Vampire Decks; Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here

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Why do I find most vampire decks so laughable? Maybe it’s just me. But it’s that time of year again and I feel myself wanting to dig out the best of the dark decks (picture me thrusting my hands into a large pile of rotting autumn leaves and grappling around feverishly) to carry me through into the darker months. Yet I always feel more than a bit disappointed, because most dark decks are vampire decks and I don’t think I can take them seriously. With one notable exception, I have abandoned all hope of vampires being done well in tarot. Furthermore, I don’t include the Bohemian Gothic in this equation – I should add at the outset –  because it is way too multi-layered to be a vampire deck, although the second edition did bring vampirism a bit more to the fore with the reworked Queen of Swords. I could have done without the fangs to be honest, but I still love the deck. Ask fellow tarotists to recommend a dark deck for Samhain and they’ll recommend a vampire deck yet I’m afraid they just don’t do it for me. Maybe it’s because vampirism, once genuinely sinister, has been hijacked and overdone by popular culture, and the true death blow or nail in the coffin  – or whatever metaphor you want to extend – was when it was given that sickly, mainstream teen and celebrity sheen from the Twilight series. How can something so airbrushed and waxily synthetic ever be scarey? But even before this, I remember always finding even the classic vampire films risible. I think the last time I saw a vampire film – vowing never again – was quite a while back now, when I was a student. I went to a midnight screening of a film (can’t remember the name) in a cinema which had the cachet of being the last cinema in England to still have fully functioning gas lighting (I know, bizarre). How appropriate for something spooky. Or it would have been if the film had been spooky. But it wasn’t. Just silly, as vampires now are. All a far cry from how it all started.

Varney the Vampire

If I try hard enough, I think I can muster up a sense that when vampires first began making an appearance in art they might have been genuinely unsettling, but it’s never enough to chill me as I like to be chilled and I find that I have to intellectualise it. I remember a book I had as a child which had illustrations from Varney the Vampire, the 1845-47 Penny Dreadful serialisation by James Malcolm Rymer. Now here was a proper vampire – mainstream in his own way I suppose – and the first of the truly great literary vampires, spread across a record-breaking 220 chapters. It wasn’t new then and I’m not sure it was new when Polidori created his fragment of a story in summer 1819 on Lake Geneva.

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It was certainly a well-trodden path by the time Bram Stoker got there. But somehow it has lost its way between then and now. Whilst once it was curious, now it seems vaguely ridiculous. We have become less repressed and the vampire genre only really worked when we were very much in denial; maidens thrasing around on four poster beds while gossamer curtains billow, uptight reverends with meaty necks exposed, the window latch off – night sweats, delirium, something unearthly squatting on us in the dark (desire perhaps) like that fabulous image which inspired Fuseli and others, something making us yearn for unwholesome encounters. Usually at night.

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The roots of vampirism are fascinating, but to me they seem so irrelevant now – and yet you wouldn’t think so with all the vampire tarot decks to choose from, so somebody somewhere finds them relevant. The tone is hard to get right – you can feel how, as a tarot theme, it feels itself torn in wildly disparate directions, pulled by wild Fuselian horses; do you go for Japanese comic style? Video games? Gory? Literary (and hope it doesn’t feel fusty)? Or maybe just go the way of all popular culture and try to make it sexy, so lots of gyrating and leaping in black leggings. But it never really works for me, however you package it. Vampirism has to have an element of repression which we simply don’t have anymore. I always prefered werewolves myself but I remember one prominent deck designer saying that trying to stretch werewolves over 78 images is really hard work. However, vampire deck designers seem unfazed by doing the same with vampires so it must have something that helps keep momentum up. Maybe they think that since vampires are sexier there’s definitely more mileage, but it’s no good for me. It never seems to work. Except perhaps in one deck, the deck I automatically reached for last night when I started thinking about vampire decks; Robert Place’s Vampire Tarot.

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I quite like this one but then it has The Alchemical in its DNA (see The World card). It also has a cold, remote, asexual atmosphere and is the deck which gets nearest to the repressed and cerebral mood I think I want in my vampire decks. I think Robert Place’s artwork is perfect for a deck on this theme; so controlled, polished and urbane. I love how its images loom out of the blackness, like the vampire coming across the fens, the latch off. I love how the five-pointed flowers make it look almost pretty until you realise that they are garlic flowers and why they are there.  I love the stiff, glossy cardstock, the etched black lines. I love the architectural backs, like an art deco keystone. I love the suit of swords meticulously laid out with all their different blades. I love, of course, how Le Fanu makes an appearance as the Knight of Holy Water. I love how it doesn’t try to be sexy; it is the buttoned up, academic vampire deck par excellence, the vampire deck of Byron and Polidori.

