Beginner's Cartomancy: The Binary Modalities of the Deck
I wrote this post to introduce people interested in cartomancy to the structure of the deck. While you could of course learn a list of given meanings and be done with it, this doesn't really allow you to explore the pack as such. To that end, I have identified three sets of binaries that I've found most useful in allowing me to give shape and direction to my readings, providing the background against which a more fuller exposition of the cards can happen.
Red vs Black: The Modality of Colour
In many modern takes on cartomancy, the duality between red and black speaks to good vs bad or easy vs difficult, where a run of red cards is preferable to a run of black ones. Given the overwhelmingly positive associations the suit of clubs has within tradition (and the negative ones diamonds is sometimes given), it seems to me that a more fruitful interpretation can be offered.
In light of the significations given to the suits (see the cheat sheet here for a brief overview), I would propose that the near/far binary works well to express the differences between the red and black suits. Hearts represent the people closest to us, those persons with whom we are most intimate (who we value); diamonds are our possessions, our finances, our responsibilities and our duties - that which we hold close to us (what we value). Spades and clubs, on the other hand, show us the influences away or apart from us. In this instance, spades are the hands of fate, bringing change from without (often for the worse), while clubs are seen as indicative of positive changes aided by others.
As an example, observe the way the ace and ten of hearts and spades are treated in cartomantic tradition: A♡ — family, home, the cradle; A♠︎ — authority, official buildings, the tomb. Here is the dichotomy between what is near and personal and what is far and impersonal. Similarly, 10♡ speaks to marriages and unions, one's ancestors/descendants as well as one's place of birth (the other red ten can also be used to designate one's town or city); conversely, 10♠︎ is separation, disinheritance and is also called 'across the waters' (in fact, both black tens have been associated with water in tradition), signifying places and people away from us. Hearts are people and places we are familiar with, spades present more distance and unfamiliar territory.
Applying a similar thought process to diamonds and clubs, diamonds are what we hold and value, while clubs are what others hold and value (and which can be used by them to our advantage or progress). If diamonds are our personal finances, for example, clubs are finances in a more impersonal sense (i.e., business, trade, transactions). While 10♢ often denotes a large sum of money, 10♣︎ is a card that presages success in business ventures. Moreover, diamonds are what we strive and struggle for in a material sense, what we build for ourselves, while clubs, in consonance with tradition, are more inclined to show luck and good fortune (that which we may be blessed or graced with).
Odd vs Even: The Modality of Divisibility
The division between odd and even is one of the most primary divisions of numbers in numerology. It reflects, and has been equated to, a similar bifurcation in astrology between 'masculine' and 'feminine' signs. We find in Plutarch's Moralia, for example, a discussion regarding this property and what it means for the signification of the numbers themselves:
For in the division of numbers into two equal factors, the even number separates completely and leaves a certain receptive opening [...] a space within itself; but in the odd, when it undergoes this process, there is always left over from the division a generative middle part. (Plut. de E §8)
The faces of a die illustrate this concept perfectly; all the even numbers, when balanced, are empty in the middle, while the odds are occupied centrally by the remaining dot. It is worth pointing out that the number one was considered neither odd nor even but 'common to both' due to its potentiality (δύναμις).
Odd numbers, then, were generative, dominant, strong and male (and also considered finite), while even numbers were conceptualized as receptive, dominated, weak, female and infinite. The gendered worldview that permits this association of male/odd and female/even aside, the distinction between odd and even is still useful for divinatory purposes insofar as the odd numbers are more inclined to change and the evens to stability (similar to such a division between mobile and stable for the geomantic figures).
High vs Low: The Modality of Value
Although the distinction between high and low cards is not often referenced in cartomantic sources, when using the 32-card pack (removing the 2s through 6s) this division is simply expressed as personal (7, 8, 9, 10) versus communal, i.e. involving other people (J, Q, K).
Following a similar train of thought, we might view the gradation between high and low in the full deck as one in which low numbers express themselves more individually and higher numbers more communally.
In the schema outlined above, each of the lower numbers corresponds to a higher one. If twos are relationships, sixes are communal ones; if fours are individual spaces and concepts that one has faith in, then eights are communal spaces and wider structural ideologies. The ace and the ten reflect one another insofar as the ace is inception and the ten completion.
Examples of Interpretation
In interpreting a card's meaning through the binary modalities outlined above, one must remember that the suit of a card is the world in, on and by which the number operates. Let us suppose that you have drawn a card to gain clarity around work-place problems and you receive 6♠︎. The goal of reading by modality is to quickly establish a baseline or foundation on which to build the conversation or advice offered.
Colour: The six of spades is a black card and as such, the world it signifies is outside of the querent relative to the situation posited in the question.
Divisibility: Sixes are even numbers and therefore speak to stability or an ongoing and repetitious series of events.
Value: In relation to the run of cards from 2-9, 6 is a higher-valued card and refers to communal issues in this instance.
Beginning our reading, then, we may say that there is an ongoing series of issues at work, currently outside the querent's control, which relate to the company's communal structures. Although this is clearly not everything the card has to offer, it nevertheless provides a way to guide the reading at its later stages.
Imagine now that you wish to do a 3-card reading; the consultant has asked about their love life and receives 5♢, 8♣︎ and 3♡ representing past, present and future respectively.
Colour: The past and the future are red cards, while the present is black. We might comment that what the querent is looking for in the future is to reconnect with someone on an intimate level (red), since at the present time they feel apart (black) from such personal connections.
Divisibility: The querent may feel that their life has entered a stagnation period (even) and that life was more exciting in the past (odd). However, the future offers more possibilities on a personal level (odd and red).
Value: While the consultant may be focusing on their wider social circle at the moment (high), it may be the case that new love actually comes through someone closer to the querent (low), perhaps family and friend connections.
To conclude, I hope the foregoing information will be helpful in your journey with cartomancy and shows that the process of reading is itself more than simply listing off keywords for individual cards. If you've got any questions, you can comment here or follow me on Twitter.