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. Its use is contrary to Christian instruction. 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 wisdom and psychology.

“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:”

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

One (Christian) objection is also one against Faust. Divination can be an attempt to interfere with God’s plan, to gain knowledge by peeking behind the scenes and it feeds Satan’s power. It will defile you. If a spirit is invoked it is some other non-Christian spirit that is invoked, and if no spirit is invoked, they still argue the Devil is behind it. 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. That was the argument back in Faust’s 16th century, and it hasn’t changed, even though it won’t get you burned at a stake in Europe anymore.

Card History

In the beginning, playing cards were used just to play games, not for divination.

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

Using the same cards for divination may go back to earlier Gypsy or Egyptian cultures, but this is not proven. If it did, there might be more agreement on the meaning and interpretation of cards.

The first European cards were Eastern and Islamic in imagery—exotic and beckoning—reflecting their history through the Mamlukes of Egypt and capitalizing on the fad for 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.

Card Reading

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 also use the cards as a device to help them think through scenarios and outcomes. The superstitious and the spiritual explore the world of the occult, and on occasion, the less scrupulous discover 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, or 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. It’s up to the creativity of the reader to interpret them.

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. 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 and 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 their own imagery and interpretation.

“Bomback held a bank at faro, which only came to an end at eleven, when the money was all gone. We then supped, and the real orgy began, in which la Riviere bore the brunt in a manner that was simply astonishing. I and my friend Lunin were merely spectators, and poor Crèvecœur had gone to bed. We did not separate till day-break.

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