We often encounter the situation when we want to give advice to people to who cannot bring themselves to articulating what the problem is.

Here we have a few possibilities if we want to use the cards as tools for such articulation. But which cards?

It is my opinion that one can go to any oracle with any question, so asking ‘which cards’ – when any would do – may seem redundant. Yet, in light of the situation, ‘I can’t say what troubles me’, I find it that it’s helpful to choose between fortunetelling with playing cards and divining with the Tarot de Marseille, the Lenormand cards, or a shamanic deck.

What we’re dealing with in divination is often a question of tact, so we must consider what is appropriate. In my experience people do not always want to be confronted with a ‘straight into your face’ picture – ‘bang, the Death card is here, oy vey’.

Some just want to hear how you make sense of what, for most, is a wave of two colors, black and red, intersecting at odd points on the table.

So here is a spread with 23 playing-cards called The Three Steps. It tells us something about the situation of the person who can’t say much, and how he walks the ladder of surprise.

CARTOMANCY 101: A short theory of reading with playing-cards: ♥ ♠ ♣ ♦

Before I plunge into my example, let me offer here some few remarks on my approach: In traditional fortunetelling with plain playing-cards we always read cards in trios, sets of threes.

I like it that one of the cartomancers I admire, Dawn Jackson, the brain behind the hedgewytch method, also stresses this. For indeed, cards mean nothing, if not linked. The French would not dream of reading the cards in any other way than by linking them in what they call tirage-en-ligne, and for that matter asa cum vin, which is the Romanian equivalent of linking cards, something I’m most familiar with.

We can read magical squares, spreads that take the shape of crosses, acrostics, triangles and other geometrical forms, but the procedure is always the same.

We read 3 cards at the time, and then we follow the rule of the pattern, or layout, if we have one. There has to be a method to all of it, otherwise what we’re dealing with is not divination. As far as I’m concerned I follow 3 simple rules:

1) The color progression – from red to black: bad; from black to red: good. With the hearts we drink with friends and family; with the diamonds we cut deals, with the clubs we build; and with the spades we stab. In a spread, one can also note the preponderance of black over reads and assess to what extent the reading is fair or not.

2) The numerical progression: 1 is a little 10 is a lot. We go from unity to division, contraction and expansion. In the middle we find cards dealing with cooperation or splits (the 2s), increments (the 3s), stability (the 4s) health and the body (the 5s), paths and choices (the 6s), challenges (the 7s), wishes and fears (the 8s) and changes (the 9s).

The Aces mark a beginning, or more specifically, the house A♥, an opportunity A♣, wealthy means A♦, or a decision A.

This latter A also indicates death, physical death or the death of something, such as a relation, the termination of a contract, or the death of a system of beliefs (logically speaking, a quick decision can also be seen as the death of hesitation).

3) For timing and health we associate the cards with the elements and the seasons in the following way:

  • Diamonds are for spring and fire. A fresh idea is a hot idea. Diamonds are chiselled for exchange and culture. We hold diamonds in our hands. They denote working with the head. Diamonds represent the nervous system.
  • Hearts are for summer and water. An idea needs to feel good, to flow, and be shared. Hearts are inside the body and enable the blood to circulate. With the heart we live and feel. Hearts represent the circulatory system.
  • Clubs are for autumn and air. An idea needs to be harvested. Clubs grow in the air. Tall trees are at arm length. We exercise with a stick. Clubs represent the muscular system.
  • Spades are for winter and earth. An idea needs to die to make room for a new one. Spades are forged for protection and conquering. You kill someone, you bury them in the ground. Only bones remain. Spades represent the skeletal system.

In terms of offering more specialized readings that can go into a number of details that household issues may bring up in questions such as these: ‘will I redecorate my house, and if yes, where will I start?, my answer to these questions are derived entirely from logical inferences.

So, if I have a method here, then it’s the cunning folk method. To the question above, if I got these cards: 8♣, 3♥, 5♦, I would say: ‘the kitchen’ (you plan 8♣ to beautify 3♥ the place where you cook by the fire for your body to be nourished 5♦).

For health questions, many more systems can be covered by making the same type of logical inferences.

For instance, the immune system is represented by the Spades. Why? Simply because, as I said, spades are for protection and conquering.

If your system fights back, then it’s the spades we need to look at. If you suffer from an infection 8♠ in the blood 5♥, you may need to take antibiotics 4♥ 3♠ to decrease the poison 8♠, or else call a doctor 5♠.

