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Much is made of how tarot cards can be interpreted through their images or symbols—especially modern decks that feature pictorial scenes with lots of  images on all the cards. This post is about how to combine and translate the language of imagery into statements, such that these statements can be more easily interpreted than the images by themselves.

Many of us have spent fruitful hours pouring over symbol dictionaries in order to better understand each detail in the tarot. For instance, we might research and discover that a key, in addition to simply opening or locking a contained space, is seen as the means to unlock hidden meanings in symbols or doctrine. More specifically, in the Hierophant/Pope card, keys have a special meaning regarding the priesthood: the gold key represents mercy and absolution, and the silver key stands for judgment and penance. Furthermore, these keys refer back to the gospel of Matthew (16:19) in which Jesus tells Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Going further, you will discover that Mercy and Judgment (the gold and silver keys) are the two columns on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.

How many times have you mentioned any of the above references in an actual tarot reading?

Alternatively, a reader might try to discover the querent’s own, in-the-moment, personal associations with this image: “Oh, my gosh. Those are my car keys that I lost yesterday at church!” Or a reader will offer up his or her own projections and intuitions, as in, “As I’m seeing it right now, the keys are saying that your spiritual leader or tradition “holds the keys” to whether you should get a divorce.” These can certainly be rich ways to read the tarot, but they can sometimes get you sidetracked from the essential message of the card. Even the artist’s stated intention for a symbol can be so personal and idiosyncratic that it, too, misses the mark. I’m not saying that the following technique is the “best” method for interpreting images, but rather that it can be helpful and serve as a checkpoint to make sure you’ve touched on its roots.

What I offer here is a method that involves translations of the essential, objective meaning of an image—its denotative and connotative definitions and its core characteristics or functions (how the thing is used).

At the denotative level, a key is a small piece of metal shaped with parts that fit with parts in another mechanism (usually a lock) so that manipulation (turning) changes the latter mechanism’s function—usually to open or close things. The connotative meaning is that it binds or loosens, and a key often suggests gaining access to something. If we abstract it one more level, then it suggests obtaining the answer, solution or means to something crucial or important. Connotative meanings are more subjective and often convey pleasing or displeasing feelings about the word. [Note: I use ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ here, not as absolutes, but as relative points along a continuum.]

Step 1

To try out this technique, you need to start with the most “objective” meanings and functions—what I often call the “literal” level of a symbol—rather than personal projections or mythic, occult, alchemical, astrological or psychological significances. In other words, try to use as little abstraction, impressionism or subjectivity as possible.

To try another example, the denotative level of the RWS dog in the Fool card is “a domesticated, four-legged, carnivorous mammal with an acute sense of smell.” The functional aspect is that it is tamed by humans to function as a companion, protector or hunter. A further, connotative abstraction includes ideas such as loyalty, instincts or, sometimes, a scoundrel or wretch. (In this process, we won’t consider the mythic associations of dogs with death, like Cerberus at the gates of Hell, nor the Egyptian dog-headed Anubis, nor the association of dogs with the Moon and Artemis, nor the dog of Odysseus, or that in alchemy a dog represents sulfur or primitive, material gold. Nor will we consider that god is dog spelled backwards.) When in doubt, think of a dictionary rather than a book of religion, mythology or literature. In fact, a dictionary is often a good place to start when translating images.

Step 2

Step 2 involves linking together the most essential definitions, functions and connotations of three to five core images from one card into a “literal translation” of these images.

With the RWS Six of Cups as our example, let’s go through Steps 1 and 2. (We should also be aware that traditional meanings for this card often include gifts, pleasurable memories and emotions, nostalgia and old things.) Here are three dominant images from the picture created by Pamela Colman Smith:

Children – more than one pre-pubescent human being. Their key characteristics are small size, immaturity, innocence, vulnerability, playfulness, learning and development, and being a descendant or establishing a lineage.
Flowers – the reproductive organs of a plant, usually with characteristics (scent, shape and color) that attract fertilizing mechanisms.  Flowers are cultivated to function as decorations or gifts. Blooms suggest the flourishing peak of beauty, health and vigor.
Glove/mitten – a garment covering the hand. It protects or safeguards the hand to avoid discomfort, damage, disease or contamination of self, others or environment. It may also serve as a fashion ornament.

