Cartomancy, Continued.

I do not know traditional methods of cartomancy with regular playing cards. What I do know is cartomancy with Tarot cards. This post is essentially an exercise in translation; I’m here today to explain how I read playing cards using my knowledge of the Tarot.

Really, I think it’s pretty self-explanatory for the most part. A pack of playing cards is nearly indistinguishable from the Minor Arcana, so in a sense it is just like reading with an abridged Tarot. But there are a couple snags that prevent smooth translation.

First is the suits.


I match Wands with Diamonds, Cups with Hearts, Swords with Spades, and Coins with Trefoils.

In his book, Paul Huson makes compelling arguments for why this should be the case. It is very common, however, to associate Wands with Trefoils (usually called Clubs in such instances) and Coins with Diamonds. This actually does make sense. Not only do the respective names of these suits seem related, but the colors match up so that the “hard” suit symbols are both black, and the “soft” ones are red. When all is said and done, though, I prefer to use what I believe is the more traditional order.*

What’s important is not which suits you identify with which, but that you keep it straight in your mind when you’re reading.


The next issue is the court. In Tarot, there are four court cards to each suit: King, Queen, Knight, and Page. With standard playing cards, though, there are only three: King, Queen, and Jack.** This means that, even if we took away the Major Arcana, the decks do not match up. A Tarot stripped of its trumps will still have four more cards than the other pack.

Who’s who?

To me, this is the most annoying issue when it comes to translating Tarot to regular cards.

The simplest solution is probably to just consider the Jack an amalgamation of the Knight and the Page. This means that, given the context of the spread, a Jack could signify a child or young person of either sex, a new endeavor, message, or the coming or going of a matter, among other possibilities. Not exactly clear-cut, but the court cards were always among the vaguest cards with their myriad connotations, anyway.

If taken to mean people, then Kings are mature men, Queens mature women, and Jacks would be the youths. This is a good rule of thumb for identifying people in a general sense. But if you know your Golden Dawn astrological correspondences, then you can get more specific. Interestingly, even though there are 16 court cards in a Tarot, only 12 of those could be considered significators according to the Golden Dawn. The King, Queen, and Knight of each suit matches up with one of the 12 signs of the zodiac.*** The Page, then, has a different role altogether, although I’ll refrain from getting into that today. The point is, by a happy coincidence, a standard deck of cards has just the right number of court cards for a complete set of zodiacal signifiers. Just substitute the Jack for the Knight, and you’re good to go (of course, if you use this method, you can no longer assume a Queen signifies a woman or a King a man).


Strictly speaking, the Major Arcana don’t figure into this particular brand of cartomancy. The closest thing is the Joker. The Joker is an interesting character, somewhere between the Fool and the Juggler of the Tarot. For games he usually serves as a wild card.

For cartomancy, I also tend to think of the Joker as a sort of wild card. It doesn’t have a “meaning,” at least not the same way the rest of the cards in the pack do. When the Joker shows up in a reading, I might interpret it a couple different ways. Sometimes I treat him like the Fool, his sly Joker’s smile chiding me for my ignorance. Sometimes I treat him like the Juggler, his dexterous hands signalling to me that there’s trickery afoot. Something can’t be trusted, and it’s beyond the scope of the pips and courts to get that point across.

Perhaps the Joker is there to tell me that my questions simply can’t be answered at the time of the reading. In this sense, he’s almost like the Wyrd of the runes. Blank. Sometimes the oracles cannot – or will not – reveal their secrets to me. Regardless, it’s best to be wary if he turns up. Either something’s not right, or something’s beyond my control or capacity to understand.

Fool, Trickster, or something better left in the abyss?

Sometimes I interpret him as a suggestion to consult something a little more serious than playing cards. The lack of a Major suit means this sort of cartomancy is best suited for mundane matters, I believe, and the appearance of the Joker could mean that there’s something beyond my worldly concerns which I ought to consider. In this case, I’ll pull out a set of Majors (probably Wirth’s) and explore the matter further.