That’s pretty much it. How sophisticated we get to sound is in my experience a matter of a bit of practice, fearlessness, and a flair for reading and connecting signs.

In other words, anyone who can do plain semiotics, connecting the image to a pattern of thought, can read ‘fortunes.’

So, the good news is that you don’t have to wait until you’re over the hill to be good at reading cards. Also, what others call intuition I call plain seeing. And I leave the claims to skills in the name of some Gypsy or Jewish grandma to others – for, what if grandma was crazy?

There are many rules for fortunetelling out there, with people having devised many different systems.

For instance, I also use one that’s very basic as it is anchored in a simple observation: cards increase and decrease in value. Blacks are bad and reds are good. That’s the method.

If you don’t want to bother with the exposition below, you may want to give Kill Your Neighbor’s Children a try.

If I should claim anything myself, then I want to advocate for simplicity and for sticking close to nature. (More on the reasoning behind the naturalness of the suits, see also my post here).

The Reading

Now to our reading, The Three Steps (Etteilla), which I performed last night for someone who was having a hard time.

I placed the cards in the following layout,  and we go up in a spiral. I read the cards in combos of three. There are 3 trios that fall into each of the 3 ascents. See the reading below:



Significator: The King of Diamonds, which remained in the pack at the time of shuffling, goes through 3 ascending movements, as if walking up a ladder.

Note: As the significator appeared in the spread, I read the first trio around it. That’s the rule. In this case here we will thus have an overlap between (4 5 6) in the first ascent with the one beginning de rigueur in the second ascent. The other trios surrounding this trio determine what meaning this trio will have.

Code: KD (King of Diamonds), KnC (Knave of Clubs). The other numbers + the aces take the initial letter of their suit, for example 9H means 9 Hearts, AH, means Ace of Hearts.

Question: What do the cards advice the person who ‘can’t say it’?

First ascent: Start with card 7 and move in increments of seven: 7, 14, 21; read these trios (6 7 8), (13 14 15), (20 21 22).

(6 7 8) Family (ex)changes in the house befall the KD. He doesn’t look forward to any of it (KS above KD) but he is trying to advice himself best on how to deal with the situation. (The KS above indicates a depressive allure caused by loneliness and separation (the existence of 2 Kings, however, in a spread or a trio means traditionally good advisors)).

(13 14 15) Whatever the KD tells himself doesn’t work. He is disappointed and convinced (9S) that working out any practical plan with a youth in the house (KnC below 8C) will only bring out discomfort and tears.

(20 21 22) But a third party will help the King to make the right decision, however contradictory (6H on 6C), and get exactly what he wants even in spite of loss (9H on 3S).

Second ascent: (4 5 6), (11 12 13), (18 19 20)

(4 5 6) The King understands that cooperating with an open heart is a good beginning even though he doesn’t believe it (looks like he suffers from sever bouts of depression with the KS above and flanked by the 9S).

(11 12 13) So he fears that he will fall irrecoverably ill.

(18 19 20) This fear aggravates the situation, and although a helping hand is around the corner, the gloomy mood is not improved (6S below 3C).

Third Ascent: (2 3 4), (9 10 11), (16 17 18)

(2 3 4) Lots of generosity is invested in the familial exchanges.

(9 10 11) But the health path goes down.

(16 17 18) Wrong solutions or self-diagnosing lead to a sense of loss. I won’t say real loss as the 3S has 9H above and AS below, which indicates that the heart’s desire builds on doom and gloom.

The surprise: (23 1 2) Family and friends at large communicate plainly all their good wishes for the King. Their wishes also come to pass. One can’t wish for more than the good emotional security of the 10 hearts.

Looking at the recurrent numbers, 4 cards of 6s and 3 cards of 8s, tells us the following: that the unexpected obstacles (four 6s) will also lessen the burdens (three 8s).

Two 6s next to each other and one 6 below another 6 indicates contradictions and hard work. This tells me that the King may be sabotaging himself by giving in to worshipping in the wrong church, so to speak, the church of remedies that have not change in sight but forgetting.

The only 2 nines in the spread indicating change, the 9 of hearts (the fulfilment of wishes card) and the 9 of spades (the disappointment card) cancel each other out.

The three 8s, the lessening of burdens prevails, but an intended forgetfulness is the price. And I’m not so sure that what depressive people need to do is delude themselves that the psyche can be made to forget things.

