You probably own at least one deck of playing cards. And if you’re anything like me, you literally only know how to play one card game. Solitaire.
Have you ever considered using them to tell fortunes? Cartomancy doesn’t just rely on fancy decks of special cards. True, Madame Lenormand became famous for her divinatory cards during the Napoleonic era. And the Tarot cards date to the mid-18th century, though wealthy Italian families originally used them to play a game much like bridge. Modern diviners also have oracle cards, angel cards, and probably Cards Against Humanity.
But yep. You can tell fortunes using ordinary playing cards. Let’s find out a little more about their fortune telling and folklore.
Hang on! Where do playing cards even come from?
No one knows! Most peoples’ best guess is the East. Scrolls dating to the Tang Dynasty era in China discuss ‘paper tiles’. Though they’re more likely to be what we call dominoes (Wilkinson 1895, p. 61). Rather, European documents from the late 14th century describe a “Saracen’s game” which implies they came from Arabia, not China. Jonathan Dee notes that Europeans knew of playing cards in 1377 (2004, p. 12).
According to an article in the Journal of American Folklore, “[i]t has not been possible as yet to connect the playing-cards of Europe with those of Asia, although the games played with them, and their general characteristics, are practically identical” (1895, p. 251). Hmm.
Playing cards became so popular in medieval Europe that card games were banned on work days in Paris. Cards became “the Devil’s picture book”. The familiar black and red suits appeared in France in the mid-1400s. The cards had always had symbols and images (like the Tarot cards) but the pips were a new development.
Numbers were finally added to the corners of the cards during the Civil War. That meant people could hold a fan of their cards in one hand and still see what all of the cards were.
Playing cards get a set of meanings
The first deck for divination only appeared in London in 1685. In 1770, Jean Baptiste Alliette published ‘Etteilla, ou Maniere de se Recreer avec un Jeu de Cardes’ (Etteilla, Or a Way to Entertain Yourself with a Deck of Cards). The system showed readers how to use playing cards for divination.
Cory Thomas Hutcheson notes that the playing cards had biblical associations in the late 1700s. Fives relate to Christ’s five wounds, “and the tens are the Ten Commandments” (2013, p. 7). Obviously, these meanings change over time. For Denise Alvarado, the Five of Hearts relates to “[c]auseless jealousy in a person of weak, unsettled character” (2013, p. 4).
The Kings often represent Charles, David, Caesar and Alexander the Great in British or French decks. The Queens are less well-known. Adrienne Bernhard notes they’re often considered to be Pallas, Judith, Rachel, and Argine.
But Spain swapped queens for mounted knights and the Germans ditched them altogether. As Bernhard points out, “[t]he French reintroduced the queen, while the British were so fond of theirs they instituted the “British Rule,” a variation that swaps the values of the king and queen cards if the reigning monarch of England is a woman”.
The joker, or jester, is the wild card in the deck. They first appeared in American decks in 1867, and in British decks in 1880. While they can trump normal cards, they often don’t perform a standard function, so there’s no standard design for them.
Fortune Telling with Playing Cards
Playing cards don’t have the same associations as Tarot cards. Jonathan Dee also points out that “[n]ot too far back into the past Tarot cards were hard to come by and the ordinary, everyday deck of cards […] was a far more accessible tool for foretelling the future” (2004, p. 5). The four suits have their parallel in the four suits of the Tarot’s Minor Arcana.
The hearts largely become the Tarot’s cups. Spades equated to swords and the Tarot’s Coins became Diamonds. Meanwhile, the Clubs acted as the Batons, Staffs or Wands of the Tarot. Though differences crop up between countries. For example, bells are more common a suit than spades in Germany.
Whatever the cards featured, different systems cropped up as to how to read them. The suit, and the number of the card, carried messages. Much as in Tarot, the reader interpreted these messages for the querent.
So that’s their use in fortune telling. But what about their folklore?
The Folklore of Playing Cards
Several ghost stories involve people playing cards with the devil. He tricks them into playing on the Sabbath so he can steal their souls. Even the mighty Glamis Castle in Scotland boasts such a story. Though I think these stories are less about the cards, and more about gambling in general.
