Information on the Mamluk cards inscriptions below comes from The World of Playing Cards website. A few notes added on the Grand and Petit Lenormand decks.
Updated: 5/2011: There are a scattering of references to cards and their use in “lots” (sortes) or fortune-telling from the 15th century on, including analogies between the four suits and characteristics such as the virtues and the elements. Recently Ross Caldwell discovered a treasure-trove of Spanish references that he describes here. He notes: “The main points to be taken from the recent discoveries are that, in Spain at least, there were professional cartomancers in the 17th century, and they used layouts with multiple cards and positional significations.” Follow the trail of evidence below (and add to it Ross’s recent contributions) to see the development of divination with cards.
The 15th Century
Joch de nayps moreschs – 1414, Barcelona
Two Barcelona inventories have entries for “joch de nayps (or ‘nahyps’) moreschs”. The Instituto Municipal de Historia in Barcelona formerly held several sheets of uncut woodblock cards of the Moorish design from around this period. Their similarity to the late 15th or early 16th century Mamluk playing cards is obvious. What makes this important to our discussion is that the latter cards (see below) have calligraphic texts along the tops of the cards consist of rhyming aphorisms that are clearly predictions of one’s fortune. Here are a few of the translations given on Simon Wintle’s outstanding website The World of Playing Cards. Decide for yourself what you would think if you drew a card with such a saying upon it:
“As for the present that rejoices, thy heart will soon open up“
“With the sword of happiness I shall redeem a beloved who will afterwards take my life“
“O my heart, for thee the good news that rejoices”
“Rejoice in the happiness that returns, as a bird that sings its joy”
Juego de Naypes – c. 1450
Ross Caldwell reports here on a Spanish “Juego de Naypes” (Game of Cards) by Fernando de la Torre, dedicated to the Countess of Castañeda, written around 1450. It is played with a 49 card deck, having only two court cards per suit plus an additional Emperador card “which wins over all the other cards” (que gane a todas las otras cartas). In this game “one can cast lots [tell fortunes] with them to know who each one loves most and who is most desired and by many other and diverse ways” (puédense echar suertes en ellos á quién más ama cada uno, e á quién quiere más et por otras muchas et diversas maneras). On each card is to be written a verse having the same number of lines as the number of the card, with each suit describing love according to different categories of women: Oros are Maidens, Copas are Wives, Bastones are Widows and Espadas are Nuns. Early Spanish/Morisca cards can be seen here.
This seems an unambiguous description of divination with playing cards that also includes a single additional “trump” card.
The 16th Century
Playing cards were used for fortune telling in conjunction with the 1505 German Mainz Kartenlosbuch (literally, card-lot/fortune book). Fortunes in this work include such things as:
- You’re criticized because of too much avarice. You’ll lose a tooth and a thief will spend your money.
- You’ll have good luck, winning honors and riches.
- Secret sorrows, possibly connected to an old love.
Lotbooks or (Losbücher) were described by Dr. Johann Hartlieb in 1456:
“One throws dice [or draws cards, mkg], until one reaches a number; in accordance with that number, one looks for the question [listed in the book], which the person has asked . . . there is nothing one will not find in these questions. Afterward one gets to an old man [often a king, god or hero] who points the way to a judge, who will explain the self-same questions [see illustration above]. This is all a singular disbelief and it stands in sharp opposition to God, for it has neither a spiritual or natural basis and is thus prohibited by the Holy Church in its decrees.”
Hartlieb is not entirely correct in that St. Augustine among other church officials spoke of the proper use of sortes (Latin for “lots”) to obtain answers. With the medieval sortes apostolorum or sortes des saints (composed specifically for divination rather than sortes sanctorum that is directly from scripture) one would consult them only after fasting on bread and water for three days and then a vigil with candles and the chanting of prayers (and sometimes a Mass) and the aspersion of holy water, upon which the sortes were deemed to be an “infallibly and entirely Christian oracle.” Of course, limiting the sources to apostles, saints, or scripture and the querents to those who could read Latin was an obvious attempt to limit divination to the educated few and forbid it to the multitudes.
