The business of card reading is a business of extremes. As someone who doesn’t read cards for a living, but reads cards for the sake of reading cards, I get to observe what happens in the world of cards from a convenient distance.

One thing that is striking these days is the increasing speed with which people shift allegiance, say, from tarot cards to fortunetelling cards – though in some contexts, the latter are preferred not as plain playing cards as tradition has it, but as cards with pictures on the suits, such as the Lenormand cards or the Sibyllas.

This is all very fine. The times have changed, and if people even feel a surge of creativity, they can now publish their own work in a snap. This is doubly fine. The only challenge is to find as many buyers as there are deck creators.

What I don’t think is so fine is the argument behind leaving, say, the world of tarot for the world of fortunetelling, supposedly in the name of getting more ‘to the point’. It occurs to me that the reason for changing camps has to do with the fact that people have gotten tired of interpretation and find that the literal approach to fortunetelling is less time consuming.

But here I find that those who want to claim that tarot is esoteric, complicated, psychological, downright bullshitting and nothing like a practical little oracle (the Lenormand cards are hitting big right now) have understood neither tarot nor fortunetelling cards.

What one forgets is this: The world of cards is a world of representations. When we operate with representations we operate with a subjective manipulation of language: interpretation. So claiming that the tarot is a lesser practical tool than the oracle is nonsense.

What we say about the tarot is no better than what we say about fortunetelling cards. What we say about fortunetelling cards is no better than what we say about the tarot. Both are equally crafted and invented stories, often more mediated by economic interests rather than noble ideals.

It is a fact that the market is saturated with tarot productions, so if we experience a shift towards reviving the fortunetelling tradition, or attempt to save it from its bad rep by invoking its language of ‘clarity’, then we do so because of money. There’s money to be made now from fortunetelling – or so some believe.

Now, what interests me here is not really people’s motives for shifting allegiance. It’s not for me to judge why some find it worth their time to ‘denounce’ and renounce tarot, or embark on fortunetelling because it’s more ‘straightforward.’

What I find interesting is the dynamics of their stories. An oft-invoked argument is that since the tarot deals with hidden and obscure stuff, it is not good for practical divination.

Here I just want to ask: really?

Let’s take a 3-card spread to demonstrate a point of difference that has nothing to do with the supposedly inherent meanings of the cards (esoteric in tarot and exoteric in fortunetelling), but everything to do with what we see as the end-result.

First, the Tarot from which we get:

Queen of Cups, Emperor, Magician

Here my reading goes like this: The Emperor is threatening the Magician with his big scepter on suspicion that the Magician has tried to make a pass at the lovely Queen of Cups. (If we were to read the cards in a circular movement, we could argue that the Queen had enticed the Magician with her big cup).

For this reading here I have neither philosophized, nor used occult knowledge to decode encoded conspiracies or the forces of the universe – on a side note, there’s nothing that irritates me more, if irritation is something that my Zen mind is actually interested in, than conspiracy theorists who deny that they are conspiracy theorists and try to sell you all sorts of new systems of thinking as a revival of some old shit system of thinking that will replace the new shit system of whatever, whatever.

Back to the reading: As far as I can tell, this is as straightforward as it gets. Suppose this is a reading for a female client who wants to know what she can do about her despotic husband. Here, if the aim is to get the woman to communicate better with her man, then we might tell her that she needs to turn her cup around.

If we want to employ traditional fortunetelling reading methods, then we might get even more to the point and tell the woman to stop fainting every time she sees a gigolo pass by.

This will give her monster of a husband no reason to be jealous and everything will return to the order of the world: Man commands, woman obeys. But bringing in another method here doesn’t change the initial message.

Let us contrast the above with a reading with playing-cards from which we get this: LA DAME DE CARREAU (Queen of Diamonds), LE DIX DE TRÈFLE R (10 clubs reversed), LE VALET DE CARREAU (Jack of Diamonds).