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The personality court cards, depicting (mostly) real people who are related to the history of fictional vampires, remind you that it is very much a vampire deck with a foot in the romantic past, the vampires of the literary imagination. I can understand why some would find the court cards difficult. I think I do sometimes but if I relax, I sense I know these personalities such as Pamela Colman Smith and Samuel Taylor Coleridge well (“Tis the middle of the night by the castle clock, and the owls have awakened the crowing cock”…) The deck has very white borders which feel like a crisp vicar’s collar against the darkness of the images, as well as sharp-edged corners. I have two copies of the deck; one with the corners rounded and another one (the one I use; see images) which has had all traces of borders removed. There is something satisfying about the stubby chunkiness of my trimmed version and it is a deck I love using.

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The book of course is excellent – Robert Place’s books are always superbly written and informative and contain everything you could possibly need to understand the deck and much more besides. If you haven’t read Stoker’s Dracula, no need to worry as it is summarised step by step with all the major themes elucidated. It’s a fine line to tread; how best to honour something traditionally sinister while resisting or acknowledging our contemporary ironizing tendencies. I’m not sure which is the best approach. Because vampires are presumably supposed to scare us – even better excite us – and yet the pomposity inevitably makes them fall short. Place’s Vampire Tarot cuts out the humour; perhaps that’s why it works for me. It isn’t wry or knowing or computerised. It is rather sombre in fact, rather humourless and stark. And yes, cold. It really is the only one that has an element of vampirism as I want to experience it, and which the damp nights of autumn brings me back to. Like last year and (I think) the year before that.

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The Joy of Spreadcloths

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Spreadcloths, reading cloths, altar cloths – who cares what we call them – I can never resist acquiring them, despite (I admit) finding them fundamentally unnecessary. I am easily dazzled. They are what I buy when I run out of decks to buy. I am never quite switched off to the possibility of finding one. Or two. Or maybe a whole set. Because almost anything can be a spreadcloth and I pick them up all over the place; brocade napkins in the sales, velvet cushion covers sans cushion,  silk scarves, head scarves (washed of course), outsized handkerchieves, random scraps in need of only a hem. In fact, any fabric that takes my fancy will do, as long as it accommodates a standard-sized spread and  – most importantly – does not have a distracting background pattern. All manner of loose odds and ends have been absorbed into my cloth collection over the years and kept in the special drawer set aside for the purpose. Card reading wouldn’t be the same without them. I find that I have more spreadcloths now than I really have use of. But they are so beautiful. Silk, velvet, brocade, vintage leather, suede; I always think that they are an essential part of my travelling tarot kit should I ever sit down to do a reading on a table with lunch leftovers or breadcrumbs, but the fact of the matter is that the more elaborate, opulent and eye-catching my arsenal of spreadcloths becomes, the less likely I am to deign to lay them down on a less than immaculate surface. But I cannot resist them. It’s all part of establishing my impromptu sacred space, a place where the outside world doesn’t intrude, of keeping encroaching clutter at bay.

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This subject of interest came to me partly because last week I came across a wonderful piece of fabric as I was on my way to a lunch party at the house of a friend. It was on Saturday and I caught a taxi and realised I could hop out a little earlier and make my way via the flea market and see if there were any goodies, while still not be too late for lunch. I saw a large piece of cotton fabric flapping in the sun, with four baroque engravings stamped on it. I fell in love with it, bartered and took it on my way.

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All four engravings – and no, the backgrounds don’t distract me, no idea why – represent a season. They seem to have been taken from 17th Century engravings, (judging by the dress) from France (judging by the titles; Le Printemps,  L’été, L’automne, L´hiver.)

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As soon as I saw the fabric, I imagined it quartered and made into four distinct reading clothes. Or an altar cloth for each season. Except I don’t have an altar, although it is on my to do list. Then I remembered the great swathes of grey silk I had at the back of the wardrobe waiting to be used and which would be perfect for the lining. I have an old friend who suddenly started suffering from a dust allergy a decade or so ago and he had these beautiful drapes in his house all lined with gorgeous silk which the doctor ordered him to remove; in fact he had to remove all fabrics, all things that might trap dust (I wonder if we’ll laugh at this 300 years hence in the same way we laugh at the idea that noxious smells could cause illness 300 years ago?) So down the drapes came and I kindly offered to relieve him of the burden of metres and metres of silk, different types and in different colours. My seamstress from Dubai – who is male, so probably a seamster –  told me that this was very high quality silk and every now and then I remember it and hack off a bit more for spreadcloth lining. I think it may well last forever. And last week I went to pick up my four new spreadcloths he had made for me and I am thoroughly delighted with them.

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More delighted in fact than I have been with many recent tarot decks (and each cloth is virtually the size of a standard 9 x 4 Lenormand Grand Tableau).

