Reading Playing Cards by Lee A. Bursten

To committed Tarotists, the idea of actually reading with playing cards may seem unthinkable. After all, they completely lack any esoteric or occult references, not to mention the 22 Major Arcana which contain the main themes of our passages through life. They also lack the evocative images on the Minor Arcana of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and its descendants. So whatís left? 40 numbered pip cards and 12 court cards Ė and thatís it. It doesnít seem like thereís a lot of potential there for an interesting reading.

However, playing cards have been used for centuries for fortune telling. Now, some people may recoil at the very phrase, "fortune telling." If we mean by it a simplistic reading which tells you that youíll get an inheritance soon and a fair-haired man will carry you away, or that someone close to you will die, then I agree thatís something to be avoided. Especially to be avoided are storefront fortune-tellers who will tell you that your money is cursed and they will cleanse it for you. These extreme examples aside, I donít believe that there is as much of a difference between fortune telling and divination as some would like to believe. After all, I think it would be difficult for a good fortune-teller, even if they were very event-oriented in their approach, to give a reading that did not contain some psychological, spiritual, and empowering content in it. And anyone who does a Tarot reading that includes a card position for "Future" or "Final Outcome" is still practicing fortune telling, that is, predicting a future event. We may tell ourselves that we arenít really predicting, merely uncovering a trend or something the querent should keep in mind, but these are semantic differences. A reading that discusses the future is a reading which discusses the future, whether we call it fortune telling or divination.

I think we shouldnít be so eager to categorize these things and then label certain categories as unacceptable. Many of us search for the "right" approach to Tarot--I know this from personal experience, having spent years doing exactly that--and you will often find people who will tell you that one approach is right while others arenít. I believe divination is all about using your intuition to allow your subconscious to communicate with you; and if thatís the case, then no amount of right-brain categorizing and labeling will facilitate that communication.

There seem to be two competing views these days regarding Tarot reading. One view (the most prevalent, I believe) is that the best way to read is to use whatever insights arise from viewing the pictures on the cards, whether or not they agree with the cardsí traditional meanings. Two authors in this category are Mary Greer  (Tarot for Your Self) and Robin Wood (The Robin Wood Tarot Book). Robin Wood is an interesting example. She took great care to fill her deck with specific symbols that had very specific meanings for her; yet she says that in a reading, the symbols will mean whatever they suggest to you for that querent, in that reading.

The other view is that specific meanings should be assigned to each card based on its number and suit. In this approach, the picture matters very little. In fact, it works best with decks bearing non-illustrated Minors. Two proponents of this view are Gail Fairfield (Choice-Centered Tarot and Choice-Centered Relating and the Tarot), and John Gilbert, who is publishing an entire Tarot course in the American Tarot Association Newsletter.  John Gilbert actually goes so far as to say that if you use the free-association technique based on the cardsí images, your readings will be imaginative, but not accurate.

Personally, I believe that whether you use your intuition at the front end (i.e., in deciding what a symbol means at that particular moment in that particular reading) or at the back end (i.e., applying a strictly-interpreted meaning to a querentís situation), either way, youíre using your intuition, and I donít think thereís anything intrinsically better in one approach or the other.

There is a third alternative Ė reading non-illustrated decks with pre-defined meanings that rely on traditional associations, but not on a number-suit system. This is the way all Tarot cards and playing cards were read before Waite and Smith created the Rider deck in 1909. This approach is somewhat similar to the ones Iíve attributed to Fairfield and Gilbert. But I find it much easier to do a reading when each card has a specific personality, rather than simply being a combination of the cardís suit and number. If one wants to read the Minor Arcana of a non-illustrated deck, like the Tarot de Marseilles, you might use the Waite-Smith-inspired meanings that you are used to, keeping in mind the suit correlations (Wands = Clubs, Cups = Hearts, Swords = Spades, Coins/Pentacles/Disks = Diamonds), or you could use playing-card meanings. Using the playing card meanings for a non-illustrated Tarot deck is an interesting way to feel connected to centuries of tradition.

Itís also an interesting experience to simply pick up a pack of playing cards and read with it. Itís fun to take something which most people have lying around the house and create meaning with it. Itís also refreshing, for those of us who have hopped around many different decks with many different themes, to work with something that is comfortingly devoid of views (and biases) of a particular deck author or artist. Also, since there are no Majors, one is forced to focus more attention on the pip cards and give them added weight, which might give one more perspective when one goes back to reading with an illustrated Tarot deck.

One difficulty that a Tarotist will have with traditional playing card meanings is that the definitions given to the suits are rather different than is usual in Tarot. In playing cards, the suit of Clubs (Wands) stands for work, and contains many associations we normally attribute to Pentacles. Diamonds (Pentacles) refers to communications and energy. Hearts (Cups) is love and relationships, and Spades (Swords) refers to difficulties, an interpretation which some may find familiar from some older Tarot sources. Another difficulty is that, while there is no firm agreement as to interpretation among authors using Waite-inspired images, there is even less agreement among playing card authors, because there isnít a set of images to provide at least minimal standardization. But the meanings of the suits are usually the same between playing card authors, and some cardsí meanings are consistent. For instance, the Ace of Spades usually signifies death among the different sources.

