In the Cards . . .

French-1825Cara/Andrea here
, I’ve been a bit hammered by Nature in the last few months—Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc with trees and power, and a wicked Nor’easter did the same just ten days ago. So when I heard a monster snowstorm was headed my way last weekend, I was willing to try anything to placate the Weather Gods. Sacrificial cookies left in the vulnerable rooms, burning candles, ancient Druid chants, ringing of Feng Sui bells—it got me to thinking how throughout history, people have turned to all manner of rituals when faced with a frightening threat.

French-1820Which led me to another thought. As I sat fretting about power outages, danger form falling pines, and how I would deal with no heat in the dead of winter. I also started musing on how nice it would be to, well, know what was going to happen. What was my fortune going to be? That seems another elemental human urge, and of course all sorts of ways to divine the future have arisen over the centuries, from the Delphic Oracle to . . . Weather Tracking Satellites!

But being a person who loves paper, words and images, I found myself thinking about cartomancy in particular—the art of fortunetelling with playing cards. And so I decided to do a little basic research into the subject. And it turns out that I didn’t have to look far from home—the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale houses the Cary Collection, one of the world’s foremost collections in the worldof ancient and modern playing cards.


According to the introduction on their website, the first written record of cards being used to predict the future in the Western world appeared in the beginning of the 16th century with the 1505 Mainz Kartenlosbuch, a handbook designed to be used in conjunction with a deck of cards. However, the origins of cartomancy, though a bit uncertain, appear to date back to the 14th century, when tarot cards from the East began appearing in Europe. (The Cary Collection possesses one of the few existing examples of the Visconti tarot, a magnificent handpainted and gilded set from Italy, created around 1445.(see above)

English-1717-John-Lenthall-LondonI was fascinated to learn that cards specifically designed for fortune-telling first appeared in England during the late 17th century. The Beinecke site showcases an early design from John Lenthall (c.1717-see left) and explains the following facts: “The Fortune-telling Cards use the standard French suit system in a pack of fifty-two cards. The aces and court cards bear zodiacal signs and images of historical and mythical figures such as Ptolemy and Merlin; the actual fortunes are listed on the pip cards.”

France-1820-2Another source says that fortunetelling with playing cards became very popular in late Georgian/Regency times, especially in France, where the mystical revelations of Court de Gebelin and a self-proclaimed prophet named Etteilla entranced the public. (War, economic troubles and social upheaval—times of uncertainty seem to stimulate an interest in the occult.) One of the best known fortunetellers of the time was Mademoiselle Le Normand, who counted Napoleon among her clients. (whose interest in the mystical is well-documented) Known as the "Sibylle des Salons," the lady also became a close confidante of Empress Josephine.

The allure of cartomancy grew stronger through the 19th century—the Victorians were known for their fascination in the occult. And modern day interest in the tarot remains high in certain circles. But rather that try to detail any more of the long and wonderfully complex history of playing cards and their use in divination, I’d rather end with showing some of the intriguing visuals from the Georgian/Regency era that I discovered on the Beinecke Library website.
French, c. 1780

French, c. 1814


Left: English, c. 1717; Right: English 1806

And finally one of my favorites, an American card from c. 1840, which show that cartomancy, along with the quinessentially dry British wit, had crossed the Pond:
So what about you? Have you ever had your fortune told through playing cards? Ever played around with the tarot deck? And if you could, would you choose to know what was going to happen in the future? I’ve decided I’d rather not—for me the unknown is part of the excitement of life.