Cartomancy: Systems

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 instalments.

There are certainly appearances in artworks and even literature produced on the subject of fortune telling with playing cards at least as far back as the 16th century, but it’s thought that this form of divination only really enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 18th century. Many artists have shown women in parlours and Romany Gypsies reading playing cards in the common 7 x 3 “Romany Spread”, pyramid spread and circular spread popular in the 18th to early 20th century Europe. There are many other traditions which are likely even older, especially in the rich Russian heritage of cartomancy with their famous star spreads.

As you might expect, with such a long history spanning several cultures, there are many sets of card meanings to choose from. This is often something that newcomers to cartomancy struggle with at first, which meanings are right or work most accurately? I personally went through around four systems before I found something I connected with, still swapping a few in and out of other systems until they sat right with me. 

The generally accepted suit interactions are:


Hearts – relationships, love, family, emotions, healing

Clubs – Business, growth, work, activity, social matters

Diamonds – luck, wealth, ambition, fame, drive

Spades – obstructions, regeneration, reflections, loss, illness

I found giving cards nicknames helped me remember the associations whilst I learned their meanings. For example, I call the 9 of spades “the tower” as in the system I use it has similar connotations to that of the tarot card. The 5 of spades is “the knife” card as this represents endings that are painful and final, cutting something away that no longer serves, whereas the 6 of spades is “the divorce” card as this is an accepted ending through choice. If you are familiar with pip tarot decks, you will likely be used to working with card with few visual cues, though I steered clear of simply transposing tarot meanings over the playing cards as they definitely have a varied and rich system of meanings of their own.

In terms of spreads, you can read as few as 3 cards in a reading, then build these up to larger spreads. Read each card in it’s position and weave them together into a narrative. Of course it depends on the spread as to whether a single card fulfills a positions message or if there will be several cards all playing a part. Most traditions pre-select a significator, but this is optional and dependant on the spread you are using. It could be that you hold the significator in mind and if it shows in the spread then this gives extra weight and a stronger message to the area the significator lies and the surrounding cards.

Once you start to feel comfortable with the playing cards, you will definitely find you get more depth within your readings by laying larger spreads. A great spread to try is the English Spread, explained wonderfully by Dan in this video here, who also has a great YouTube channel filled with cartomancy tutorials on various traditions. The English Spread is one of my favourites as well as the more traditional Romany spread, though I worked for a while on tailoring the positions to work best for me. A lot of cartomancy spreads are focussed on the use of Continental decks with 32 or 36 cards, but a lot of them can be easily adapted for a full deck. There is certainly an array of spreads in the English traditions which are natively geared towards 52 cards.

The court cards in the standard decks are reflective of the significators physical characteristics, such as a fair haired young male or an older dark haired woman. The system I use also applies a personality to the courts in relation to their suits which can be used along with, or instead of purely physical appearances which I find gives more information within a reading.

Although it can take some time to familiarise yourself with the card meanings, it is definitely worth the time invested. There is an array of spreads available and the ability to develop your intuitive reading by forming narratives from a few keywords, leaving room for your own senses and insights without any detailed images as in the minor arcana. My advice, which does see a lot of people quickly put off exploring cartomancy further is to not get overwhelmed by the amount of card meanings out there. Try only a handful and stick to one that appeals to you, don’t be afraid to make tweaks to suit your needs. Most Continental systems offer reversed meanings for cards, but many 52 card systems don’t and I have never felt the need to.

There is a growing community purely dedicated to the use of playing card reading on social media, filled with new ideas and spreads to try. Look out for future blogs where we will look into the suits individually and give you more ideas and spreads to try out!

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: Choosing a Deck

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

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