Efficient Geomancy with Playing Cards

I know I’ve been awfully quiet lately.  There’s been a lot going on this year, and I’m just trying to keep my head above the water.  I’m succeeding, at least, but it’s giving me a lot of time and space to parse and pick through everything that’s been going on in my life, in both a mundane and spiritual sense.  While I may be inactive at blogging lately, I’m still doing research and writing on my own, though much of it isn’t for public eyes.  Still, on a lark this morning and inspired by the ever-handsome ever-brilliant Dr Cummins, I decided to go through and flip through my manuscript on geomancy (which, yes, is still going, albeit slowly, blah blah blah).  In the section on generating geomantic figures, I stumbled across the blurb I have about using playing cards to generate a geomantic figure.  It’s a pretty basic notion: draw four cards, and look at their color (red or black) or their parity (even or odd rank) to create a single geomantic figure; with 16 cards, you can generate a full set of Mothers.  Basic, simple, easy, but oh so boring.

Then a small bit of inspiration struck me:

I claim that you can generate a full geomantic chart with only four cards from a standard playing card deck, rather than just a single geomantic figure, and if you wanted, a single geomantic figure for a single card drawn.  There are only two tricks involved to get this method to work.  The first trick lies in slightly modifying the deck where each card is marked for an up-down direction (or upright-reversed); some cards in most playing card decks are often reversible with no way to determine which way is upright, so you’d need to find a deck where each card is marked for an upright position, or a deck where each card has a distinct pattern that can unambiguously be seen as upright or reversed.

The second trick (well, not really) lies in assigning the four suits of the playing card deck to the four traditional elements, by means of their standard Tarot/tarocchi equivalences:

  • Clubs are associated with Wands and thus with the element of Fire.
  • Spades are associated with Swords, and thus with the element of Air.
  • Hearts are associated with Cups, and thus with the element of Water.
  • Diamonds are associated with Pentacles, and thus with the element of Earth.

And, just to remind you of the two properties of the elements, Heat and Moisture:

Hot Cold
Dry Fire Earth
Moist Air Water

With all that out of the way, to get a full geomantic chart using this more efficient method, draw four cards from your deck and lay them across in a row from right to left.  Read them across in the same direction in the following four methods:

  1. Heat of the suit.  Is the element of the suit hot or cold?  If hot, give the corresponding row in the First Mother single point; if cold, two points.  (In most modern decks of cards, this amounts to seeing whether the suit is black or red.)
  2. Parity of the card.  What is the rank of the card?  If odd, give the corresponding row in the Second Mother a single point; if even, two points.
  3. Moisture of the suit.  Is the element of the suit dry or moist?  If moist, give the corresponding row in the Third Mother a single point; if dry, two points.
  4. Direction of the card.  What is the direction of the card?  If upright, give the corresponding row in the Fourth Mother a single point; if reversed, two points.

Alternatively, instead of using four cards drawn at once and reading “across” the cards, you could also read each card as a single figure, forming the Fire, Air, Water, and Earth lines by the Heat, Parity, Moisture, and Direction of any single card.  As a kind of mnemonic for the order, remember it like this: Heat is hot (Fire), Parity is math and needs thinking (Air), Moisture is wet (Water), and Direction is how you move on earth (Earth).  Since the four Mothers are assigned to these four elements in this same order, the mnemonic can work for both methods.  Using the reading-across technique may work better for a full set of Mothers, while the reading-individually technique is better for single-figure or two-figure divination.

The only problem with using a standard deck of playing cards is that the Parity method causes an issue, since each suit in a standard deck of playing cards has 13 ranks, so we’re biased slightly towards having more odd than even rows in our geomantic figures.  For some people this isn’t an issue, but if you’re concerned about true randomness with equal chances for each individual figure (which you should be!), we’ll need a way to work around this.  While we can trivially fix this by removing an odd number of ranks from each suit of the entire deck (e.g. just the Ace or all the face cards), we have a more elegant remedy by slightly tweaking how we interpret the parity of a card, which gives exactly equal chances for the parity of any given card to be odd or even.  Let’s call this the Jack Eyes rule:

  1. If the card is a pip card (ranks 1 through 10, Ace through Ten), the parity is as expected.
  2. If the card is a Queen or King (ranks 12 or 13), the parity is as expected.
  3. If the card is a Jack (rank 11), count how many eyes it has.  In standard 52-card decks, the Jack of Spades and Jack of Hearts are drawn in profile and have only one eye, while the Jack of Clubs and Jack of Diamonds are drawn in oblique face and have two.  If your deck doesn’t have these drawing rules, remember this association anyway.