Another thing I like to do to bring in the Major Arcana (with or without an appearance by the Joker) is calculate the quintessence card. This method is fairly widespread, but I learned about it in a book about Tarot practice. Once the spread is out, you add up the numerical values of all the cards in it. Courts can either be valueless, or they can continue the progression (Jacks are 11, Queens 12, and Kings 13). The Joker is always 0. If the sum surpasses 21, add its constituent digits. The result corresponds to the Major Arcana of the same number, and that card expresses the essence of the spread. I usually use this knowledge to give advice towards approaching whatever situation is spelled out in the layout.


When reading playing cards, I keep the spreads fairly simple. Normally I’ll only lay down a single line, although sometimes I’ll lay down several rows. I usually like my rows to consist of an odd number of cards. The closest thing resembling a Tarot spread that I’ll use is a Celtic Cross, often omitting the column of four cards to the right of the cross.

So that’s it, I think. Again, this is only my personal method of divining with playing cards, and it might show my ignorance of more traditional methods of cartomancy. It’s certainly not perfect, especially knowing there are ways out there that are designed to use these cards instead of the Tarot. If nothing else, though, it’s helped me get more familiar with interpreting pip cards, which is good exercise. And since Tarot is my preferred form of divination, that’s all that really matters to me.

I do like reading playing cards, though. The Tarot is steeped in mysticism, and everybody knows that. The relative plainness of an innocuous pack of playing cards is a stark contrast to the apparent magic of cartomancy, which in my opinion, makes simultaneously for a more compelling and more accessible show when reading for others who most likely do not share my deep fascination with things esoteric.


*The color thing actually did bother me for a little while. But then I realized: the hard and soft suits are not the same colors when Wands are Diamonds and Coins are Clubs, but the elemental dignities of the suits match up so that Fire and Water are red, and Air and Earth are black. Fire and Water are the the elements that come together in the Hermit’s lantern as the hexagram. This is a symbol for Life, and it seems fitting to me that these elements should have the hue of blood, that fiery water of vitality that courses through the veins of us all. Conversely, black seems a suitable color for Earth and Air. These two elements strike me as a bit more conservative (though no less necessary for life) than their counterparts, and a more subdued color is therefore apt.

**Different cultures do things differently. The Tarot has an extra card either way, but which card is the extra? In French-suited decks, there is no Knight (the Jack, also sometimes called the Knave, is akin to the Page), but in German-suited decks, there is no Queen. The Ober and Unter (literally, the “over” and “under”) are equivalent to the Knight and Page, respectively. In this post, it’s a given that I am using the French suits, and I didn’t want to muddy things up by bringing the Germans into it. But I thought the point was relevant enough to merit a footnote, at least.

***This is an oversimplification made for the sake of clarity and brevity. It’s really not as simple as just matching the card with the constellation. Each card begins 20 degrees into one sign and ends 20 degrees into the next. So, for example, the Knight of Cups (or Jack of Hearts, as the case may be) is most likely a Libra, but there’s a possibility he might be a Scorpio instead; and someone else has claim to that slice of Libra left behind by the Knight (that’s the Queen of Swords/Spades). While I’m at it, I should point out that the Golden Dawn doesn’t refer to their court cards by the more traditional titles which I use in this post (the Knight of Cups mentioned a moment ago would actually be called the Prince or King of Cups, depending on who you’re talking to). But that’s a very lengthy and confusing digression better covered elsewhere. Just wanted to point it out.


7 thoughts on “Cartomancy, Continued.”

  1. I think you’re on the right track with an amalgam of the Knight and Knave since it makes for a convenient roll-up that also makes a lot of sense. Since some people already think of the Fool as a “wild card” that can pop up anywhere in the sequence, using the Joker in the same way makes sense too. I also always thought that Wands should be Diamonds and Coins should be Clubs/Trefoils, but there is considerable testimony (or at least opinion) for the other way around among experienced playing-card readers. I will have to see what Huson has to say. Personally, I decided to learn from the considerable body of playing-card literature that’s out there on-line (Hedgewhytchery, Kapherus, Auntietarot, Serena Powers, “Grand Orient” (A.E. Waite), P.S. Foli, Sepharial and others) rather than trying to graft on tarot meanings, but I think the TdM pips are already more than half-way there anyway since they’re non-scenic. The main difference I can see between the two is in the significance of numbers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. According to Huson, the Trefoils were attributed to the Coins simply because of its similarities to the common design at the center of the coins. The reason for Wands as Diamonds is a bit more convoluted, but essentially the same thing: the actual French for the suit sign translates to “paving tiles”, which makes more sense as a reference to the diamond-shapes made by many intersecting wands than it does to anything found on a Coins card. It’s only once these suits are named in English as Clubs and Diamonds that they make more sense the other way around. Etteilla was the first to establish these associations, and Mathers followed suit (no pun intended). Considering that they are French suits originally, and Etteilla was a Frenchman and professional cartomancer, his associations seem to me to be more appropriate.

