The Power of Using Playing Cards for Divination

Playing Sidewalk Tarot

The Power of Using Playing Cards for Divination, by Stephen Ball

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

Playing cards have been with us for centuries, but they're less popular in divination today than more famous systems such as the tarot. This is partly because the few definitions we have for reading poker-style decks are very old-fashioned: nearly all of them focus only on work, illness, and marriage (the most important topics at the time!) and their attitudes to women are...well, two or three hundred years out of date. Traditional playing cards are an exciting, unbroken link to our past, but those meanings are just not satisfying to readers who are used to oracles that reflect all of life's situations while containing deep symbolism and wisdom in each image. By contrast, a book of "Kentucky Superstitions" in the 1920s lists the court cards as, "A blond man, A rather dark-haired man, An extremely dark-haired man..." and so on, and the number cards aren't much more developed. I decided to write about the beautiful playing card pack—full of the glamour of the old west, spies in casinos, and fortunes read on kitchen tables—and to make modern answers available for those who want them. It was a nice plan, but I hadn't counted on one thing: that with a deck this full of history, the stories and characters within the cards themselves would have their own ideas!

I've been creating divination systems for many years (I published Elemental Divination: A Dice Oracle with Llewellyn in 2018) and knew that there were great ways in which the romance and danger of playing cards could be conjured. There are good reasons for adding them to your toolkit because (like dice) these decks are easily available, cheap to buy, come in hundreds of beautiful styles, and don't raise any eyebrows if you carry them in public. Most importantly, they have a long tradition of serious use in divination that deserves a revival.

It's not too heretical to apply newer meanings to the cards, as they've already changed greatly over time. For example, the King of Clubs once represented a man "with both friends and enemies," and then only as an evil man, but is often seen today as a wise authority figure. (No system is immune to this gradual change, not even the tarot). Many people who write about using playing cards for divination comment that they originally learned it from one person who had already changed the definitions a little, and they now include their own differences, too. Going back to the oldest sources we can find (including the wonderfully named Dr. Flamstead's and Mr. Patridge's New Fortune-Book containing their newly invented method of knowing one's fortune by using a pack of cards, and which published in 1729) we see definitions that were later updated in the 1800s and 1900s, and doing so again today is entirely in the spirit of the deck.

Most importantly, playing cards are perfect at encouraging a crucial skill that any divination reader should have, whether you're using an established system or creating a new one—the skill of visualisation. If your answer is "A tree," for example, you can gain insight into its nature by imagining a painting of the tree that belongs in that situation and describing it in words. You can start very simply by writing, "A tree with a brown trunk and green leaves." By exploring the image and connecting with your inspiration, you can then develop this for more powerful readings. After seeing it in your mind, the description might change to, "A strong tree with a full crown of green leaves, standing in a clearing while rain falls in the dark night behind it." These words create pictures for anyone who reads them. You don't need advanced writing skills for this; the key is to be able to think of the image and then give it more detail. There is a tradition of using tarot cards or paintings as "doorways" to unleash your imagination and intuition, but it can be also be done with simple words.

This inspiration is useful during readings, but is absolutely essential when creating or updating a system. It's difficult enough to know what a single symbol such as a tree will finally look like, but some oracles have more than one moving part. In Elemental Divination, for example, each reading is made up of two of the magical elements meeting to give, "Greater Water over Fire" or "Lesser Air over Earth." In those cases, each element is easy enough to picture, but what relationship do they have when they come crashing together? Or when one retreats gently? Oracles don't only exist in card form; they can be objects drawn from a bag, or dropped onto a surface, and your imagination is even more important then. Some formats help, and some make it more difficult. Luckily, playing cards turned out to be perfect for encouraging this exploration.

There is a type of playing card deck that has always fascinated me, called a "transformation" deck. Artists took the pips on a card (such as four red hearts) and drew a picture, which made them into the helmets or angry faces of fighting soldiers or flying birds. The plain pips of poker cards are not as evocative as the fully illustrated minor arcana in some tarot, so this was a way for the artist to create a scenario packed with emotion and flavour. I loved this "transformation" idea, and decided to do it—not with art, but with words. Moving from the simple sentence saying "a tree," to the more developed lines of detailed description, there is a third and final stage we can use to communicate a deep and full scene without needing to be an artist: short stories. I'd had no intention of writing fifty-two stories when I started, but the cards didn't care about that. They're wild, serious, and full of history, and the result is Playing Card Divination: Every Card Tells a Story.

I was once again faced with two pieces coming together to make an answer. Each number represents a Mythic Role such as The Hunter, The Healer, The Noble, or The Singer (these form a path of wisdom much like the Fool's Journey through the Major Arcana). The suits also gain an extra meaning, giving the Promise, Gambit, Folly, and Triumph of each role. The Two of Hearts is therefore "Lover's Triumph," and the Jack of Diamonds is "Trickster's Gambit." There are also unique spreads, with cards drawn the way they are in classic poker games, and the sparkle of chance and the unknown that the deck always brings.

