Fortune Tellers: Background, History Across Cultures, and Present Day

Updated on May 16, 2018
kittythedreamer profile image

Holding a complete fascination with the folkloric witch, Nicole has studied the history and folklore of witchcraft since she was a child.

Fortune Teller Using Cards or Cartomancy to Divine the Future
Fortune Teller Using Cards or Cartomancy to Divine the Future | Source

Fortune Telling in History

Telling someone's fortune is a practice that dates back centuries and permeates cultures all around the world. Usually when we hear the words "fortune teller" we think of a gypsy in a caravan, which is to some degree a correct image; however, fortune tellers are not of just one ethnic or cultural background. The practice of divination or fortune telling spans countries, even continents, and has even stuck around in today's mainstream media with horoscopes and more.

Take a little journey with me into the past, and let us learn about the various ways of fortune telling in various countries. We will learn about some of the most famous fortune tellers in history, and we will even explore fortune tellers in today's society. Are you ready to gaze into the crystal ball, my dear?

The Fortune Teller by Caravaggio (Showing Palmistry)
The Fortune Teller by Caravaggio (Showing Palmistry) | Source

The Ways of the Fortune Tellers & Their Craft

Depending on the country and century we explore, there are numerous ways that fortune tellers would tell a person's future. Other than "fortune telling", this means of asking the supernatural for answers to difficult questions is also called divination. Divination means simply to predict the future. To read the Divine's will, or what some refer to as the will of God. Whatever their religious beliefs, divination is a practice that knows no religious barriers or boundaries just as it knows no cultural limitations. The way in which a fortune teller would tell a person's future varies with the culture and period in time...

For instance, when you hear the words fortune teller spoken...what do you think of? Most people think of a gypsy fortune teller - a wild and gorgeous woman in a caravan of gypsies sitting enchantingly behind a large, gleaming crystal ball or a set of cards splayed out on a velvet-covered table. This image that pops up so often in our minds when hearing these words is a correct image but does not make up the entirety of the fortune tellers' history. That being said, we will be discussing the gypsies and their fortune tellers, as well as some possibly unexpected fortune tellers from other parts of the world. We will also take a look at some of the various ways a fortune teller could predict the future, pull up memories from the past, and call someone's bluff in the present!

A Chinese Fortune Teller plies his trade on the sidewalk, 1923
A Chinese Fortune Teller plies his trade on the sidewalk, 1923 | Source
A fortune teller in Wuhan wielding a magical turtle to do his readings.
A fortune teller in Wuhan wielding a magical turtle to do his readings. | Source
Bones in Africa...perhaps one day will be used as a part of "casting of the bones"
Bones in Africa...perhaps one day will be used as a part of "casting of the bones" | Source
Gypsy Fortune Teller reading the cards.
Gypsy Fortune Teller reading the cards. | Source

Fortune Tellers Across Cultures

Chinese fortune telling is what some people might call an art-form...or better yet, a necessity in the business and financial world. Yes, you read it right. Chinese fortune tellers are consulted on a daily basis by businessmen, businesswomen, and all manner of professionals in order to gain hidden knowledge into a business decision, financial investment, etc. If you were to visit the busy cities in China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan today, you might very well see a few Chinese fortune tellers lining the streets with a businessperson sitting in front of them. This is a practice that is not new to the Chinese, in fact it dates back many centuries to some of the oldest dynastic periods.

They call it Suan Ming or "fate calculating", and Chinese fortune tellers are able to calculate someone's fate by many methods. Some of those methods include but are not limited to practices such as: the Four Pillars method called Bazi (the most popular), Face Reading (where the fortune teller interprets the person's facial features for answers), I Ching, Kau Cim (incense stick/bamboo reading), palm reading, and of course the interpreting of the Chinese astrological calendar. These are just a few of the methods that the Chinese fortune tellers employ to gain their answers from the universe.

In addition to advising business professionals in the decisions of career and finances, these Chinese fortune tellers are still sought out to aid the everyday person in matters of the heart - love, family, friendships, mood, health, etc. This is a practice that has been upheld and respected for many centuries in China and has spread to other countries in Asia.

Fortune tellers can also be found on the continent of Africa in almost every village and/or tribe throughout the various countries and regions. The traditional African method of fortune telling is known as the "casting of bones". Most of these fortune tellers have other means of making a living which include counseling to their clientele as well as healing by herbs and other forms of folk medicine. The casting of bones consists of the fortune teller throwing a set of animal bones, stones, sticks, pieces of fabric, shells, and any other small objects and reading what the "bones" show. This could be a pattern, a marking on the objects, or the meaning of particular objects that are dropped.

