Spanish cartomancy and witchcraft with cards


Ross: This is what I think is so impressive about the Spanish accounts, which are careful to say a spell or incantation beforehand - there is a direct appeal to the hidden world of the spirits. This kind of thing is explicit even in the Golden Dawn's long method - "serious" occultists taking divination as seriously as the "superstitious" witchcraft methods.

But such methods, and even the belief system of modern sophisticated card-readers has neither appeal to the spirits nor belief in the superior insight of the reader - it is something completely different nowadays,

In earlier times it seems that card-readers and such needed to voice (or otherwise display) their intentions, a declared acknowledgment of whatever deities or belief system was appropiate to those time(s) & place(s). In some systems it is still considered important to manifest (openly state on the Earth Plane) your undertakings. But that's usually in ritual Lodges/Circles

Even today many readers (and querents) still do a silent prayer (or whatever) at the start of any divination. But most people are aware that it's the Intention - to do no harm, or to help objectively, or to be of benifit - that is the principal thing. And this might be described as an attitude or inner conviction. A focussed mind-set which may or may not include a spiritual belief. It is therefore 'silent', not spoken aloud.

Bee :)


Ross hi,

I find your insights on the criteria for traditional cartomancy thought-provoking and in the main agree with your remarks. Contemporary Gypsy cartomancers in Romania also preface card-reading with an incantation to the 'Red King'. Agrippa Von Nettesheim also discusses the drawing of lots as oracular communication with supernatural entities and specifically describes how these powers are to be invoked prior to drawing the lots so these Spanish accounts, as you say, reflect that kind of archaic modus operandi.

What you are saying about contemporary card-reading being informed by 'narratology and psychology' rather than an awareness of the divinatory act as a communication with supernatural powers is certainly true. But one might say that this simply reflects the humanistic-secular culture which most card-readers are operating in, a mindset shaped, whether consciously or not, within a predominantly atheistic and materialistic world-conception.

The role of Maria Padilla in cartomancy is interesting indeed and also how this figure of Spanish folk-magic is still a power called upon as one of the Pomba Giras in Brazil.

Great cites and translations, Ross: much appreciated and very thought-provoking.

All the Best,


As you say Ross, about the contemporary usage of tarot:

'It is therapeutic in other words, but completely divested of the supernatural aspects of traditional cartomancy.'

That is a very acute observation: but I have over the years heard religious people sometimes express disapproval of cartomancy because it 'summons djinn' or one even thinks of popular Christian polemic which censures tarot divination because it might involve interaction with spirits etc.

Paradoxically such attitudes are probably closer to the world of these old Spanish cartomancers than those of many New Age card-readers.

But the more intellectual horizons of the Renaissance scholar magicians also included sophisticated theories about the basis of sortilege: we find Agrippa saying that divination by lots works through 3 factors, singly or in combination:

(1) via the spiritual beings who are invoked and who manipulate the lots to give the reading.
(2) The astrological aspects prevailing at the moment of the divination which also condition the reading.
(3) the 'secret power' in the soul of the operator, which Agrippa states can also mysteriously influence the reading.

All the Best,


Curses and Naipes, 16th century;col1


Maureen Flynn

She mentions the use of curses and association with card games (Naipes) and why it might have been so closely aligned -- perhaps this is of interest of how or why such was more common practice:

Best regards


What follows is an excerpt from Ms. Flynn's 1995 paper: (I can find the text, but not the title yet--hopefully this is of interest:

Levy-Bruhl's analysis of the religious credulity behind traditional gambling sheds light upon many of the apparently contradictory or duplicitous statements uttered by Spanish Catholics over naipes. It suggests that the cries of these anxious men against the Christian God were probably not so much repudiations of the role of the divine in their lives, as defensive blows designed to hurt the very supernatural force which appeared to have turned against them and left them losers in a world of hardship. This would explain why the name of God was not absent from the gaming-house, but omnipresent and ready to fall from the lips of players abandoned in the sport of life. To Spaniards, as to Levy-Bruhl's "primitives", gambling was "a serious act, a tragic, even religious act": "It was one of the most intense of mystical experiences, because it was one which gave them the strongest sense of being in immediate contact with invisible powers that had their fate in their hands".(62)

This perspective on gambling also elucidates why the game appealed to the downtrodden, to men and women whose luck had run dry and who wanted desperately to reverse their fate. By laying on the table their remaining fortunes, they might have been soliciting divine intervention as a final declaration about their status. If they won, the wager was a way for them to reassert their prerogatives over the misfortunes that had occurred in the past; and if they lost and failed to reverse the tide of catastrophe, they could express, through cursing, at the very least their disappointment and anger that God had rejected their pleas for grace.(63) Back in the sixteenth century, the Dominican friar Luis de Granada recognized the psychological discharge involved in cursing when he compared it with other indiscretions:

Women don't commonly lose themselves in swearing, but they frequently fall into another trap. They challenge God when doing their daily chores by complaining about their toil and their poor living conditions and so question the justice of the Lord. They mutter that they do not like the life that was given to them and speak ill of the day they were born.(64)

Blasphemous men, like these overworked and contentious women, were not sceptics of the sacred, they were merely angry about their lot in life and expressed it in a form of verbal defiance that was generally reserved to their gender in the early modern period. Instead of tears and complaints, the socially appropriate form of contest for women, men articulated their emotions in direct verbal jousting with supernatural forces.

This point was made explicit by an unfortunate card-player named Alonso de Alcozer in 1548, when participating in a game of naipes with a small group of companions. In despair Alonso watched his life's savings disappear before his eyes and cursed the Lord aloud. Across the table, the winner of the game, still piously respectful of divine intervention, advised Alonso to commend himself to the Lord and to the souls in purgatory, a comment that only served to worsen the situation. The enraged Alonso then screamed out the plain truth that "I renounce God because he cannot serve me well . . . in these wretched times, God doesn't show any kindness to the poor, he favours the rich and gives them all the advantages".(65)

Like other losers at naipes, Alonso attributed his defeat to the unsympathetic hand of divine providence rather than to chance. Blind fortune, it appears, was truly an elusive and unretainable concept in the minds of pre-modern Spaniards. Their remarks never exceeded the limits of accepted religious views; they could only invert their beliefs.

In this sense, blasphemy was essentially a form of play, and of play as Johan Huizinga has described it in Homo ludens, with its own implicit, unconscious logic.(66) This involved a sporting with language through inversion of normally pious verbal delivery, making use of the same imaginary constructs as prayer. By juxtaposing the holy with the profane in calling the Virgin Mary a whore, for instance, blasphemers bruised pious sensibilities and travestied conventional images in order to violate the sacred boundaries that otherwise defined their faith. This is why Aron Gurevich calls blasphemy "the carnivalized side of religiosity".(67)

Blasphemy was a form of play in another sense as well, for it served many of the same psychological needs that have been associated with the power of fantasy among children. Long ago, Anna Freud was the first to recognize that a particularly important function of play is to assist children in dealing with potentially disturbing psychic events. Children, she noted, often re-create in their play-life situations that they have found frightening in real life. By setting up imaginary situations in which the fears and anxieties that they feel are momentarily simulated, they then quickly reverse the power-struggle through some sort of conquest. As an example, she offered the case of a seven-year-old boy who denied to himself the authority of his intimidating father by transforming him mentally into an enchanted lion. This lion roamed around in fantastic escapades with the boy, frightening everyone with whom it came in contact. The boy himself was immune from fear, however, for he had succeeded in taming the terrifying beast and turning him into a protective and loving friend.(68)

It is not altogether implausible, therefore, that blasphemy served similar purposes of denial and imaginary reversal for Spanish Catholics in the past. Blasphemy may, in fact, have been one of the few escapes into fantasy that remained in the psychic life of adults in this period of authoritarian religion. By hurling insults at God, either by denying his existence altogether or by condemning the way in which he had managed the course of human events, men and women who were caught in anxious situations could strike back at the perceived source of their pain and assert mastery over their condition. Their outbursts of arrogance and independence would have served, then, to cancel out of their minds the impotence that they felt at the moment. These brief fantasies of rejection were enough to console wounded egos without disturbing in the least a sense of "objective reality", allowing blasphemers to claim honestly that they had always maintained a stern belief in higher forces. As Juan the sacristan noted, "everyone knows that there must be a first cause", even when they deny, as he did, God's existence with a pensamiento fantastico.(69) The universe, they proclaimed with an irony that only the dispossessed possess, contained forces superior to their own miserable fortunes.



A forthcoming anthropoligical biography speaks of naipes and curses

Inner Traditions will be publishing this book.

The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios
By Marlene Dobkin de Rios

In the excerpt, the author speaks of certain cards (17) and 'curses'--and also describes books she bought in Salas (Peru?) written about such cartomancy in the 20th century

Pages 4-6 has the Naipes information

1745 Naipes cards

Thanks to Ross for finding such older information. I'm eager to read or search for more contempary offshoots and then trace backwards to study such history.