The process of creating a story for each answer in an oracle is often the same. The result has a primary meaning, such as "love," "intellect," or "security." You must then think about what "security" means in the system you are using. Are there are symbols that you feel fit this idea strongly? If you are making an oracle yourself and can set the theme, are there any that you have always loved and want to include? The story will also need at least one character in it, and a location. If the theme is security, which walls are making it secure? If it is conflict, what are the two forces that are opposing each other? If it is knowledge, what is the superior source of it in the story and who is learning? The answers can be anything. You can have your character be a human, or animal, or the spirits of a warm sunlit forest. You can have the time period be today, or a century ago, or five, or set it in a magical or mythological past or otherworld. When you are free to create the theme, every answer starts as a blank page and becomes a colourfully detailed story. If you are writing for yourself, then even a few quick lines can be enough to remind you of the rest.

The stories that naturally arise from playing cards almost write themselves. They are not the only versions possible, only suggestions to help the reader understand exactly what is happening in the Hermit's Folly, Hunter's Promise, and Noble's Gambit. When the forces at play in those combinations are understood, the reader can write their own story if they wish, but the best way to convey it to others for the first time turns out to be in a tale. Those in the book include scenes of tense card games, gleeful taverns, a nature goddess speaking to a queen, and even a phoenix made of stars. Like a gambler, I thought I could take on the cards and walk away with less effort than writing a new adventure for the lesson of each one, but they promptly reminded me of how immersive divination can be.

When I tested this with friends, it was an immediate hit, and the Jacks in particular wouldn't stop living up to their Role. Tricksters are powerful figures in myth—they always know something that you don't (or they wouldn't be able to trick you) and they think that their odd way is better than the straight route from A to B that anyone could use. When you take up the cards, you invite chance and luck to play their games...and some of the time the masterful Magician and compassionate Healer will be fooled by the crafty Trickster. I certainly was.

In this deck two or more cards can be read together, in a similar way to Lenormand cards. Tarot readers, if they are drawing just one, may be used to seeing "The Star" and knowing the deep and detailed meaning of that in isolation, but with a Lenormand deck several cards are always drawn together and read depending on their relationship with others. A Rider bringing news might be neutral, but directly next to a bad-luck card such as The Clouds the news itself becomes bad. The playing cards in my system can be read this way, too: the Healer's Gambit is a gift or good deed that you could receive, but the Trickster's Promise is a lie. When these two are together, the gift becomes a danger that you mustn't trust—one that looks nice, but is false. These unexpected twists arise in all card games, gambling and fortune-telling. Many of the other readings are stable, romantic, and fun, but the skills of visualisation and inspiration still apply whenever several cards meet and that new mix must be understood.

I'd been concerned about imposing my own ideas on the cards, but this deck has been loved and treasured by too many people over centuries to sit still for me now. Again and again the shining diamonds and grinning Jacks showed that they had their own character and a sense of humor. On one occasion I was reading for an important client; they were worried and wanted advice, and I was hoping for an answer that would really tackle their concerns and give them serious ideas for moving forward. It might sound strange to turn to fortune-telling when matters are that complex, but talking about a situation with another person while being prompted to look at it from different angles by the cards can be very helpful. The first to be drawn, Smith's Triumph, is positive. It signifies the end of a long-term project where the rewards finally come in, a harvest or the completion of a masterpiece. The client was confused; he couldn't think of a project to which that could be referring. The next card was the Warrior's Promise, which indicates conflict and resistance. Again, he didn't have any idea of what this could apply to—people are usually happy when work finishes and they can sit back with satisfaction. Read together, the two cards meant that this usually good ending would instead cause anger and resentment. In an unexpected twist, it turned out to be referring to…the recent end of his favourite long-running television series. (Which also had unexpected twists that he hadn't liked.) Sometimes the cards just pick up on a person's biggest concerns on that day!

There are incredibly beautiful playing card packs available to buy now, in far greater numbers than in the past. Designs with gold leaf, art, figures from legends and modern fiction, the range is as exciting and different as the art we expect from tarot decks. The cards can help us improve skills that aid any divination, but they're also unique. The thrill of Aces, the power of Queens and Kings, in teamwork and in conflict is one that has been constantly felt by people around the world for years. They are worth investigating for anyone who collects divination objects, dives into new mysteries, or feels the excitement of luck and chance as each new card turns.

And in any system, the creation of your own images doesn't need to be in the form of art on the card itself, or the rune, or the coloured stones that form an oracle. You can use simple words to reach into a deep place of intuition and connection. Try this yourself and see what it adds to your practice, whether you feel most comfortable writing one line, two sentences, or the transforming power of a whole story.

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2020. All rights reserved.