First we combine these individual images into a simple statement: “A larger child hands a flower to a smaller child wearing a mitten.”

To translate this, we substitute a key word or phrase for each image:
“A larger, innocent offers a gift of beauty and reproductive vigor to a smaller, innocent whose vulnerability has some safeguards.”

Let’s add two more images to see if this changes anything:

Courtyard – a private space surrounded by walls or buildings. It functions as a place of air, light, privacy, security and tranquility.
Guard – a person who keeps watch. He functions in a defensive manner to watch or protect what is vulnerable or to control access.

A very literal description might be: “In a private, guarded space, a child offers a gift of flowers to a another child.”

The next level of abstraction looks something like this:
“In a private, secure and guarded place, but with inattentive watchfulness, youthful innocence and vulnerability handle, with some safeguards, a gift of beauty and reproductive vigor.”

Step 3

Relate this translation back to the querent’s question or situation (via the spread position, if applicable). Now you interpret what the translated images in the cards add to the situation. Generating questions based on the translation is a good way to start.

Let’s add a keyword from the basic card meaning so that we have the following translation:
“A memory in which youthful innocence and vulnerability, in a private, secure and guarded place, but with inattentive protection, handle, with some safeguards, a gift of beauty and reproductive vigor.”

The following are example questions that emerged from the image translation:

Can you remember moments of former pleasure in which a mature, adult significance was not apparent at the time but may now be? Perhaps you were attracted to or given something that continues to reproduce emotional (Cups) reverberations in you? Have you been too guarded and naive to fully appreciate a gift given or received?

Alternatively, could a larger or more dominant self/person have offered something to a smaller self/person who covered up (gloved) her response as she wasn’t completely open to the experience?

Are some of your memories guarded? How do you protect yourself from what happened in the past? A worst case scenario suggests some kind of childhood abuse from which memory you’ve tried to protect yourself. There may be an element of seeing a difficult past through rose-colored glasses (and this card has had those difficult meanings on more than one occasion)—although, generally, it is a very good card.

In the Comments to this post you might want to try combining the image definitions into other translations, because even the most literal translations will vary. See where different translations take you. Feel free to explore this technique in your own way on your own blog or with others—just include a link back here.

Comparison with Cartomancy

It’s worth noting that readings with decks such as the Lenormand, Sybilla or Old Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards use a process similar to that above, in which each card represents a single image. The meanings of these cards have even more restricted parameters, but can be creatively combined. For instance, the card depicting a dog means loyalty and friendship. The child card can mean one or more children or anything small, young or innocent. A set of these cards are linked together in a fashion similar to what we’ve already done, although the result tends to be more mundane and may yield a single new image. For instance, Dog + Child can indicate a puppy, playmate, or childhood friend.

I’ve selected four cards from the Mlle. Lenormand deck (from Piatnik publishing) that are most similar to images in the Six of Cups just to see what happens if we use their meanings:


Child: Child or children. Play. Anything small, immature. Naïve, innocent, trusting, sincere. Sometimes, gifts.
Lily: Mature, old, the elderly. Commitment. Peace, satisfaction, contentment. Wisdom, soul development. Social welfare.
Garden: Meetings, gatherings, parties, events, conferences. Social encounters and places for this. An audience. Outdoors.
Crossroads: Options, choices, alternatives. Decisions. Separation. Many of something.

The most simple statement we could make about these cards is: “Many wise children (or immature elders) gather together.” (The order of the cards in an actual reading would affect the interpretation.)

To expand on this idea, we could say:
It is about a social interaction involving young and old, innocent and wise (to play old-fashioned games?), and that a choice may be involved. Peace or wisdom could be gained from childhood choices or from an older sibling. An older person could be reconnecting with past friends or relatives (or grandchildren) or, simply, remembering them.

[Notes: Traditional playing card meanings are usually not part of the standard interpretations for these cards (although it is interesting that three Court Cards appear. Regarding modern interpretations: Garden+Crossroads is a perfect description of social networking, ala facebook and twitter.]

