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La Vera Sibilla - Extract from Italian Cartomancy - Learning The Vera Sibilla (Italian Sibilla)Deck by Alessandra Venturi

Many see France as the pioneering country for cartomancy. The Marseille tarot, the Lenormand deck, interpreting playing card, Etteilla, and the life story of mademoiselle Lenormand herself....these are all figures that in popular belief are associated to France and its connection with occultism and fortune-telling.

England as well has its tradition with the Rider-Waite tarot and the Crowley Tarot deck, (both of recent origin) which are famous around the world. Few know that the divinatory tradition of cartomancy has much older origins in Italy. Fore example, Etteilla, previously mentioned, was a famous French cartomancer and author on the subject, whose real name was Jean Batiste Aillette (1724-1792). In one of his books (titled ‘ Etteilla, ou manière de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes’.)

Etteilla admitted that he had learned his art; that of fortune telling with cards, from an Italian woman from Piedmont who taught him to predict the future with an ordinary deck of playing cards.  Another example is found in the the oldest Tarot deck ever published, older than the Marseille Tarot itself, the Visconti Tarot, created in the XV century by the duke of Milan.  

In Italy, the Catholic church held, and still does to this day in fact, a dim view of anything outside of its own realm and domain over all things spiritual. This is especially so of cartomancy and fortune-telling, but they are mystic arts art that withstood the tests of time through their popularity and the age old tradition of transmission from mouth to ear.

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To this day books on the art are scant, and many are of poor quality. Cartomancy was a hidden esoteric tradition that by default was known to only a few men and women. They did not advertise their skills and abilities for fear of ridicule, ostracism and persecution by the church.

Until just a few decades ago, when public opinion in Italy finally started to change, but only slightly, finding a genuine cartomancer was a feat in itself, unless you were fortunate enough to have an association with one of the few families whose knowledge and skills in this area of divination and fortune telling had been covertly retained down through many generations since its creation. Some people were fortunate enough to find one by word of mouth, and most frequently by sheer chance or the outcome of a casual conversation with someone whose troubling personal circumstances had been transformed by a little old lady (or a grey old man) with an unassuming manner and a frayed stack of cards.

Regardless of the circumstances, the effect would have been the same; usually a mysterious story of coincidence, unsettling circumstances and a prediction that came true. These tales of how the events predicted by the cards unfolded, and the vivid recollections of events and outcomes recalled down to the tiniest detail kept the magic alive. Contrary to modern day belief, more often than not, these predictions were not made with the Tarot, but with playing cards or more frequently what is traditionally called the Vera Sibilla cards. But what are they?

In Italian, these specific oracle cards are called ‘Sybils’, or ‘Sibille’ in the native language. In Ancient Roman times, a Sybil was a clairvoyant priestess, who made obscure predictions in riddles and rhymes (that is where the term ‘sibylline’ comes from). The word kind of ‘stuck’, and it came to represent different decks of cards, modelled over the structure of playing cards, that were used (instead of the Tarot) to predict mundane events with uncanny accuracy. Many an Italian region developed its own traditional fortune-telling with playing cards, however the most popular deck nationwide has been, and still is, the one named ‘Vera Sibilla Italiana’, which translates as ‘True Italian Sybil’.

In order to understand how this deck came into being we must take a step back in time to the nineteenth century. There was a need for different decks to the  32 or 36 cards ordinarily used in France (i.e. the Lenormand deck). This was because of a desire to expand what could be foretold by creating a larger deck that could incorporate more detail and flexibility, whilst  catering for the individual and different needs and essence of the Austrian and Italian cultures individually.

Austrian decks were first created,with different imagery and symbolism that could express more accurately (as you would with a full 52 card deck as opposed to 36) the vicissitudes of everyday life. The imagery was consistent with what was already popularly accepted, but provided more depth and scope of interpretation due to the increased number of cards available. Once these decks were created, the hegemony of French cartomancy ended in Europe.

A more thorough and detailed history can be found in my forthcoming book.


By Alessandra Venturi

Italian Cartomancy - Learn La Vera Sibilla Italiana


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