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Thinking of decks, I have to confess, it is getting harder and harder to muster enthusiasm to buy. I begin to speculate on what might be wrong with me, whether I am switching my attention to nice spreadcloths simply because tarot decks – decks in general –  are inspiring me so little of late, whether I have reached saturation point. I plan to buy decks and then often don’t get round to it and find that it doesn’t really matter in the great scheme of things anyway. Lying on the beach this summer, I made a mental list in my head of the decks I read well with, the decks I never tire of, decks that have given me consistantly good readings whilst reading for others. When I got home, I gathered all these decks in one place (by the bed) and had the sudden sensation of dust settling, a curious feeling of completion, of not really needing anything else. Up until this point there had been all these disorganised piles of decks, bookshelves with no coherent cataloguing system, forgotten decks, decks whose system I keep vowing to master. All a bit of a mess really. But lay a spreadcloth down, deal out a favourite decks and it really is enough. It all comes in cycles I suppose. You need to feel that nothing is going to surprise you in order to be knocked sideways. But I have my favourite decks and I have them all in favourite bags, but there is no limit to spreadcloths. With a flick of the wrist they herald something special. They set the tone (I have a very psychedelic one for the Hoi Polloi, a rather woozy one for Herzer’s Illuminated Rider Waite Smith), they establish territory, they clash with colours and stoke intuition. So even if new decks are not giving me much pleasure right now, at least my spreadcloths are.

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Resuscitating the Dondorf

Mountain example

Some of you may remember a while back how I bought an antique Dondorf Lenormand which it transpired was a variation #1 Lilac Dondorf. I didn’t invent the term Lilac Dondorf, I got the information from here, which dated the deck at around 1872 – though I have also seen it dated as early as 1865. A card from variation #1 can be seen on the left of the first illustration in the link. It has the cerise discs in the upper corners of the card, flanking the playing card insert, one on the left hand side with the number of the card and one top right with “Dondorf Francfort” (not Frankfurt). It is this that distinguishes it from later editions where the disc and Dondorf logo were in black and white. It is a beautiful deck and I have long pored over the delicate, fairytale details – Lenormand as a fine art – and I recently sent scans to master restorer Lauren  (who has issued a number of historic Lenormands ) in order for her to work her magic. She has done, to date, the Game of Hope Lenormand, the Dutch Lenormand, the Purple Dragon Dondorf and most recently the Stralsunder which I reviewed last month and which I have fallen head over heels in love with. But there is nothing quite like the Dondorf. It is, for me, the definitive Lenormand. The Pam A of Lenormands. The deck to which – for me – all Lenormands seem to aspire. It is as if this is the deck that takes card reading from the thrilling, murky back rooms of yore and into genteel, upholstered parlours where nocturnes waft from the grand piano and agitated fans flutter at gloomy and capricious predictions alike. This is fortune telling at its most elegant, most refined.

Lilac Clover example

So many of the historic Lenormands have the Marseilles factor – which of course we like – crooked faces and foxes that look like wombats but I feel that the Dondorf is a world apart. The quality of the engraving is far superior to the other Lenormands of around the same time. What Lauren has done (after I sent her scans) is clear up the damp (and other) stains to make this deck workable again, to make it a pleasure to use again. There were cases of feint imprints from other cards caused by prolonged periods of storage. Nothing extreme but it has been such a wonderful experience seeing these cards cleaned up and brought back to life. They are due to be printed in a limited print run of 50 on linen cardstock and in a tin with the Dondorf card back – a masterpiece of 19th Century trellis work and symmetry – on the lid.

Back sample

There were a few surprises on the way, such as how difficult it was to distinguish actual stars on the Star card and also how the Moon card has such an ill-defined (rather daubed in fact) crescent moon. I always thought that it was simply half-hidden amongst wispy clouds but, like the stars, it is simply not very clearly depicted. The stars, moreover, needed a little bit of help to twinkle.

Lilac Stars example

Looking at my deck – kept in a petit black beaded 1920s bag – it never seemed excessively dirty to me and I would get it out and play with it and use it, quite unfazed by the greyness. But now, looking at the scans as the project has developed – I am amazed at how almost a century and a half of grime has obscured details which only now am I able to see. I also hadn’t noticed that there isn’t a consistent cerise coloured discs in the corners. This issue came up when we had to ascertain the most representative shade but as I looked through the originals I realised that there isn’t an exact shade which persists across all cards, though it’s probable that there was when they were new. Some cards now have lighter tones, others have darker tones and it is hard to know which would have been the standard colour. All we can do is choose the one we think fits best, and yet it is this colour which defines the deck. It is also pleasing to see a few creased corners magically ironed out and to see the Lily dragged out of murkiness and reinstated into its former purity. It is surprising how many cards now actually have perceptible backdrops and clouds which, together with the accumulated dirt, became a sort of continuous smear. Now we can see where the clouds end and the whiteness of the card begins. This is noticable in the Tower and the Clover for example.