Going back to the Dark Ages and beyond, almost every country in Europe has a history of fortune tellers too. In England, there were those known as the "cunning folk" who not only used herbs to heal their townsfolk, but also were consulted to find lost objects or to aid in decision-making in business and home-life. It was said that many of these cunning folk were given their abilities by the "good folk" or what we might call the fairies today. But whatever their means of acquiring these talents, the cunning folk were fortune tellers in every sense of the words. Scrying was one method of divination which meant that the fortune teller would gaze into some reflective surface (i.e. a crystal ball or mirror) and allow a picture to show itself. This picture would give the fortune teller the answer to the question being asked. The ancient Celtic Druids were said to have "read the flight pattern of birds" or what is also known as augury.

What about the gypsies, you say? Well, of course the Romani gypsies also had those amongst them who would also be considered fortune tellers. These were individuals who traveled and lived in caravans with their Romani families and communities. Sometimes they were thought to have used the method of scrying with a crystal ball, but this is a common stereotype that is not thoroughly correct. The gypsies were also thought to have been the first to use cards as a means of divination.

This is not an all-inclusive list by any means. Fortune tellers could also have been found amongst Native American tribes in some aspect, as well as in Australia, South America, the Pacific Islands, etc.

The common depiction of the "Gypsy Fortune Teller"
The common depiction of the "Gypsy Fortune Teller" | Source

Fortune Tellers: Alive Today!

Being that most people today are analytical and logical, would you believe that fortune tellers are still going strong in many countries all over the world? It is true! For instance, in the United States you can drive down a busy street and usually see a storefront shop lit-up with the words "Psychic" or "Palm Reading" or even "Tarot Card Readings Here!" This is because many people still believe in the idea of fortune telling. People still seek to know what lies in their future, and what of their future might be effected by decisions in the past and present.

Believe it or not, there are fortune tellers that can be contacted online. If you go on Etsy.com, you will find that many fortune tellers offer over-the-internet digital and video readings. They don't even have to see you in person in order to tell you your future! How is this possible? If you ask one of them, they might answer something to the effect of "the Divine knows all and speaks through the cards/mirror/crystal/etc. to me."

While some of these fortune tellers have been known to commit fraud, there are still those who seem rather legitimate. Some of these "psychics" or fortune tellers have even been employed by the police in order to help solve mysterious crimes. Don't believe me? Do a little research and you will find this to be truth. Perhaps fortune telling is not such a ridiculous pastime or career as we might have once thought. Perhaps there is some truth to this ancient practice. After all, how would something span countries and ages if it didn't ring with some kind of truth to it?

Psychics and Fortune Tellers can be found in storefronts, at fairs, and almost anywhere!
Psychics and Fortune Tellers can be found in storefronts, at fairs, and almost anywhere! | Source

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Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Nicole Canfield

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    • Michaela Osiecki profile image

      Michaela 2 years ago from USA

      You do know that gypsy is a racial slur, right? It's not just some innocent word you can attach to the Romani culture and think it's okay.

      Much of the root origin to Tarot cards can actually be traced back to Bohemia, which was a real place and at some earlier point, a real ethnicity - not just a cute fashion statement for modern festival goers.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I don't know whether to take fortune tellers seriously or not but at an early age, I went to one with my friends and the fortune teller told me 3 things which I did not then would really happen in my life. I haven't gone to one since as I would rather not know.

    • kittythedreamer profile image
      Author

      Nicole Canfield 4 years ago from Summerland

      Paradigm - No not me, but thanks! LOL

    • ParadigmEnacted profile image

      ParadigmEnacted 4 years ago

      That gypsy woman looks a little bit like you do in your selfie. Perhaps you are the gypsy fortune teller...no?

    • blake4d profile image

      Blake Ford Hall 4 years ago from Now Rising Out of Phoenix Arizona Earthlings

      "There were only two words written across the Greek Parthenon, KNOW THYSELF. I assume they fucking meant that literally." - Ed Cain 03/17/2012 - RIP

      KOH - Blake4d

    • kittythedreamer profile image
      Author

      Nicole Canfield 4 years ago from Summerland

      blake4d - Wow. I don't even know what to say except that your friend Ed was a very wise and amazing soul. Thanks for sharing with me and with us. Blessings.

