A short cultural history of divination with cards



Much of what we associate with the cartomantic arts, or the reading of cards, is a fairly modern invention that goes back to France, around 1760. Divination as an art has been around since the dawn of days, when people would rely on omens from nature as a means of foretelling the future, or as a means of finding cattle in case the herd would get lost.

No one really knows how far back we can trace the reading of cards, and there are as many legends about it, as there are people interested in the occult. Some credit the traveling gypsies with the dissemination of reading cards. Some look at the historical evidence, and point to the way the Mamluk cards in Persia traveled to Europe, being among the first to have influenced the European tradition of divination with cards. Some think the art is entirely Egyptian, and some attribute it to the rise of high magic in the Italian Renaissance.

Whatever the history of divination is, the cards are here to stay. Many use them, form schools around them, and promote them as tools towards self-discovery, other-discovery, prediction, and fortunetelling.

I will talk about three main traditions here:



Image: Etteilla Lismon, 1850 originals; Tarot Egyptien, Methode D’Etteilla et du Livre de Thoth, 1870, facsimile (Photo: Camelia Elias)


Etteilla (Jean-Baptiste Alliette, 1738 – 1791) is credited with having contributed to separating fortunetelling with playing cards from divination with tarot. Now, why did he do that, some ask? My guess is that he wanted a place with the high-standing esoteric masons, and he needed something that would convince them of his occult inclinations.

Legend has it that Etteilla was a simple man, a wig maker, who wanted more in life than to coif others. In reality, we don’t have conclusive historical records about Etteilla’s family history. But we know that he wrote books, laying down the first written record for how to read cards according to an elaborate method.

If I were a historian myself, I’d follow the money, as the history of divination is tightly interwoven with that. As I’m more interested in divination from an anthropological perspective and as a cultural manifestation, I will say just this: All things Egyptian were in vogue at the time Etteilla developed his theories. To his credit, what he did that was original is conflate reading cards, based on a logical system, with some immortality of the soul.

This is a fairly well documented area in the study of the history of tarot and fortunetelling with playing cards. A good place to start for more information is Stuart Kaplan’s monumental Encyclopedia of Tarot.

Within the history of divination, I’ll allow for making my own conjecture here, as I haven’t seen anyone else proposing it: At some point Etteilla got tired of counting – French cartomancy can be pretty awful at that – and decided instead to replace counting with mapping. Following the esoteric axiom, as above so below, all he needed was a new speculative system that could be mapped onto all things between heaven and earth. Thoth was moving in his grave, and so were the celestial bodies. Fascinating stuff. A new system was born, and it was called ‘esoteric tarot.’

Here I would argue that what Etteilla did, and that almost marked an impossible return to traditional fortunetelling, was to replace a linear way of reading, based on counting and observing the play between intersecting lines, rows and grids with creating ‘spreads.’ The idea of locking a card in a certain position became very popular, and we need not look any further than the Anglo-American world where this culminated with the embrace of the Celtic Cross.

However, there is now a new revival of old cartomantic traditions, and from what I’ve seen, the greatest challenge that readers face in crossing over, so to speak, from tarot to fortunetelling is comprehending that one can read cards without there being a spread for them. I’ll return to this shortly. This is not to say that French cartomancy is devoid of ‘spreads’ – a grand tableau is a spread with all the cards on the table, and so is a horse shoe or a fan of 21 cards – all popular layouts.

My point is that when Etteilla ditched his playing cards, as they smelled too much of gypsy stock, as we can assume, and created his own tarots, he anticipated the future by going to the past. I’d venture to argue that what he brought to his own deck, the Grand Etteilla, is a method of reading cards in trios, rather than by pairing and mirroring, or by counting cards from the end of a line towards the center. He never said this though. Quite the contrary: He invented some rather complicated schemes, but the way in which he arrived at a conclusion was still by sticking to the old tradition of fortunetelling that goes back to the time before the French got elitist.

My suspicion is also that he employed the rather simple method of reading the Marseille tarot (the oldest pack we have going back to 1650s), based on following a rhyme scheme that’s built up so that it creates correspondences across the elements composing the images of the cards, rather than across what is presumed to be a correspondence between an image and its symbolic representation. Here, I can refer to the work of Enrique Enriquez, who has refashioned the method of reading the Marseille tarot in a most original manner.

To conclude on this bit of history, my guess is that Etteilla went esoteric, further ‘unveiling’ the book of Thoth after his predecessor, Antoine Court de Gébelin, but what he kept a secret was the fact that he still preferred the commonsense of traditional fortunetelling, or what can be termed the exoteric approach to card reading.