Lilac Tower example

These historic Lenormands draw me in and in the case of the Dondorf, it is the simplicity of the symbolism mixed with the sensitivity of the engraver’s line which I love. So much detail can be packed in but it is never cluttered. It is a pattern that feels so timeless and it is quite moving now to see this deck in all its former glory. Although it is not strictly an academic reproduction, Lauren stuck to the original colours, brightening sensitively where possible or necessary. Only the Stars needed a bit of a nudge. Lauren has done a marvellous job and some time soon we will be able to hold it  – as if new – in our hands and use it. This for me is going to be indescribably exciting.

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Mystery on a Baltic Breeze; The Stralsunder Lenormand Restored

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It’s interesting to see how I judge the readability of a Lenormand deck against the readability of tarot. It is apparent that I am dealing with two very different elements – and the way I evaluate a deck rests on a few very pivotal factors. The clearer this becomes to me, the easier it is to spot from afar the decks that are going to work for me and those that aren’t. It also brings into sharp relief for me how differently I read them both. With tarot, the situation is far more ambiguous – I like layers, density, details, symbolism, unusual takes on a theme, big cards, small cards, the list is extensive. And it can have all of these things and yet still not read well for me. Not to mention the fact that a tarot deck can be inaccessible in readings for years and then suddenly we shift into a place where it unfolds for us and works well and I have no idea how this happens.  Yet with Lenormand decks the cards need to be a certain size (no bigger) and very simple. In fact, I think that’s about it. No layers, no density, nothing intuitive. I like boldness, starkness, a certain aura of blankness around the symbol. It is increasingly clear to me that anything which deviates from this will be pretty and collectible but will make my readings fuzzy. In fact I won’t actually be able to read with it. I may try (because these cards can look so lovely all together on a table) but I feel like I am having to bend my brain unnecessarily and sort out the wheat from the chaff; extra work in a reading which I really don’t want to have to deal with. And I have found my ideal decks in this respect with some of the historic decks – the Bernd. A Mertz deck and the so-called Gluck deck are two of my favourites. I reach for them again and again. These deck designers knew how to create decks with a simplicity which we seem to have lost in our overladen, advertisement-soaked, multi-layered, stuff-for-the-sake-of it culture. Because referencing things is fun, apparently, and everybody abhors a vacuum and maybe, after all, it helps concentration? I look at these old decks and think “why reinvent the wheel?” These decks have everything you could possibly need or want, well they do for me at any rate. I was very happy with my Mertz and my Gluck and now – since yesterday – my Lenormand trinity is blissfully complete. I received a reproduction of the enigmatic Stralsunder Lenormand deck from here. It is a reproduction of a deck which can be seen in its entirety here, together with a little information about its history. It was published in the 1890s in Stralsund by Vereinigte Stralsunder Spielkartenfabriken. You can see a view of Stralsund below, through Baltic reeds, taken circa 1890 when this deck was created.

Stralsund

The Stralsunder deck is one of a few reproductions now available from The Game of Hope website and the quality of these is admirable in every way (I recently reviewed the mini Purple Dragon Dondorf also from there). This together with the fact that I find these historical decks so highly readable make the site very dangerous for me. Dangerous up to a point I suppose; far better to know the decks that work for you than to spend years and lots of money trying to find what works and what doesn’t (like tarot). With Lenormand I think I know now. These decks work for me and so I can shop with ease. I also received the Dutch Lenormand deck which is also featured on the site and which is also very beautiful but that’s for another post. In comparison it feels rougher, simpler, whereas the Stralsunder has refined colouring, a sharpness of line (which I cannot capture with my camera), very accomplished engraving and shading plus it has been cleaned up so that the symbols really stand out and they really string together well when laid out in a line.

??????????????????????The size is perfect; a millimetre or so smaller than the Konigsfurt Dondorf Lenormand (that one with the needlessly updated playing card inserts or gothic German verses) and exactly the same size as the Mystical Lenormand. I love how the borders are not white; the card backgrounds are a gentle cream colour and the borders blend into this, so nothing glaring, nothing too bright. The use of colour overall is very gentle and warm and I think what truly makes a difference here is that there is a wider palette of colours than normal. Often these popular, folkish decks have a fairly narrow colour spectrum which enabled them to be reproduced in what would at the time have been mass production. This deck has a rich variety of tones; the greens in the background of the Lord card and in the foreground of The Mountain card bestow a certain amount of depth and give the foliage life and delicacy. The Rider is also sumptuously coloured. It can be fairly monochrome where it matters (i.e The Clouds) but with detailed court card insert so the overall effect is very harmonious. The swashbuckling Child card, with its Knave of Spades, is exquisitely detailed, as are The Fish with the King of Diamonds. The colouring really gives these cards life which, combined with the gentle creamy background, make this deck eminently readable for me. Only the symbols – that’s what I keep telling myself I need in a Lenormand – only the symbols. That and nothing more. The Stralsunder Lenormand deck comes in a well-made velvet bag. I tend to use my own bags or I like to pick up vintage cigarette cases from the flea market and clean up the old leather, but this bag is great for use with the deck, though I seem to remember there being some tins available for this deck too. The backs feature a blue flower with roots or branches and a blue border (see top photograph) and was adapted from an 18th Century cardback.

