Fortune-telling and superstition

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Board game:Romany Fortune-Teller (1899) by Parker BrothersThe Strong National Museum of Play

The magical side to heritage

People have always tried to bring certainty to their lives by trying to foresee what awaits them just around the corner. Below you'll find eight fascinating ways Europeans have searched for the answers.

We have gazed at the stars and the patterns in the clouds, scrutinized droplets of molten metal, inspected the entrails of animals, offered our hands, feet and faces to elderly soothsayers, and even studied the coagulation of cheese. And all in the hope of knowing the unknowable.

In Europe, no community is more closely associated with seeing the future than the Roma. For centuries, female Romany soothsayers called 'drabardi' offered their services to all comers, with one strict exception - other Roma.

The image of the drabardi was so well-known and widespread that it became synonymous with fortune telling, making its way into popular culture through films, books, pictures and even board games, like this one created by Parker Brothers in 1899.

Romany Fortune Teller board game (From the collection of The Strong National Museum of Play)

The nomadic Roma were probably responsible for taking the ancient art of palmistry - the practice of reading the lines and undulations of the palm of the hand - to every corner of Europe.

It became so popular in the Middle Ages that witch hunters used birthmarks and other marks on the palm as proof of a Satanic pact, and its popularity endured through the scientific and artistic revolutions of the Renaissance, although with a touch of scepticism.

The Italian painter Caravaggio’s 1595 masterpiece The Fortune Teller tells a story in which a drabardi reads a naive young man’s palm - and steals his gold ring while she does it.

Caravaggio's "The Fortune Teller" by Pierre BoulatLIFE Photo Collection

The Fortune Teller by Caravaggio (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Another widespread form of predicting the future is tasseomancy - literally meaning “divination of the cup” - the practice of telling fortunes by looking at the shapes left by tea leaves or coffee grounds in the bottom of a cup.

It thrived in Eastern Europe, probably brought there by Sufi mystics from Turkey who believed that drinking coffee awakened the brain and opened it to new forms of vision.

In Britain, tea first arrived from China in the mid 1600s and with it the practice of reading tea leaves. The legend around the inside of this charming tea cup from Stoke on Trent in England reads: “Many curious things I see when telling fortunes in your tea.”

Fortune telling tea-cup Fortune telling tea-cup (c. 1932–39)Original Source: The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, 1398

Fortune telling teacup (From the collection of The British Library)

There were even how-to manuals for do-it-yourself divination, like the example below authored by a mysterious ‘Highland Seer’. The shape of a dove for instance meant prosperity and luck. A chair was an imminent pregnancy. And anyone finding three women at the bottom of their cup was about to become mixed up in a terrible scandal.

Tea-Cup Reading and the Art of Fortune-Telling by Tea-Leaves, by a Highland Seer (1920)Original Source: 8633.c.9.

Tea-Cup Reading and the Art of Fortune-Telling by Tea Leaves by a Highland Seer (From the collection of The British Library)

Playing cards arrived in Europe in the 15th century, and it wasn’t long before they were being used to tell fortunes.

In this 1922 painting by the Spanish artist Julio Romero de Torres, the artist tells an ancient story of a young girl having her fortune told. She is in love with a married man, who can be seen abandoning his wife in the background. The teller holds up a card that warns of the dangers ahead.

The Fortune-telling (1922) by Julio Romero de TorresMuseo Carmen Thyssen Málaga

The Fortune-telling by Julio Romero de Torres (From the collection of Museo Carmen Thyssen Màlaga)

Tarot cards were another popular form of ‘cartomancy’. The ‘Oracle’ tarot cards below were designed, drawn and hand painted by Mage Edmond, a 19th century clairvoyant whose clients included Napoleon III.

The cards mix celestial bodies like the Sun, Moon and Venus with ancient Egyptian symbols and classic tarot cards like the Tower. His deck was widely copied and is still used by many readers today.

Oracle cards (Vers 1845) by Jules Charles Ernest Billaudot, aka Mage EdmondMucem

Oracle Cards by Mage Edmond (From the collection of Mucem)

For every form of fortune telling that survives to the present day, there are a host that have disappeared from existence. This statue of an owl from the 1st century CE offers a tantalizing glimpse of one such lost art.

The owl probably served as a shop sign, because the Greek inscription beneath it reads: “Archates Petrios, fortune teller, will predict the future for 4 coins.” The shopkeeper may even have come from Egypt, where ‘owl reading’ was practiced.

Owl (0001/0100) by UnknownRijksmuseum van Oudheden

Owl (From the collection of Rijksmuseum van Oudheden)

But not all forms of European fortune telling have ancient roots. The Ouija board was invented in America in the late 19th century, but drew heavily on European traditions of spiritualism.

The type of board below went on sale in London in 1893, and was marketed as fun family entertainment with a paranormal element. It wasn’t until 1973, when the Ouija board scene in the horror film The Exorcist terrified audiences so much it gained a spookier reputation and sales plummeted.

Board game:Ouija (ca. 1915) by William FuldThe Strong National Museum of Play

Ouija board game (From the collection of The Strong National Museum of Play)

But fortune telling isn’t about to die out any time soon. In Italy alone, demand for fortune tellers' services has grown five times in the past ten years, creating an eight billion euro business.

It seems that in Europe old habits die hard. Even today, we’re still trying to find ways to bring certainty to our uncertain futures by finding new and ever more creative ways to read it, from fortune cookies to clairvoyant bots.

So what is the future of fortune-telling in Europe? Only time will tell...

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