Cartomancy: History

Written by: Melanie Clarke / WinterMeudwy

Melanie has used the tarot for many years but recently discovered and developed a love for all things cartomancy. Here she shares her exploration of this Art with us in monthly installments.

The exact dates of the first production of a deck of playing cards is debatable. There have been references to playing card games as far back as the 9th Century CE in China, though with so many variations and the lack of solid written evidence we can not be sure, it may have been even earlier! These cards have been adopted by almost every culture they have come into contact with, each putting their own cultural spin on the suits and systems. When they were first used for fortune telling is another evasive line of enquiry, and whether they were used as a divination tool first and foremost or a card game. 

We now have a wonderful array of divination systems which were all born from these early decks as they evolved and spread across the globe. It’s believed the first appearance of playing cards into Europe was in the 1360’s, with the invasions and trade routes opening from Italy, into Spain and across western Europe being the most rapid spread of the cards, with soldiers and merchants carrying decks of cards to entertain themselves on their long travels. Their card faces would have worn the suits we most commonly recognise now on our tarot cards, the coins, cups, batons and swords. These suits are still used today in Italy and Spain, where they are known as Naipes or Barajas Españolas.

It was only as these cards entered Germany, Bulgaria and surrounding countries that they were adapted to suit the tastes of each culture. Whereas the Italian suits reflected their social structures and drive for advancement and wealth, the Germanic people could relate more readily to nature and adopted the cow bells, leaves, acorns and hearts, therefore they adapted the suits to their liking. The amount of cards were also clipped to suit the most popular card games of the time and are still used today on the Continent across Eastern Europe under many names, the most popular being Magyar Kartya. It wasn’t until the playing cards reached France, who were in the throes of perfecting advancements in the printing press, that the suits we recognise today were created as the hearts, tiles (diamonds), clovers (clubs) and pikes (spades). This was due to the ease of reproducing these simplified symbols and allowed them to be places in the borders of each card, which hadn’t previously been done by any earlier version of the playing cards. The Barajas Españolas did employ a version of this by using a border system to allow cards to be more easily recognised when holding a hand, each suit would have a differing amount of breaks in the top of the solid line border, known as “pintas”.

Although the ease of printing reproduction saw these suits become the most commonly used across the world, the original regional variations still exist to this day. The French were also the first culture to introduce a female court card to the playing card system, previously having only the Lower Knave, Upper Knave and King. The numbering of the cards were also altered in the French system, as in the Barajas Espñolas, the cards ran from 1-9 in pips with the 10 being the first court card.

Although we can track some of the path of playing cards across the world, seeing their many offspring in our divination cards today, much of their original history will likely stay a complete mystery. I feel this really only serves to add to their intrigue as a cartomancy system.

I hope you have found this introduction to Cartomancy interesting and feel inspired to give it a try, it’s definitely a fun way to read and most people enjoy receiving a reading with something they are very familiar with. Please do share any feedback you have and your experiences with using playing cards to read with!

Next month: Cartomancy Systems

You can read more on Melanie’s blog at: The Cartomancy Witch

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