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Another favourite feature of this deck is the fact that it has two Lord and Lady cards for same sex readings. This is something I find myself wanting more and more in a Lenormand deck and am glad to see it becoming more widespread. I would honestly go as far as to say that this is fundamental in a 21st Century Lenormand edition. To make up for for all those (ongoing) years of tarot decks with only heterosexual Lovers cards. Use the Rider or the Lily you might say. But I want the Rider and the Lily to give me other messages. And so often readings are about love and what speaks more clearly than two of the Lord or Lady cards facing each other in a Grand Tableau with a string of cards – maybe The Rider or The Lily – in between? I love how the Lord and Lady cards here have not only been turned to face each other (that was lacking in the first Tarot Professionals Game of Hope reproduction; I have to use the Lord card upside down when I use this deck), but they have been given slightly differing clothes. One man has a blue jacket and tax stamp, the other has a purple jacket and no tax stamp. With the Lady card, one has pink ribbons and a pink petticoat (?) whereas the other card has red ribbons and petticoat.

??????????????????????As soon as I unwrapped this deck I knew that this would go straight into my favourites box (where not many more will fit). Everything about it is perfect for me. The cardstock has that “linen” finish, lightly done, which is firm and flexible. The prominent card inserts (as far as I can see, looking closely at the originals) haven’t been changed. The deck has been rigorously cleaned up so there are no stains or ingrained dirt, just the colours in all their glory. An absolute treasure of a deck, one I cannot stop looking at, a showcase of high quality 19th Century German engraving, slumbering for over a century and now brought lovingly back to life.

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A Break for Holidays

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It’s that time of year again; holiday season and time for me to take a little time out, switch off, relax and some time soon come back (hopefully) refreshed, thinking – as I do right now – that holidays work miracles. I am preparing for my annual retreat, ready for the luxury of watching the waves break, feeling the cool vapour of sea spray, emptying my brain and just, well, nothing. I was getting in the mood this morning when I decided to draw some Lenormand cards after breakfast to set the scene for my holidays and just to close the blog for a month or so. I pulled out these Cartes Lenormand (“by a famous Parisian diviner”) published by H.P Gibson in London during the early 1920s. They are a reproduction of the Dondorf model which, as I constantly repeat here, is my favourite (though mine have a different back and box to the ones depicted here). I did a casual shuffle sitting on the edge of the bed and drew the following three cards;  Sun + Heart + Ship, a combination that has had me pondering all day.

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I was thinking how many different ways there must be to read Lenormands. You can read them “traditionally” (cue can of worms to open), or I suppose you could read them purely symbolically (as in thinking about the historical symbolism of these three images as seen in art history and emblem books rather than card-reading manuals) or you could read them “intuitively,” whatever that means. And each time you’d get a different message. My first reaction when I saw these cards was – yes – these cards really are succinct. They really do hit the nail on the head. I have heard this said about Lenormand cards again and again, and with this group of cards I really have to agree. Earlier in the week I was thinking “which cards would signify a holiday?” And I thought of maybe Stork + Garden (a change for leisure). But looking at these three cards, I cannot now think of a better combination.  From what I understand of traditional meanings looped together into a reading I would read these cards as – firstly, The Sun –  victory, a reward (after all my hard work of course), wishes fulfilled (Heart) and quite literally a trip (Ship) . Victory and fulfilment leading onto a holiday elsewhere. A very nice combination. Historically the Sun is masculinity.  I wonder whether Sun + Heart could be male lover? Going with male lover somewhere afar? But there is of course another way to read them here, a more literal way. It seems to be staring me in the face as is so often the case; The Sun (sunny weather one hopes), Heart (the company of somebody special) and (I suppose) the Sea. You could even say waves. Exactly what I am anticipating.  Sometimes the cards aren’t even symbols, they are the things they depict. I see these meanings running parallel and not mutually exclusive. I see it as a good augury anyway and have been thinking about these cards all day as I enjoy reflecting on the weeks stretching ahead, the potential for rest, reading, relaxing. Now I find myself wondering “which card would represent nothing?” Because that’s exactly the state of mind to which I aspire this holiday. That’s what my brain needs to dwell on. In the meantime all that is left to say is happy holidays to all. String together sun, love and sea for your own perfect combination. I shall be back soon…

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Purple Dragon mini Dondorf Lenormand

