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Dave: What's that card?
Originally created for European gambling games, the Tarot deck has now become almost synonymous with fortune telling and prophecy. For info on what the cards actually mean, see Tarot Motifs.
But what is the point of all that? Isn't it more fun for a writer to use them to hint at terrible danger? After all, most people only know one Tarot card, Death, which makes an unambiguously sinister omen. As audiences grow more trope-savvy, writers instead use The Tower and/or The Hanged Man, which are often illustrated with alarming pictures, for the same purpose.
Common writer tricks with the Tarot include the introduction of new cards, duplication of existing cards (usually Death), or a "good" card appearing reversed, which the Tarot-reading character will explain means that the opposite will happen (i.e. another bad omen).
Anime and Manga
- In Vision of Escaflowne it's played straight with the Tower card
- In Sailor Moon, a youma fortuneteller has the ability to make "The Devil" appear anywhere in the layout she likes, and has an unlimited supply of them. Magic is presumably involved.
- Also in the Stars Arc of the manga, where the Starlights use tarot cards to foretell the destruction of the ENTIRE GALAXY and the protagonist thinks they're just beautiful postcards.
- In Candy Candy, Anthony's death is predicted by a fortuneteller, who repeats the lecture several times.
- Once Per Episode in the first season of Kaleido Star, the "Spirit of the Stage", Fool, draws a single card in order to foretell what's going to happen to the protagonist later in the episode. The writers do a better job than most with keeping the meanings straight, although they use only the Major Arcana.
- Averted in Promethea, when the magician Jack Faust realistically, if improbably, turns up the Ten of Swords, the Tower and the Aeon (aka Judgment), the three most potentially ominous cards in the deck.
- Averted again in one issue where Promethea receives a lesson in the Major Arcanna of the tarot. Alan Moore uses the images and meanings of the cards to illustrate human (or at least European) history.
- An issue of the Justice League of America comic book had them battling the actual characters of the Tarot, summoned by their enemy, Amos Fortune. They curse each hero with a weakness based on his or her respective personality. Of course, in the end not only do they free themselves, but Fortune ends up trapped inside The Tower card.
- The first volume of The Books of Magic featured main character Tim Hunter getting a basic four card spread telling from Madame Xanadu.
- Lucifer goes to get a foretelling done by a Fallen Angel who created the original Tarot set. Unfortunately, they've become sentient and too powerful for said angel to control. The cards escape and begin to wreak havoc by speaking to and manipulating people who correspond to their archetypes.
- In the MSTing of The Eye of Argon, Crow gets not one, not two, not three but nine times the Death card (once reversed, which Servo says "pretty much still means death"). And a Tor Giant.
- When Mary Jane Watson visits her former enemy Tarot in prison, Tarot offers to give her a reading. Although reluctant at first, Mary Jane eventually agrees and Tarot performs a card reading for her. A variant occurs in that the results are not deadly but instead allude to Mary Jane's Hidden Depths, which comes as much of a surprise to Tarot as it does to Mary Jane herself.
- In a flashback in Blue Sky, the Oracle Turret gives a Tarot reading for Wheatley when he crosses her path unexpectedly. She dubs him The Fool, and predicts that he will "rise above us all." Her words more or less prompt Wheatley to instigate the events of Portal 2.
- In the movie version of Live and Let Die, James Bond uses a tarot deck consisting of nothing but The Lovers to seduce Solitaire.
- Played straight when Solataire reads of James Bond's arrival in the cards.
A man comes. He travels quickly. He has purpose. He comes over water. He travels with others. He will oppose. He brings violence and destruction.
- The opening scene of Cleo From 5 to 7 is a tarot reading in which the final card drawn is, of course, Death.
- Blink and you'll miss it, but there's a bit in Tombstone where the wife of one of the Earp brothers is having her fortune read soon after the famous Showdown at the O.K. Corral. The fortune has a number of ominous cards being drawn, including Death and The Tower. That same night the Cowboys attempt to assassinate the Earps and attack their wives as well.
- The final segment of the anthology horror film Death 4told is about a fortune teller whose card readings keep ending with a Death card - and not the Death card that is a normal part of the deck (which she finds when she checks), but a new card with art that perfectly predicts the imminent death of the subject. Naturally, the last reading is her own.
