‘Tradition’ in Playing Card Meanings, Part 1

Over on my other blog, Tony Willis has written about the traditional meanings of the tarot cards. He has concluded that whatever tradition exists in this area has a relatively short history. There was also a period, he notes, where, among the Anglophone nations, a new tradition overtook the older ones in popularity; whether it has managed to oust them completely remains to be seen. Studying Mr. Willis’s exposition of how the meanings of the tarot cards have altered over the past two centuries prompted me to research the history of playing card meanings to see whether anything of the kind had occurred in that field too. The quest has taken up most of my free time recently and that is why I have not posted any thoughts of my own on the blog for a while. I hope my readers will forgive my absence.

As we live in the age of the World Wide Web, the Internet is for us a treasure trove of information. Or it would be were it not for the amount of incorrect information, not to mention disinformation, uploaded on to it. Thankfully, we don’t have to weed out disinformation in the context of playing card meanings. What we have to deal with chiefly is watered down information and the indiscriminate passing on of ‘personal meanings’.

Any cartomancer who has been reading the cards regularly for two years or more will have discovered something momentous. They will have realized that sometimes the textbook meaning assigned to a card, for example “inconstancy, a small success” (which is what Minetta says of the 7 of Hearts in her book Card-Reading: A Practical Guide, Rider & Son, 1916), doesn’t work for them as the instruction book implies it should. It may become apparent, over the course of many readings, that to this person the 7 of Hearts regularly signifies success, great or small, and never ever prefigures inconstancy. This slight sideways calibration produces a ‘personal meaning’ – a meaning that is true for that single exponent of the cartomantic art but is personal to them, not universal. A personal meaning is a ripple on the surface of the ocean of divination; it comes and it goes. Until, that is, it is written down in a book, or handed on as a treasured discovery to a younger relative, who may in time record the meaning on a blog not realizing that it is a personal meaning and that, however relevant it was to their mentor, it is nevertheless personal and will not apply universally.

The Internet has a good many personal meanings for individual cards on record. I often receive e-mails from those wishing to learn the art of cartomancy asking for guidance as to which set of Internet or book-sourced meanings they should use. The question is asked because the various sets of meanings rarely agree; a card positively oriented according to one source may be of negative import by the rules laid down by another authority. Also the Internet meanings will be at odds with many of those found in books on card reading.

Amid this multitude of witnesses, what authority can we use as a yardstick?

The bad news is that, at the end of my researches, I have uncovered no ultimate yardstick. But I have found an author whose work makes an excellent starting point from which to set off on our journey of discovery. That starting point is The Book of Fortune Telling by Madame Fabia (Daily Express, 1934). (The book was reprinted in two volumes in 1974. Information on card reading is in the second volume, The Book of Fortune Telling: (2) How to Read Signs and Portents. Copies of the 1974 edition are still available.) Madame Fabia’s text appears to be the source on which many later authors have relied when compiling their own meanings for the cards. She may have found favor among fellow cartomancers on account of her superb skill in collation. From the chapters on numerology, it is clear that Madame has consulted all the notable numerologists such as Cheiro and Kozminski and from her research produced an outstanding, and more importantly, an eminently workable fusion of their ideas. So far as I can tell (for my knowledge of the state of British cartomancy before 1934 is scant to say the least), she has performed the same service for the art fortune-telling with cards.

Madame gives several sets of meanings. I have listed two together below.

All the sets of playing card meanings I have encountered on the Internet show signs of being heavily influenced by the contents of these two lists of Madame Fabia’s. Some sets of Internet meanings have been adapted better than others. And only where Madame’s list is too centered on marriage prospects (e.g., Six Diamonds. An early marriage and speedy widowhood. A warning with regard to second marriage is also included), or where her delineation is too diffuse (Seven Diamonds: This card has various meanings. It enjoins the need for careful action. It may imply a decrease in prosperity. Another reading connects it with uncharitable tongues) do later authors tamper with Madame’s pronouncements. Otherwise they stick to them pretty closely.

Here are the two lists presented side by side.

Hearts

Ace: An important card, whose meaning is affected by its environment. Among hearts it implies love, friendship, and affection; with diamonds, money and new of distant friends; with clubs, festivities, and social or domestic rejoicing; with spades, disagreements, misunderstandings, contention, or misfortune; individually, it stands for the house.
Ace: A love letter, good news; reversed, a removal or a visit from a friend.

King: A good-hearted man, with strong affections, emotional, and given to rash judgments, possessing more zeal than discretion.
King: Fair man of generous disposition; reversed, a disappointing person.