On the Foreknowledge of Things
In 1507 Francesco Pico della Mirandola (nephew of the better known Giovanni) wrote De rerum praenotione (“On the Foreknowledge of Things”) in which he supports the ability of divinely appointed prophets to know the future, while attacking all other forms of divination, including astrology, geomancy, palmistry and all kinds of sortilege/lots:
There are many kinds of lots [sortium], as in casting bones, in throwing dice, in the figures depicted in a pack of cards [in figuris chartaceo ludo pictis]; and in the expectation of whatever first should arrive, in picking the longer husk, or in casting the eyes on a page. [Thanks to Ross Caldwell--see link to his paper describing this at the end of this post.]
Being a work from Italy that specifically mentions the figures pictured on cards suggests that Pico may well have been referring to the tarot.
“The Fortune-Teller” of Lucas van Leyden
While this painting by Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533) has been called, in modern times, “The Fortune Teller” (c. 1508), it more likely commemorates Margarethe (Margaret) of Austria’s ascendancy to the governorship of the Netherlands in 1507 following the death of her brother, Philip the Handsome. Alternately, this painting may be commemorating Margarethe’s tragic three year marriage to Philibert (Phillip) of Savoy. By the age of 24 Margarethe had already lost a fiance and two husbands. She decided never to remarry and took the motto: FORTUNE . INFORTUNE . FORT.UNE, which could be what is being symbolically portrayed. Both this painting and a 19th c. etching based on it has been cited as proof of early playing card divination (see “Chambers” below). Whatever is going on, it seems clear that the fall of the cards is an indicator of a fateful turn-of-fortune. Read my post here for more details. [Special thanks to Huck, Rosanne, and Alexandra—all who had pieces of the puzzle.]
Merlini’s Caos del Triperiuno
Teofilio Folengo’s 1527 work Caos del Triperiuno (written under the pseudonym Merlini Cocai) includes a series of poems representing the fortunes of people revealed by the cards dealt them. In this sonnet we find the twenty-two Triumph cards. Note that Death in Italian is the feminine la morte, and Love (Eros) is male. Love claims that although Death rules the physical body, Love never dies and therefore death is but a sham.
Love, under whose Empire many deeds (6, 4)
go without Time and without Fortune, (9, 10)
saw Death, ugly and dark, on a Chariot, (13, 7)
going among the people it took away from the World. (21)
She asked: “No Pope nor Papesse was ever won (5, 2)
by you. Do you call this Justice?” (8 )
He answered: “He who made the Sun and the Moon (19, 18 )
defended them from my Strength. (11)
“What a Fool I am,” said Love, “my Fire, (0, 16)
that can appear as an Angel or as a Devil (20, 15)
can be Tempered by some others who live under my Star. (14, 17)
You are the Empress[Ruler] of bodies. But you cannot kill hearts, (3)
you only Suspend them. You have a name of high Fame, (12)
but you are nothing but a Trickster.” (1)
Translated by Marco Ponzi (Dr. Arcanus) with help from Ross Caldwell and members of Aeclectic Tarot’s TarotForum.
Another early use of playing cards as oracle comes from Le sorti intitolate giardino d’i pensieri (“The oracle called garden of thoughts) from 1540 Venice, published by typographer Francesco Marcolini with text by the Venetian poet Lodovico Dolce. Read all about it through the title’s link. The method of getting the oracle takes one through a convoluted series of steps to end up at a simple tercet of a type as follows:
Do not take an ugly and angry wife,
But even if you take one pleasant and nice,
I am afraid something strange will happen.
The Sin of Divining with Cards
In 1556, Martin de Azpilcueta (d. 1586) wrote in his Compendio del Manual de Confessores (an instruction book for confessors):
Lo quinto, pecca el que pregunta, o quiere preguntar al adeuino de algun hurto, o otra cosa secreta, o procura de la saber por suertes de dados, cartas, libros, harnero, o astrolabio, y el que encanto bruto animals, con palabras profanas, o sagradas, con obseruancia de alguna vanidad.
