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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*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.

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Cartomancy.

Technically, all Tarot divination falls under the umbrella term “cartomancy,” which refers to divination or fortune-telling with playing cards. According to wikipedia, Tarot reading is actually the most common form of cartomancy today, at least in the English-speaking world. But throughout history, and in other parts of the world, it was/is as common or even more so to use regular playing cards for these purposes.

When I hear the word “cartomancy,” I picture regular playing cards with French suits (that is, Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs/Trefoils, and Spades). It’s kind of odd if you think about it, since Tarot is what I do. But long before I was aware of the existence of the Tarot cards, I was familiar with the concept of cartomancy, and so naturally the word is associated in my mind with the only sort of playing cards I knew about at the time. Not that I could perform any kind of cartomancy in those days. But the possibility of reading playing cards always intrigued me, and even as a youth I would sometimes flip through my deck of Bicycle cards, my imagination running wild while I wondered what secrets they would reveal to me, if only I knew how to decipher them.

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The strange thing is, I almost never participate in card games. I know the basic rules to games like Blackjack and Poker, and I’m usually fairly quick to pick up on trick-taking games if I play along. I’ll play solitaire on the computer at work if I get bored enough, and I know a few card-based drinking games from my college days.

But when asked to play a card game, with our without alcohol, my initial instinct is to decline. I honestly don’t know why, aside from general social anxiety. I’ve always been fascinated with cards, yet never really cared to play games with them (not that I wouldn’t have fun when I did). Once I started learning to read Tarot, my inexplicable attraction to cards began to make a little more sense. They’re not a game at all, but a book to be read, and that’s what I liked about them.

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So I learned to read the Tarot cards. It took me some time, but I think, all things considered, I learned fairly quickly. I learned first with the help of the illustrated pips from the RWS, but eventually I internalized enough of the essence of each card that I could read the simple TdM pips as well. I struck me one day that I could therefore read regular playing cards, too.

This was when I honestly felt like a “cartomancer” for the first time, even though I’d been practicing cartomancy all along. Because of my longtime association of the word with the French suits, I tend to consider “cartomancy” in narrower terms than it’s actually defined (hence my use of the word to designate “traditional” methods of fortune-telling, best suited for TdM-type decks, in this post).

There are many traditional methods of cartomancy with standard cards. I don’t know any of them. When I read playing cards, I’m pulling from the Tarot for my interpretations. Of course, reading from the 52-card deck isn’t exactly the same as reading from the 78-card Tarot. But I’ll discuss that next time.

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Three Methods.

I think the possibilities for different methods of interpreting Tarot readings are virtually endless; as I contemplate the decks in my collection, I sometimes consider the method the creator of each would have had in mind for using his or her deck, or the method that elicits the best results from each.

While I marvel at all of the potential, I’ve given it some thought and I believe I’ve managed to narrow down the vast amount of possible methods to three distinct categories of interpretation.

Cartomancy. This is the most traditional way to read the Tarot, or indeed, any pack of playing cards. I am not particularly well-versed in these methods (yet), but my understanding is that cartomancy involves attaching a number of keywords to the upright and reversed positions of each card, and then laying the cards out to be read as if it were a sentence written on a page. This method of reading requires great skill to master, because the reader must be able to draw from an extensive store of keywords and string together a coherent sentence from those most appropriate to the situation on a moment’s notice. This seems to me to be the method most often associated with actual “fortune-telling”.

Because this method relies largely on rote memorization, it is most suitable for Tarots with unillustrated pip cards. These sorts of decks include Marseille packs especially, but also Etteilla decks and various historic decks, as well as normal packs of 52 or 32 playing cards. Etteilla in particular is responsible for the basic standardization of cartomantic definitions for the Tarot cards, and in fact his system is so well-ingrained that many other, non-cartomantic decks still draw from his meanings for inspiration for their own.

Etteilla’s isn’t the only version of this method, just probably the most prevalent in Tarot divination. Other methods may incorporate numerology or elemental dignities, but if they rely too heavily on these sorts of things, they begin to slide into the territory of the next method.

Occult. This relies on the correlation of Tarot cards with various occult theories and doctrines, most notably Astrology, Kabbalah, and Alchemy. Whereas cartomancy is essentially a self-contained system, occult methods require knowledge of esoteric subjects outside of the Tarot, and therefore usually can only be used with success after much study. Some degree of memorization is still necessary, although rather than keywords, readers must remember the significance of occult symbolism as it appears on the cards.

