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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A New World Opening; Tarot (and other) Apps

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Some of you may remember the fiasco of my lost iPhone a couple of months or so ago. An eventide adventure which resulted in me losing it after having had it for less than a month. At the time I hadn’t even begun to explore app possibilities and it all seemed a long way off. I hadn’t installed any newspaper, journal and iTunes apps and certainly none of the tarot ones. I was merely using my device like a good old-fashioned mobile phone, much to the amazement of friends and work colleages. I sometimes think that if my phone hadn’t been found and handed in to the kind policeman that night I would never have ventured into the labyrinthine realm of tarot apps with its exciting possibilities, and what a great loss (I have subsequently realised) that would have been. Now that I have begun, I know that there is no turning back and I feel that card-reading and card study have suddenly developed a new, extended horizon. I was never one of those who scorned the idea of tarot on a mobile phone (what about the shuffling? The riffling? The satisfying fanning out on the table? The mere feel of the cards in the palm of the hand?). I knew that the traditional tactile pleasure to be had from a deck of cards would always be waiting for me back home – with favourite spreadcloth poised ready to be unfurled like a magic carpet –  and that something like a tarot app would be more of an “on the go” tool for wiling away half an hour in the dentist’s waiting room, or an entertaining, supplementary toy for a friend in a dilemma who asks for advice and for whom you can do a one-card on the spot draw with no fuss. In a sense I saw them from the beginning more as an alternative to the mini decks which have never really grabbed me. The concept or idea of mini decks was always quite attractive; you can have a deck to hand in your bag that doesn’t take up a great deal of space (and doesn’t weigh much) and cards can be drawn and spread within limited confines. Personally, I have never really used mini decks.  I always felt that the sacrifice in size and ease of viewing outweighed the advantages of practicality; far better to have an extra bit of weight and take a dignified full size deck occupying only a couple of extra inches. Moreover, I have never really been one for leaving the house and going nowhere in particular whilst carrying a deck for any eventuality. And then I started exploring iPhone tarot apps which have really made a difference to how I see tarot fitting into my life beyond the threshold of the front door and out in the big wide world.

After playing around a bit, a couple of uninformed purchases from the iTunes store and the deleting of certain free mistakes, I feel I have found a repertoire of tarot apps that work for me. I have discovered what features I want in them and what features have me gnashing my teeth. Some can be customised, others cannot. I was horrified when, after my first purchase from the iTunes store – the Buckland Romani tarot app –  there was a voice dictating to me which card I had selected each time I did a draw. I pretty soon discovered how to switch it off. Rule number one; a tarot app has to be discreet. No surprise flashing lights and Hollywood trailer voices booming “The Devil!” while you sit surrounded by strangers. I currently have a selection of 12 tarot apps and, while not all perfect, I have kept the ones I feel have something which may be useful for  frequent (or occasional) spreads or pondering. There is a free one called The Tarot by Jean Roussier which was one of the first ones I downloaded. It is very limited and does a basic five card spread with a parchment-background Conver deck (Majors only). Any more than that and you have to upgrade to the one called Tarot Reader, priced at just under 2 euros. But it’s easy to use and the cards have all the (very) basic meanings underneath. Pleasing colours, contrast and a sharp image make this app one of the best of the free ones. And there is some real trash out there. One “free” Lenormand app that I downloaded wanted to charge me every time I set about doing a spread for myself so I zapped that one into oblivion pronto. In general, the free ones are not worth it. They’re either too clunky and ugly to get any pleasure from or they’re doing the hard sell for an upgrade (or game) as soon as they’re installed. Perhaps my favourite almost-free tarot app (it costs less than 1 euro)  is “¿ Si o No ?” and I have no idea why the title comes up in Spanish on the app as the version on my phone is in English. You are taken to a black screen and using only the Majors of the Fournier Tarot de Marseilles, you ask a question, (“Do a yes/no question and press the Play button”) and the five cards are all simultaneously and elegantly turned over. Answers are “yes” or “no” or “the cards don’t know the answer”. I thought it was related to the  number of reversed cards (i.e three or more cards out of five reversed would be a “no”) but I’m not sure it is as there would be no need for a “don’t know” option. It’s a sort of glorified tossing of the coin with tarot card illustrations but my friends found it amusing when we were comparing apps over dinner last week because it’s fun to consult and the app itself is nicely done. Of the well known deck apps, I have the Tarot of Dreams, the Gilded Royale, the Gilded Reverie Lenormand, the Buckland Romani, the ISIS Marseilles, Tarot of the Holy Light, The Alchemical Tarot, Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and a (Dusserre?) Dodal facsimilie which has very high resolution images and which I rather like though I wish it had the browse function. I use it for a daily draw sometimes and to remind myself of how truly beautiful this deck is, even moreso with its patina of age. One of the lesser known ones is Paul O´Brien’s amusing Visionary I-Ching deck, where you shake the phone six times to cast the coins and build up the hexagram and it takes you to a card format illustration with watercolour artwork which you can either simply contemplate or (doubtlessly curiosity will get the better of you) flip it over and read a couple of paragraphs about the meaning. Quite superficial of course and not to be compared with a serious translation but still fun to use.  The shaking of the phone to cast the coins is particularly satisfying and the free version is entertaining enough. Like so many of these apps, I find myself using it when I am bored in a café, waiting for someone, or waiting for the train, spare moments which welcome a distraction. There are of course none of the treasured tarot rituals to get us in the zone and I think it is highly unlikely I would use these at home when I have my decks nearby. I still like to find somewhere comfortable, lay down the reading cloth, unbag the deck, shuffle and think. With these apps I am invariably in a public place with a degree of noise and not much opportunity to centre myself .