As good psychoanalytical folks have been claiming and hence demonstrating scientifically, the psyche forgets nothing. So, merely enhancing your moods in order to forget things seems to be a rather idiotic thing to do.

Furthermore, the card that gets you what you wish for, the famous 9 of Hearts, intersects with the King in the deadly Ace of Spades. So what is our King of Diamonds to do? Take the 3rd King in his spread, the King of Hearts, and exchange it with the depressed King of Spades.

Traditionally, the appearance of 3 Kings in one’s spread indicates good support, so there’s evidence here that even supports our suggestion. Permutate.

A final note. There are no female figures in this spread, unless we want to see the Knave as a representation of one. Knaves usually indicate children or young people of both sexes. The King of Diamonds can think of that.

Why no women? And is this good or bad?

We can ask the cards about it next time.

Note on affinities

A few years ago, Dawn Jackson popularized the ‘hedgewytch method’. Her website has gone down, alas, due to illness and other trouble.

In terms of the spreads she uses, they are all Etteilla’s. She doesn’t say so though. She appropriated them and gave them a new name. For example, what she calls the Coven, is Etteilla’s Great Star.

My own reading style is close to what she did in terms of relying on logical inferences, though I don’t subscribe entirely to her reductionism à la ‘red is good’, ‘black is bad’.

For more on my own ‘method of the elastic’, I refer you to my book, The Power of the Pips, accompanied also by a lecture and a Q&A session on why logic is better than lists of meanings.


Deck: Dondorf, Otto Tragy Jugend Spielkarten, Ver. Stralsunder Spielkartenfabrik, 1910

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Published by Camelia Elias

Read like the Devil | Martial Arts Cartomancy | Zen


  1. Camelia, Thank you so much for this generous post!!!!!

    I have never used playing cards for divination but have found this post completely inspiring.


    1. Thanks, Maralyn. Good to hear you liked the post. I like to write about something that people can actually use, yet without simplifying too much so that we all end up yawning.

  2. Thanks Camelia! Great post! I like how simple common sense rules can produce richness. Can you please explain the rationale behind, “wishes and fears (the 8s) and changes (the 9s).” I’m not sure I’m seeing it… And, what about the 10s?

    Thanks very much!


    1. Hi Jean,

      No problem. The 8s emphasize thoughts, the imagination, and hence wishes (or many things, generally). The idea of ‘wishes and fears’ comes from the fact that the 8s are associated with what’s in the mind (if clubs, ideas about work, planning, desires for engaging with practical things).

      If we take the card next in line, the 9 of Hearts particularly, as it has special status in classical cartomancy, namely, to indicate the heart’s desire, we can see how it’s different from the wishes that the 8s also stand for. Whereas the 8s representing wishes and fears relate to what we imagine, our thoughts in the head, the heart’s desire is related to the heart not the head. Therefore the 9 of Hearts has a special status as a wish. Now, how do we see the 9s as change? Well, think about it. More often than not, we want to see our wishes realize. If we stick with the numerical progression from 8 to 9, the 9s indicate a logical development towards this realization. In other words, something must change if we are to connect what we imagine (the 8s) with how we go about realizing what we imagine (the 9s). Therefore the 9s indicate change.

      As for the 10s: The 10 is the last number in the 1-10 string. As such the 10s indicate both a lot, and a spilling over into a new beginning (if you start with 1 again). It is also for this reason that we associate the 10s with a transition as well. Often cartomancers also see the 10, especially of you have two of them in a spread, as a clear indication of travel (the suit decides whether by water, or for emotional reasons, etc.)

      I hope this helps. All best to you.

      1. Dear Camelia,

        Yes, I think I understand your explanation. The relationship of the 9 to the eight is pretty clear, as well as your explanation of the 10. One thing though about the 8… You say, “The 8s emphasize thoughts, the imagination, and hence wishes…” Do you get that idea from the disposition of the eight icons depicted on the card in relation to preceding cards, or is it a meaning that is ascribed to the 8th by traditional cartomancy teaching?

        Thanks again!


      2. It is actually both. Cartomancy is a system that’s developed from making logical inferences, so we can account for all the meanings of the cards this way the longer back in history we go. Of course, what we now call ‘assigned meanings’ refers to most people’s amnesia, and the fact that once upon a time, all this made sense the logical way, or the natural way, now forgotten, alas. The closer you keep to nature, the more you’re going to see how the cards mirror cycles, seasons, our own bodies, relations with others, and so forth. So, think again, and you’ll see where the meaning of the 8 derives from.

