On the second Saturday of the month there is an antique market down the main avenue where my office is and from my window (if I’m lucky enough to be working on a Saturday) I can see the stallholders setting up and unpacking their wares from around 8.30 a.m onwards. Yesterday was a beautiful, crisp, chilled sunny morning, with the last of the winter sun streaming and not a cloud to be seen. I kept glancing out of the window as I worked, promising myself that when I had time for a coffee break I would have a peruse and see if there was anything of interest. I tend to avoid so-called antique markets as often it’s a matter of sellers simply cleaning up their objects, arranging them on a nice velvet cloth and charging more than double when I would rather rummage for myself in the grubby disorder of car-boot sales and flea markets and come up with my own treasures thank you very much. Obvious, expensive, self-proclaimed and polished antiques have never really appealed to me. Shortly before 10 o’clock I put my jacket on, had a coffee in the nearby café and walked up (then down) the avenue. A few stalls up I saw the closed burgundy leather box pictured above. Boxes alone are always enough to intrigue me. So I opened it. Inside was a complete double deck bridge set of Dondorf playing cards in impeccable condition.
Not Lenormand, but the name alone – Dondorf of Frankfurt (or “Francfort” if you’re lucky enough to find a truly old export pack) – conjures up images of luxurious playing card decks from another century. And these cards are truly luxurious, they slide against each other like silk and no expense has been spared on the ornate brocades, cuffs and fluttering sashes of the court cards. A quick search on the internet and I came across the following information; it seems to be one of the Dondorf Club Karte series produced between 1860-68. Later editions saw the introduction of borders (which these do have) and corner indices (which these don’t have) so it’s likely that this is a mid-period edition. I also read that their cheaper cards used five colours and the more expensive sets used up to fifteen different shades and the thing that immediately struck me about these cards was how rich the colouring is. More information can be seen here. Each deck is nestled in its own compartment and resting on top was an unused bridge score pad and the original, slim, ivory-topped pencil which slots in with the pad. The whole, compact little box, which is also in excellent condition, closes up nicely and on the top of the box there is a tiny bronze fox head set onto a riding crop. I seem to remember reading somewhere a while ago that the fox was the symbol of the Dondorf publishing house and that’s why Lenormand decks – which of course feature a fox card – were a special publication for them. To find not one but two of these decks in perfect condition after all these years is quite something.
I bartered a little – not too much – and paid a very reasonable price for them then the stallholder wrapped the box up in newspaper and I took them back to my office under my arm to look at more closely later. Of course, once alone and looking closely at their delicate beauty the first feeling that comes to mind is, “I must learn to read playing cards.” I think this time and time again. Each time I come across an attractive set of playing cards in fact. But this time the vow was stronger than ever. I have here a double deck set -a deck and a spare, if you like – with different coloured backs, complete and in excellent condition. But then I have many beautiful playing card sets – complete and in excellent condition – which I have picked up over the years as playing cards were my first love a long time before tarot and I started buying playing cards when I was a child and still have my first ever Waddington’s set. Plus I have always loved playing patience/solitaire (though I never have the time nowadays) and so have accumulated quite a few decks for that.
However, I have to say, I have none as old as I think this set might be. Each time I buy a pack that appeals to me I think – again – “yes, I really must learn to read playing cards.” There are so many systems to choose from that it’s difficult to know where to start; Hedgewytch, Ana Cortéz, Romany card-reading, that book from the 1980s by Nerys Dee which many people like, plus Jonathan Dee, the French method, Mystic Sophia and many others. Plus of course that incessant urge to devise your own system which with suit meanings and numerology sounds ideal though I can never really get much beyond the fives in any suit (all numbers up to five make sense – plus courts and tens – but cards six to nine seem a little too vague for me.) When I was 15 or 16 I went to see a clairvoyant in secret after school a few times (my parents found out and were horrified) and she read with playing cards. I often wonder what system she used. She’d lay them out – the cheapest deck – and reach extraordinary conclusions from them. Reading playing cards is one of those resolutions that come to me periodically and I make a start but then I realise how much I have to memorise (though I suspect the extraordinary conclusions that my clairvoyant reached weren’t the fruits of memorisation.)
Even so, when I lay the cards out the reading always seems less susbstantial than tarot, that is if I don’t start imposing means from tarot like maybe the five of spades could be a bit like the 5 of swords? It may make things easier to remember but in the long run you end up doing that transposing which doesn’t make for a very spontaneous reading. I think this current love of Lenormand cards is perhaps a sublimated mass urge to read playing cards – which Lenormands sort of have if the card insets are prominent enough – but you don’t have all the anguish of memorisation. Yes, memorising, so out of fashion now. You could say that Lenormand reading is a sort of scenic pip-inspired method of playing card reading. All the mystique of playing card reading with none of the frustrations of a bad memory. Because the fact is that now the market has been glutted with themic tarot card decks, it is hard not to secretly think of old-fashioned playing card reading as cartomancy in its purest state.
Looking at my Dondorf find since yesterday, with its enigmatic yet expressive faces, I have felt stronger than ever the urge to learn and I imagine how liberating it would be to need only a pack of playing cards to read with. Imagine how liberated from tarot-shopping one would feel. We would be free of that eternal chase for the illusory tarot deck whose illustrations supposedly stoke our intuition like no other. The cheapest, most basic ”printed in China” playing card deck would suffice and you would never feel that panic of a deck going out of print and the need to track one down quickly. All notion of back-up decks would be redundant. You would need only go to the nearest toystore, bookstore, stationer’s or (here in Europe) tobacconists and get yourself a new one. Plus the flea markets are full of discarded playing card decks. Ok, I admit, I have drawers full of hardly used playing card decks so I personally wouldn’t need to venture too far to grab another deck and I’d also invariably want to use decks as beautiful as this one. Plus there are some exquisite patience playing card decks around (I have refered to a favourite of mine, the 1850-60 Sonet-Morin deck, here on this blog) so you’d even have easily available mini decks for those large Romany spreads in limited confines. Do I need a new year to inspire another resolution or can I start now? I need to decide on a system and stick to it plus I suppose it’s good to kick-start my memorisation skills in order to keep the brain-cells active. Perhaps most significant of all is how a part of me really would like to be free of tarot and its endless themes and tired promises.