With the occult, as with cartomancy, there are several variable methods. Occult Tarots include any decks steeped in Astrology or Kabbalah or any number of other esoteric systems. Particularly relevant are packs such as the Thoth or any Golden Dawn-based decks. Oswald Wirth also created a pack of Major Arcana chock full of occultism, but neglected to provide the Minor Arcana. All the same, his influence is still widely felt in many subsequent occult decks, and he offers an alternative to the very popular and heavily influential methods of the Golden Dawn.

The small cards in occult decks are often reminiscent of regular pips, but will typically include occult symbols and glyphs, as well as intentionally symbolic color and geometric schemes. Illustrated small cards are not out of the question, though.

Intuitive. The widest range of possible reading methods falls within the intuitive category. All that is required for intuitive readings is that the reader trusts the images on the cards to stir the subconscious in order to relay the divinatory message. An understanding of the occult is unnecessary, as is a list of cartomantic definitions, although both can be incorporated into this sort of reading. Other ideas outside of the Tarot can have an influence, too, such as psychology or mythology (my personal favorite). Intuitive readings can be as self-contained within the cards or as all-inclusive of other ideas as the reader likes. The only requirement is that it is all inspired in the moment of reading by the images on the cards, and is not confined to a previously ordained system of correspondences. Really, this method is not a method in the same sense as cartomancy or the occult; rather, it’s almost like a lack of a method.

What does this picture remind you of? How do you react to seeing this one? Etc.

It is very difficult not to oversimplify this one (well, I’ve run that risk with all three of these methods, but I think it’s the worst here). There is an entire spectrum of possibilities, ranging from total formlessness (this is the type of reader who may be struck one day by the importance a certain flower or leaf, for example, and totally ignore it the next day – there is no consistency), to an almost cartomantic approach, by which I mean that a reader probably has a good idea formed in his or her mind ahead of time of the general meaning of each card, but will ultimately decide in the moment of the reading which aspect is important. The difference between this and cartomancy is that the meaning in this case is based on personal ideas and experience rather than an established tradition. Of course, more often than not, personal interpretations are at least partially influenced by cartomantic, or sometimes even occult, traditions.

Because of the role intuition plays in this method of reading, decks with illustrated small cards are the most effective, although it is not unheard of to use decks with Marseille pips or occult symbolism intuitively. The majority of these illustrated decks are based on the Rider-Waite Tarot.

The Rider Tarot itself, in my mind, works best as an intuitive deck, although I seriously doubt it was created for that purpose (was intuitive reading even a thing back then?), and the argument for its uses as an occult deck (because of veiled references to the teachings of the Golden Dawn in the Major Arcana) or a cartomantic deck (because of the inherent influence of Etteilla’s definitions in the design of the Minor Arcana illustrations) are strong. The pictures on the cards are vague enough on these points, however, and are evocative enough in general to be very conducive to intuitive readings.

Unlike cartomantic or occult methods of reading, no prior knowledge is needed to read intuitively, and a complete novice can read by this method with as much success as a seasoned Tarot veteran. With that being said, however, the constant addition of new knowledge that comes with time and use makes intuitive reading unique to each person who does it, and can become incredibly complex and insightful in ways that more traditional methods seem unlikely to achieve. On the flip side, though, intuitive readings are far more subjective than other methods, and they are easily prone to the projection of the reader’s biases.

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As you can probably see, it is the style of the Minor Arcana of a Tarot that tends to define the method best suited for use, at least as I’ve presented them. I think that is interesting in itself, because we so often find ourselves focusing on the Major Arcana. In most Tarots, though, the Major Arcana is only subtly different from one to the next, while the style of the Minors can change quite drastically. And no matter how much stock we put into the Majors, I think it is the Minors that really add nuance to a reading.

I should probably say for the sake of completeness that I would add a fourth category called “uncategorizable,” which, obviously enough, doesn’t fit into any of the above. The first example that comes to my mind would be a pack like the Wildwood, which has an intended method of use that is fairly unique to it (not that you couldn’t read it intuitively or otherwise).

These are some broad generalizations that I’ve made in this post, and there is certainly plenty of overlap (I think the Medieval Scapini Tarot, for example, is a perfect example of a deck that can easily be used with any of these three methods). It’s just something I’ve been pondering, though, so I thought I’d share.

What methods do you use? Is there anything I’ve left out? Feel free to comment.