Fifth, he sins who asks, or wants to ask the diviner of some theft or other secret thing, or gain knowledge through the luck of dice, playing cards, books, sieve, or astrolabe, and he who enchants brute beasts, with words profane or sacred, with the observance of any vanity.
This book was later translated into Latin and published in France as: Martin de Azpilcueta, “Enchiridion sive Manuale Confessariorum et Poenitentium” (Paris, François Huby, 1620): c. XI, note 30 (p. 191). Thanks to Ross Caldwell for first finding this and to “Doctor Arcanus” for the Spanish original.
It should be noted that condemnation by the Church usually indicates that such deeds are rampant in the culture.
The 17th Century
Henry Cuffe and the Three Knaves
In 1620 John Melton recorded the following story in Astrologaster, or, The Figure Caster. It was repeated by William Rowland, in Judiciall astrologie, judicially condemned (London, 1652) and tells of Henry Cuffe, (1563-1601), secretary to the Earl of Essex, whose death was foretold by cards twenty years before it happened. Cuffe was executed in 1601, so the incident allegedly dates from 1581 when he would have been 18 years old:
“There was another Wizard (as it was reported to me by a learned and rare Scholler, as we were discoursing about Astrologie) that some twentie yeeres before his death told Cuffe our Countreyman, and a most excellent Graecian, that hee should come to an untimely end: at which, Cuffe laughed, and in a scoffing manner entreated the Astrologer to shew him in what manner he should come to his end: who condiscended to him, and calling for Cards, entreated Cuffe to draw out of the Packe three, which pleased him; who did so, and drew three Knaves: who (by the Wizards direction) layd them on the Table againe with their faces downewards, and then told him, if hee desired to see the summe of his bad fortunes reckoned up, to take up those Cards one after another, and looke on the inside of them, and he shluld be trouly resolved of his future fortunes. Cuffe did as he was prescribed, and first took up the first Card, and looking on it, he saw the true portraiture of himselfe Cape a Pe [hat on head], having men compassing him about with Bills and Halberds: then he tooke up the second Card, and there saw the Judge that sat upon him: at last, he tooke up the last Card, & saw Tyborne, the place of his Execution, & the Hangman, at which he then laughed heartily; but many yeres after, being condemned for Treason, he remembred the fatall Prediction of the Wizard, & before his death revealed it to some of his friends. If this be true, it was more then Astrology, and no better then flat Sorcery or Conjuring, which is divellish.” [John Melton, Astrologaster, or, The Figure Caster, p.42. Thanks to Michael J. Hurst.]
Edwin S. Taylor in The History of Playing Cards (1865), claimed the cards were the Devil, Justice and Hanged Man, but there is no justification for this in the original text, which refers to three Knaves (probably Jacks/Valets). Whether the incident actually occurred or not, the account shows that fortune-telling by cards was known in England by this time.
The Lenthall Deck
A deck of 52 fortune-telling cards was originally designed by Dormann Newman and published by John Lenthall of The Talbot, Fleet Street, London, in 1665. (The cards below are from the 3rd edition of 1714, published in facsimile by Harry Margary, Lympne Castle, Kent in 1972.) Update: These appear to have also been published by James Moxon (either father or son), who were British engravers and map-makers as well as producing a whole variety of geographic and educational cards. These card appear identical with a deck they published as ”Astrology Cards” in 1676 [trionfi.com].
Each suit was numbered I to XIII. Odd numbered cards had a sign of the zodiac on them; even numbered cards contained a list of thirteen numbered statements. The Kings had a series of questions one could ask. The court cards were given the names of famous people from myth and legend. According to the directions, “When any person is desirous to try their fortune, let them go to one of the four kings and choose what question they please.” This is followed by an elaborate procedure for determining the answer. The explanation ends, “The stars foretell, they love you well.”