I was able to find three more or less recent books on reading with playing cards. Actually, only one is merely a book; the other two are deck-book sets.

Itís All in the Cards

The stand-alone book is Itís All in the Cards, by Chita St. Lawrence. This book is the most extreme in terms of an event-oriented approach. The method described in the book was handed down through five generations of Russian gypsy fortune-tellers. The cards have extremely simple (and easy to memorize!) meanings, such as "business trip," "happiness," "rift/breakup," which, according to the method, are strung together in a series of cards to form what is essentially a sentence. An example from the book: "You will argue (8 of Spades, argument) with a friend (Jack of Clubs, friend) about money (10 of Clubs, money). The argument will be fierce. You will not only lose (5 of Spades, loss) that friendship (5 of Diamonds, friendship) but you will end up crying in despair (7 of Spades, tears)."

As you can see, such an approach will certainly give you a definitive prediction, but Iím not convinced that there is enough variation in the meanings to allow the reader to use their intuition to tailor the meanings to a specific querent and situation. Further, the author specifies that one is not to ask a question of the cards. The querent comes in, sits down, the reader lays out the cards and gives the interpretation, and if the reading answers the querentís unspoken question, great; if not, too bad. On the other hand, this system has worked for five generations, so perhaps thereís something Iím not seeing.

Another difficulty I had with this approach is that there are very negative cards. The Ace of Spades is death; the 9 of Spades is health problems or a funeral. The Queen of Hearts is a female sweetheart. If the Queen of Hearts appears followed by the Ace of Spades and then the 9 of Spades, it means your sweetheart will die and have a funeral. There isnít much wiggle room to avoid this kind of ridiculous interpretation. The bookís author also seems to have trouble with this; she relates how she is reluctant to inform a mother that her son will be killed in an accident. It turns out that her son is involved in an accident, but it is his friend who is killed instead, so that the cards were still supposedly correct. Nevertheless, St. Lawrence obviously realizes that this sort of interpretation is problematical. Sheís stuck between a rock and a hard place, however, because she has already stated her intention to present the system as faithfully and authentically as she can.

Itís a slim book at 103 pages, but itís a fast, pleasant read. The author has made a sincere effort to teach her readers the system, and she includes several exercises and sample readings. I think this book would be the most difficult for one familiar with modern Tarot literature to get into. But itís of great interest if youíd like to explore the traditional event-predicting side of reading cards. The bookís greatest interest is in its anecdotes relating the stories of the Russian gypsy, Masha, who created the system, and the family members who she handed it down to.

Fortune Telling with Playing Cards

Next we have a deck-book set, Sophiaís Fortune Telling Kit. Itís a deck of playing cards newly designed under Sophiaís direction, and it comes packaged with Fortune Telling with Playing Cards by Sophia. The book is also available separately. I only have the book, but the cards, by Beth Wright, are pictured on the cover. They have cheerful and bright colors, and the court cards are drawn to match the physical characteristics given in the book.

Like the system given in Itís All in the Cards, Sophiaís system has been handed down through generations of fortune-tellers. Her meanings are more detailed and have more psychological depth than St. Lawrenceís. I would place them at a mid-way point between St. Lawrenceís interpretations and modern Tarot interpretations. Unfortunately, Sophia is not a very good writer, and I had trouble figuring out exactly what certain cards were supposed to mean. For some of the cards she devotes most of the cardís meaning to what its use would be in spell work, which she also delves into in the book. I was also quite chagrined to find that cards would mean one thing in the sample readings, but when I checked back to the meanings chapter, it lists the cardsí meanings as something altogether different.

I was also a little put out when I discovered that, after setting forth her meanings for all the cards, she then presents her favorite spread, the "Wheel of Life Spread," which is basically a 12-card astrological spread, and then informs us that for this spread we cannot use the meanings she has already laid out; instead we must use an altogether different set of meanings. Then she proceeds to give the meanings, and imagine my dismay when I saw that each card has a separate meaning for each of the 12 houses of the spread. Thatís 624 meanings to memorize, folks! Combined with the generalized meanings, itís actually 676. I like memorizing things, but thatís about 600 meanings too many. Also, although she states we are not to use the generalized meanings, I find in her sample reading that she does indeed use the generalized readings, adding the detailed meanings for extra detail.

However, Sophia does give several other interesting spreads for which we are allowed to use the more generalized meanings. I notice that in the sample readings, the querents enthusiastically agree with everything that Sophia says. Now, to be fair, just about every Tarot author who includes a sample reading does this same thing. Wouldnít it be nice if an author included a sample reading where the querent says, "No, that doesnít sound like me at all," and then show how the author handles such a situation?