Some Final Thoughts

I use the “Image Translation Technique” as a checkpoint to keep me on track and to compare with other card possibilities including projections and intuitions. Studies of intuition show that intuitions are just as likely to be wrong as right, but you can often get to a right understanding faster and more accurately than through any other known means. What works best is to check your intuitions against ‘rules of thumb,’ or what I call ‘checkpoints.’  The true issue is sometimes precisely what is shown by juxtapositions among traditional meanings, literal translations and the reader’s and querent’s projections and intuitions, revealing the tension or conflict causing the unease at the core of a reading.

I want to reiterate that translations of tarot card images are only one level of working with  images (and some people prefer not to work with the pictorial images at all). But, even card keywords are images, and I believe that keeping in touch with the essential meaning of any image provides an important checkpoint for one’s intuition. I’d love to hear about how you work with these ideas and whether they are helpful to you or not.

Acknowledgements: Yoram Kaufmann’s book, The Way of the Image: The Orientational Approach to the Psyche, clarified and helped me to explain the technique I often use in readings. I’ve adopted a few, but not all, of his terms and methodology, and I’ve tried not to psychologize the above material too much (Kaufmann was writing about a Jungian approach to dreams). The concept of using “rules of thumb” with one’s intuition is discussed in Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. Sylvie Steinbach’s The Secrets of the the Lenormand Oracle was helpful in putting together the Lenormand interpretation. See my book 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card for lots of other interpretation techniques.

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 appears to be the oldest book with instructions on fortune-telling-with-cards in the English language.  The first edition seems to be from 1729—well before Etteilla wrote his 1770 book on “cartonomancie” and contains a “lot” style method of divination in which the card chosen leads to a verse based on your choice from a list of pre-set questions. However we know from the 1730 play Jack the Gyant-Killer that multi-card spreads with meanings for each card were already current in England. (Thanks as always to Ross Caldwell for additional information and corrections.)At some point between 1750 and 1770 a new, much shorter book appeared called Patridge and Flamsted’s new and well Experienced Fortune Book, delivered to the world from the Astrologer’s Office in Greenwich Park, for the benefit of all young men, maids, wives, and widows. Who, by drawing Cards according to the direction of this Book, may know whether Life shall be long or short; whether they shall have the person desired; and every lawful question whatsoever. The signification of Moles in any part of the body; and the interpretation of Dreams, as they relate to good or bad fortune. Along with the change in author spelling there was a major change in the technique portrayed. For the first time we have instructions for a one-card spread and individual meanings given for each card (text appears below).

The individuals in the title are supposed to refer to Dr. John Flamsteed (1646 – 1719), the first Astronomer Royal, and Mr. John Partridge (1644-1715), a well-known writer of astrology books and almanacs and associate of the astrologer William Lilly. However, the names of both Partridge and Flamsteed were appropriated by others as documented by Adrian Johns in The Nature of the book: print and knowledge in the making, p. 619: “But did Flamsteed remain Flamsteed? The question of his identity had been a real one in his own time. Before him there had been no royal astronomical observer in England, and there is evidence that Flamsteed himself was represented by various contemporaries as a virtuoso, an astrologer, a rogue, pedagogue, and a pamphleteer.” He mentions, as an example, a pamphlet, purporting to be by Flamsteed, entitled Plemstadts most Strange and Wonderful Prophecy.

John Partridge was made famous by Jonathan Swift who, under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, wrote an April Fool’s prediction for the death of Partridge in a spoof astrological almanac (followed by an announcement of Partridge’s death on the date given), after which the name of the still-living-Partridge became legion, appearing on many spurious publications.

Whoever it was who wrote this book, we can be grateful for the first publication in English of playing card meanings. So, without further delay, the instructions and meanings according to Patridge and Flamsted’s new and well Experienced Fortune Book:

Directions whereby the Reader may be informed of the Rules in this Book.