The 18th Century
Destiny in a Game of Picquet
A book called Whartoniana; or, Miscellanies, in verse and prose by members of the Wharton family (and several other persons of distinction) was translated from the French and published in 1727. (Edited by Edmund Curll and translated by Joseph Morgan). It contained a detailed account of a card game that resulted in a divination. In the Table of Contents the piece is titled “To the lovely PALLAS, Or the Game at Picquet.” [Thanks to Stephen J. Mangan, (aka Kwaw) at Aeclectic’s tarotforum for finding this.]
A few Days ago, I took it into my Head to make a Visit to the celebrated Theresius, in order to be informed of my Destiny. —Help thyself to a Seat, said he, my Friend, sit down, and give me thy Hand. He pored on it for a considerable while, cast a Figure, said not one Word, but ordered me to return the next Day. His Silence seemed to me very ominous, and to portend me no Good; yet I much rather chose to be at once acquainted with my ill Fortune, than to continue longer in a suspenceful Uncertainty. I therefore very importunately pressed him to let me know his Reason for giving me no Answer to my Quere. Still the old Cuff was mute, making no manner of Reply, but reaching a Pack of Cards, sat down by me, and challenged me to play a Game with him at Piquet; the which, heavy-hearted and out of Humour as I was, I could not, nay durst not well refuse.
Well.— We cut; he has the Hand; I deal; he takes five, and leaves me three.— I find in my Hand a Quint in Hearts, three Kings, three Knaves, the Queen of Diamonds, and three Spades which I discarded. A promising Game! Great Hopes! But, Morbleu! Not one Ace in the three Cards I took in!— Faith, Madam ; I beg your Pardon for swearing; but it was so cursedly provoking, that I cannot keep my Temper when ever I think of it.
Sixty five? says he.— Good.— A Quint to a Knave?— Equal.— He then spreads out upon the Table seven Diamonds. Sixty five are seven, says my Antagonist, very gravely; a Quatorze of Aces, fourteen more.— All good, cries I, with a deep Sigh.— Diamonds, says he, playing his Ace, twenty-two, and plays out all his Diamondsrunning.— Down went my Queen, accompanied with two Clubs and four Hearts.— He next plays his Ace of Clubs, and that quite confounds me; for, the most unluckily in the World, I had left my King unguarded. He redoubles upon me with the Ten of Clubs; I fling him a Spade. Next, upon his Ace of Hearts, I give my Knave, still depending upon saving the Lurch, scarce doubting of his having the Queen.— My King of Spades next falls a Victim to his Ace.— But, how was I Thunder-struck! How were all my Hopes blasted! The Devil a Bit of the Queen of Hearts had he, and poor Charles found himself Capoted.
I have won the Game, said he.— From hence learn thy Destiny. If you must love, pitch upon some Object that is more your Match: For if ever you attack the divine Pallas, you will infallibly be Lurched.— Adieu. Heaven take thee into it’s Protection: Thus we parted.
- Lurch – a decisive defeat in a game (especially in cribbage).
- Capote – to win all the tricks from an opponent in a game of piquet.
Dr. Flamstead’s and Mr. Patridge’s New Fortune-Book containing . . . Their new-invented method of knowing one’s fortune by a pack of cards (circa 1729-1750 in various editions).
I found the source of the card fortune-telling verses quoted below in John Brand’s Observations on the popular antiquities of Great Britain (1777). They are from Dr. Flamstead’s and Mr. Patridge’s New Fortune-Book containing . . . Their new-invented method of knowing one’s fortune by a pack of cards. Read about it here.
Playing Card Divination in the early 18th century London Theatre
Read the earliest example of an actual card reading from a 1730 London play, Jack the Gyant-Killer - here, in which it is said that divination with cards is a newly-invented art.
Gypsy Cartomancy – a Hoax
The Square of Sevens, and the Parallelogram: An Authoritative Method of Cartomancy with a Prefatory Note is a literary hoax. Said to be originally written by one Robert Antrobus and published in 1735, it was then edited by E. Irenaeus Stevenson and republished by Harper & Brothers, NY, in 1896. Read all about Ross Caldwell’s literary detective work showing that this book is a 19th century hoax – here.
