Cartomancy: History

There are many different theories about the origin of playing cards and their use in divination.

The earliest appearances of playing cards can be seen in China and India in the 900’s AD.  Indian cards of the time are said to show Hindu gods holding sceptres, swords, cups and rings, while evidence suggests that the Emperor Mu-Tsung played domino cards, a game resembling playing cards, with his wife on the eve of the Chinese New Year 969AD.

Moving on to the 1300 and 1400’s, playing cards were found across Europe - one theory places the origin of European cards in a region of Egypt with a Mameluke deck dating from 1400 and comprising of 52 cards with 4 suits – swords, polo sticks, cups and coins.
In Switzerland in 1377, a Basle monk called John of Rheinfelden wrote what is considered the first detailed description of use of a deck of 52 playing cards and Marco Polo is also thought to have brought cards back from his 13th century expeditions to China. There is a theory that the Crusaders carried cards back from their conquests, but the most popular theory is that the cards were brought through India and Egypt by bands of travellers.

Playing cards were used at the French court in 1390 where the mistress of King Charles VI, Odette, had a pack brought by travellers and decorated with Eastern potentates.  She then designed her own pack picturing members of the French court – providing the origin of the court cards on the modern deck. It is rumoured that a visiting traveller used the cards to foretell for Odette and the King, and divined the King’s secrets.  It is also rumoured that Napoleon planned several battles and courted Empress Josephine with playing card divination.

From this came the current standard playing card deck – also originating in France, and thought to have been introduced around the late 15th century, painted by hand or printed with woodblocks.  It wasn’t until 1832 that playing cards were mass manufactured and while these earlier versions were designed to be viewed from one way up only, the late 19th century saw the introduction of the double headed design we use today.

-(Taken from Let's Try Cartomancy by Ann J. Clark, image (c) Can Stock Photo / michaeldb)

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