- In The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, when Sellers consults psychic Maurice Woodruff a tarot reading is part of the consultation; the Fool is the card that comes up for him. As the movie sees Sellers as more foolish than Fool, the filmmakers might not have been aware of the positive connotations of the card.
- In The Red Violin, tarot cards are used to predict the fate of a violin.
- Cutwell manages to draw several Death cards in in Mort, while trying to do a reading for Princess Keli. (And although he makes a point of mentioning that the Death card doesn't necessarily mean actual death, in her case it really does—although not in quite the way you're probably thinking.)
Cutwell: Ah, you see the Death card doesn't mean death in all cases...
- A wise woman does a carot (the Disc version of tarot) reading on Twoflower in The Colour of Magic but the cards have the wrong (but plot-relevant) images.
- In Harry Potter, this is done also with the Tower, and pretty instant too. She draws the Lightning-Struck Tower, and interprets it as a bad omen, which is its traditional reading. However, Harry ignores her predictions because A: she's been predicting his death for years and B: he's far more interested in what she says about Snape. Later, there is a chapter called the Lightning-Struck Tower, and a death does indeed take place.
- In Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Mr. Childermass, servant of the titular Mr. Norrel, and Vinculus, a street magician, do tarot readings for each other and Mr Norrell. Childermass does a competent, if rather orthodox, reading; Vinculus does an astoundingly accurate reading he doesn't know how to interpret; then they both try Norrell and get repeated Emperor cards which look more and more like the Raven King.
- "Only the End of the World Again" by Neil Gaiman: The lycanthropic protagonist gets a tarot card reading and the fortuneteller pulls out a Werewolf card (not in the standard deck), a Cthulhu card (also not in the deck), and the rest are plain cardboard.
- Even the "lots of Deaths" version is not always used for comedy purposes. In the Black London books, Jack Winter gets a reading from a gifted reader. She ends up possessed, and that which possesses her makes all the cards some variation of "nothing but your death awaits you".
- In The Darksword Trilogy, Joram's reading reflects the prophecy: Death, King of swords, Death reversed. The man doing the reading is confused because this deck shouldn't be the crooked one.
- The Illuminatus! Trilogy talks about tarot for a great length, and discusses the importance of the symbolism.
- An anthology of The Sandman short stories had one character doing a reading involving "The King of Anchors", "Hiroshima", "Little Nell", and the like. Justified because said character was Delirium.
- Made more absurd by the fact that her deck was made up of one card, the imagery of which changed every time it was flipped over.
- Tim Powers's Last Call is all about the power of the Tarot. The main character ends up at risk of losing both body and soul due to a card game from years ago, and goes to Tarot readers at two points for an answer of how to get out of it. The first reader, an amateur, gets three cards in before a sudden rain storm descends on Las Vegas, then says he's quitting the business because he'll never be able to read the Tarot again, as the cards will now be reading him.
- The Ravenloft novel Vampire Of The Mists, featured a tragic and remorseful vampire getting an accurate Tarot reading. (True to form though it does include the Death card, which signifies his present). The final card is The Sun. This is an extra hard knife twisting, since he used to worship a sun god when he was alive, and has missed it desperately through his centuries as an undead. At the end of the story he willingly walks into the dawn rather than be used and manipulated by the Dark Powers that control the netherworld.
- In The House On Mango Street, in the chapter “Elenita, Cards, Palm, Water”, Esperanza has her fortune told by the neighborhood "witch woman." This includes scrying and a tarot reading, although the cards the narrator describes don't suggest any actual tarot cards.
- Maybe they're Loteria cards instead?
- Warhammer 40,000 prominently features cartomancy on several occasions:
- In two Horus Heresy short stories, The Dark King and The Lightning Tower Konrad Curze and Rogal Dorn both get a strangely similar card reading, featuring The Moon, The Martyr and the Monster (this Tarot has a number of unconventional cards), as well as The Emperor and The Dark King (which both take to mean The Emperor and Curze respectively) and finishing with the obligatory Death card for Curze (who believes this means he will die by the Emperor's hand) and the titular Lightning Tower for Dorne - achievement at a high price. For the reader who knows the outcome of these stories, several obvious meanings present themselves.