Divination in Holland
“That kind of divination is not the only one that still persists in Holland, despite its inhabitants common sense. Pyromancie and Ooscopy, or to speak in a more casual way, the art of guessing by watching a flame, burning coal, sparkles, eggs in a glass, are still commonly used in some part of Holland. The fortuitous disposition of a playing card deck, open and arranged in four or five lines, is another way to tell the future, not despised by certain ladies from this country. It is true that some of them pretend consulting the so-called witches for the sake of distraction. But one would think the exact opposite, seeing how they await with an attentive and worried attitude these women answers, and how they manifest their joy by the sudden serenity on their faces, when those Oracles are favorable.”
(Contributed by Bertrand—see comments.)
Pratesi’s Bolognese Tarocchi
A manuscript written prior to 1750 was discovered by Italian playing card scholar, Franco Pratesi in the late 1980s. It lists cartomantic interpretations for 35 Bolognese tarocchi cards along with a rudimentary method of laying them out. A sheet of 35 Bolognese cards (trumps and number cards) are labeled with simple divinatory meanings such as “journey,” “betrayal,” “married man,” “love.” A later deck of double-headed Bolognese cards from the 1820’s are labeled both top and bottom with similar divinatory meanings, showing a continuity of use. A comparison of four variations on Bolognese divinatory meanings can be found here.
The Vicar of Wakefield – “A very pretty manner of telling fortunes”
In 1762-3 Oliver Goldsmith writes his novel The Vicar of Wakefield in which we find that reading cards can be an admirable accomplishment in a young woman:
And I will be bold to say my two girls have had a pretty good education, and capacity, at least the country can’t shew better. They can read, write, and cast accompts; they understand their needle, breadstitch, cross and change, and all manner of plain-work; they can pink, point, and frill; and know something of music; they can do up small cloaths, work upon catgut; my eldest can cut paper, and my youngest has a very pretty manner of telling fortunes upon the cards.’ [in Chapter 11]
Zaïre, Casanova’s Russian mistress
The famous lover, Jacques Casanova, recounts in his memoires that in 1765 his then 13-year-old Russian peasant mistress would read the cards every day—laying them out in a square of twenty-five cards. As he describes it:
Without her desperate jealousy, without her blind trust in the infallibility of the cards, which she consulted ten times a day, this Zaïre would have been a marvellous woman and I would never have left her.
To convince me of my crime, she shows me a square of twenty-five cards wherein she makes me read all the debaucheries that had kept me out all night long. She shows me the tart, the bed, the love-play and even my unnatural acts. I didn’t see anything at all, but she imagined that she saw everything. After letting her say, without interruption, everything that might serve to assuage her jealousy and rage, I took her grimoire [the deck of cards] and threw it into the fire.
(From The Complete Memoires of Casanova by Jacques Casanova, Chapter CXVII. This translation by Ross Caldwell.) The painting entitled Fortunetelling (1842) is by Alexey Gavrilovich Venetsianov (1780-1847) and is in The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.
Casanova was one of the first to mention the card game solitaire or patience. Other names for these games suggest an origin in fortune-telling. In France, it was known as réussite (“success”), explained in Littré as “a combination of cards [by] which superstitious persons try . . . to divine the success of an undertaking, a vow, etc.” From at least 1783, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic solitaire was called kabal(e), or “secret knowledge,” a term reserved in Polish specifically for fortune-telling with cards. For more, visit David Parlett’s “History of Patience/Solitaire”.
