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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The Structure of the Minors.

The Minor Arcana are interesting. Most people are immediately attracted to the Major Arcana when they come to the Tarot, and this is understandable. The pictures are captivating, and they hold all manner of symbols and secrets. Even in the RWS and similar decks, where the Minor Arcana cards are illustrated, they tend to get brushed to the side in favor of the Majors. I’m often guilty of this, I admit. But the Minor Arcana deserves to be studied, as well.

The Minor Arcana consists of two different kinds of cards: Court cards and small cards, also sometimes called pips. We’ll deal with the small cards first.

If the Major Arcana is considered like an alphabet (an esoteric hieroglyphic alphabet, perhaps, but it can be considered an alphabet nonetheless), then the Minor Arcana small cards are like numbers. Two concepts we learn in grade school today, and the two fundamental building blocks of communication. The small cards consist of numbers one through ten, a complete numeric cycle. The full deck of Tarot cards therefore becomes a sort of code of letters and numbers, almost like its own language.

Of course, there are four suits in the Minor Arcana, with ten small cards per suit, making a total of forty small cards. The number four is significant for many reasons. It represents stability, it represents the four elements (with which the four suits identify), the four Hebrew letters that spell the unpronounceable name of God, and finally, it represents the physical world (as opposed to the number three, which represents the spiritual – this is why seven is such a holy number, being the sum of the worldly and spiritual). I think this last reason fits best with why there should be four suits to the Minors. After all, the Minor Arcana is supposed to represent the mundane physical world, in contrast to the spiritual realm of the Majors. The four elements are the stuff of which this world is made, which is why each element is assigned to a suit.

These suits represent abstractions related to the elements as well as the elements themselves. These are usually associated with realms of human experience. Wands are associated with Fire, which is associated with spirituality, creativity, and passion, Cups with Water, which is love, emotions, and social interactions, Swords with Air, which is intellect, conflict, and sorrow, and Coins with Earth, which is the material world, money, and work.

In this way, with the numbers representing levels of gradation or concentration of the appropriate element, the entirety of worldly human experience is theoretically contained within the small cards. Each number is significant in itself, as is each element, and these two factors are combined in each small card to give a distinct meaning. In many cases, this meaning is further refined with the addition of astrological or other esoteric correspondences.

The cards of the Major Arcana symbolize various aspects of the spiritual realm; the small cards symbolize various aspects of the worldly realm; the court cards, then, bridge the gap by symbolizing the only thing that has ever made such a connection between these realms: human beings.

There are sixteen court cards – four to each suit (there’s that number again). They are pictured as different ranks of medieval society: usually a page, knight, queen, and king, although almost as common is to call the page and knight princess and prince. Each of these is often given an elemental association aside from their suit, namely: king – fire; queen – water; knight – air; and page – earth. Thus, the Knight of Coins would be associated with Air and Earth, by virtue of his rank and suit, respectively. Astrological associations are often applied to court cards as well, which is a popular method of selecting significators.

Using astrological and elemental qualities as a basis, personality traits are assigned to each court card. This allows them to signify real people should they turn up in a spread; alternatively, they could signify something about the querent’s personality that may be influencing a given situation. Each card has positive and negative traits attached to it, illustrating that no one is perfect, and any good quality in an extreme measure can turn bad.

There are many other possible ways to interpret court cards, and as such, they are often the most difficult cards for beginners to understand. I won’t go any further into detail about the myriad of possibilities represented by the court cards here, though. Another time, perhaps.

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Most people recognize in the Minor Arcana a pack of regular playing cards (the main difference being the addition of the Knight among the court cards). The Tarot as a full deck or as a partial deck can indeed be used for gaming – there is even a trick-taking game that was specifically designed for this deck.

A lot of Tarot enthusiasts forget this frivolous function of the deck amidst all of the occult and esoteric hullabaloo that has come to be associated with it. As far as we can reasonably tell, though, it was for gaming purposes that this deck was originally created, and nothing more. That might seem disappointing, but I find a certain comfort in it. After all, just because all the symbolism came as an afterthought doesn’t make it any less real or true. If anything, it makes it all the more potent that it occurred naturally over time, or so I believe.

The humble beginnings of this magical deck as a mere game serves as a reminder to never take things too seriously. It’s a lesson that I think a lot of people in this age of Information and all the stress that comes with it would do well to remember. Tarot is a metaphor for life, and life is a game. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But as long as you’re this side of the grave, you’ll be dealt a new hand at the end of each turn. It’s all for fun if you let it be. That might just be the most important lesson the Tarot has to offer, and it’s not even taught by the haughty Major Arcana, but rather by the lowly Minors. They deserve a little more credit.