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Of all the decks that most deserve a mini, the Petit Lenormand must surely be top of the list. There are those decks – like Gluck’s Wahrsagen à la Lenormand, or the 1920s Carreras cigarette card Lenormands – which are naturally small and fit comfortable into a loosely cupped hand. Then there are the ones which set out to be mini, start life as minis, the whole point of them is that they’re minis. I had a feeling recently that I really needed a Lenormand deck in this format. Only the one. Just as I thought a few years ago how I only really needed one tarot deck. But, yes, I only really need one mini Lenormand and thus put the desire (before it became a compulsion) on the back burner and waited for the right mini Lenormand to come sailing past. And sail past it did maybe a month or so ago; the Purple Dragon mini Dondorf Lenormand deck, available here and which has since been reissued in a larger size with two Lord and Lady cards for same sex readings. The mini version does not have these extra cards, it just has all the convenience of a mini deck. Plus of course the Dondorf Lenormand is (in my opinion) simply the most beautiful of the historical Lenormands. Everything about it feels just right. It doesn’t have that awkward, stiff, folkish artwork from somewhere dark in the mountains, which I tend to find amusing and not always endearing in some of the ones over at the Lenormand Museum. It feels accomplished, well-rounded, fully-formed, cosmopolitan. A Lenormand for sophisticated city life and the beau monde. A Lenormand for salons not taverns, to be shuffled and dealt to the sound of polkas not hurdy gurdies. The quality of the engraving seems superior to many of the historical ones and the anatomical drawing (glossing over the Fox card) is convincing, detailed and has volume not merely outlines.

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Of course I needed a mini Lenormand decks for all those Grand Tableau spreads I do in confined places. Like the middle seat on aeroplanes – with elbows pressed close to my sides – or in a lavatory cubicle. Ok, I may be joking, but it is good to have a deck which allows you to lay out all 36 cards in a space the size of a laptop. In fact, while my Purple Dragon mini Dondorf Lenormand was in its pouch in the post and taking a long time to arrive, I found a small wooden plinth on the flea market which I cleaned up and polished – see above – and thought would be ideal for having on my reading table (it has a drawer for keeping antique medals or coins in; neither of which I collect). When my mini deck arrived, I discovered that I could do a 9 by 4 Grand Tableau which fitted exactly on this plinth (see below). Other decks – like the Lo Scarabeo French Cartomancy deck (another Dondorf reproduction), though attractive, are quite large and you need a decent-sized dining table to lay out a Grand Tableau.

??????????????????????Most readers probably have hands which are smaller than mine and I have to confess that these cards, measuring 1¾” x 2½”, are quite small for me to shuffle. I don’t have undue difficulty, but the Lo Scarabeo French Cartomancy Lenormand deck is much easier to shuffle. However, in terms of the practicality of laying out the cards, the Purple Dragon mini Dondorf is far preferable and it’s not impossibly small as can be seen from the photograph at the top of this post which shows the deck next to a standard playing card.

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I was very heartened to discover from the creator that she had been inspired by my post here of the antique Lilac Dondorf which I own and have written about here. I suppose if I were really organised, I would scan and print my own copy, but I don’t have the equipment at home and none of the copy shops I go to ever have card which seems appropriate or professional enough. Plus I don’t have time (not now, anyway) to dedicate time to this. Plus  – I suppose – I’m lazy and happily use the original because I have that luxury. Maybe one day I’ll work on it, but the day I start, I know that there are so many details that I will want to get right, so much cleaning up of the image I’d like to do, so much of the colouring I’d like to reproduce exactly, that for the moment I am more than happy to be able to take this version out of the house and use it. Each day that passes we have a wider selection of Petit Lenormands to choose from, something for all tastes, something for all moods within these subdivisions of taste. Yet it’s like my taste in books; I may read widely and experiment but there always comes a time when I want to go back to the classics, back to the time-tested favourites that have spanned centuries, which give depth not width. I feel like this with the Dondorf model. It’s like going back to the wisdom of another era, unlocking a quieter sort of advice in a world where so many Lenormands seem to be galloping to keep up with one another. I know in my heart that the Dondorf won’t ever be upstaged. And this mini version now means that we can tap into that quiet advice almost anywhere.