Goethe has his cards read
In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit (“Poetry and Truth”), he recounts that in 1770, when he was 20 years old, he took dancing classes in Strassburg from a Frenchman with two daughters who had both become enamored of him. He cared only for the younger. The girls brought an elderly fortune-teller to the house who agree to read the cards for all three. She began with the older girl:
“She carefully observed the positions of the cards, but then seemed to falter and be reluctant to speak — “I understand,” said the younger girl, who had already become better acquainted with interpreting this magical board. ‘You are hesitating because you do not want to reveal anything unpleasant to my sister, but that card is cursed!’” (The cards revealed that the older girl loved and was not loved in turn.)
“‘Let us see if it will get better,’ replied the old woman, shuffling the cards and laying them out a second time; but it had only grown worse, as we could all plainly see. The fair one’s card was not only more isolated, but was surrounded with many troubles; her friend had moved somewhat farther away and the intermediate figures had come closer.”
With uncontrolled weeping the older girl fled the room. Goethe couldn’t stand to be present while his cards were read, so he went home. When he returned the next day, the younger sister told him,
“I had the cards laid out for you, and the same verdict was repeated three times, always more emphatically. Your card was surrounded by all sorts of good and pleasant things, by friends and men of importance, and money was not lacking. The women kept themselves at some distance. My poor sister, especially, was always the one farthest away; another girl kept moving closer to you but never came to your side, for a third person, a man, placed himself in the way. I shall have to admit to you that I imagined myself to be the second lady, and after this confession you will best be able to understand my well meant advice. I have pledged my heart and hand to an absent friend, and up to now I have loved him better than anyone else. But possibly your presence would grow to mean more to me than before, and just imagine the difficult position in which you would be between two sisters, one of whom you had made unhappy with your affection, and the other with your coldness, and all this misery would be for nothing and for the sake of a short time. For if we had not already known who you are and what your prospects are, the cards would have set it before my eyes very plainly.”
There ensued a jealous scene with the older sister, and Goethe left, to never see them again. (Thanks to Christian Joachim Hartmann for finding this.)
From an old English chapbook
John Brand in his 1777 book, Observations on the popular antiquities of Great Britain, quoted from “an old chap book” what he called “curious lines on divination by drawing cards,” the source of which I’ve now found here. Example:
This noble king of diamonds shews
Thou long shalt live where pleasure flows;
But when a woman draws the king,
Great melancholy songs she’ll sing.
It was around 1750 that the print-seller and teacher of algebra (i.e., numerology), Etteilla, said he learned the art of telling fortunes with playing cards from three cartomancers, one of whom came from Piedmont in northern Italy. In 1770 he published his own book on fortune-telling with cards, for which he coined the term cartonomancie (which became cartomancy). Learn more about Etteilla’s tarot here. But, as we’ve seen, Etteilla was not really the first to write on the subject. In Germany we find a general Cartomancy text in Germany (1769): Abhandlung der Physiognomie, Metoposcopie und Chiromantie by Christian A. Peuschel (thanks to Huck). Julia Orsini wrote a book on reading with the Etteilla cards. In Le Grand Etteilla, ou l’art de tirer les cartes (Paris, 1838) containing a rare etching of a man reading the cards, identified as the scondrel, con-artist Count Cagliostro (1743-1795) who was made much of in Masonic circles.
Marie-Ann-Adélaïde Lenormand (1772-1843) then arrived on the scene saying she had learned to read the cards from gypsies (read about her here). Between Etteilla’s several books on the subject and the dozen or so by Lenormand, divination with playing cards became known to the world. (Picture on right: A supposed-Madame Lenormand reading for Napoleon— talk about pressure on the job!)
Viennese Coffee-Grounds and Cards
Meanwhile, in Vienna, in 1794, there appeared a deck of fortune-telling cards and book based on images commonly described as found in coffee-ground fortune-telling. With the advent of coffee to Europe and coffee-houses springing up starting around 1650, came the huge growth of coffee-house culture throughout Europe during the 18th century. Simultaneously a Turkish custom of fortune-telling by reading the images in coffee-grounds emerged (only later was this applied to tea-leaves). Lists of these images are first recorded in mid-18th century Germany, with the earliest detailed description being this Viennese book and deck. We know of it only through an English translation of 1796 that is found in the British Museum (see also my post about them here).
