In our latest book, Tarot Time Traveller, you will take an exciting journey of discovery through the vivid history of cartomancy—card-reading—an adventure that we have long wanted to share with our readers.
As you travel through time with us, you will learn how the cards got their meanings, the reasons for their particular illustrations, and practical ways of reading cards—whether they are playing cards, Lenormand, Tarot de Marseille, or modern tarot cards.
Each of the eras in the book, from the early pioneers of card-reading to late Victorian occultism, all the way up to modern approaches such as tarosophy, are brought to life with story-vignettes imagining what it would have been like to have accompanied one of the members of the Golden Dawn to a study meeting or to have been a young telephonist learning for the first time about tarot in a woman's magazine in the early 1930s. We also travel to Egypt, discover fakes and forgeries, and go and pick up original pamphlets from cities as diverse as Edinburgh in the mid-1800s and Chicago in 1955.
We have drawn together much of the research from our "Cards of Antiquity" campaign, along with access to first-hand materials including the notorious Aleister Crowley's own hand-written notebooks. We have also delved into secret and previously unpublished writings from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. However, most excitingly for us, we have used a large collection of women's magazines from the 1930s -1950s, where tarot and card reading were developed in plain sight between the secret orders of the late Victorian era and the revival of tarot in the swinging sixties!
In this article, we would like to share how several of the eras might have responded to the same question using early card-reading, Lenormand, Tarot de Marseille, Waite-Smith Tarot and esoteric Tarot methods to demonstrate how the book tells the story of card-reading through time.
Many of the questions we use in the book were drawn from "Problem Page" columns in the early 1900s, to show that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to the questions asked then and those asked now. Here is the question we have selected for this article, quoted from Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe: Words of Wisdom from the Golden Age of Agony Aunts by Tanith Carey:
"Pete and I have only been married for a year and already I am just an old housewife to him. He scarcely speaks in the morning and never takes me anywhere, and more and more he goes out with the boys before coming home. What can I do about it?"
Our contemporary rephrasing of this question might be, "My husband has lost interest in our relationship and I am worried that he is having an affair. What shall I do?"
Let us first draw a playing card and look how we might interpret a one card answer using one of the methods in our time-travelling book. We draw the Five of Hearts.
Five of Hearts Meaning: As Master-Card, an amusing and diverting Affair heard of, or entered into. Influenced by its like suit, a Feeling not hitherto returned is met at last. By a Diamond, a Success in some-thing particularly wished. By a Club, a keen and shrewd chanced-at remark to be well caught. By a Spade, an ache, pain, or breaking.
Whilst we provide several ways of translating archaic meanings to modern readings in the book, for now, we can see this is a fairly negative card for our question. It speaks of an affair. However, should it be modified by another Heart card, it would be positive—showing the unrequited feelings would soon be returned by the partner. The response to "what can I do about it?" by the Five of Hearts with a Spade card would be to make a "painful break" by perhaps saying that you would have your own separate interests.
The playing card reading section of our book shows how very direct and simple meanings were first applied to the cards, in the earliest cases just two lines, and different meanings for a male questioner or a female questioner. Thus, the cards were crudely simple, good or bad, yes or no readings, with later "rules" being developed to add more detail to the reading.
We also look at another early and more direct way of reading, the very literal Lenormand. In these cards (you can see also our book Learning Lenormand) there are very structured ways of reading, unlike the more layered tarot interpretations. Let us give the same question to the Lenormand and see what these cards say—and how it differs from playing cards.
The cards we draw for the same question about "Pete and I" are:
Snake (7) + Mountain (21) + Garden (20)
Reading from right to left:
Garden: Meeting place + Mountain: Obstacle + Snake: Betrayal/Other woman.
We read these cards left to right, modifying them as we go; here, this is like earlier playing card methods. We read, "[Another woman] is proving [an obstacle] through [public meetings]." It sounds as if, rather than an affair, the partner is getting close to another woman through his business.
The Lenormand cards provide simple and clear readings, particularly when placed together in a Grand Tableaux; they are cards that work better with the whole deck laid out, whereas this can be very overwhelming with playing cards.
We will next look to how we might read for this same question again, using a modern "visual poetry" method of the Tarot de Marseille (TdM). Here we see more information being drawn from the actual illustration of the deck.
Tarot de Marseille
Using a standard TdM deck, the three cards drawn are: XI (La Force) + VII (Le Chariot) + VI (L'Amouruex).
Let us see how we might read a story for "Pete and I" from the actual illustrations of these three cards as follows:
The woman looks to the man and the man looks to the woman. She tries to keep her mouth shut as he tries to drive forwards but only goes sideways. They must both look to the Lion and their own strengths to put their horses in order. They can bring themselves together by choosing to do what they love.
We can also look more in-depth with this approach by observing how the hands of characters move between the cards; in this reading, each pair of hands shows both one hand grasping, and the other hand resting. This indicates the need to focus on what is important and what will not be lost by resting.
This visual interpretation is also continued when we look to more contemporary decks starting with the Waite-Smith Tarot. When we understand the design mentality behind the symbolism, we add more layers of possible interpretation. We will skip over Papus, Etteilla, and Levi for now (which we cover in the book) and head straight to Mr. Waite and Ms. Colman-Smith.
What might we read in a Waite-Smith type card for "Pete and I?" We can simply draw one card for this question to demonstrate how the design now influences the interpretation. In this case, we draw the Nine of Cups.
