Tarot Reading With Playing Cards: History and How-To With Examples
Don’t have a set of tarot cards? No problem! I’ll bet you have a deck of playing cards. And guess what? You can read playing cards just as well as tarot. In fact, playing cards have been used by fortune tellers and conjurors for centuries. This is a great form of divination for those who want to keep their practices secret or discreet, as well. Learn how to do a tarot reading with playing cards here.
The Magical History of Tarot Reading with Playing Cards
Tarot cards and playing cards today are considered two different things. But the origins of both are basically one-in-the-same. History dates the origin of playing cards to the late fourteenth century in Italy. These playing cards, called Triumph and Trump cards, were used as a simple parlor game and were a game for the wealthy. Nobility commissioned artists to paint elaborate playing card decks for them. One example, still in existence today, is the Visconti-Sforza deck.
The Italian Triumph Cards
Some sources claim these Italian playing cards initially consisted of just the four suits (in Tarot called the Minor Arcana): swords, staves, coins and cups. And later, artists expanded on the deck by adding cards like The Emperor, The Hanged Man, The Tower, etc. These Triumph cards would come to be called Tarrochi (in French – Tarot). By the eighteenth century they were being widely “read” as a form of divination or fortune telling throughout Europe including in Germany and France.
Another Theory: Tarot’s Far East and Middle Eastern Origins
However, in PRS Foli’s book Fortune Telling by Cards, written in 1915, he claims the Major Arcana of the Tarot was in existence long before the four suits were added. And that the Tarot or triumph cards weren’t the first cards to be used for divination purposes. That “in past ages many eastern peoples, notably those of India, China, and Chaldea, possessed cards which differed materially both in use and design from those known in the West at a later date. It is impossible to trace these prehistoric beginnings of card-lore” (Foli, pg. 16). He goes on to say these mystical cards made their way into Europe via the Arabs, Moors and Romany people. And may have also originated in ancient Egypt with the Book of Thoth.
The Romani Gypsies and Playing Cards
Although reading playing cards as tarot was a common practice in Italy and France, the Romani gypsies are often credited with the practice. This may be because the Romany people are believed to have come from India, making their way through Egypt, and then into Europe in antiquity. They brought their fortune telling customs with them, possibly picking up new methods along the way including cartomancy. It’s interesting to note, the Romani fortune tellers reserved their abilities for people outside of their own culture. Did they originally use cards from India or adapt the practice after traveling through Egypt and Europe?
Tarot Reading with Playing Cards: How-To
We’ve covered the mysterious origins of Tarot and cartomancy, now let’s dive into tarot reading with playing cards. At first glance, a pack of playing cards looks rather different than a deck of Tarot cards. But look closer – they have much of the same symbolism. The four suits of playing cards are equivalent to the four suits of the Tarot minor arcana. There are 52 cards in a regular playing deck and 13 cards in each suit. There are no cards in a regular playing deck to correspond to the tarot Major Arcana, which is the biggest difference between the two.
The Four Suits = The Minor Arcana (+Their Meanings)
- Hearts = Cups. Main symbolism: love, friendship, marriage, matters of the heart, emotion, intuition, family (water element and feminine). Also relates to the season Spring.
- Spades = Swords. Main symbolism: matters of the mind, intellect, power, action, change, courage, conflict, communication (air element and masculine). Season Winter.
- Clubs = Wands/Staves. Main symbolism: spiritual matters, core consciousness, personal values and goals, beliefs, passions, energy, enthusiasm, sexuality (fire element and masculine). Season is Summer.
- Diamonds = Coins/Pentacles. Main symbolism: finances, prosperity, inheritance, career success, creativity, livelihood (earth element and feminine). Season is Fall.
Kings, Queens, Jacks and The Joker
Within each suit of playing cards are the court cards: King, Queen, and Jack. Each of these court cards correspond to the King, Queen and Page in the tarot minor arcana. The King generally represents an older adult male, wise and strong. The Queen represents an older adult female, mother or matriarch. And the Jack (Page) represents a younger male or female, who is in the process of learning and growing. Easy enough, right?
But what about the Joker? The Joker is the only card in the deck that corresponds to one of the tarot Major Arcana cards – The Fool. You can remove this card, or keep it in – the choice is yours. When the Joker pops up in a reading, it symbolizes chance, the start to a new journey, an inexperienced but curious youth, and beginner’s luck. Just as The Fool in the Tarot.