In 1798-9, a young German game designer, Johann Kaspar Hechtel (1771-1799), in Nuremberg, designed a 36-card multi-purpose game featuring simple images (Dog, House, Mice, Anchor) that are nearly identical to 30 of the the Viennese Coffee-Cards. Hechtel’s 36 cards for his Der Spiel die Hofnung (“Game of Hope”) were inset with playing cards – a common German-suited deck on the top left and French-suited deck on the top-right. The game was played by laying out the cards in a square of 6 cards-by-6 cards with instructions for a race-game similar to the Game of Goose. At the end of the instructions, Hechtel mentions that these cards can also be used for fortune-telling. While French and English playing card meanings have no relevancy to the images, it turns out that there is an entirely separate tradition of German Wahrsagekarten (“Fortune Telling Cards”) featuring suits of Leaves, Hearts, Bells and Acorns whose meanings do accord with the Game of Hope cards (see a discussion here).
The Petit Lenormand Deck
Upon the death of Mlle. Lenormand in 1843, as was the tradition, publishers began publishing Lenormand decks and books that had nothing to do with the original person. In France a Grand Lenormand deck was produced with designs taken from myth, constellations and flower oracles.
Germany produced the Petit Lenormand - a 36 card deck. It featured the same set of images found in the Spiel der Hofnung, but with only the French-suited playing card insets. The sheet of instructions and card meanings, signed by a fictitious “Philippe Lenormand” were nearly identical to the coffee-ground meanings and reading technique detailed in the Viennese Coffee-Card book. The deck was soon produced by multiple publishers in Germany, Belgium, Sweden and the United States (where they were called, among other names, “Madam Morrow’s Fortune-Telling Cards). Today these cards are experiencing a huge resurgence in interest.
Simultaneously a wide variety of fortune-telling decks began appearing, usually called Sybilla or Gypsy decks, with a varying number of cards and images. Despite the emergence of dozens of fortune-telling decks, paintings and prints of cartomancy up until the late 20th century almost universally show only standard playing cards.
“The Fortune-Teller” (n.d.) by French artist Martin Drolling (1752-1817)
Napoleon’s soldiers and their families seek reassurances about what is coming next in their lives.
Tawny Rachel, or The Fortune Teller; With some Accounts of Dreams, Omens and Conjurers was a chapbook published in London in 1796. It tells the story of Rachel, a seeming “sun-burnt oracle of wisdom” who was actually a skilled con-artist (unfortunately they do exist).
She used a variety of methods of fortune-telling from reading moles to dreams to the disposition of plants. Having found a gullible young girl who was eager to find a husband, Rachel explains:
“If you cross my hand with a piece of silver I will tell you your fortune. By the power of my art I can do this three ways; by cards, by the lines of your hand, or by turning a cup of tea-grounds: which will you have?”
Unfortunately there is no account of her reading the cards. Eventually she is arrested, found guilty and sent to Botany Bay: “And a happy day it was for the county of Somerset, when such a nuisance was sent out of it.”
The author thought it was his duty “to print this little history as a kind of warning to all you young men and maidens not to have any thing to say to cheats, impostors, cunning women, fortune-tellers, conjurers, and interpreters of dreams.” He continues, “Listen to me, your true friend, when I assure you that God never reveals to weak and wicked women those secret designs of his Providence, which no human wisdom is able to foresee.”
The 19th Century
Many a Fine Lady . . .
Much about that period, 1572, there were reckoned, in Paris alone, no less than thirty thousand astrologers. At the present day, the ambulating magicians frequent the Old Boulevards, and there tell fortunes for three or four sous; while those persons that value science according to the price set on it, disdaining these two-penny conjurers, repair to fortune-tellers of a superior class, who take from three to six francs, and more, when the opportunity offers….
Formerly, none but courtesans here drew the cards; now, almost every female, without exception, has recourse to them. Many a fine lady even conceives herself to be sufficiently mistress of the art to tell her own fortune; and some think they are so skilled in reading futurity in the cards, that they dare not venture to draw them for themselves, for fear of discovering some untoward event.