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My conclusion from explorations in this field is that the best tarot apps by far are those created by The Fool’s Dog, such as the Tarot of the Holy Light, the Buckland-Romani and the ISIS Marseilles. They (he?) also do many others  - which I haven’t bought –  including the International Icon, Rosetta, the Wizard’s Tarot, the Prairie Tarot, Wildwood and Ator Tarot among others. You can also get the Druid Plant and Animal Oracles as a single app and mix them together for readings. These are the best apps by far (priced at under 4 euros) and any apps not done by them will always be found wanting in some area. You feel you are working with someone who knows what tarot fans really want, with details and a sleekness that really make a difference. And tarot fans don’t always want readings. Sometime they just want to contemplate the cards and the Fool’s Dog apps have this feature to allow you to get familiar with the deck at your own pace. Excellent, high resolution images which are the full size of the phone screen, rich colours, extremely user-friendly in all aspects. Everything feels like it is exactly where it should be. If all tarot apps did exactly what these ones do, I would be happy because they are virtually as enjoyable to use as real cards, but there are always niggling impracticalities. The Tarot of Dreams app for example, although it has the feature where you can browse the cards, has a frustrating blue border on the screen and if you want to magnify the card, the border doesn’t move so you lose the extremities of the image behind the border. The only way you can see the full card is within the border – i.e not zooming the image – and it is considerably smaller than The Fool’s Dog reproductions. This was amended in the Gilded Royale and the Gilded Reverie Lenormand;  as soon as you enlarge the card, the border disappears. Much better. However, the interface, the shuffling, cutting and drawing aren’t as elegant as the Fool’s Dogs apps. The shuffling is a bit stilted whereas in the Fool’s Dog apps you can swoosh the cards on a customised spreadcloth, riffle shuffle, cut (“choose a pile”) as many times as you want, then deal. All very elegantly. The Fool’s Dog know the satisfaction to be had from shuffling, and shuffling that the reader feels they have control over. Other apps either don’t shuffle or it’s an automatic shuffle. The reading is simply for whoever happens to be holding the phone or iPad at the time. Friends on whom I have tested these Fool’s Dog apps out have been very impressed; they really are the best apps out there without a doubt. You just have to hope that the decks you like (and I would love a Tarot Illuminati app) get picked up by The Fool’s Dog.  I am currently testing out the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and seen it go through a number of changes but it just never seems to feel comfortable. There are too many icons (and I keep forgetting what they mean) does it take me to the book? A reading? Facebook?  There’s an egg timer icon which represents past readings. Not the most obvious choice of symbols and each time I go into the app it’s an effort to remember which icons refer to what. There is no fluidity and I just get constantly lost in this app, lose patience, come out and go to a Fool’s Dog one.  There is no shuffling, the app just throws a card up on your screen, no background, no spreadcloth, no charm. Yet I love the actual deck.