Queen: A fair woman, loving and lovable, domesticated, prudent, and faithful.
Queen: Fair, good-natured woman; reversed, she has had an unhappy love affair.

Knave. Not endowed with any sex. Sometimes taken as Cupid; also as the best friend of the inquirer, or as a fair person’s thoughts. The cards on either side of the knave are indicative of the good or bad nature of its [his] intentions.
Knave: A young bachelor devoted to enjoyment; reversed, a military lover with a grievance.

Ten. A sign of good fortune. It implies a good heart, happiness, and the prospect of a large family. It counteracts bad cards and confirms good ones in its vicinity.
Ten: Antidote to bad cards; happiness and success; reversed, passing worries.

Nine. The wish card. It is the sign of riches, and of high social position accompanied by influence and esteem. It may be affected by the neighbourhood of bad cards.
Nine: The wish card, good luck; reversed, short sorrow (sorrow of short duration).

Eight. The pleasures of the table, convivial society. Another meaning implies love and marriage.
Eight: Thoughts of marriage, affections of a fair person; reversed, unresponsiveness.

Seven. A faithless, inconstant friend who may prove an enemy.
Seven: Calm content; reversed, boredom, satiety.

Six. A confiding nature, liberal, open-handed, and an easy prey for swindlers; courtship, and a possible proposal.

Five. Causeless jealousy in a person of weak, unsettled character.

Four. One who has remained single till middle life from being too hard to please.

Three. A warning card as to the possible results of the inquirer’s own want of prudence or tact.

Deuce. Prosperity and success in a measure dependent on the surrounding cards; endearments and wedding bells.

Diamonds

Ace. A ring or paper money.
Ace: A letter, an offer of marriage; reversed, evil tidings.

King. A fair man, with violent temper, and a vindictive obstinate turn of mind.
King: A very fair or white-haired man, a soldier by profession, and of a deceitful turn of mind; reversed, a treacherous schemer.

Queen. A fair woman, given to flirtation, fond of society and admiration.
Queen: A fair woman, given to gossip and wanting in refinement; reversed, rather a spiteful flirt.

Knave. A near relative who puts his own interests first, is self-opinionated, easily offended, and not always quite straight. It may mean a fair person’s thoughts.
Knave: Subordinate official, who is untrustworthy; reversed, a mischief-maker.

Ten. Plenty of money, a husband or wife from the country, and several children.
Ten: Travelling or a removal; reversed, ill-luck will attend the step.

Nine. This card is influenced by the one accompanying it; if the latter be a court card, the person referred to will have his capacities discounted by a restless, wandering disposition. It may imply a surprise connected with money, or in in conjunction with the eight of spades it signifies cross swords. (the crossing of swords?)
Nine: Vexation, hindrances; reversed, domestic wrangling, or disagreement between lovers.

Eight. A marriage late in life, which will probably be somewhat checkered.
Eight: Love passages (??); reversed, blighted affections.

Seven. This card has various meanings. It enjoins the need for careful action. It may imply a decrease in prosperity. Another reading connects it with uncharitable tongues.
Seven: Unkindly chaff, cynicism; reversed, stupid and unfounded slander.

Six. An early marriage and speedy widowhood. A warning with regard to second marriage is also included.

Five. To young married people this portends good children. In a general way it means unexpected news, or success in business enterprises.

Four. Breach of confidence. Troubles caused by inconstant friends, vexations, and disagreeableness.

Three. Legal and domestic quarrels, and probably unhappiness caused by wife’s or husband’s temper.

Deuce. An unsatisfactory love affair, awakening opposition from relatives or friends.

Clubs

Ace. Wealth, a peaceful home, industry, and general prosperity.
Ace: Good luck, letters or papers relating to money, pleasant tidings; reversed, short-lived happiness, a tiresome correspondence.

King. A dark man of upright, high-minded nature, calculated to make an excellent husband, faithful and true in his affections.
King: A dark man, warm-hearted and true as a friend, straight in his dealings; reversed, good intentions frustrated.

Queen. A dark woman, with a trustful, affectionate disposition, with great charm for the opposite sex, and susceptible to male attractions.
Queen: A dark woman, loving but hasty, and bearing no malice; reversed, harassed [plagued] by jealousy.

Knave. A generous, trusty friend, who will take trouble on behalf of the inquirer. It may also mean a dark man’s thoughts.
Knave: A ready-witted young man, clever at his work and ardent in his love; reversed, irresponsible and fickle.

