Traditional Tarot

Desultory Notes on the Tarot


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Patrice Boussel: The Great Game

Translator’s Introduction

A further entry in Patrice Boussel’s Manuel de la Superstition deals with cartomancy proper, and more specifically, with the card ‘spread’ entitled Le Grand Jeu, which may be translated literally as The Great Game, as we have done here, and which also exists as an expression, appropriately derived from gambling, and which means “to go for broke,” “to go all in,” or to make a “supreme attempt,” as noted by René-Louis Doyon. This expression also lent its name to the eponymous literary and artistic movement, loosely led by René Daumal, and which evolved on the margins of Surrealism. Finally, the term also served as title for a famous 1934 film by Jacques Feyder, in which a card reading plays a pivotal role in the plot. The genesis of the term is examined in depth by Malcolm Yapp in his lecture, ‘The Legend of the Great Game’, in the British Academy 2000 Lectures and Memoirs, pp. 179-198. The perceptive reader will note the intriguing literary indications in the last paragraph, an allusion, it would appear, to the writing technique of the French Symbolist author Paul Adam.

This little outline of cartomancy using a piquet deck is largely culled from the classic work on the subject by Boiteau d’Ambly, Les cartes à jouer: et la cartomancie, published in 1854 and itself largely based on the works of Etteilla as far as the section on divination is concerned.

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The Great Game

Patrice Boussel

The art of reading the cards, that is, to predict the future by means of cards, bears the learned name of cartomancy. Cartomancy is practiced with the thirty-two cards of a deck of ordinary piquet playing cards, or with the seventy-eight cards of a tarot pack. What we ordinarily understand by the Great Game, is the use of the set of cards of one of these decks with a view towards knowing events in the near or distant future. The meaning of each of them is giving by correcting its traditional value by its neighbouring cards and by its position within the set of the spread. The complexity of the Tarot deck and the difficulty of certain symbolic interpretations means that amateurs who wish to know their future or that of their friends generally content themselves with the thirty-two cards with which they play belote.

We may also use the Great Game to find out if a marriage will be successful, if we may count on an inheritance, if a lawsuit will be favourable, of a voyage will be a happy one, etc. In each case, it will be necessary to pay particular attention to certain cards corresponding to the subject: the dark or fair-haired gentleman will be the king of clubs or of hearts, a profitable death will be the ace of spades upside-down, the ace of hearts may bring some news, etc.

The most classic method of distributing the cards is as follows: after having shuffled the deck thoroughly, have the querent cut the deck using the left hand. Count the cards from the pack and take out the seventh, the fourteenth, etc. … by always placing the intermediate six cards at the bottom of the deck. Continue this operation until twelve cards have been taken out and spread in a circular arc from left to right, in the order they were picked. Check if the consultant is represented within these twelve cards (a king, a jack, or a queen, according to whether it is a man, a young man, or a woman; spades or hearts according to whether the person is dark or fair-haired).

If the card representing the interested party is not among the twelve cards, find it in the remaining pack and place it after the twelfth card. Otherwise, have the querent pick a thirteenth card from among the twenty remaining cards. The interpretation may then begin.

First of all, give a summary interpretation of the entire spread, then, going from the card which depicts the querent, analyse the cards encountered by counting off five by five until one reaches the starting point. Finally, in order to obtain further supplementary interpretations, have the querent draw a card, face down, from the remaining pack, for each of the thirteen cards whose meaning is still obscure. It will be possible to continue in this way until the pack has been completely used up.

In the exceptional case where all has not been made clear, we may yet again take the first thirteen cards, shuffle them, have the querent cut them once again with the left hand, then arrange them face down in six piles (for the person, for the home, for one’s expectations, for what does not wish for, for the surprise, for one’s consolation), by proceeding in this way: spread the first six cards from left to right; on the second round, place a card over the first five; on the third, place the two last cards on the first and second pile. Each pile is then turned over and explained.

Another method consists of having the querent shuffle and cut the deck with the left hand, then pick twelve cards, face down, in turn, and place them one after the other from top to bottom, from left to right. There are turned over in the same order in such a way as to obtain a sort of square. If the querent’s card is not present in the draw, look for his card in the pile and place it in a row more or less corresponding to its position in the pile, turning from right to left, starting from the highest card, called the card of destiny. After having given the greater outline of the future such as it is symbolised by the spread, shuffle the remaining pile, have it cut (using the left hand) and four new cards are drawn by the querent. The first will be placed on the card of destiny; the second on the card of the home (below); the third on the card of consolation (to the left); and the fourth on that of surprise (to the right). Supplementary information is given by the rest of the spread.

In general, hearts and clubs are good and happy signs; diamonds and spades bad and signs of misfortune. The court cards of hearts and diamonds announce blonde or fair-haired people; the court cards of clubs or spades dark-haired people.