Take a new pack of Cards. Shuffle them well together, Read the rest of this entry »

Gustave Doré - Les Saltimbanques (Entertainers), 1874

Gustave Doré (1832-1883) – Les Saltimbanques (Entertainers), 1874


Several paintings of card readers tell fascinating stories. As tarot readers we work with the images in pictures as rich symbols of the human condition. It would be interesting to hear what story you see in this powerful and heartbreaking painting by Gustave Doré. Use the “Comments” to share with us what you think has just happened and what message the artist may have had. Refer to as many of the symbols as you can to tell us what their story is. As noted above, Saltimbanque, while a French word, is from the Italian saltare in banco, “jumping on a platform,” and signifies “tumbler, performer, entertainer.” Saltimbanques are a subset of acrobats, performing only on the ground.  I understand the word has a slightly perjorative connotation that includes buffoonery and charlatanism. Marilee reports in the Comments that the painting is also called “The Injured Child,” which suggests that all hope might not be lost. (Click on the picture to make it larger and then click again for one more zoom.)

UPDATE: In an 1874 interview with Gustave Doré for Appleton’s Journal (in England), Doré made his own intentions for this painting clear to the interviewer (this was the same year in which he painted the work):

[Interviewer:] Turning to that picture of ‘The Mountebanks,’ which had so struck me, I asked if the poor wounded child were going to die.

“Yes,” answered M. Doré, “he is dying. I wished to depict the tardy awakening of nature in those two hardened almost brutalized beings. To gain money they have killed their child and in killing him they have found out that they had hearts. . . . The English engraver wishes me to call it ‘Behind the Scenes’ but its French title will be I think simply ‘Agonie.'”

Why do you think the artist included playing cards in this scene? What do they represent?  Read this original story by ‘Helen’ inspired by the painting, which includes a brief reading of the cards.

Added: Here’s an enhanced close-up of the cards for those who would like to try reading them:Saltimbanques card spread

See this post for a couple of animoto videos of this picture.

Denver Museum of Art painting on the same subject.


Here the child is clearly dead, no animals are present, the cards are missing, and the father looks like an underworld denison—a demon from the depths. Striped down to raw emotion, Doré is letting the family themselves tell the story rather than through the symbolic accoutrements of the other work. The Virgin Mary-style robe of sky blue and gold stars of the prior painting has been cast aside to reveal a filmy dress of youthful, blossom-pink. It’s as if the child were posed between dawn and night. It seems that Doré himself trained as an acrobat and had a life-long fascination with common street performers. He was struck by a report of just such an accident in the papers and not only produced one of his scarce paintings, but actually poured himself into two versions, seeking to capture that moment of unspeakable grief. 

This version of the painting (curgently held by the Denver Art Museum) seems to have been executed first in 1873. It may be the painting that is referred to in the interview quoted above as the “agonie” is even more apparent. See also a preliminary drawing for the painting, found in the comments section.

The most significant painter of American cartomancy is probably Harry Herman Roseland (c.1867—1950). He was born and died in Brooklyn and was most known for depicting the lives of African-Americans, especially black women reading tea leaves, palms and cards for white women. Oprah Winfrey has stated that her favorite picture in her own collection is, ironically, Roseland’s wrenching portrayal of “a woman who is about to be sold into slavery and separated from her young daughter,” To the Highest Bidder. (Oprah has two more of Roseland’s paintings in her library.) See more of Roseland’s work here and here. Compare the works below with the images of cartomancers from Russia, France, England and Italy found here. And read “Aunt B’s” cultural analysis of these paintings here.

Harry Roseland card 6 Read the rest of this entry »

The History Channel TV program Decoding the Past produced a 45 minute episode on the “Secrets of the Playing Card” (2006) featuring several well-known tarot historians like David Parlett,  Thierry DePaulis (A Wicked Pack of Cards) and Jean Huets (who was co-author with Stuart Kaplan on The Encyclopedia of Tarot). The  mystical, magical and divinatory aspects of cards begins around 18:00, the tarot around 24:45, and fortune telling at 32:15. There are lots of images of rare cards. Unfortunately, they keep showing modern replacements for missing Visconti cards to illustrate 15th century concepts. The Egyptian, Masonic and Templar role is played up, though they eventually admit that “these theories are generally dismissed by historians.” The images for the fortune-telling section feature the New Orleans Voodoo Tarot (shown over and over again) reinforcing the idea of tarot as a dark, scary medium that belies the far more sensible verbal commentary. They subtly misrepresented modern tarot readers in this part. All-in-all, this video is well worth viewing.

Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s first published poem, “The Card-Dealer,” was based on a painting by Theodore von Holst (1810-1844) called “The Wish” or “The Fortune-Teller” (1840). The poem, which epitomized Rossetti’s fascination with the theme of the femme fatale, was inspired by the painting that he described as being of “a beautiful woman, richly dressed, who is sitting at a lamp-lit table, dealing out cards, with a peculiar fixedness of expression.” In his poem, the woman (Death?, La Morte, in Rossetti’s Italian) plays with men as she plays with the cards, which, we are told, represent the heart that craves the more it feeds, the diamond that makes even the base seem brave, the club that smites, and the spade that digs a grave.

Read the rest of this entry »

“I heard a distemperate dicer solemnly sweare that he faithfully beleeved, that dice were first made of the bones of a witch, and the cards of her skin, in which there hath ever sithence remained an enchantment that whosoever once taketh delight in either, he shall never have power utterly to leave them.”
—George Whetstone, The Enemie to Unthriftinesse, 1586.

In a 1519 Milanese edition of a 14th century Spanish romance poem called La Spagna Istoriata, the hero Roland tries to discover the enemies of Charlemagne via magic by making a circle and casting or “throwing” the cards (fece un cerchio e poscia gittò le carte). Ross Caldwell tracked down the evidence and discovered that this phrase appears in only that one edition. All others say: fece un gran cerchio e poi gettava l’arte (“he made a big circle and then cast the art”). Upon comparing several versions Ross came to the conclusion that Roland is using a grimoire. He has a book in hand, he makes the circle, “throws the art,” and in the next verse he starts reading (leggendo il libro). Whereupon thousands of demons, big and small, enter the circle. Ross thinks that the best reading for “gettava” is “threw OPEN” the book (of art), and that the 1519 reference to le carte probably signifies throwing open the “pages” of the grimoire. I mention this possibility here since the reference appears in several books as evidence of an early use of playing cards in magic, which may not be the case. However, in the 17th century painting below we do see playing cards being used in a magic circle—so it is not completely beyond the range of possibility.

Ruth Martin in Witchcraft and the Inquisition in Venice, 1550-1650 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989) tells of one Isabella Bellochio who in January of 1589 was “found guilty of being apostate from God.” It seems she so desperately wanted a faithless lover to return to her that she called on the Devil for assistance. Her housemaid testified that Isabella had burned a candle continuously in the kitchen “in front of a devil and the tarots.” Later the same year in another trial, a witch named Angela was accused of telling a client “‘you need to adore the devil if you want to get help,’ and she suggested getting hold of a tarot card.”

Marisa Milani, professor of the literature of folklore at the University of Padua, who did the original research in the Venetian Sant-Uffizio archive, claims this was a regular part of Venetian “martelli” (love magic): “One such ritual made use of the tarot cards, especially the one that portrayed the devil, which they would place next to a light until a certain time of day when prayers were addressed to it and formulas were recited.” Quoted in Margaret F. Rosenthal in The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth Century Venice (U of Chicago Press, 1992). Marisa Milani, wrote about these practices in Antiche Pratiche di medicina popolare nei processi del S. Uffizio (Venezia, 1527-1591) (Padova, 1986).

In 1622 Pierre de l’Ancre published in L’incredulité et mescréance du sortilege plainement convaincue (Paris) that one Jean Jordain made a pact with the Devil that was sealed by two playing cards: the 2 and 4 of Hearts. We are told that the Devil chose the two of hearts “to mark that he would not have two hearts to serve two masters.” The Two of Hearts was later destroyed, rendering the pact null and void. Del’Ancre defined cartomancy as “a type of divination certain people practice who take the images and place them in the presence of certain demons or spirits, which they have summoned, so that those images will instruct them on the things that they want to know.” (Thanks to Ross Caldwell for additional details.)