Here the reading goes like this: A blond woman is running away with her lover, a government official.

Just as in the above example, where we started with a reading style in tarot language, and then imported some variation from fortunetelling, we can also bring in here some tarot parlance and advance the idea that the Queen of Diamonds, being an enterprising woman, does what she feels is good for her. And if it is good for her to have a fling with a dashing young man, then she will do it without a flinch.

And now to my point: If there’s a difference in the reading styles, then this difference would consist of what we might agree with a client is appropriate in a reading session. If the client comes to us to be reassured, get confirmation for his or her acts, confess from the innermost recesses of the soul, then we can venture into a more counseling style and offer an analysis of the alternatives to the torment that the cards disclose.

The cards have a powerful transformative potential. Psychotherapists can testify to that, and so can the poets who see cards as tools for a poetic derailment of reality. By participating in the cards’ images we get to uncover major blind spots. The best tarotists are able to do this with great elegance and skill. Moreover, tarotists who are well versed in the fortunetelling tradition read tarot as they would fortunetelling cards. My favorite example is that of Madame Colette Silvestre, and a few others I know who are not in the business of flashing their image in the social media.

Now, what gave fortunetelling a bad reputation is the manipulation of simple facts or events. I’ve seen people going back to fortunetellers to hear what they can do about their many enemies upon having been told that they have many enemies, or how to get rid of an obsessive lover who may have put a spell on them.

We encounter such manipulations in reading with tarot cards as well, where the manipulation is not so much with ‘facts’, but perhaps more with ‘wrong energy alignments’ and the like.

But as with all lines of business, there’s good practice and bad practice. Nothing new under the sun. While there’s never anything wrong with the cards, a lot can be wrong with the approach to the cards. But who is to judge? I don’t give a flying fuck. I always leave it to the sitters themselves to see just who makes sense out there and who doesn’t. Isn’t this how real value gets to be assessed? Indeed it is.

My point is that both tarot and fortunetelling cards are only as good as we make them. They are only as good as we choose to practice them. Neither is superior to the other, nor more pragmatic. Consequently, a reading style amounts to what we make of a situation and what we make of the way in which we engage with the cards. A certain image can do wonders for a fortuneteller, but at some point she has to rise to her reputation. If she can’t, she’ll just vanish into the sunset, like many others before her.

These days I’ve been thinking of Etteilla, and the way in which he separated the tarot from fortunetelling. I suspect that his reason had to do with the fact that he wanted to elevate the common man to a higher degree of understanding what the meaning of life is.

But some things never change. Women are still out to get other women or their husbands, men are out to get other men or their wives, big financial fish want to know if they are cursed, and parents want to get rid of their children.

The fortuneteller who can tell the best horrendous story wins. And her clients come back to hear more horror stories. If we must be into redemption at all, then it is not the cards we need to redeem, but ourselves.

I wonder what would happen if we were to go beyond all identifications? With our image, our ‘all-knowing’ embodiments, our problems and the problems of other people? If we just read the damn cards?


Jean Noblet’s Tarot de Marseille, 1650, as restored by Jean-Claude Flornoy

Petit Etteilla, B.P Grimaud, 1890


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Published by Camelia Elias

Read like the Devil | Martial Arts Cartomancy | Zen


  1. I loved your points here, Camelia.
    I would venture to say that the tarot offers a large challenge to those who cannot read symbolic language and are not skillful with the problems of others.

  2. Excellent article, thank you. Reg. Etteilla, it is interesting to note that he did use tarot for fortunetelling, but later emphasized the ‘wisdom aspect’ of the cards (”Book of Thoth”). I don’t know how much this was because of the new era; after the Revolution people had different kinds of worries than fearing getting their heads chopped off (and hence the desire to know the immediate future.. if there was any!). That’s an interesting topic in itself – how much do ‘our times’ affect the way we read the cards..