      I’ll take some time at some point to look up some of your references here. What do you mean about the significance of numbers? Which relies more heavily on that, playing cards or Tarot?

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      1. That’s a fair question. There are two forms of number theory that I use with tarot: Pythagorean and Qabalistic. The first is based on the esoteric qualities of geometric figures (Point, Line, Triangle, Square, etc. – Iamblichus and Thomas Taylor are probably better sources than others for that, and they’re free downloads) and the second is based on Tree of Life sephirothic symbolism as used to goof effect by Aleister Crowley. As far as I can tell, the playing-card method of interpretation partakes of neither; the Hedgewhytchery system is pagan (for example, the Six has to do with “paths”) but I haven’t taken the time to look at the others yet. When I get more deeply into it I’ll sort it out.


      2. I should have added Joseph Maxwell to the mix, but he can be a bit of a “mind-bender” with his theory of isomorphs: two numbers that add up to the same number (for example, both 3+2 and 4+1 add up to 5, and each one makes a different contribution to the meaning of the Five cards). He works with the TdM, which really added to my understanding of the pip cards.

        Also, I didn’t intend to imply that Crowley was a “goof” (but he might have been amused by the slip).

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      3. Thanks for clearing that up. I suspected as much, because I am familiar with Tarot numerology (I prefer my numbers Pythagorean rather than Qabalistic, but both systems work well), but I wasn’t sure because I have no experience with playing cards. For all I knew, they relied very heavily on numerology. It would make sense, because, well, pips. If I knew nothing of Tarot and I approached playing cards as I am now, I would do it with numerology because that seems the most obvious way to me. I’m a little surprised its not more common.

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  2. After ~10 years of being really invested in Tarot, I took a break and did ~5 years with only playing cards. What I liked to do was lay out an order-three magic square (Square of Saturn, etc.), and then instead of reading the face cards as I would regularly based on their Tarot-definition, I’d make new meanings for the face cards based on the columns in the magic square. The meaning of the Jack is derived from the left column (4, 3, 8), the meaning of the Queen is derived from the middle column (9, 5, 1), and the meaning of the King is derived from the right column (2, 7, 6). This way, there are no inelegant amalgamations of Page+Knight, and it’s also a nice way to explore polarity between the face cards.

    And you’re not alone in using the Joker as a wild card with a definition that varies depending on the weather. I did the same with the Joker when I read playing cards, and still do the same with the Fool when I read Tarot. It doesn’t do much to preserve the archetypal journey of the trumps, but it’s a fun and creative way to preserve the Joker / “wild card” aspect that Tarot inherited from playing cards.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll have to give that a whirl and see what I come up with. “Inelegant,” yes, that’s a good way to describe my attempts at a synthesis of the Knight and Page.
      In a sense, the Joker is the same as the Fool, what with having no numerical designation and existing “outside” the rest of the pack. But the Joker really strikes me as more of a Juggler type than the pariah that is often associated with the Fool. There’s certainly some ambiguity there (the Fool, Juggler, and Joker all share the same potential to be a clown, for example, which is a manifestation of the Trickster. The fact that the Trickster is the archetype shared by all three is more the reason to take care when he turns up). I like to take this into account when I read.
      Many decks of cards come with two Jokers, and I’ve heard of people who assign the black one to the Magician and the red one to the Fool (or perhaps vice-versa), which is a sensible enough solution. Usually, though, I only read with one Joker, and even if two of them do sneak in there, I tend to interpret them according to the situation.


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