- In Graham McNeill's The Killing Ground the Grey Knight Leodegarius uses this to predict the character and fate of several people involved in a really messy situation on a planet. Exiled Ultramarine Uriel Ventris also ends up with Lightning struck Tower as his card, and is even referred to as the Sentinel of the Tower on several later occasions. Other cards drawn include The Hierophant, The Sorceror and Justice. No Death card this time.
- Dune Messiah mentions the fact that Paul's reign has caused a massive resurgence in interest in the tarot, especially a brand new deck designed with symbolism relevent to him in mind. While Paul dismisses this trend, it turns out to be a plot point; the conspiracy against him started the trend in the hopes that the massive amount of low-level prescience would cause enough static to thrown Paul's accuracy off slightly.
- T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land features a tarot reading by Madame Sosostris, "the wisest woman in Europe,/With a wicked pack of cards". Eliot makes up most of his (ominous-sounding) card names (the Drowned Phonecian Sailor, Belladonna), and includes a blank card, which Madame Sosostris says represents something "which I am forbidden to see".
- Turns up in the Chuckle Brothers.
- The first episode of Father Ted has several Death cards. The fortune teller lampshades that this shouldn't be possible, since there's only supposed to be one Death card in the set.
- Averted in an episode of Castle, when Castle has to reassure Becket that the Death card only means change. Interestingly enough, the character that the victim referred to as Death does end up being the murderer.
- From the TV series Reaper: Villain of the Week tarot reader lady understood that Sam is working for Satan by drawing several devil cards in a row.
- Used in one episode of Degrassi, using accurate descriptions from the major arcana. As with most fortune telling aspects in serials, they're generally true until the end - specifically until they lie about the meaning of one of the readings.
- Drop the Dead Donkey where Dave got Damien to do a reading for him, leading to the page quote.
- Of course when Temperance Brennan gets a tarot card reading on Bones, the cards drawn include the Lovers and her own name card.
- That's My Bush! had the "Gay" card come up in every reading.
- In The Crow: Stairway To Heaven a flashback shows Eric and Shelley at a fair getting their fortune told by a gypsy woman. she has them each choose a single card from her tarot deck. Shelley chooses The Lovers, but the gypsy woman refuses to let them see the card Eric selected, gives them their money back and asks them to leave. It's later revealed that he—of course—chose the Death card.
- The Classic Doctor Who serial "Image of the Fendahl" showed a couple of Tarot spreads in progress: yep, Death and the Tower make appearances.
- The Last Detective episode "Dangerous and the Lonely Hearts". Dangerous draws the Hanged Man, which the script implies is a dire portent; it's actually associated with transformation (like much-maligned Death) and hard-earned wisdom.
- Captain Jack Harkness gets a reading in flashback in the Torchwood episode "Fragments".
- As part of the bachelorette party in Harper's Island, the girls visit a fortune teller who gives them all Tarot readings. During the preparations for the party, Creepy Child Madison steals the Tower card, which she interprets as "Someone is going to die." During the party itself, the bride Trish is given the Death card, which the fortune teller interprets as "A betrayal by someone close to you."
- The killer in The X-Files episode "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose", who is obsessed with psychics, goes to a tarot-card reader. He's about to leave when the reader informs him there's one card left. He replies "no, that card doesn't belong to me. It's for you", and turns over the Death card before killing him.
- One of comedian Steven Wright's classic jokes is "Last night I played Poker with tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died."
- The Tarot is used extensively in 7th Sea.
- In-universe, it is popular with the aristocracy of all nations, but in Vodacce (a Fantasy Counterpart Culture for Renaissance Italy), the Tarot is a key tool used by the Fate Witches as part of their magic.
- As part of character creation, players are encouraged to have the GM do a Tarot reading for their characters. Cards that determine the past and present are used to flesh-out character background (sometimes giving the character bonus advantages as part of that) while the "future" card gives the player and the GM ideas for future stories involving that character.
- In Carmen, Frasquita, Mercedes and Carmen tell their fortunes with cards. The cards for Carmen spell death.
- The Curse of Monkey Island has Guybrush Threepwood draw five Death cards, which really freaks out the fortuneteller. Threepwood also comments how there should be only one. He later uses them to cheat at poker.
- Tales of Monkey Island has The Voodoo Lady do a Tarot reading at the start of most chapters to recap the story so far. However, she pulls cards that aren't actually in standard tarot deck. For example, in recapping Episode 1, she draws "The Transformation", "The Scientist", and "Disease", among others.