The meaning of the eight cards in the four series is as follows:

  • The king of hearts is an honourable man who seeks to help you; reversed, his loyal intentions will be stopped.
  • The queen of hearts is an honest and generous woman from whom you may expect help; reversed, it means delays in your hopes.
  • The jack of hearts is a decent young man, often a soldier, who will join your family and who hopes to help you; reversed, he will be prevented from doing so.
  • The ace of hearts heralds pleasant news; it represents a meal between friends if it is surrounded by court cards.
  • The ten of hearts is a surprise that will bring great joy.
  • The nine of hearts promises reconciliation or tightens the bonds of friendship.
  • The eight promises satisfaction from one’s children.
  • The seven of hearts announces a good marriage.
  • The king of diamonds is a rather important man who is thinking of causing you trouble, and who will cause you trouble if he is reversed.
  • The queen of diamonds is a wicked woman who speaks ill of you, and who will cause you harm if she is reversed.
  • The jack of diamonds is a soldier or the mailman bringing bad news. Reversed, there will be no mail.
  • The ace of diamonds announces a letter.
  • The ten, an important and unexpected voyage.
  • The nine, delays where money or good deeds are concerned.
  • The eight, bad news or business propositions.
  • The seven, arguments or a surprise if it is accompanied by hearts.
  • The king of spades is a doctor or a lawyer; he may announce a serious illness or an unsuccessful trial.
  • The queen of spades is a widow or divorcee. Reversed, she will cheat you.
  • The jack is a young man, a spy or a traitor. Reversed, he will not be able to harm you.
  • The ace heralds a victory or great sadness; reversed, it announces a bereavement.
  • The ten, night time.
  • The nine, delays in business, or death.
  • The eight, bad news or tears.
  • The seven heralds arguments, troubles, losses.
  • The king of clubs is a powerful, fair, man, who may become a protector. Reversed, his good intentions will undergo a delay.
  • The queen is a dark-haired woman who loves you. Reversed, she will be jealous.
  • The jack of clubs promises a marriage, which will only take place after numerous difficulties if he is reversed.
  • The ace heralds gains, incoming money, and reversed, theft.
  • The ten of clubs is a sign of fortune, of inheritance.
  • The nine, of success.
  • The eight, of founded hopes.
  • The seven, of weakness or of thinking of someone else.

The individual significance of each card remains necessarily vague, it only gives but a general theme, and it is indispensable to know the card or cards which precede it in order to give an interpretation of the spread. Always according to tradition, the following sequences number among the more important:

  • Four kings in a row: honour; three: success in business and protection; two: good advice or rivalry between men.
  • Four queens: Lots of gossip, anger and backbiting; three: cheating and jealousy; two: friendship.
  • Four jacks: success or laziness; three: complications; two: arguments or forthcoming marriage.
  • Four aces: success or a death; three: libertinage or sentimental success; two: enmity or hesitation.
  • Four tens: success; three: change of state; two: loss.
  • Four nines: good deeds; three: troubles and hardships; two: troubles.
  • Four eights: success; three: marriage or abandonment; two: troubles.
  • Four sevens: intriguers; three: entertainment; two: small news or pregnancy.

Etteilla, who had great success in cartomancy a little under two centuries ago, has given many examples of interpretation. Thus, “for some undertaking or other, one needs the four aces and the nine of hearts for success. If the nine of spades comes out, it will not succeed.”

“If one wishes to know whether a child will do well, and if he will keep his inheritance: the four aces form a guarantee of property, and a marriage proportional to his sentiments, and if it is a young lady, she needs the four eights and the king of hearts, which will herald peace and harmony in her marriage.”

“To know how much delay a couple will have for their wedding, either by year, by month, or by week: the queen of spades will find herself with the queen of hearts. Every other eight will be so many years of delay; every nine will be so many months; every seven will be so many weeks.”

“To know whether a man will find success in the military: the four kings must find themselves with the four tens, and if by chance the four aces are also in there, then he will reach the highest grades, according to his capacity.”

“For a change of place, or of any state whatsoever: the person, master, mistress, or servant: if it is a master or mistress, one needs the four jacks, the ten and the eight of diamonds, and the ten of clubs for success. If a nine of diamonds is in there, it signifies delays. If it is a servant, he needs the ten and the seven of diamonds, the eight of spades, and the four queens for success.”

Divination by means of cards thus finds itself helped by solid and detailed traditions. If the querent shows good faith and if the person reading the Great Game has some talent, or if it is accepted that they possess some sort of second sight, very often it can happen that some astonishing predictions can be made.

It can also happen that this great means of raising the veil which hides the future may be in the wrong, but there is one case in which it can prove to be most useful, and in which the cartomancer will never be wrong, it is the that of the novelist struggling to continue the story of his characters’ adventures. When an author of serialised novels finds himself in a difficult situation, when he does not know what will become of his heroine, or how his hero will resolve the problem in question, what new devilment his opponent will come up with, the most elegant solution, the one that will be assuredly place him in tune with his readers, will be to draw the cards for each of the children of his imagination. He will thus discover the real next instalment of his story, and without any fatigue, without any possible error, he will know the future.

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