  3. Can you recommend more resources for reading using this method? It seems the meanings for the cards different to each person. For example the seasons. Are there any books that you could recommend?

    1. As I have stated on a number of occasions, what I propose here is what everyone with a flair for logic and for keeping it simple knows already. The meanings associated with the suits and the numbers of the cards are based on sheer logical inferences about the cycles of nature, and is something that goes back to the cunning-folk, or the oral traditions. No one can claim ultimate authorship over how we can all derive the meanings of the cards by keeping it close to nature. So I’m reluctant to make references to ‘authority’ books. I can say that I have certain affinities with card readers such as Enrique Enriquez, Colette Silvestre, Dawn Jackson, Joeanne Mitchell and a host of Romanian madames, or ladies who wrote under a pseudonym. So, the text here is simply the way I see it. The method presented here is also a method that I have participated in refining myself, and which I have tested myself. Good luck with using your own common sense. It’s the best ‘reference’ I can make, namely to people’s own ability to synthesize and essentialize the primary meanings we assign to the cards, and which we arrive at through logic and a dash of creative intuition.

  4. Does the King, Queen and Jack have specific roles or do they just embody characters via context? Also do you utilize the Jokers?

    1. Both. There’s an exception, though, with the Jacks. Along with the higher courts in the same suit (King and Queen), they can sometimes represent the thoughts of the King or Queen, not just embody a person, such as the son of the King, or a situation, when we can easily see them as modifying the subject. Say, you have this situation, 9 Clubs, Queen of Hearts, Jack of Hearts. Depending on the context we can say one of the following: 1) The Queen is thinking about changing her work plans. 2) The Queen and her son are changing their working plan. or 3) The change in the working plan appeals to the Queen pleasantly. So here in the latter, the Valet modifies the subject. And no, I don’t use the Jokers.

  5. Do you apply the same system when reading with other decks? Say the Thoth or RWS influenced decks? I would assume that there would be some conflict. Do you just use their method instead in these situations?

    1. Anna, I always take the cultural history and context into consideration when I read with these other cards. Say, for instance, Crowley’s 6 of swords to mean science, when traditionally this is associated with taking a wrong turn, or path. Or, if it’s health we’re addressing then we can say, thank god I can evacuate those toxins that have been bothering my kidneys. At first glance we can ask: ‘What science?’, and dismiss Crowley for being a pretentious prick. But, through a cultural swerve, we can understand why Crowley has this card associated with science and logic, namely, simply because all things science and logic come in the way of the higher intelligence, which is the kind associated with all things that are precisely not logic. Now, Crowley himself never makes this explicit. He never accounts for his choice of keywords – other than marginally – but this is simply because he assumes that we have all already done our Neoplatonist homework. He assumes that we already realize that what he is inventing is nothing new at all. The same goes for A.E. Waite, though he was more cautions in assuming too much about people at large. In other words, it’s a good idea to take all these revisions into account, but try not to forget were the roots of a new system are actually located within: what school of through, or what tradition. For instance, it always comes as a surprise to me to hear that the occultists coming out of the Golden Dawn school used a form of Egyptian orientalism as the basis for their thinking, when it is as plain as daylight that most of them are thoroughly inspired by the Neoplatonist thought. I may end up writing some more about this some day. But to answer your question: Yes, I apply the same system to reading the cards as explained in this post, but when dealing with something other than the playing cards, I also consider these cards’ cultural history and their visual iconography. I make a quick synthesis between of three dimensions: common sense + cultural competence + visual semiotics, and then fling my opinion across the table.

  6. Hi Camelia!
    What cards would you use for the Significator trio, if it falls in position #23? Or if it fell in position #1? Would I cycle back around? (22- 23- 1) or 23- 1- 2)?
    And just out of curiousity…is there any significance to it showing, or not showing up, in the spread?
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Stephanie, I’m not sure I understand your question. But if the significator falls in the last position, then you read it as part of the last trio, so no problems there. Not a lot of dynamics, but you can still read it as such. And yes, if the significator pops in the spread, then it means that the person is directly participating in the unfolding of events. If the significator doesn’t show up, and it simply means that the events unfold, but the impact is lessened. It’s as if the significator is on standby, participating in the events in absentia, or acting behind the scene.

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