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The Oracle of Dr. John Dee

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I always have this ridiculous idea that – being short of time – I shall write a short, succinct review here (like other people do), talking about card size, spreads included in the companion book, the history behind the deck and all that. But I digress (as my history teacher always used to say) and I end up rambling somewhat and anyway, these concrete, indisputable facts about a deck tend to bore me slightly so let me start off here with my rambling, unapologetic digression at the outset. Because I have been thinking about oracles a lot recently and – marvellously on cue – one arrived a couple of days ago; John Matthews’ and Wil Kinghan’s Oracle of Dr John Dee (more of that later). But I am ambivalent about oracles. I am ambivalent abpout the perjorative tone sometimes used to talk about them, even some of the better ones. The sense of distaste (not 78 cards? Hardly any of them do have 78 cards). And thus they are relegated to another category, a lower circle. They don’t have the history, the sheer pomp of tarot cards, and all this regardless of the fact that I do think it is healthy to think of the scenic tarot cards we know and love to be quite a recent phenomenon. But with oracles, I am ambivalent about the girliness. I am ambivalent about how they have been hijacked by gentleness. I am ambivalent about the fact that cerebral oracles, ones that really have a watertight and very clever system, are few and far between. I am ambivalent about the fact that certain individuals seem to be a bottomless pit of oracle themes, gorging on loveliness, peddling delusions for the weak and unstable. My idea of hell is lying in a ditch with a “whimsical” oracle deck, having to ask “does he love me?” for all eternity. I am ambivalent about just how plain silly some of them are. There is also the sense that once you have understood tarot you can flit like a hummingbird, suckling the best of the nectar from each deck as it seems to blossom at just the right time in your life. Dedicate your best years to the Thoth or the Ironwing or (Ok, one I don’t use) The Tarot of Ceremonial Magick and you have a deck that will carry on giving as you deepen your knowledge and for which there is going to be so much more beyond the actual cards. But with many oracles there are the cards and the book and they are created in a kind of Never Never land vacuum and when reading with them I feel as if I am pressed up against a brick wall. In many cases it is the author’s invention and it simply doesn’t have the layers to scrape away since it has no real basis, and your life is not my life, which is why I’d rather go for a more universal theme. I read from images but I like to feel that there is something real beyond the cards that will open out for me should I dare to go there. Not just an empty map invented by someone with whom I have no affinity. I have written here before about a hardly mentioned deck (I prefer that to “underrated”), The Fallen Angels Oracle. Admittedly, the artwork is not particularly great and it probably won’t age well,  but it’s a case in point. I know that the poetic realm of fallen angels and Johann Weyer’s Liber Officiorum Spirituum is waiting for me the day I choose to take myself beyond the cards. Same with another favourite, John Matthews’ and Wil Kinghan’s Shamans Oracle. My love of prehistoric art is what keeps me coming back to this one and the more I learn, the more it fascinates me. I have recently been reading Graham Hancock’s Supernatural; Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind – nothing whatsoever to do with card reading - and again those images from Lascaux, Pech Merle and the Sorcerer of Trois Frères came up in a different context. I find something liberating in oracles, for all my ambivalence. But I need references beyond the actual cards and for this reason they require work, though it really shouldn’t feel like it. With so many new books and sets being published now and that ongoing giddiness of the next deck being The One (risible I know), it is easy to see how things fall by the wayside and never really get given the chance they deserve to flower before the next one comes along. Same with tarot I suppose. Same with life, people, lovers, jobs, whatever.

Dee&Kelly

But back to what I set out to discuss. Elizabethan Jack-of-all-trades Dr Dee has long fascinated me. Ever since I was a child. I remember in the 1970s my mother bought an Encyclopedia of Magic and Superstition from a book club and there was a reproduction of that famous engraving of Dr Dee and Edward Kelly summoning a spirit (see above). Then years later, living in Bloomsbury behind the British Library I used to go and study every day in the old Reading Room of the British Museum before it moved to St Pancras and I would go through the back entrance and take a different route every day, sometimes via the antique Tibetan artefacts, others times through the Egyptology rooms and other times past that cabinet which contains Dr Dee’s scrying “shewstone”, crystal ball and Enochian tablets. Hearing a while back that a deck was about to be published on a theme of Dr Dee I got very excited, especially as it was by the same creators as the Shamans Oracle. It arrived the day before yesterday and I have to confess that although I have started reading the companion book, I ask you to think of this as a first impression review – rather like those youtube video reviews that show deck lovers taking the shrinkwrap off their deck sets “live” on film, fanning out and sniffing the cards in public. The book will accompany me whilst commuting this next week but I might as well note here my first impressions since I am determined to give this deck my full attention over the next few weeks.

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The deck comes only as a boxed set, a book/deck/spreadsheet kit, published by Connections. There are 28 cards, seven groups of 4 cards and each of these subsets runs in colour coded order; green, red, gold, silver (i.e the alchemical process), distinguished by the colours in the top and bottom card borders alongside letters from the Enochian alphabet found in Dee’s diary. Each of these seven themes is an aspect of Dee, e.g  Astrologer, Magus, Historian, Geographer, Alchemist, Physician and Astronomer. Within these groups are different personalities, key influences on his life (plus Dee himself), so we find Marco Polo within Geography, William Lilly in Astrology, Herodotus in History, Galen and Paracelsus within the Physician category and so forth. What each of these figures denotes is only one part of the oracle, since the most important aspect is the position in which they fall during a reading.