Image: Waite-Smith Tarot, 1909, Universal Tarot US Games (Photo: Camelia Elias)


In around 1900, and in spite of the lack of sources, The Golden Dawn Hermetic Order in Britain revived the research into Tarot’s links with Thoth, and particularly Aleister Crowley proved to be influential. His own Thoth Tarot designed with Lady Frieda Harris as the illustrator, and published in 1943, is still very popular.

But none surpasses the popularity of Pamela Colman Smith’s tarot designed in 1909 under guidance from occultist Arthur Edward Waite. What is now known as the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot has made the greatest impact on divination with cards, and especially since the 60s, the esoteric Tarot has found a stable home in the psychology of under-represented groups.

But let’s see first:

The Victorian time was a time known for its love of all things occult, from spiritism to high magic, the latter a form of spirit evocation and invocation based on the grimoire tradition, or the use of books filled with household spells designed to help the magician with all the areas of life: love, money, health, work, and on occasion, the transcending of the mundane.

With the publication of the Waite-Smith Tarot, the Golden Dawn pretty much let the cat out of the bag. In a way, Pamela Colman Smith can be thought as the real Grand Lady of the Tarot, one who turned a marginal art into commerce. She was certainly a great genius, though, as with many women of her time, she also died poor and unacknowledged. Historians of the tarot love to hate this woman and her involvement with the Golden Dawn. Was she an enlightened woman or a business-woman?

Whatever the answer, where the tarot itself is concerned, the truth is that even before it went esoteric, some time around the mid 1700s, the tarot has been not only a marginal, narrow art, but always also a commercial, popular artifact – the marginal as testified by the few writings on it around the time it popped up in our cultural history going back to the first Tarots we know of, among them the Visconti Sforza pack from 1450, and the popular as testified by the countless spin-offs of the Waite-Smith Tarot.

What Pamela Coleman Smith did in 1909 was to open for the possibility for every housewife to earn a little extra on the side by reading fortunes, in addition to gaining a sense of self. Prior to this time women were pretty much the possession of their fathers or husbands, with very little sense of self-worth. In a way not much has changed. Her illustrations for Waite became not only iconic but also a cultural text participating in the movement of self-empowerment. We owe it to her that today there is simply no phenomenon out there for which there isn’t a Tarot to represent it: Tarot of the Housewives, Tarot of the Simpsons, Baseball Tarot, Vampire Tarot, Tarot of Everything.

Especially the 22 Major Arcana cards, the cards dealing with ‘archetypal’ forces, have undergone fantastic transformations. No other art form can boast such a history of engaging generation after generation in rethinking ways of understanding such popular cards as the Death card, the Devil, The Emperor, the Tower, or The Lovers.

It is, for instance, fascinating to see how a feminist deck puts a spin on these types, by telling the same story of an archetype as does a fantasy deck, a queer deck, a cats’ deck, or a ghetto deck. Before Pamela Coleman Smith’s time, it was mainly women who were card readers. Though we cannot underestimate the fortunetelling mages of the Renaissance. These were all men, deeply steeped into occult lore and magic, and having influenced a host of others that came after them. We still feel the influence of Marsilio Ficino, a philosopher, priest, astrologer and magician who is presumed to have participated in the creation of the images on the Marseille Tarot (see the documentary Mysteries of the Tarot of Marseille, director: Philippe Truffault, 2104, for ARTE).



Image: Marseille Tarot by Jean Noblet, 1650, as reconstructed by Jean-Claude Flornoy, hand-painted by Edmund Zebrowsky (Photo: Camelia Elias)

By a twist of fate, we could argue that Italian Renaissance philosophy has participated in the creation of the ‘French’ style tradition of reading cards based on the Visconti-Sforza pack and the Tarot de Marseille pack, producing a kind of a hybrid reader involved in the space between the esoteric and the exoteric tarot, and going under the name of tarologue.

The Marseille cards, although originating in the north of Italy and then Paris, are a stylized derivation of the Visconti-Sforza cards. Unlike the occultist reader, interested in all things transcendental and using what can be termed ‘art tarots,’ the tarologue works with the historical decks that have no picture representations on the minor Arcana cards.

The tarologue not only sticks to the geometrical patterns on the cards and sees these as an opportunity to observe how they enter into play with the images of the major arcana, but she also centers the reading on dynamic transmutations. For instance, in my own work, as I follow this tradition, I prefer function over symbol. That is to say, before a card holds any ‘inherent’ meaning, it acts in context, it is placed next to another card, thus acting in accordance with such positioning.

The tarologue will not read the card of Strength as a symbol of force and vitality, but rather look at the way in which the card interacts with the one next to it, following the formula of image+function=situated meaning.