Alright, time for an example.  In this deck of otherwise-standard playing cards, I’ve marked each card such that you can tell direction by looking at the numbers in the corners: the upper left digit is marked for upright, so if a card is drawn and the lower right digit is marked, the card is reversed.  Knowing that, say I draw the following four cards:

Reading right to left, we have the upright Queen of Hearts, upright Ten of Hearts, upright Eight of Hearts, and upright Five of Hearts.  (I’m not sure how I ended up with so many uprights or hearts after shuffling for a minute straight, but that’s randomness for you.)  Reading across the four cards to get the four Mother figures:

  1. Heat: All four cards are Hearts, and therefore associated with Water, and thus Cold, so even-even-even-even.  The first Mother is Populus.
  2. Parity: The parity of the four cards is 12 (Queen), 10, 8, and 5, so even-even-even-odd.  The second Mother is Tristitia.
  3. Moisture: All four cards are Hearts, and therefore associated with Water, and thus Moist, so odd-odd-odd-odd.  The third Mother is Populus.
  4. Direction: All four cards are upright, so odd-odd-odd-odd.  The fourth Mother is Via.

Now, instead of reading across the four cards for the four Mothers, let’s try using the other technique, where each card is a figure unto itself.  Consider this draw of four cards:

Reading right to left, we have the upright Queen of Clubs, the reversed Jack of Hearts, the upright Jack of Clubs, and the reversed 10 of Clubs:

  1. First Mother: The first card is a Club, and therefore Airy, and thus Hot, so the Fire line is odd.  It is a Queen, and therefore has a rank of 12, and thus even, so the Air line is even.  It is a Club, and therefore Airy, and thus Moist, so the Water line is odd.  It is upright, so the Earth line is odd.  Odd-even-odd-odd gives us the geomantic figure Puella.
  2. Second Mother: The second card is a Heart, and therefore Watery, and thus Cold, so the Fire line is even.  It is a jack which normally has a rank of 11, but because of the Jack Eyes rule given above, we count how many eyes it has; here, it has one eye, so the Air line is odd.  It is a Heart, and therefore Watery, and thus Moist, so the Water line is odd.  It is reversed, so the Earth line is even.  Even-odd-odd-even gives us the geomantic figure Coniunctio.
  3. Third Mother: The third card is a Club, and therefore Airy, and thus Hot, so the Fire line is odd. It is a jack which normally has a rank of 11, but because of the Jack Eyes rule given above, we count how many eyes it has; here, it has two eyes, so the Air line is even.  It is a Club, and therefore Airy, and thus Moist, so the Water line is odd.  It is upright, so the Earth line is odd.  Odd-even-odd-odd gives us the geomantic figure Puella.
  4. Fourth Mother: The fourth card is a Club, and therefore Airy, and thus Hot, so the Fire line is odd.  It is a Ten, and thus even, so the Air line is even.  It is a Club, and therefore Airy, and thus Moist, so the Water line is odd.  It is reversed, so the Earth line is even.  Odd-even-odd-even gives us the geomantic figure Amissio.

Instead of using playing cards, you could also just use (most) Tarot cards, which actually might make the whole thing simpler for two of the methods: each card is usually (but in some older decks, not always) known as being upright or reversed based on the image it portrays, and there are an even number of ranks per suit, getting rid of the Jack Eyes rule (though you may want to fix it so that the Page and Queen, ranks 11 and 13, are “set” to even given their feminine qualities, and the Knight and King, ranks 12 and 14, are “set” to odd given their masculine qualities).

There are lots of ways, tools, and methods you can use to generate geomantic figures, and you can probably find multiple ways to use even the same tool as well.  This is just another way, more efficient than drawing 16 separate cards but requires a bit more subtlety, to do the same thing.  I’m sure there are more, and I’ve heard tell of some traditions of geomancy that use deliberately obfuscating methods that rely on similar underlying observations.