But the evidence is not just from court room records in Venice. Two 17th century works of art attest to the use of playing cards in witchcraft. “Depart pour le Sabat” by David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) shows playing cards as part of a magical circle (see picture at top and to the right.)

Slightly more ambiguous is the 1626 engraving by Jan van de Velde in which a sorceress conjures demons while playing cards lay at her feet.

An accompanying text reads: “What evils Desire commands, in the small secluded place; who, by sweet incantation, overcomes the minds of the purest mortals, induces frenzy in everyone! But how quickly it slips by; Death overtakes brief life, brief delights. Laughing for a moment, in eternity suffering regret.” (Translation by Ross Caldwell.)

Before you condemn these women you might want to read “Marriage or a Career?: witchcraft as an alternative in seventeenth century Venice” by Sally Scully (Journal of Social History, Summer 1995). Scully postulates that “witchcraft was a role available to women for managing their lives, operating as individual players on the social stage. To call it a career option may not be anachronistic.”

It should be noted that Isabella Bellochio was a staunch Christian who, in calling on the Devil to obtain her desires was merely “giving the Devil his due”—she knew she was doing something wrong in trying to coerce another to fulfill her own desires and so recognized this as the Devil’s work in his role as the lord of base, material desires. As Guido Ruggiero explained in Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage and Power at the End of the Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 1993), it did not signify for Isabella that she  rejected Christ for the Devil. “I never understood”, she claimed, “that one had to pray to or honor the Devil but only that one must light a lamp to him in order to have that which one desired, that is in this case my lover. Thus I did not light it with the intention of worshiping or praying to him, but with the intention that my lover be made to come.” In a sense it was an honest acknowledgement that, in the context of Christianity, whenever you try to achieve your own desires at the expense of another you are doing the Devil’s work.

See also this report by Ross Caldwell on Spanish cartomancy and witchcraft from at least the 16th century – here.

This 18th century play contains the earliest description of cartomancy in action. The text below is from Jack the Gyant-Killer: A comi-tragical Farce of One Act as it is Acted at the New-Theatre in the Hay-Market [London]. Again, thanks go to Stephen J. Mangan, (aka Kwaw) at Aeclectic’s tarotforum for finding it.

In this play, Jack (the Knave of Spades) strives to have Reason triumph over the woman Folly (the Queen of Hearts) who is attended by four Giants (named as they are in the traditional Jack-and-the-Beanstock story). Three other women offer predictions using Coffee, Tea, Snuff and, finally, Cards—which we are told are newly invented for fortune-telling.

Folly. First we’ll examine the decrees of Fate,
In mystic Coffe-Cups and Tea reveal’d;
Then new-invented Arts of Snuff and Cards,
Shall all be try’d, the grand Event to shew,
If we, my Friends, shall conquer, or the Foe. . . .

Folly. You shall be satisfy’d anon- ….. — but we must lay the Cards first — Time presses, and the Princes must depart. Give us the Cards, that in our several Turns we all may Cut : I am the Queen of Hearts.

First Woman gives the Cards to Folly, then to each of the Gyants, who cut, and deliver to her again, and he lays on the Table in Rows.

First woman. You. Lord Gormillan, are the King of Clubs; Lord Thunderdale shall be the angry Majesty of Spades; The Diamond Crown Lord Blunderboar shall wear; and King of Hearts Lord Galligantus shall assume.

The Knave of Spades, Madam, seems to threaten Danger, but he lies oblique, and the Ten of Hearts between them shews he wants Power to hurt you — ‘the Eight of Clubs and Ace over your Head denote A chearful Bowl and Mirth will crown Night — all will be well — these Princes are surrounded with Diamonds; the Eight lies at the Feet of Lord Gormillan; the Deuce, the Four and Five are in a direct Line with Valiant Thunderdale; the Tray and Nine are at the Elbow of great Blunderboar, and the Six and Seven are just over the Head of noble Galligantus. Some Spades of ill aspect mingled with them, but the Hearts and Clubs take off their malevolent Quality.

Folly. Go then, my Friends, secure of Fame and Conquest, The Oracles pronounce it.