In our book, Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot, we identified this card as Falstaff. This was Colman-Smith's perfect design based on the text description in the Golden Dawn Book T, a manual of Tarot. In Book T, the card is the complete and perfect realization of pleasure and happiness, almost perfect. It says of this card: "self-praise, vanity, conceit, much talking of self, yet kind and lovable, and may be self-denying therewith. High-minded, not easily satisfied with small and limited ideas. Apt to be maligned through too much self-assumption. A good and generous but sometimes foolish nature."
Falstaff, the character Pamela Colman-Smith has portrayed, has the look of all these things; he is a man who gives the impression of thinking very highly of himself, he looks like he is confident and he never does anything by half. However, this is his opinion only—his act does not always equate with actual action.
As we have written before, the Nine of Cups is almost certainly Pamela's rendition of Falstaff, a character in three Shakespeare plays (The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV parts 1 and 2). Theatregoers of the day would have easily recognized the figure as Falstaff. The Falstaff we see on the Nine of Cups is almost certainly as played by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
So, Pamela concentrates on the card as showing over-indulgence, laziness, and a forgetfulness of one's original values. Henry says of Falstaff in Henry IV, act I, scene 2:
"Thou art so fat-witted, with drinking of old sack and unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know."
Analysing this quote, we can see that there is much that matches the image Pamela conjures in her Nine of Cups; she has drawn Shakespeare's old sack (beer) with the nine cups. Pamela's indulgent-looking gentleman, with his top button loose and casual necktie, is a man who is replete and content with his lot. He sits upon a bench, utterly reminiscent of Falstaff's "unbuttoning thee after supper and sleeping upon benches after noon."
In our reading then, we might suggest that our questioner should not be concentrating on her new husband but herself—it is she who is becoming a Falstaffian-like "old housewife?" It is perhaps herself that has "forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know."
When we come to these later decks, we see that by understanding the design in more detail, they provide richer tools for our interpretation rather than a simple, "You will not find a good husband" interpretation as found in early cartomancy.
Finally, let us skip forward in time just a little and see how the notorious magician Aleister Crowley might have read—again, for the same question of "Pete and I." We have looked in the book at several aspects of Crowley's work in Tarot, and for this article give a brief method of using a few Court Cards. In one small appendix to his work, Crowley gave natural correspondences to the Court Cards, which we have used to create an interesting method of reading.
We take the Court Cards only, and shuffle, to select just two out of the sixteen. We put one card above the other, so for example, we might have the Prince (Knight) of Swords above the Queen of Disks. We then look up Crowley's natural correspondences and write them out in a sentence that has one above the other.
|Court Card||Element (of)||Element||Correspondences|
|Prince (Knight) of Swords||Air||Air||Clouds|
|Queen of Swords||Water||Air||Vibrations, Resonances, Echoes, Ripples|
|Knight (King) of Disks||Fire||Earth||Mountains, Gravity|
|Prince (Knight) of Disks||Air||Earth||Plains, long-lasting life|
|Queen of Disks||Water||Earth||Fields, supporting life|
So, the Prince (Knight) of Swords above the Queen of Disks is "Clouds above the Fields." This method provides us an almost I-Ching-like reading of the Court Cards, and here would indicate that there is indeed deception (clouds) above the life-supporting field of the relationship. The advice would be to blow away the clouds—as we have seen in several of these readings for the same question, a hard discussion is needed for clarity.
We have skipped our cartomantic stone across just a few of the eras and methods we have aimed to weave together in the book, and hope that it gives a flavour of the similarities and differences that we can see in the approaches to card meanings across time. The book also provides little vignettes of everyday experiences with tarot in the lives of those who embraced cartomancy and became part of the tradition in which we now stand.
We hope you come to enjoy our work and we would like to leave you with this vignette from the book, where we watch a brief scene from a wet Tuesday morning in Yorkshire, 1935, and meet a woman who may have been more oracular than she knew.
6am. Tuesday 25th June 1935: Leeds, England.
The bicycle swerves around the puddles along the cobbled streets. Luckily, the rider of the bike, who is on her way home from the night shift at the Leeds Telephone Exchange, is wearing culottes, saving her a pretty penny on laundry expenses.
She is on her way to the newsagents, which will soon be opening, to pick up her reserved copy of Woman's Weekly, which—this week—has a knitted jumper pattern with cable stitch bands. She races by the Empire Palace movie theatre, hardly glancing at the posters for the latest Alfred Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps. She has other thrills and mysteries on her mind.
Last year, she, Judith Reid, aged 24, had been introduced to a whole new world. In the otherwise inconspicuous pages of Woman's Own magazine, January 13th, for just two pennies, she had read "how to read the cards" and taken advantage of a rather special offer.
She had learnt how to read the future in an ordinary deck of playing cards—and she had got rather good at it. This year, now that the girls at the Exchange were used to her reading their cards during cigarette breaks, she was about to branch out. The Woman's Weekly she was about to buy had a wonderful gift with it: a full deck of tarot cards.
Judith had promised everyone at work she would soon have them mastered, and would be able to read even more for them. It was perhaps no coincidence that the story she was also following in the magazine, in weekly instalments, was entitled "If This Be Destiny."
She turned a bit too sharply into Harrowgate Road, round by the Co-Op, and braked as she saw Wilson & Sons fruitsellers, already open. Dismounting quickly from her bicycle, she rushes into Harry Cleggs, local newsagent, and grabs her copy of the magazine from the piles newly delivered by the door.
"A treat every week," Harry jokes, handing her the deck of tarot cards, neatly packaged with the Thompson Leng publishing mark on the front of the box. Judith smiles politely, but cannot contain her excitement.
"It's the future, Harry," she exclaims, "just like them telephones!"