    • blake4d profile image

      Blake Ford Hall 4 years ago from Now Rising Out of Phoenix Arizona Earthlings

      Love your work as always KTD. My two cents here comes from a friend that has now passed on. Edward taught me about sorcery, magic, and witchcraft and was also an incomplete quadriplegic. He had full tactile sense, but had no ability to move his body from the neck down. Anyway Edward had been in touch with his magical energies early in life, he was his spinal injury occurred at 12 years old. So he had taught himself to read and write with a stick in his mouth, and other very amazing things as a quad. But he amazed me, that he had been doing psychic readings ( his mediums of choice were crystal ball and psychic auras ) to earn a living since 13. Ed ( for we were friends, less than mentor or student ) once said to me, when I was very worried about what I should do with my life, career, college etc. These were his words, " All people have jobs that they are drawn to do, choose to do, get paid to do, and even are forced into doing. But the job you are born to do, will never stop being your job. Since I was born with the gift of sight, call it sorcery, witchcraft, soothsaying, or satanic powers from hell ( Ed loved his theatrics ), it is what I do for a living. I am a worker employed by the magickal powers that be. You don't see Gandalf the wizard taking part time jobs as a bus boy, but he does do fireworks shows for hobbits on their birthdays. Wise people and magically gifted souls always have their fall back positions, but their job is to be that magickal person for their community. Therefore there is no shame in taking material gain from it, as long as you understand that the 3 fold or 10 fold law, applies directly to your credit cards and bank accounts. Should you be practicing tom fooolery rather than being a legitmate seer. Do not ever use psychic powers just to manipulate or steal from those that come for your help, it will burn you. But not using your powers to earn your keep and pay the bills, well even black magic know that is just stupid and evil. Don't say you practice magic and then tell me you can't get a job. Talk to the Goddess about your needs, hell pray to Satan if you want, but use magick or don't. Fence sitters are taking bread out of the mouths of talented witches and wizards every where. Love is the will, pay your toll at the door. Abrahadabra. Love is the Law." I miss you Ed. As always KTD, wonderful hubs, wonderous magic, and lots of love to you and yours. As the Yuletide is upon us. Blessed Be, my honeybee. Keep on Hubbing. Blake4d

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Fascinating hub. I had my fortune read once by a lady in a flea market, but I don't remember what she had told me... and it wasn't anything mind boggling, but I do believe some people can "see" a bit more than others.

    • loveofnight profile image

      loveofnight 4 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

      Psychics are here to stay, they have been around since the beginning of time. They are in the bible as well. I went to a fortune teller years ago and she knew more about me than I would want anyone to know. It is not the job that I would pick for myself but I would love to know how they do what they do.

    • stayingalivemoma profile image

      Valerie Washington 4 years ago from Tempe, Arizona

      hi kitty: I actually do believe in psychics. Since I was a child, my entire family has felt, without a doubt, that my mother is psychic. I also have had psychic reading done over the phone and while some of the readings were very general, I have had a few that were so specific it made my jaw drop! Thank you so much for sharing this valuable history with us! Voted up!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States

      I enjoyed reading this one as it's a fascinating topic. I got into Tarot for awhile, tried to learn the arcane practice, just for fun, not really believing you could find any kind of information about a person from a deck of old cards. But many of the "readings" were spot on to the point where it kind of creeped me out. I set the cards aside.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 4 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Great hub Kitty. I know of a few people who seem to have intuitive skills to reflect back to a client what they hope to hear. What is happening is mind reading. Very few people are born with this ‘gift’ With a lot of practice we can all become intuitively attuned to an a person’s Auric energy field where each individuals records are visible, but only a very discerning person knows when it is appropriate to reveal such information. I know of people who totally follow the psychic’s advice, especially when it comes to romantic related issues. I rather be my own fortune teller – What I can imagine I can make real!

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

      I've had the Tarot cards read for me by a friend of mine, who also happens to appear here on HP, and has a shop on Etsy.

      She is also teaching me to read the Tarot. In our view, the cards are not so much written in stone "fortunes," but give you suggestions and perhaps new ways to look at things to either encourage or avoid certain outcomes. That said, they can still be "scary accurate" as to what is presented according to the meanings assigned to the cards.

      She has been at it for over 20 years; I'm a rank beginner. However, I do think that some level of ESP gift helps--she has it; I do not. Or at least I don't feel it. She claims we are all capable of this, just that it is suppressed from childhood.

      Voted up, interesting, useful, shared and pinned.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      Loved this Kitty, I have been to a psychic reader or fortune teller and of course I read the cards for people myself, so this was fascinating! voted up and shared! nell

    • kittythedreamer profile image
      Author

      Nicole Canfield 4 years ago from Summerland

      FlourishAnyway - That sounds super intriguing! I would have LOVED that! Thanks for sharing.

      JG11Bravo - It's funny how things get a bad name or stereotype but if you look back in history they have been revered by certain societies, etc. Thanks for reading!

      heidi - I agree...I am wary of certain self-proclaimed "psychics" and "mediums" however I do believe there are people who are very in tune.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 4 years ago from Chicago Area

      While I probably wouldn't do a reading with what I term "roadside psychics," I have received readings at events from some insightful and intuitive individuals. Very interesting! I think of it less as "fortune telling" and more of discovery of things that may be under the surface and influencing our futures. Great hub, as always! Happy Thanksgiving!

    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 4 years ago

      Pretty interesting stuff. This isn't an area I would ordinarily think to look into, but it's had more bearing on history than one would think at first glance.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

      I had my fortune told one time in New Orleans years ago by a backroom voodoo type lady and it turned out to be scary-accurate. She looked at my hands and told me things that later happened.

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