Fortune Telling and Tarot Decks

For many years people have used standard French-English decks of 52 playing cards to tell someone's "fortune", and predict their future. In the opera Carmen (1875), composer Bizet and his writters included a playing card "Fortune Telling" scene. When this opera was updated by Oscar Hammerstein II as Carmen Jones (1943) and then made into a motion picture by Otto Preminger in 1954, they too included the playing card "Fortune Telling" scene. Hammerstein changed the setting from 19th century Spain to the 1940s during World War II in a Sourthern U.S. state, near a military base.

In the video below Pearl Bailey (1918-1990) in the big hat, has been telling "happy" fortunes for her friends, then she attempts to tell Carmen's fortune. The 9 of spades - the death card - shows up. Carmen (portrayed by Dorothy Dandrige 1922-1965) then grabs the cards from Bailey to prove her wrong. Carmen re-deals and... watch the video...

To see and hear the scene move your cursor onto the video and click on the controls in the lower left corner of the video. Moving your mouse away from the video removes the controls.

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Those who are familiar with the story of Carmen, know that she does indeed meet an untimely and violent end.

Commercial Fortune Telling Decks

US Deck

Commercial Fortune Telling decks unlike the Tarot Deck are a modern product. Developed by card makers in the 19th century and dependent upon where they were made, they sometimes were based upon the 52 card standard deck (pictured to the left), decks used for other games (the second photograph below), or the Tarot's Major Arcana cards (third photograph on this page).

The photograph on the left partially illustrates a standard 52 card deck manufactured by the US Playing Card Company, Cincinnati, Ohio.The deck was acquired in 1982. The slip-box lid (9.2cm long x 7.2cm wide x 2.2cm thick) slips over the bottom of the box. The bottom (9.1cm long x 6.8cm wide x 1.8cm thick) has a thumbnail cut to enable the deck to be removed. The name of the deck and the manufacturer's name is stamped in gold on the front of the box lid.

The card backs feature a mirrored sphinx with a mirrored bird in black on a blue background (bottom row, right). There are 52 cards with gold tinted rounded corners. Each card includes one of the international suit patterns in the center of the card. A "fortune" is printed in black around the outside border of each card. The Ace of Spades includes the manufacturer's name and address. Printed instructions for using the deck are included in the box.

German Deck

The deck partially illustrated to the right, was purchased in 1976. It was manufactured in Stuttgart, Germany by Altenbuiger und Stralsunder Spielkarten. The deck is based upon the 36 card "Sheepshead" deck.

The flap-top box is 8.6cm long x 5.8cm wide x 1.6cm thick. The front and back of the box have the same design as the card backs - a blue and white design with a center star (box is on the top left).

Each card (8.2cm long x 5.5cm wide), features a different interpretive picture. Although this is a German deck, superimposed in the top center of each picture is the international suit symbols for each card in the deck. Cards are numbered 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King, Ace. In the upper left corner of each card is a white circle containing a black number from 1 to 36. These numbers identify the large pictures on a card. A four-page booklet (in German) in the box, offers instructions for use of the deck in fortune telling, and also offers a possible interpretation of each picture.

The following is a list of the pictures: 1. horseback rider, 2. flower, 3. ship, 4. hotel, 5. tree, 6. storm, 7. snake, 8. coffin, 9. bouquet, 10. bales of hay, 11. prison bench with flogging sticks, 12. pigeons, 13. young boy, 14. fox with dead bird, 15. bear, 16. stars in the sky, 17. heron, 18. dog, 19. castle tower, 20. fountain, 21. mountain, 22. crossroads, 23. mouse, 24. hearts and flowers, 25. wedding ring, 26. bible, 27. letter, 28. young man, 29. young woman, and table, 31. moon, 32. town, 33. key, 34 fish, 35. anchor, 36. cross.

Italian Deck

The deck partially pictured at the left was donated to the collection in 1980 by the owner of a playing card shop in Rome. The deck was manufactured by Carte da Gioco per Collezione, via Della Croce 16, Rome, Italy. The deck is a reproduction of a deck originally made available about 1850 in Italy. The deck is similar is some ways to the major arcana cards in the Tarot deck.