Do you use playing cards for geomancy, or for divination generally?  If for geomancy, are there any other ways besides the ones here you use to generate a geomantic figure, either on its own or as part of four Mothers?  What are some of your tips and tricks for playing card divination?

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About polyphanes
I'm a software developer and Hermetic occultist living near Washington, DC, USA. I claim that I'm youthful, dashing, daring, and other things. I make things and chant stuff, and periodically write about them.

2 Responses to Efficient Geomancy with Playing Cards

  1. Andrew says:

    Welcome back, however briefly, to blogging. I’ve missed you.

    I still use a quartet of Druid wands — a la John Michael Greer’s Celtic Golden Dawn with one or two dots painted on them in red, yellow, blue or green as the element demands. Blue and green are difficult to distinguish in low light, so I wood-burned a pattern of celtic knot work onto the red and green sticks — the top and bottom of each figure. Makes it easier to distinguish the blue and green, and it lends a certain symmetry to the figures as a whole.

    But I like the idea of using playing cards, and drawing four playing cards alone to make each figure. It does seem to wreak havoc with the (my perceived) importance of generating each figure of the Mothers separately, though — the intelligences of geomancy have to work substantially harder to make sure you draw the right sequence of cards, for example, to generate Populus-Via-Fortuna Major-Amissio. In fact, it’s probably important to construct all four possible draws of four cards and make sure that there’s no possible combination of the sixteen figures that’s excluded from this sort of a draw.

    • polyphanes says:

      Thank you!

      I’m not so sure that the reading-across method would mess with the intuitive techniques of geomancy. I’m thinking back to the old stick-and-surface method, where the geomancer draws 16 lines of dots in the sand. Yeah, we can think of them as broken up into four groups of four lines, but it’s also often said in old guides to do this part without counting or care of count. To the geomancer using this method, all the lines are made as a single unified event. If you subscribe to the notion that it’s the geomancer doing the work to “access” the information through their chosen techniques, then the reading-across method wouldn’t mess with that; if a spirit-based model of divination, then I still don’t think that’d be an issue, since through the guided shuffling of the cards, the spirit wouldn’t have more of a problem arranging a specific pattern of cards being dealt this way as they would in a more expanded way. The methods I’ve hinted at in the post (which I do not clearly recall the specifics of, but I understand the overall idea) have been used for generations in Europe by some families and groups, so the reading-across method has extant examples in the wild.

      Mathematically, the way of dividing up the cards for each individual row makes sense: there are 26 hot cards (Clubs and Spades) and 26 cold cards (Hearts and Diamonds), 26 even cards (four sets of 2-4-6-8-10-K plus JSpade and JHeart) and 26 odd cards (four sets of 1-3-5-7-9-Q plus JClub and JDiamond), 26 wet cards (Clubs and Hearts) and 26 dry cards (Spades and Diamonds), and each card has a 50-50 chance of being laid out upright or reversed. So, for any given card, because the four qualities of each card are essentially independent, we have an equal chance of each value for each row of a figure.

      The only thing that might be concerning is that since we’re drawing from the deck without substitution, we do tilt the odds ever so slightly towards the opposite result every time we get a particular result on its own. Thus, for my first card drawn, I have exactly a 50% chance of drawing either red or black; if I draw a red card and do not replace it to the deck, then the chances that my next card being red shifts down to 49.1% and being black shifts up to 50.9%. If my next card drawn is, in fact, black, then both probabilities shift back to 50%. The probabilities of the qualities of heat, parity, and moisture for each successive card drawn shift with each card drawn (never getting too far away from 50%, but the disparity growing with the number of cards already having been drawn), but the direction of the card is always 50% because it’s per-card and not per-deck.

      In that sense, using playing cards is in general a mathematically flawed system unless you reshuffle the deck with substitution after every card draw you make. However, I’d think that, for those who are inclined to use the playing card method at all using either the “efficient” methods in this post or the simpler/naive methods of drawing four cards per figure or by means of another method, the slight shift in probabilities doesn’t substantially impact their divination method. After all, while we can take solace in a mathematical reassurance of randomness for our methods, we’re not exactly relying on it, either, since divination is going to provide the answers it needs to give, randomness and probabilities be damned. :P

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