    1. Thanks Tero. Good point about Etteilla. Regarding wisdom, I’d say that if the reader reads without an agenda, then the outcome will always be one of ‘having learnt something’. About how much our times influence our reading style, I’d say that there’s no way around it. Context is everything. When this is said, however, we must observe that people’s mundane concerns tend to stay the same. We see this in the perennial questions: is he coming back to me, will I get a job soon, or am I going to die this month?

  3. Fascinating, thank you Camelia. A couple of things spring to mind (then I’m back to Hekademia and Magister work!); I was just reading in Crowley that divination is ideally a skill that should await the grade of “Master of the Temple”, that’s to say, when all agendas have been thoroughly ejected from the psyche. So even in the obscure language of occultism, it is recognised that the “story telling” is in play.

    On another note, I’ve been reading a lot recently (about 10-20 readings a day) for a younger audience ahead of a project for next year, in a very unusual venue. The nature of the questions – and the manner of reading in response to the question – is proving really interesting. Romantic Relationships, Jobs, Death, are all a comparatively long way away for these querents, so they help break down the expectations that I have as a reader when interpreting the cards.

    Similarly, as Tero says, the “times” affect the readings so much – and the environment in which they are given. There’s a big leap between travelling all day across a city to sit with Mlle. Lenormand than spending two minutes randomly on a mobile device suddenly consulting a reader whilst chatting with your friends in a party.

    Context is everything, and the Question is everything else. Divination and Interpretation sit between Context and Question, making the story-as-it-happens 🙂

    1. Marcus, great point about Crowley. I think he knew exactly what divination is and how story-telling impacts on our lives. About young audiences prone to listening to the cards, yes, I’m also astonished sometimes to see what youngsters get out of visual material that goes somewhere. I like to see the collaborative at work in such moments, when it’s clear that although we make it up as we go along, we also assign agency to the cards. That’s the magical part that I like the best, when we allow the cards to surprise us.

    2. @Marcus Katz

      “Context is everything, and the Question is everything else. Divination and Interpretation sit between Context and Question, making the story-as-it-happens.”

      I would absolutely, 1000% agree with this, with one slight enlargement – interpretation is overarching, not a contained moment between ground situation and action point. Forgive me. “Human being is interpretation,” as a German once said. Interpretation is the umbrella under which it all happens at the level of the dialogue game. Thus there is no “innocent” or pure “telling it like it is,” or “reading without interpretation,” no matter how much some would like to believe these limits can be evaded. 🙂

      The German word “kartenlegen,” which literally translates in pieces to “card laying,” may appear at first to give shelter to such hopes – that you can set cards on a table without interpretation. The game mechanics of the Lenormand cannot rescue us. Alas, as another Austrian said, “only the act of meaning can anticipate reality.”

      Without ascribing meaning, that is, interpretation – there can not be any relevance or correspondence to reality. I would further walk out to the place where leaf meets twig to say that the moment the reader & sitter “connect” – we’ve all felt that – is the moment the power of that relationship link entrains meaning to reality. 🙂 At that moment our explication takes force in attachment.

      As yourself have noted in your own work, Marcus, both we and our sitters live in our metaphors & can scarcely abandon them. Our sitters are so easily primed by language, both their own & ours: the simple “and,” the simple “but.” This is your expertise!

      As a practical matter, TV-watchers can see many instances of magician Derren Brown priming people for certain outcomes, forcing their choices and behavior with subtle skill. This makes the question of interpretation & language a profound ethical issue whenever a sitter engages in a relationship with a reader and should make us all very conscious of how reading can lead us to an inferno, or as you most perceptively remark, Marcus – “the story-as-it-happens.” If we naively believe we can read without this baggage, beyond the limits, how do we know what we are really telling our sitters – what story are we truly offering them?

      Thanks again for your great comment.

      1. Great insights. In addition to the words of the German/Austrian gentlemen let us quote those of a Frenchman: ‘no one can escape the Symbolic order’. Here, and elsewhere, and in fact everywhere, in the sense that there is no such thing as the ‘literal’.