Ten. Riches suddenly acquired, probably through the death of a relative or friend.
Ten: Prosperity and luxury; reversed, a sea voyage.

Nine. Friction through opposition to wishes of friends.
Nine: An unlooked for inheritance, money acquired under a will; reversed, a small, friendly gift.

Eight. Love of money, and a passion for speculating.
Eight: Love of a dark man or woman which, if accepted and reciprocated, will bring joy and well-being; reversed, an unworthy affection calculated [guaranteed] to cause trouble.

Seven. Great happiness and good fortune.  If troubles come they will be caused by one of the opposite sex to the inquirer.
Seven: Trifling financial matters; reversed, money troubles.

Six. Success in business both for self and children.

Five. An advantageous marriage.

Four. A warning against falsehood and double-dealing.

Three. Two or possibly three marriages, with money.

Deuce. Care is needed to avert disappointment, and to avoid opposition.

Spades

Ace. It may concern love affairs, or convey a warning that troubles await the inquirer through bad speculations or ill-chosen friends.
Ace: Emotional enjoyment; reversed, news of a death, sorrow.

King. A dark man. Ambitious and successful in the highest walks of life.
King: A widower, an unscrupulous lawyer, impossible as a friend and dangerous as an enemy; reversed, the desire to work evil without the power [to do any].

As the Queen is almost without exception a widow so there is a strong likelihood that the King can on occasion represent a widower. A.T.
Queen. A widow, of malicious and unscrupulous nature, fond of scandal and open to bribes.
Queen: Widow, a very dark woman; reversed, an intriguing [i.e. given to intrigue], spiteful woman.

Knave. A well-meaning, inert person, unready in action though kindly in thought.
Knave: Legal or medical student, wanting in refinement of mind and manners; reversed, a treacherous character, fond of underhand measures.

Ten. An evil omen; grief or imprisonment. Has power to detract from the good signified by cards near it.
Ten: Grief, loss of freedom; reversed, passing trouble or illness.

Nine. An ill-fated card, meaning sickness, losses, troubles, and family dissentions.
Nine: A bad omen, news of failure or death; reversed, loss of one near and dear by death.

Eight. A warning with regard to any enterprise in hand. This card close to the inquirer means evil; also opposition from friends.
Eight: Coming illness; reversed, an engagement cancelled or a rejected proposal, dissipation.

Seven. Sorrow caused by the loss of a dear friend.
Seven: Everyday worries, or a resolve [resolution?] taken; reversed, silly stratagems in love-making.

Six. Hard work brings wealth and rest after toil.

Five. Bad temper and a tendency to interfere with the inquirer but happiness to be found in the chosen wife or husband.

Four. Illness and the need for great attention to business.

Three. A marriage that will be marred by the inconstancy of the inquirer’s wife or husband; or a journey.

Deuce. A removal, or possibly a death.

About auntietarot
Born in Britain just before the outbreak of the second world war, I was taught basic tarot skills by my maternal grandmother. In the sixties, I joined a Golden Dawn-type esoteric school, passing through the curriculum and becoming an instructor in ritual etiquette and the making and consecration of talismans. At the beginning of the eighties, I left the school to plow my own furrow in areas such as tarot and astrology. Since my retirement I have spent time researching the occult history of the tarot and the various ways the tarot has been used for divination in the past.

6 Responses to ‘Tradition’ in Playing Card Meanings, Part 1

  1. kat says:

    Some cards seem to look the same, in that it does not appear obvious as to whether or not they are right or up side down. How can one tell , for example with the King of Spades or ten of diamonds?
    Thanks.

    • auntietarot says:

      Dear Kat,

      When using a deck of cards for divination, it is usual to mark each one at the top. Often people make a cross in pencil. That distinguishes the upright card from its reversal.

      Auntie

  2. kat says:

    Thanks Auntie!

  3. Beb says:

    Madame Fabia’s first set of meanings is taken from ‘Fortune-Telling by Cards’ by P.R.S. Foli (1905)—in fact, it is the one that I use nowadays. You can find the Foli’s book for free on the web. I have enjoyed your articles. Thank you and greetings from Spain, Ben.

    • auntietarot says:

      Hi Ben,

      Thank you for pointing out this connection. I have read professor Foli’s book, but a long time ago, and didn’t make the link myself.

      Auntie

    • auntietarot says:

      Hi Ben,

      Thank you again for spotting the connection. I have checked and you are absolutely right: Madame Fabia quotes Professor Foli’s meanings word for word.

      I am glad you have enjoyed my articles on fortune telling with playing cards. Thank you for your appreciation.

      Auntie

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