Tarot deck

Cartomancy History and Methods

It is difficult to pin-point the exact birth date of cartomancy, but it is most commonly known to be have been used by gypsies. There are many methods of cartomancy, but its most common form is called the Tarot, which normally consists of a deck of 78 cards. Because of the fact that the Chinese were the first to have paper currency, it is believed that this was first invented in China during the thirteen-hundreds as a game, but it wasn't until the 1600's where there is record of the tarot being used as a device for divination. By the 1800's, cartomancy was a well known practice all throughout Asia, as well as parts of Africa and Europe. It is believed that tarot is capable of for-telling the future. Each card, based on suit, number, and color, all have a specific meaning. The full list of card meanings can be seen at Again, cartomancy comes in many forms and the exact meanings of the cards vary, this is just to get an idea of what the practice entails.

Jessie L. Weston in “The Tarot Pack,” from the Norton edition of T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” states that the images on the tarot cards are divided to fit with the suits of a standard deck of cards with the Cup being Hearts, the Lance being Diamonds, the Sword being Spades, and the Dish being Clubs (37). He also says there are some variations to these images but they are similar derivations of the ones mentioned above. In this same article, Weston notes the beginning of Tarot reading or cartomancy came from Egypt and has “been connected with an ancient Chinese monument” (37). However, in the modern western world cartomancy is linked to Gypsy culture who brought the traditions Europe “for purposes of divination” (37).

Carmen illustration

One popularized gypsy is Carmen, who in the multiple adaptations of her story is shown reading tarot cards which is how she knows her lover will kill her. For example, in Bizet’s opera Carmen, she and her gypsy friends Frasquita and Mecédès have a scene dedicated to cartomancy (scene nineteen, pp124-128). In this scene, her two friends read love and fortune in the cards while Carmen reads “Carreau, pique … la mort!” (translates “Diamond, spade … Death!”). Carmen takes these cards to be destiny and accepts her fate at the end of the opera.

Another famous gypsy in literature is Madame Sosostris from T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” In part I “The Burial of the Dead” he calls her a “famous clairvoyante…With a wicked pack of cards” (lines43-46). Eliot references cards that are original tarot cards like the “man with three staves” and “the Wheel” (line 51) but also makes up his own like the “one eyed merchant” (line 52). Furthermore, a few lines later Madame Sosostris says “I do not find/ The Hanged Man. Fear death by water” (lines 54-55). This is an interesting line for Eliot to have a fortune-teller to read since part IV is titled “Death by Water.” In this sense, Madame Sosostris is telling the future of the poem.