  4. My sense of the Leonormand surge is that it gives the reader a concrete way to divine. There is proof. Even if you are very literal with the images themselves (as with your 3 card example) …there is still more elbow room than what I have come to understand with the Leonormand. For myself, I will still in the wilds….

    1. Yes, Nucc. But I’d argue that this elbow room is not something that the cards themselves create, but that we do. We make that space through our language and through our interpretation. In a sense, there is no such thing as ‘literal’.

  5. For me, context is what makes my sessions work so well. When the client’s and my creativity and imagination get working through the card symbols, we have something on which to hang it. Great article, Camelia. In addition to the tarot, I’ll occasionally dip into other tools mostly for myself, but keep things pretty much tarot-only for clients.

  6. I prefer reading with context and a question. I spent years reading for Caribbean clientele mostly that would ask nothing and share nothing till the reading is over. Very fortune telling driven tarot card reading. I love this article and feel inspired to look closer at my own varying styles. Thanks.

  7. Indeed, James and Andrew. I myself never read without a question. In fact, I often help people formulate a question, as it’s often the case that some never quite know how to go about it. The more specific and clear the question, the clearer the answer.

  8. Yes great point. My motto is that the magic is with the reader.. Everything else is just tools… What the reader does with the tools is what counts. If you are a good reader you can tarotize or fortunetell with the mail and the sugar packets, using signs and symbols… The concept is the same, everything else is preference, familiarity and comfort… Just look at The Tarologist movie and you get it… All the walls and limitations are self inflicted 😉 but nonetheless they are choices that are sometimes needed in early steps for some that have the need to have everything in its own compartment … And that is OK too … If it works then why not 🙂

    1. Yes, Rana. The magic is with the reader. And when the reader makes the client feel that force, the world stops in its way. What more can a fortuneteller/tarologist ask for?

  9. Nice article Camelia;;

    My muse says: “An apprentice needs a plan. A skilled journeyman can use any available tool at hand. A Master of the Craft can make water appear on dry land. All depends on where the person stands on The Royal Way.” 🙂

  10. Camelia ended this post with…

    “If we must be into redemption at all, then it is not the cards we need to redeem, but ourselves.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more.

    As revealed to me in a dream, Tarot/Fortune-telling reading clients and readers fall into the same categories as Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” — there is great demand for the subjects at the basic levels (safety, social), but interest gets thinner at the pinnacle (self-actualization).

    Wonderful comments on this article. Appreciation to you all.


    1. Mel, I suggest that you take the time it takes to think a little before you show indignation. Here’s the argument: the woman is blond because of the golden stuff that reflects golden rays in her hair. The man is a government official because of his clothes. As to the 10 of clubs in reverse, here’s what we say: the clubs is the suit of action and 10 indicates fulfilment, or the culmination of an act. Falling between a man and a woman the card indicates a relation. But kind of a relation? Obviously not one of hatred, we’d need the spades for that, nor of love, we’d need the hearts for that, and finally nor of money, as we’d need the diamonds for that. So we are left with the clubs, the card of ‘going for it’, whatever IT may be. As the 10 is in reverse, we understand that this culminating action that the blond woman and the government official are engaged in is not endorsed by society. So they are doing something ‘illegal’. In the old days, and even now, mind you, in order for the society to approve of a relation between a man and a woman, the two need to consecrate their relation either by going to church and get the chalice blessing (hearts) or make a marriage or work contract (diamonds). We also accept crimes of passion when the two end up killing each other (spades). We hear all the time how courts acquit a murderous lover on grounds of temporary mental insanity. What we DON’T APPROVE OF is a man and a woman running away together. And why? Because they show strength and stamina and freedom. So, again, a blond woman is running away with a government official. You are welcome to offer a counter-argument to that. I also like to learn.

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