In most representations of this card what we see is a woman opening the mouth of a lion. Unlike the occultist reader, who’d skip this first indexical recognition of what’s happening in the card, and from there derive meaning, the tarologue acknowledges that meaning is never IN the cards, but is always situated in context. What the tarologue thus prioritizes in her divination is taking into account how the question and its context drive the narrative forward, and creates meaning. A woman opening the mouth of a lion is first that, a woman opening the mouth of a lion, before she acquires any symbolic meaning, such as, for instance: ‘stamina’, ‘devotion’, ‘dominance’, and ‘overcoming’.

The position that the tarologue thus assumes vis-à-vis divination, whether self-oriented or other-oriented, is one of looking: looking at gesture and action, voice, embodiment, and the function of transposition in the cards. For instance, for the tarologue, the card of Strength next to the card of the Fool, depicting a big cat chasing a man in rags, doesn’t ‘mean’ anything that’s even remotely close to the one-on-one mapping that the occultist would observe: Strength as a symbolic representation of stamina, and the Fool as a symbolic representation of freedom. For the tarologue these two cards next to each other in that order, Strength first and the Fool second, yield information that can be processed into knowledge based on what is seen: Big lion in front of you turns into a small cat behind you. By extension, the conclusion would be that whatever is perceived as a big problem is now behind you, and a much smaller irritation than to begin with, if it still persists at all.

What the tarologue does then is simply to dethrone and displace ‘meaning’ from its presumed position of superiority. One could say that while all the occultist diviners participate in the construction and maintenance of meaning, the tarologue goes Zen, insisting on language awareness, and holding herself to the fictionality inherent in all linguistic and cognitive games.

While the tarologue finds fascinating the stories of correspondences that the occultists tell, she does not assign any meaning to any system, whether it be Egyptian, Kabbalistic, Angelic, geomantic, numeric, or of any other orientation.



To sum up here, we can say that the history of the tarot is not only a history of art, philosophy, and poetry, but also a history of self-understanding and of money. These two together. Anyone interested in the history of the tarot would be well served looking into the tarot as a cultural text, and ask a few seminal questions:

  • Who does this pack of cards represent and why?
  • How is it used and for what purpose?
  • Why does making money from the Tarot unite so many diverse interests?

The pendulum always swings back.

From the gypsies making money from prediction and fortunetelling to the occultists promising eternal life through the transmigration of the soul, the Tarot functions as a primary gate towards power, self-empowerment, and then the deconstruction of both. Etteilla and his predecessor represented the first, the Golden Dawn magicians the second, and the tarologue the third.

Right now the pendulum once more swings back towards earlier forms of divination. People are getting tired of self-inquiry. Some just want to know if John and Mary will get together, and not be ashamed of such mundane interests. The more radical read cards with view to laughing at all conventions and constructions, pointing sharply to what people cling to and why.

Many read the cards right now by following an idea of what is imagined traditional ‘fortunetelling style’ may once have looked like, while also following marketing clichés: ‘It’s all about them, the cards are about them.’ Of course, fortunetellers of old already knew this, which aligns them with the tarologue who has a nasty habit of seeing things as they are, but consciously avoids the trap of cynicism.

At the end of the day, however, what divination is all about is this: Cards remind us of what is always at stake. No matter which way the pendulum swings, between dominant concerns with ‘me,’ dominant concerns with the ‘other’, and way beyond, we all live by the law of transaction. We transact for everything: an identity, a lover, war, and money, peace of mind, spirituality, pragmatism, and clear sight.

In these transactions we use the tarot to gain insight into how aspects of life relate to our conditions and the way in which we can act. We all suffer from blind spots. We see random images on the table in the form of cards, we tell a story about alternative solutions to a problem. Most people tend to go: ‘Wow! Why didn’t I think of that?’

For this alone, the cards deserve celebration.



Enriquez, Enrique (2011) TAROLOGY. EyeCorner Press



Elias, Camelia (2014) MARSEILLE TAROT: TOWARDS THE ART OF READING. EyeCorner Press.


–––– (2017) THE POWER OF THE TRUMPS. A SUBTLE BURST. EyeCorner Press.

Kaplan, Stuart (1978) THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF TAROT. Vol 1-4. United States Games Systems.

Truffault, Philippe. Dir. (2014) MYSTERIES OF THE MARSEILLE TAROT. Documentary film for ARTE.

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Position: Author, Contributor City: Thy, Denmark Age: 48 Beliefs/System: Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana) Domains of interest: Tarot, Cartomancy, Zen, Buddhist philosophy Website: www.cameliaelias.com/ | https://taroflexions.wordpress.com/ | Read more>

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