked, and if no spirit is invoked, it is still assumed one is behind the revelations. Christians (say Christians) should be content to trust in God. If a Christian chooses fortune-telling; he/she is choosing evil, and that provides an opening for evil spirits to enter into them. This applies to white magic as well (which is just weaselly anyway), and don’t forget that masturbation and extra-marital sex are also evil!

Card History

Interactive timeline of cards, cartomancy and tarotIn the beginning, playing cards were used just to play games: nobody used them for divination, except perhaps for a bit of fun and diversion.

It is thought that playing cards had originated the East – China, Persia, India – in the 9th century, and were first introduced to Europe in Spain or Italy around 1350. Their use spread rapidly over the next decade.

The first European cards were Eastern and Islamic in imagery – exotic and beckoning – reflecting their history through the Mamlukes (Egyptians of the time), and capitalizing on the then-current fad for ancient, esoteric sources of Eastern mystical knowledge which characterized the Italian Renaissance. Soon, Christian motifs and imagery evolved.

Their spread and popularity was tied to the invention of the printing press. Playing cards were another source of income for printers, and regions developed their own styles and decks.

As today, using cards for divination was disdained by those who thought it was a foolish preoccupation of superstitious women and children, and of the simple and credulous who were astonished by a child’s game, and who supposed that destiny lay in the cards, rather than in the body and the spirit.

Card Reading

Although some think that cartomancy goes back to earlier Gypsy or Egyptian cultures, this is not proven. The lack of solid agreement on the meaning and interpretation of cards suggests there is little coherent history. Consequently, some say a reading depends on the psychic sensitivities of the card reader.

It may help to be a clairvoyant psychic and to be tied into the spirit world, and to see into the past and the future, and into both the heart and the soul, but card readers discovered they could use the cards as a device to help them explore scenario and outcome. The superstitious and the spiritual explored the world of the occult, and on occasion, the less scrupulous discovered the value of a little psychology and trickery.

Out of these, an industry was born. Hundreds of years later you can now get instant free online tarot readings, and find an online psychic on a truly etheric hotline, dragging the 14th century into the 21st.

Card Decks for Fortune-Telling

Any kind of deck can be used for cartomancy as it’s up to the creativity of the reader to interpret them. Even the famous one-suited 2 card binary deck can be used for divination, as can be the more rational derivative single-card deck, which is probably the hardest deck to use in a professional setting.

Standard Cards

As well as the 52-card deck familiar to English poker and bridge players, there are standard decks specially made for other games varying in popularity among nations and cultures. The French for example may use a 32-card deck, as do the Germans. The Italians may use 40 cards, the Spanish 40 or 48. Between nations, the suits differ, but generally are four in number.

Regardless, any deck can be used for fortune-telling if the reader is up to it, and they develop a method, and a consistent way of interpreting the cards.

Tarot Cards

The tarot deck is very similar to the standard English playing card, except the suits have different names, and the Jack may be replaced by two other court cards.

But it’s usually a 78 card deck – there are 21 or 22 additional picture cards called the Trumps.

Not all tarot decks are the same. Among others, the standard tarot decks are the Rider-Waite deck, the classic Tarot de Marseille (used by the famous Marie Anne Lenormand), and Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck, and their derivatives. Books explain how to use each of the different decks for fortune-telling and divination.

Fortune Telling Cards

Fortune, or future-telling cards are also known as oracle cards. Oracle cards are made especially for fortune telling. Fortune-telling using special cards is a relatively modern thing. Fortune telling cards don’t necessarily follow the tarot structure, and have diverse imagery and interpretation.

Casanova’s Concubine Commits Cartomantic Calumny

“I got home, and, fortunately for myself, escaped the bottle which Zaira flung at my head, and which would infallibly have killed me if it had hit me. She threw herself on to the ground, and began to strike it with her forehead. I thought she had gone mad, and wondered whether I had better call for assistance; but she became quiet enough to call me assassin and traitor, with all the other abusive epithets that she could remember. To convict me of my crime she shewed me twenty-five cards, placed in order, and on them she displayed the various enormities of which I had been guilty.

I let her go on till her rage was somewhat exhausted, and then, having thrown her divining apparatus into the fire, I looked at her in pity and anger, and said that we must part the next day, as she had narrowly escaped killing me. I confessed that I had been with Bomback, and that there had been a girl in the house; but I denied all the other sins of which she accused me. I then went to sleep without taking the slightest notice of her, in spite of all she said and did to prove her repentance.

I woke after a few hours to find her sleeping soundly, and I began to consider how I could best rid myself of the girl, who would probably kill me if we continued living together. Whilst I was absorbed in these thoughts she awoke, and falling at my feet wept and professed her utter repentance, and promised never to touch another card as long as I kept her.” The Memoires of Casanova, Complete, Volume 5,Chapter XX (1894). By Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, at The Project Gutenberg

References and Reading

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