This rage of astrology and fortune-telling is a disease which peculiarly affects weak intellects, ruled by ignorance, or afflicted by adversity. In the future, such persons seek a mitigation of the present; and the illusive enjoyments of the mind make them almost forget the real sufferings of the body.
Les Jeunes Femmes
A description of fortune-telling with cards by a maid for her lady was translated into English from Les Jeunes Femmes, of M. Bouilly and published in Belle Assemblee: Or, Court and Fashionable Magazine in 1820. In this work, Madame de Saucerre wishes to discover her husband’s activities on the previous night. What is revealed is another matter altogether. Read this story and learn the truth discovered here.
Rossetti’s Femme Fatale
Read about the poem, “The Card Dealer” (1853), that Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote to Theodore von Holst’s painting “The Fortune-Teller” (1840) – here.
To jump ahead to 1863, Robert Chambers, with his Book of Days, published a two volume “miscellany of popular antiquities” organized around the calendar year. For February 21st, he includes an article on English cartomancy called “The Folklore of Playing Cards” (illustrated by the picture above). In it he gives the card meanings he was taught as a child when struck by illness in a foreign land. (Read the whole article here—you need to scroll down a ways.)
The English system is used in all British settlements over the globe, and has no doubt been carried thither by soldiers’ wives, who, as is well known to the initiated, have ever been considered peculiarly skilful practitioners of the art. Indeed, it is to a soldier’s wife that this present exposition of the art is to be attributed. Many years ago . . . the writer, then a puny but not very young child, [was] left for many months in charge of a private soldier’s wife, at an out-station in a distant land. . . . She was too ignorant to teach her charge to read, yet she taught him the only accomplishment she possessed,—the art of ‘cutting cards,’ as she termed it: the word cartomancy, in all probability, she had never heard.
The above engraving that illustrated Chambers’ article first appeared in the Magasin Pittoresque in 1842 (according to Detleff Hoffmann). It loosely reproduces a painting by Lucas van Leyden that was later named The Fortune Teller (c. 1508) though it may actually commemorate a political negotiation mediated by Margaretha of Austria (see painting near the beginning of this post).
To Sum It Up
Never as ubiquitous as dice, palmistry or astrology, divination with cards goes back to at least the 16th century and probably earlier, though the form may not have been what we now call cartomancy, which emerged more recognizably in the 18th century. We can see from all the above that historically card divination was practiced mostly by illiterate gypsies, courtesans, soldier’s wives and old women, and by literate young women for whom it was a parlour game. It was largely scorned and more often officially ignored, until the stakes got higher. With the exception of Madame Lenormand’s fame, it wasn’t until a few men deemed the art worth mentioning and the decks or books worth writing that it was really acknowledged. Still, it was not to be taken too seriously and generally kept to the confines of frivolous social entertainment. (Out of more than 300 pre-1900 pictures I’ve found of cartomancers less than a dozen have been of male readers.) A. E. Waite integrated Chambers’ soldier’s wives card meanings into many of his Minor Arcana tarot interpretations, where they are still in use today.
See more paintings of nineteenth century cartomancers here.
Watch the 45 minute History Channel TV special on “Secrets of the Playing Card.”
- See especially Ross Caldwell’s presentation on playing cards (including Tarot) in divination and magic for the International Playing Card Society, September, 2006 – here, and his more recent report on references in Spanish documents here. I want to thank Ross for his historical professionalism and dedication to setting the story straight with concrete evidence.
- An account of cartomancy that draws from Chambers: The Gaming Table: its Votaries and Victims, Vol. II (1870) by Andrew Steinmetz – here.
- A set of modern playing card meanings can be found here.
- Seaqueen’s examples of Lenormand-style readings (here) are some of the best. Also check out the Lenormand card meanings at Chanah’s “Confessions of a Freaky Fortune Teller (here).