Sharon is a certified health coach and Mindful Life Guide. Her mission is to help others develop harmony and meaning for themselves.
What Is Cartomancy?
Simply stated, cartomancy is the use of cards for divination or fortune telling purposes. Each system of cartomancy is different, though tarot is the most well-known.
Card reading has fascinated (and, unfortunately, frightened) many people throughout its long history. Not everyone agrees on the actual origin of cartomancy, or more specifically tarot, but it probably began as a parlour game in Italy and France in the late 1400s. In the 1700s, it seems to have gained popularity for telling fortunes. Other cards that have been used for cartomancy are the usual 52-card playing deck and the 32-card decks most popular in France.
During the reign of Napoleon, a very skilled psychic and cartomancer named Marie Anne Lenormand gained much notoriety, and she lends her name to another deck still used today—the 36-card Lenormand deck. Many of these cards are still used today, although the tarot seems to be the most famous.
In this article, we will delve into tarot, Lenormand, and oracle decks in-depth, but if you need a quick summary, check out the table below for the basic differences!
Basics of Tarot vs. Lenormand vs. Oracle
|Deck Type||Number of Cards||Card Meaning/Interpretation|
Depends on reader interpretation/where card falls in a spread.
Depends on reader interpretation. Must be read with other cards. No card has stand-alone meaning.
Various deck sizes.
Often printed directly on card. Useful for setting daily intentions or meditations. Cards have stand-alone meanings.
The Tarot Deck
Tarot Deck Composition
The tarot has 78 cards. The pips, or suits, are Cups, Wands, Pentacles, and Swords. Each suit has 14 cards, beginning with the Ace (considered number one), followed by two through 10, and concluded with a Page, Knight, Queen, and King. In addition, there are 22 Major Arcana cards, which depict scenes starting with the Fool, and include such cards as the Hermit, the Tower, the Sun and the World.
How Tarot Works
Tarot is not so much about telling the future—although it can give an indication as to what will occur if you follow your current path—as it is about the inner workings of your situation. It can tell you what is influencing things around you, why people are acting the way they are, and how you really feel about it all. It is good at getting to the heart of the matter, offering advice, and delving into the subconscious.
You can do a simple spread of one card and learn enough about a question. A common spread is the 10-card Celtic Cross, which is an in-depth analysis of a situation. You can also design a layout to pinpoint what is going on in a specific area or your life. For example, let us say that you want to know if you will get the job that you want.
You pull five cards representing:
- The past.
- The present.
- What you need to know.
- What is hidden from you.
- The outcome if you follow the current course.
Let's say you pull the:
- The Eight of Pentacles.
- The Magician.
- The Three of Cups.
- The Five of Wands.
- The Sun.
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From this reading, we can say that you have worked hard and honed your craft while enjoying what you do, as evidenced by the Eight of Pentacles representing the past. In the present, the Magician card shows that you are applying all your knowledge and skill and have made practical use of everything at your disposal. The Three of Cups indicates that you will have a cause to celebrate, perhaps meaning that you will get the job. What could be hidden from you, according to the Five of Wands, is that you could have people working for you who will have to learn how to work together as a group. Finally, the Sun in the outcome position says that all will be well—you will be happy while gaining exposure.
This of course is an oversimplified version of the reading—there are so many textures and nuances to explore with each card. For example, every card has its own technical book meaning and yet also has a personal meaning to each individual reader. On top of that, the meaning of any card can shift depending on what cards it is surrounded by in the reading, or if the reader gets an intuitive sense of a different meaning that has nothing to do with more conventional interpretations. As you can see, tarot is a very complex system, and it keeps revealing itself the more you read. After some practice and many readings for yourself and others, you will begin to see patterns that are unique to how you read. Go with these patterns, even if they differ from the books. Many books don’t even agree on meanings, and I have not met two readers who read identically.
To make it even more complicated, there are many types of tarot cards—the most famous being the Rider-Waite deck. Many card decks have their own design scheme based on the popular Rider-Waite, while other decks are quite different and are interpreted based on the unique story of the deck. For instance, there is a Lord of the Rings deck with images and storylines from the books. The cards in this deck would be read with different interpretations than the cards found in a deck based on the stories from King Arthur.
Tarot Card Care
There are many different beliefs about tarot cards and a reader's relationship with them. Some readers believe you should always have your first tarot deck gifted to you, while others say you should purchase it yourself and choose one that speaks to you. There are also many suggested methods of how to break in a new tarot deck, how to store it, etc. This section could fill an entire article on its own, but the main takeaway on any of these questions is to always go with your gut—tarot is intuitive.
The Lenormand Deck
The system of cartomancy known as Lenormand differs from tarot in the specificity of the cards and its requirement for collaboration. There are 36 cards, and each card has a set meaning. They are designed to be read together—in a “sentence” if you will. One card alone will not give any insight.
How to Use the Lenormand Deck
The most common are three- and nine-card spreads, and the Grand Tableau, which uses all 36 cards. Where the cards fall in relation to the significator (a man or woman, depending on the person being read) and to each other gives an overview of any question you may have. For instance, there is a card with a heart that signifies love and romance. If this card shows up in a Grand Tableau spread and it falls near the right side of the man/woman card for the person being read, then love is in the future. But, if the heart card falls near cards such as the snake or clouds, then the querent should beware—these signify an untrustworthy person who could cause confusion in someone's love life.
Within the Grand Tableau, you can also utilize “houses”, by using the numbers on the cards. For example, if the book card (number 26) falls in the 31st position of the spread, you can bet a secret will come to light and be exposed because the Sun card is number 31.
How Is Lenormand Different Than Tarot?
While tarot is open to interpretation and intuition, Lenormand is very direct and to the point—almost bluntly so. The Lenormand cards form an elegant little deck and are fun to work with. They are not very well-known at present, but more and more card readers are discovering these unique cards and are fascinated by them.
Oracle Cards and Fortune Telling Cards
There are many, many different oracle decks out there, and they vary in design and number of cards. Some decks use angels, others use fairies, and some even use cats or dogs. Regardless of the design of a deck, the meaning of the card is often printed right on it. In Doreen Virtue’s Message from the Fairies deck, for instance, you can pull a card that says “Everything’s Okay." The meaning of this card is pretty obvious.
While the meaning of a card in an oracle deck is commonly written right on it, there are some decks that leave it up to you to interpret as you see fit. With such a variety of types of oracle cards, you can probably find a deck to fit any of your various interests.
Using a Standard Playing Card Deck
A common playing card deck can also be used in fortune telling, and is probably how many cartomancers read in the past. This practice is a bit different in scope. Like Lenormand, there are assigned meanings for each card, and like the tarot, the meanings relate somewhat to the suit of each card. There is a deck of cards called the Gypsy Witch deck which is based on Lenormand and meant to be read in much the same way. The deck has 52 cards, is designed like a regular deck, but has pictures and meanings for each card.
Additional Deck Types
- Sybilla Cards.
- Gypsy Fortune Telling cards.
- Parlour Cards.
- And many more . . .
Pick a Deck That Speaks to You
This is a very brief overview of cartomancy and its different types of cards. When choosing a deck, make sure it is something that “speaks” to you—you should be able to identify with it easily. Get to know the images, look for anything that grabs your attention, and think about what the individual cards say to you personally. Cartomancy is fun and enlightening, and while it is easy to learn, it would take more than a lifetime to know all there is to know.
One final note on reading the cards: our future is not set in stone. We are constantly in flux, making changes that will affect us in the future. No reading is the “last word” on anything, and outcomes can always change.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2013 Sharon OBrien