Ha! what Noise? {A great Noise ..}

Enter a Messenger out of Breath

Mess. Ah, Madam ! you are lost! — all-conquering Jack with his Retinue has broke into your Palace — behold ’em here—

Enter Jack and his Party, they throw down the Table, Cups, Cards, &c.

Jack. Fall on, my Friends

The cards were probably laid out in several rows, perhaps a square of 25 as we see in later examples. The significator card shows the location of the person within the situation, while the other court cards represent the other people involved. The cards that fall between the main significator and the significator of another person show what is occurring between them. Folly reads the overall fortune as “secure of Fame and Conquest.” Nevertheless, Folly is ultimately defeated, which may well be the lesson of this play, since, from the point of view of Reason, its main task is to overthrow Folly. (Note: this is an addition to an earlier post on the Origins of Playing Card Divination.)

Belle AssembléeTo Stephen J. Mangan (aka Kwaw) at Aeclectic’s tarotforum we owe two recent finds on the early history of fortune-telling with playing cards. I include one here (the other soon) with his blessings. More and more references are turning up as google puts old books that are out-of-copyright on the web.

This 1820 description of a revealing card reading was published as part of an excerpt, titled “Confidential Servants” from a French work, Les Jeunes Femmes, of M. Bouilly, as published in Belle Assemblee: Or, Court and Fashionable Magazine.

To discover what her husband did the previous night, Madame de Saucerre has her maid read the cards. What is revealed, however, is the story of her own affair with a younger man:

“Good! well, let us see, now we are alone. Sancerre, who did not come home till midnight, will not come in before breakfast to give me an account of his sport.”

“Will Madame have the whole fortune?”


“Cut. Remark, now, that Queen of Hearts, young and blooming, with that King of Spades, with his long beard, and thick mustache. Disparity of age, that always falls heavy on the youngest party — I dare say Madame has often found that out?”

“Go on.”

“Do you see near that Queen of Hearts where the Queen of Diamonds is placed? That is Friendship, opposed by this confounded King of Spades, the emblem of an uneasy and jealous churl. I’ll suffer my hand to be burnt if something of this kind has not happened to Madame?”

“In fact, he has made me break off intimacy with a female friend: but we ought to sacrifice every thing to domestic quiet.”

“Oh! Madame, here’s a pleasant circumstance! Do you see that charming Knave of Hearts, who shelters himself beside his Queen? How delighted he is! and I think he is pursued by the Queens of Clubs and Spades; those are old coquets, and spiteful enough. Poor young man! he has nothing for his defence but that Ace of Hearts, emblem of a pure mind. How they do beset him — how they torment him with that Ten of Spades and that Nine of Clubs, which signify the blackest designs! But here, very fortunately, is a Three of Hearts, surnamed the lance, which signifies that the handsome Knight is armed against his adversaries. Good! the Five of Diamonds, surnamed the shield, which proves that he will defend himself with bravery. Hai, hai; is not here a Knave of Clubs, agent of the two coquettes, and sent by them after this charming Knave of Hearts? Hai, hai, hai; see, too, that nasty King of Clubs taking part in the quarrel. Oh! charming Knave of Hearts, what will become of you ? Ah! I begin to breathe again: here is the Ten of Diamonds opposed against the Ten of Spades, and the Nine of Hearts that stands fast against the Nine of Clubs; and, at length, that excellent Queen of Hearts, who is always the protectress of her faithful Knight, shelters him from all attacks, and binds him to her for ever by his gratitude. I would pawn my honour that Madame has saved some handsome young man who has been pursued by two wicked women; and who cherishes for his dear deliverer a recollection——”

“What a mad creature you are,” answered Madame de Saucerre, with a blush; “come, cease this nonsense and finish dressing me.”

(Note: this is an addition to an earlier post on the Origins of Playing Card Divination.)

Mrs.Sarah McBride “only told fortunes by cards for pastime.”



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Mary K. Greer has made tarot her life work. Check here for reports of goings-on in the world of tarot and cartomancy, articles on the history and practice of tarot, and materials on other cartomancy decks. Sorry, I no longer write reviews. Contact me HERE.

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