The set includes a gold paper “talisman template” spreadsheet for laying out the cards. It is a simplified version of the Talisman of the Golden Table created by Dee in 1584 as received by his medium (maybe charlatan) sidekick Edward Kelly, dictated by an angel with whom they had contact over a period of five years. It has a central position (“harmony, general, personal”) – which represents you/the querent in a reading – and four towers, north, south, east and west. These four tower positions in a spread represent (respectively), Work/Influences, Intentions/Directions, Health/Well-Being and Love/Inspiration.

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My immediate reaction is to feel hemmed in by this. I so rarely ask about Health/Well-Being. In fact, if I am doing a reading, I prefer to know in depth one of these categories and would rather have a spread focusing on one of these themes rather than a bit of everything. Of course we are always free to make up our own spreads. A problem I had with Matthews’ previous oracle the Camelot Oracle was that – while beautiful – I felt so oppressed by the card positions and pathways and need for the spreadsheet that I simply don’t use it. At least with this one, once you have memorised the four positions you can do it anywhere. The whole ambling pathway aspect of the Camelot oracle made it unusuable for me. With the Shaman’s Oracle, I don’t use the 5-card “hand” spread laid out on the enclosed spreadsheet. I do one (occasionally three) card draws, “what do I need to invoke today?” And that is the way I would prefer to work with this oracle set. I think that because of the nature of the personalities – indeed the whole theme of necromantically “invoking” the spirit of dead men – it ties in nicely with the fact that the oracle is dedicated to Dr Dee. How interesting to see the act of reading a deck of dead men in the light of the above engraving. We do indeed summon. There is much that can be done to free up the way the creators imagine this oracle being used. A small detail – and something I personally don’t need as I go my own way anyway – but it might be a good idea if the book reminded us, as an aside, that we don’t have to read the cards in the way stipulated (or maybe we do!) Other, more obedient souls might lose out on the joys of making a deck their own.  On reflection I suppose I feel I can do this because I have some familiarity with the world of Dr Dee but as I am less well versed in Arthur and Camelot I never passed “go” with that oracle. From what I have read so far of the book that comes with this Oracle of Dr Dee, it is a fascinating read and contains a short history of Dee’s extraordinary life. Anyone who has the slightest interest in history, magic or scrying or just the adventures of a man and his companion gallivanting across Europe in a key period of its history, meeting many of the key crowned heads of state, gaining access to some of the most incredible courts ever known, will find this deck of interest.

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The cards are monochrome apart from the coloured bands previously mentioned. The illustrations are (I think) pen and ink and seem to mimic the line of 16th and 17th Century engravings. As most of the images are portraits, it is a very appropriate style for the deck. I have always loved engraved portraits of this time and type so please bear in mind that my penchant for the artwork may weigh heavily in my own liking of the deck. I like how it emulates those books published of “Great Men” (never women) with engraved portraits to reflect on and to serve as an inspiration. These monochrome images are printed on a delicately marbled sepia background. The brown card backs (not brown in my photo for some reason) contain a single gold symbol known as the Hieroglyphic monad, devised by Dee in 1564 to represent the unity of the cosmos and containing the sun, moon and elements, acting as a key (albeit not always a very decipherable one) to his work.

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I consider these cards to be very beautiful but then I love Kinghan’s art style and the references being made here. The artwork for me is very simple and traditional, illustrative in style, like antique book frontispieces, accomplished with painstaking attention to detail and no 21st Century digital gimmicks. Cardstock is like the other Matthews decks (Wildwood, Camelot, Lost Tarot of Nostradamus, not the glossy finish on the first edition of the Shamans Oracle which I surprise myself in liking), pleasantly card-ish, easily shuffleable. This deck feels magical and scientific to me, its theme and references hang together well with a set of cards that is to be laid out and have its message interpreted,  finding meaning through the pulling together of an alphabet of sorts. Oh and didn’t I say I’d include the conventional review information about card size? These cards measure 12cm x 7.5 cm (that’s 4.7 inches x 3 inches).  This is a deck which will interest those looking for an oracle deck with a very firm system. However, I think it would require regular referencing from the book. I was thinking yesterday about those old fashioned parlour book oracles where you would open pages at random and have your fortune told. No pictures, no interpretation, just read the words. So little mention is made nowadays of the texts that come with oracles, everyone is too proud of “tossing” the LWB, but of course the interpreting of oracles, casting lots, interpreting the random fall of cards has a lot in common with the random opening of pages and, by extension, with the antique book frontispiece feel that many of these images have. I think we should use books in our oracle readings and be proud of it. This deck, which has a number of bibliographic references once more brings the importance of the book/text into the forefront of a card reading. It would be a shame (and quite difficult) to read only the images here as you need to have a certain amount of historical knowledge to think of what these figures as archetypes might represent. But for those of us who are fascinated by the history of spiritism (even though the term only started being used in the 19th Century), English magic and scrying, a deck on the theme of Dr Dee will go on satisfying and intriguing for a long, long time.

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