The 40 card deck is enclosed in a flap-top box 9.8cm long x 5.6cm wide x 2.5cm thick. Each card is 9.3cm long x 5.2cm wide. Card backs are white and gray with geometric designs (middle right of photograph).

Twenty of the cards have a scene of a cottage on a lake at the bottom, a banner at the top, and one large Roman numeral from I to X in the center. Ten additional cards have the top banner, one small Roman numeral from XI to XV, a name printed in Italian, and a large center picture such as a house, a horse, a jester. Eight additional cards feature colored pictures in the center of the card with a name printed in Italian at the top. Two cards picture a lion and a shield with no other markings. According to the donor, the deck may also be used to play a game known in Italy as Gnao, which in English means cat.

Commercial Tarot Decks

Italian Tarot Deck

A Tarot Deck differs from a standard deck of playing cards. The game of Tarot was supposedly "invented" in Italy sometime in the mid-15th century AD, and there are early Tarot decks on display in European museums which number 80 or 90 cards. Tarot decks composed of 78 cards were standardized in the late 18th century. Although a large number of people no longer play the game of Tarot, they use the Tarot Deck for fortune telling purposes.

The photo on the left is an illustration of 9 old Tarot cards from an Italian playing card catalogue. These cards, and others like them, were designed to be used to play a specific card game - Tarot. The game of Tarot is generally no longer played. Tarot decks however, continue to be popular collector's items, and so they continue to be reproduced and manufactured. Because of their popularity, many contemporary artists continue to design new Tarot decks, or card makers continue to reproduce older decks.

Web surfers should be aware that there are many commercial sites on the Web devoted to explaining the supposed "mystical meaning" of the Tarot Deck - and these sites offer to provide personal "readings" for a fee - or they offer to sell new "magical" decks that are claimed to make the owner healthy, wealthy, and wise!

Austrian Deck

The deck of Tarot Cards partially pictured on the left is typical of a contemporary Tarot deck. This deck was acquired in 1971. It was manufactured by Ferd. Piatnik and Sons, Vienna, Austria. The cards are larger than a standard deck, in that they are 11.4cm long x 6.3cm wide.

Of the 78 cards in this deck, all the card backs are blue with a black geometric design as illustrated in the middle row, third card.

Since the game of Tarot was invented after other playing card games were introduced into Italy, the basis of the Tarot deck is the same as any other standard early 56 card deck.

There are four suits of 14 cards each. In each suit there are cards numbered Ace through 10, and four face cards - King, Queen, Knight, and Knave (or Jack).

The Austrian manufacturer of the illustrated deck chose to use the international suit indicators (spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs) for this deck. Depending on a manufacturer, the Latin suit indicators (swords, cups, coins, clubs) might be used, or the Germanic suit indicators (swords, leaves, bells, clubs) might be used. (To see other pages which illustrate other suit patterns, click on the Playing Card Page in the left menu at the top of this page, and choose a national deck.)

In Tarot, the 56 standard cards are known as the minor arcana cards. In addition to these cards, there are 22 fanciful cards which contain symbolic and allegorical objects and personages, and are marked with the Roman numbers I though XXII (upper right of the photograph). These latter 22 cards are called the major arcana cards.

The word arcana is the plural of the Latin arcanum. It means a deep secret, a knowledge or detail that is a mystery to the average person, a secret essence or remedy, an elixir, or something that is esoteric, occult, inscrutable and beyond the power to understand. The word arcana is used in relation to the Tarot deck to imply that "the future" is hidden from the knowledge of everyone - except those that have the "key" - and understanding the cards is the "key"! The pictured deck comes with a booklet indicating the meaning of each of the major arcana cards. The pictures on the cards represent various aspects of human life - love, hate, birth, death, etc. The pictures on each of the 22 cards are ambiguous and can be interpreted in many ways. A number of published books discuss the meaning of these cards in relation to each other when the cards are dealt as a hand for fortune telling purposes.There is no "right" or "wrong" way to tell someone's fortune using these cards - although some would have us believe this. Even though some people now earn their incomes with the use of the Tarot deck to "read" the future - everyone can use these cards for an entertaining party activity!

NOTE: This page was originally created and posted on the Web on March 2, 1998. Subsequently it has been modified and periodically updated. Last update: June 12, 2010