But Cora Linn Daniels and C. M. Stevans relate a whole range of superstitions about playing cards (2003 , p. 1471-3).
Holding a hand containing four clubs? That’ll never bring you good luck. It’s known as “the devil’s four-post bedstead”. Though getting hold of the two of clubs is lucky.
It’s bad luck to play cards while sitting in a rocking chair. And it’s unlucky to play at a table with no tablecloth. Though it’s “lucky to play cards with a hat on”. Or if you “stroke a black cat’s tail seven times” before playing.
Holding three aces? You’ll move house soon.
Getting a long line of black cards is a death omen. And you’ll attract bad luck if you lose your temper while playing cards. Apparently the devil likes passionate players.
Perhaps the presence of arsenic in 19th-century playing cards helps explain the ‘bad luck’ associations. An article in the British Medical Journal in 1879 discusses “the dangers of poisoning by the use of arsenic in playing-cards” (p. 746). Nice.
The Ace of Spaces
You’ve got the Motorhead song in your head now, haven’t you? As well as being a hard rock classic, the Ace of Spades is also an important card in the deck.
In English-speaking countries, it’s usually the highest value card in the deck. Quite literally, in fact. The card was hand stamped to show the stamp duty had been paid by the printer.
But the Ace of Spades is also known as the Death Card. Cora Linn Daniels and C. M. Stevans note that finding the ace of spades lying on the ground is bad luck. If the spade is pointing at you, it’s an omen that “deceit and treachery” are afoot (2003 , p. 1473).
This website published a claim that the Ace of Spades represents Yule in the calendar, or the Death of the Year. The author also explains that the symbol seemed to recur throughout the Vietnam War. Painted on vehicles or turned into patches, the folk legends claim the symbol spurred on US troops. But there’s no common consensus, and the association seems a relatively recent one.
And finally! The Dead Man’s Hand
I couldn’t write this post and not talk about the mythical Dead Man’s Hand. People don’t agree on what cards comprise the Dead Man’s Hand. It’s usually the Aces and Eights of Spades and Clubs.
According to popular legend, Wild Bill Hickok held the Dead Man’s Hand when he was shot in the back in Deadwood in 1876. It even inspired my short collection of connected tales, Dead Man’s Hand, which is available here.
The phrase dates to 1886, at which point it was a pair of tens and three jacks. Other sets of cards appear in different versions. The composition attributed to Hickok didn’t appear until a 1926 book about the gunslinger emerged.
It’s an interesting one because it’s appeared in folklore through its usage in popular culture. Rather than the other way around.
It all comes down to luck
Playing cards and folklore all boils down to luck. Certain cards are lucky, others are not. Yet when something relies so heavily on chance, it’s hardly surprising that we’d turn to fortune telling to make sense of an unpredictable world.
It’s just bizarre that we’d use playing cards, the very thing we want to predict, to tell our fortunes…
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Alvarado, Denise (2013), Fortune-Telling with Playing Cards, Creole Moon Publications.
American Folklore Society (1895), ‘The Origin of Playing Cards’, The Journal of American Folklore, 8:30, pp. 250-1.
Bernhard, Adrienne (2017), ‘The Lost Origins of Playing-Card Symbols’, The Atlantic, 24 August, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/08/the-lost-origins-of-playing-card-symbols/537786/.
British Medical Journal (1879), ‘Arsenic In Playing Cards’, The British Medical Journal, 2: 984, p. 746.
Daniels, Cora Linn and C.M. Stevans (2003 ), Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World, Vol. 3, Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific.
Dee, Jonathan (2004), Fortune Telling Using Playing Cards, Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.
Hutcheson, Cory Thomas (2013), Fifty-four Devils: The Art & Folklore of Fortune-telling with Playing Cards, New World Witchery.
Wilkinson, W.H. (1895), ‘Chinese Origin of Playing Cards’, American Anthropologist, 8:1, pp. 61-78.
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