The Numbered Cards: Ace – Ten Symbolism & Numerology
Tarot reading with playing cards takes a deep look at the numbers and their symbolism (i.e. numerology). First, it’s interesting to note, there are 52 cards in a deck (minus the Joker) which corresponds to the 52 weeks in a year. Then there are 13 cards in each suit, which corresponds to 13 lunar cycles in a year. Coincidence? I don’t think so. But if you gain a basic understanding of the meaning of each number, you can build onto your reading skills from there applying the colors, suits, etc. to the numbers and court cards.
Ace – Ten Card Symbolism (A Quick Breakdown):
- Ace: individual, new journey, start of something new
- Two: union, balance, polarity, partnership
- Three: creativity, rebirth cycle, team
- Four: organization, practicality, foundation
- Five: freedom, change, conflict
- Six: harmony, communication, compassion
- Seven: wisdom, reflection, spirituality
- Eight: action, authority, self mastery
- Nine: manifestation, prosperity, fulfillment
- Ten: end of a journey/cycle, completion, renewal
Playing Card Color Symbolism: Black and Red
Everything in a deck of playing cards symbolizes something deeper. The use of colors, namely black and red correlate to night and day. In addition, when you read one or more playing cards to answer a yes or no question, red means yes and black means no (though I’ve seen some people use the reverse.) It’s truly up to you whether red is yes or no and vice versa with black.
This is one of the easiest ways of tarot reading with playing cards using color:
- Shuffle your cards.
- Ask your deck a yes or no question.
- Flip over the top card.
- If it’s red, the answer is yes. If it’s black, the answer is no.
How to Read Tarot With Playing Cards: Shuffling and Spreads
The way you do a tarot reading with playing cards is ultimately dependent on your practice and preferences. The more you practice this form of divination, the better you’ll get. You’ll find your own unique way of shuffling, creating spreads, and reading the cards for yourself and maybe others too. Play around with different spreads; there are literally hundreds of tarot card spread ideas on Pinterest! Here we dig into shuffling and some basic card spreads.
Shuffling Your Cards
There are different ways to shuffle cards including: hand over hand method or the riffle shuffle. I was taught the riffle shuffle as a child for board games and so that’s the method I always use. But do what feels comfortable to you. A video showing ways of shuffling cards is posted below for your convenience.
In addition to shuffling the cards, depending on the spread, you’ll also consider cutting the deck in certain ways. Some readers cut the deck exactly three times and shuffle again. Or they cut the deck as many times as they need for the spread. As mentioned in the video above, you can also do the ribbon spread and wave and choose as many cards as you need. There are SO many ways to shuffle and cut the deck!
Playing Card Spreads
The easiest and (I think) most effective spreads are one-card pulls and three-card spreads. A one-card pull is simply that – pulling one card from the deck to answer your question or gain a message. Three card spreads include:
3 Card Example
Let’s take a look at a real life example of a three card spread with playing cards. The person who we’re reading for is a young woman who has just graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree and acquired a new job.
Past (left): The Queen of Spades confirms this woman was very much focused on education and attained a degree (Spades being the suit of the Mind).
Present (middle): The seven of hearts shows this young woman has been dreaming of a new lover, now that she has time to focus on her personal life (her schooling is over).
Future (right): The Jack of Hearts indicates a new young man/love interest might be coming into her life very soon.
One-Card Pull Example
Another easy spread to use is the ribbon spread. Fan out the cards. Wave your hand over the entire spread from left to right and allow the energy of the cards to pull on your hand. Then pull the card that your hand feels drawn to. For this example, our reader is drawing a card for herself. She wants to know what area of life she should focus on now.
The four of clubs indicate she should focus on building a foundation of spiritual beliefs. Perhaps she’s gotten away from her spirituality or had a change of faith.
Use Your Intuition!
Yes, the cards each have a meaning, in their colors, suits, and numbers. However, the most important part of tarot reading with playing cards is your INTUITION. Listen to that first thought that pops up in your mind, allow yourself to feel that first feeling. Or hear that first word. The cards and all forms of divination are simply tools to help you connect with the otherworld and access divine information. Trust your intuition over the cards’ meanings.