- In Max Payne Max finds a hand of tarot cards on a table in Don Punchinello's mansion: The Tower, The Devil and Death. Max interprets The Tower as representing the mansion, The Devil as Don Punchinello, and Death as Max himself.
- Of course, after the Punchinello Manor, we meet Nicole Horne, and the final fight takes place in her gigantic Mega Corp tower of doom. Max still might count as Death though, being the change card. The only problem is that he potentially changes the world for the worse.
- Although Max's reading is amateurish and inaccurate, the real meaning of these cards for him is also true. The Tower card is his past, with all the dead family and ruined life. The Devil is his present, a fight with his enemies. Death is his future, meaning an epiphany and finally getting rid of his massive guilt complex (at least, until the second game).
- In Fahrenheit, Carla and an old friend break out a tarot deck for fun. The entire event is scripted, rapidly becoming a total mood-killer as Carla's predicted future becomes more grim with each card turned over.
- If you walk into the event with a low Sanity Meter, this might well kill Carla - she loses twenty points over the course of the reading.
- Averted in Quest for Glory IV, which actually had pretty accurate Tarot readings. However, it did create a fictional Void card to show the influence of the Cosmic Horror, which becomes more and more common as the game progresses, to the point where the gypsy is drawing nothing but Void cards near the end.
- From the Let's Play:
Gypsy: At the moment, every card I draw is the Void, and I can get no clear answers.
- In Clannad (Visual Novel), Ryou receives a deck of tarot cards as a present and her predictions instantly went from "hilariously dead-on in setting but completely wrong in result" to just "dead-on". Eventually, one of her predictions with the cards helped to bring about the conclusion of the route.
- Averted hard in Persona 3 and Persona 4, where tarot cards are a central motif and always depicted accurately. There's even a series of school lectures in the former running down the meaning of each card.
- What's also interesting is that the start of the 4th game, Igor does a brief tarot reading drawing the Moon and the Tower card. He basically tells you of an impending catastrophe and if you want to find out what the hell is going on and why, you're always going to be one step behind on your search for the truth.
- The Binding of Isaac features the Major Arcana as fairly common items and a rarer deck of cards you can find and then draw from as a special move. Remembering the effects of each card is tricky, as they are usually only tangentially related to the card's associations. For example, Death is obviously a Smart Bomb, but The Hermit teleporting you to the floor's shop is a bit unexpected.
- At the beginning of the Jenny Everywhere story Makeshift Multiverse, Jenny meets a fortuneteller who somehow has five World cards.
- Housepets lampshades the common use of the Death card in this strip, then uses the trope straight with the next card being The Tower.
- In an alternate Sluggy Freelance universe, alt-Gwynn offers to read the "main" Torg's fortune. She gasps and declares that "Death is near!" before revealing the spread: The "Death" card, followed by the "Is Near" card. Later, they attempt to play blackjack with the deck (which prophecies that Gwynn's robes will chafe forever)
- Averted in The Simpsons episode "Lisa's Wedding": when the Death card comes up, Lisa is terrified, but the gypsy calmly explains that Death just means change and isn't automatically a bad thing. Then she freaks out after drawing The Happy Squirrel.
- In The Simpsons horror special "Hex and the City", Homer destroys the room of a fortunetelling gypsy who asks herself: "Why didn't I see it coming?" Afterward, she draws the Bumbling Fool and Ruined Gypsy cards from her Tarot deck.
- In The Princess and the Frog, Doctor Facilier reads Naveen and Lawrence's fortunes. Though no cards are named, we clearly see The Fool, Three of Pentacles, and the Tower in Naveen's hand, while Lawrence is almost a replica of Ten of Wands - mirroring their situations in life perfectly. And it gets better. Naveen's hand also shows a card of himself between two lovely ladies, which resembles The Lovers. However, the number itself on the card is XV - the number of the Devil, symbolizing temptation and a need for self-control. Next the card flips into something with a IX on it, probably the Nine of Pentacles (physical independence from marrying a wealthy woman). It all works, and it's not a little delightful.
- These make for good visual shorthand, but aren't quite true. One card, the Ten of Swords, does mean something like what people think Death means, but only knowledgeable Tarot readers could be expected to know that.
- And the Devil illustration traditionally shows two other figures in the background, a corrupted version of the Lovers.