If youíre interested in reading with playing cards and want to explore a few different sources, this should certainly be one of them, although it may or may not be the system you end up using.

The book has recently been republished by Barnes & Noble in a less expensive edition.

The Fortune Tellerís Deck

The last is another deck-book set, this one by Tarot author Jane Lyle (Renaissance Tarot, Loversí Tarot). The cards in this set are truly gorgeous. The artist, Neil Breeden, has painted them on wood, and they have an aged, distressed quality that is very appealing. Unlike Sophiaís cards, the pip cards are quite traditional, except that the pip symbols are obviously hand-made, with small but noticeable variations which are quite charming. The court cards are beautifully detailed, and, like Sophiaís, follow the authorís system of physical characteristics. But the real standouts are the aces, where the large pip symbols have been elevated from the surface of the card, and a wooden frame is placed around the edges.

The other special thing about this deck is that, unlike regular playing cards, it has been designed to be read with reversals. You can tell whether or not a card is reversed by looking at the pip symbol in the cardís index (the numeral at the corners and the symbol below it). Upright, the symbol is filled in; reversed, itís an outline. This does present a small problem; if you want to use Lyleís reversed meanings, you will have to either use this deck or, if you want to use regular playing cards, you must mark it to show the reversals. Beautiful as this deck is, it seems to me part of the charm of reading with playing cards is the very fact that you donít have to buy an expensive Tarot deck; you can just go to a drugstore and buy one for a few dollars, or else pick one up that you happen to have laying around the house.

Of the books reviewed here, Lyleís book is the easiest to take from the standpoint of a modern Tarot reader. Sheís also by far the best writer. With grace and humor she gives a short history of the cards, as well as a history of divination with cards, and supplies full, psychologically-oriented meanings for each card, including more event-oriented meanings for many of them. The book is also quite attractively produced, with shiny, magazine-like pages, and printed in full color. She includes ten different spreads and five sample readings.

Lyle says she derived her meanings from older card-reading texts in her possession, presumably the same ones listed in her bibliography, dated from 1958, 1935, and 1890. She has made an attempt to combine these meanings, as well as influences from standard Tarot meanings, into a unified whole. Sometimes this is successful and sometimes it isnít. Some meanings will be familiar to Tarot readers; for example, the 2 of Clubs, "juggling resources, money worries," sounds like the Rider-Waite-Smith 2 of Pentacles. This makes it easier for those accustomed to the Tarot to assimilate these meanings. But sometimes her meanings devolve into a list of seemingly unrelated concepts, like the Ace of Diamonds: "Financial and material increase, documents, important communications, contracts, good news, new acquisitions, gifts, productive phase, self-confidence, opportunity knocks, long term relationship." To be fair, Iíve picked the worst example; most of the cards donít have this many meanings.

The meanings are given in a narrative paragraph, so if you want to memorize keywords, youíll have to create them from the text. I went through the paragraphs with a yellow highlighter and highlighted what I felt were the important words, and then typed them up into a document.

This system is the one I would recommend if you want something similar to modern Tarot literature. Be prepared when you open the box, though Ė the cards are similar in size to standard playing cards, which is quite small compared to most Tarot decks.

A final thought: My exploration of playing cards has certainly been enjoyable, but I was motivated to learn about different approaches to playing cards because I thought their meanings might provide an interpretational foundation that would be better than the meanings usually given to Waite-Smith-inspired decks, which have always struck me as a little arbitrary. I must honestly say that I have not found the meanings in these three books to be superior to Waite-Smith type meanings. To me, they seem just as arbitrary. And when all is said and done, I do believe that memorized meanings combined with free-associating on the images of illustrated decks is the best way to gain insight from the cards. And if one is interested in reading with playing cards, one could just as easily read them with the traditional Waite-Smith-inspired meanings that one uses for Tarot. But I still think itís worthwhile to explore different approaches to card reading; it can only deepen oneís appreciation of and feeling for the Tarot.

Iíd like to thank Serena Powers for sharing her insights with me. Her website, Serenaís Guide to Divination, is an excellent source of information on reading with playing cards as well as many other types of divination.

For more information on playing cards in general, a great site is Andyís Playing Cards.

Itís All in the Cards by Chita St. Lawrence
Publishing: Perigee Books
ISBN#: 0-399-52494-0

Fortune Telling with Playing Cards by Sophia
Publisher: Barnes & Noble Books
ISBN#:  0760723567

Sophiaís Fortune Telling Kit (includes cards and the same book) by Sophia and Beth Wright
Publisher: Llewellyn Publications
ISBN#: 1567186807

The Fortune Tellerís Deck by Jane Lyle and Neil Breeden
Publisher: St. Martinís Press
ISBN#: 0-312-13668-4

Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.

Article © 2001 Lee Bursten
Page © 2001 Diane Wilkes










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