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I have to say, of all the apps I have, the one I love the most is the Tarot of the Holy Light deck app. I already loved the actual deck but its density often prevented me from using it for more impromptu readings, a fear that I just wouldn’t get remotely near understanding even a fraction of the symbolism. The colours are so rich and vibrant and this really comes across in the app. Something I have noticed is how collaged decks lose some of their collaged seams when seen on a screen. Not that this ever bothered me with the Tarot of the Holy Light but it certainly feels more seamless as an app and I find just zooming into this app while in the street, on the subway, or idle moments here and there in the city, is like a sudden injection of magic into my day. That’s what makes the potential of these tarot apps so exciting. You can’t really pull out a tarot card whilst waiting for the trafic lights to change or whilst waiting to cross the road, but I sometimes glance at my iPhone, go into a tarot app and get a thunderbolt flash of mystery and wonder and my day is a tiny bit richer because of it. I am reminded of the things I love and who I am at inopportune moments. Plus what is also special about the Tarot of the Holy Light app is that it comes with the bare bones of the creator’s book, a magnificent work currently in progress. You draw a card (and there are a variety of spreadcloths to choose from), scroll down and the author elucidates the card’s meaning in her very distinct prose and I feel like I understand this deck so much more via the app than I ever did when it was just the deck alone. There is so much in each card and the text contains so much fascinating analysis that ever so slowly – via these random moments out and about – I am chiselling away at a deck I love, and I feel that the deck is always with me in a manageable size and format. It also has the option of shorter, more succinct divinatory meanings if you don’t want to lose yourself in the book. Using these apps is a new way to think about tarot and always have it nearby (like your house keys), to be able to look at these images without drawing attention or arousing suspicion in public as getting a real deck out might (depending on where you live). There will of course soon be many more apps, there already are a large number, and I have only mentioned a tiny selection, just the ones that work for me. There are also the oracles – all those Hay House ones and Madame Endora and Psycards –  but I personally feel that I already have representative apps of different card-reading styles, a RWS, a Marseilles, something esoteric and alchemical, I-Ching, a Lenormand. It’s a shame there is no high resolution Thoth app because that is probably the deck I most like to peruse and think about. But it’s all new territory and what I now think of as the smooth interface will no doubt soon look dated as more advances are made, and as more and more of our lives become compressed – perhaps concentrated is a better word – into our mobile phones and iPads, and more and more tarot artists will want to see their decks out there. Also, they are so cheap, it’s a good way to see if you like working with a deck without having to pay the full price and have it take up space on the bookshelf. I had never given much attention to the Prairie Tarot, for example,  but at less than 4 euros (the price of a magazine), I’m quite tempted to see just how it reads. If nothing else it opens up your monthly tarot budget (with apps priced between zero and 9 euros for the most expensive, The Lost Tarot of Nostradamus) and for that reason alone you cannot but celebrate.

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Divination by Drapery; The Virtuoso Unreality of The Tarot Illuminati

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Tarot ecstacy. I feel as though I have waited so long for this deck and when it finally arrived, like a pageant firework display in miniature, I was not disappointed. The escalating anticipation was almost more than I could bear. Baroque? Borderless? Gilded edges? From the tantalising first glimpses of artwork posted on facebook, of something wicked draped in silk, I just knew that this was a deck for me. Then the delicious, ruffled disdain from various quarters (“it just does not work, does it?”) I knew it was looking good and all I wanted to do was dive in and luxuriate in the unreality of it all. Then came the farce of pre-ordering, ordering, in stock, out of stock, currently unavailable, the “we-regret-to-inform-you” emails, I’d seen it all and it was only earlier this week that I finally received it, could bask in its glow, clasp it to my breast and say – yes – it was definitely worth the wait.

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My gilding was flawless (because there’s always some that isn’t), no cards stuck together, no problems whatsoever so I could settle down and wallow deep from the start, undisturbed by printing “issues”. Now many might reject the Tarot Illuminati on the grounds of it being too busy, and certainly if you have minimalist tastes, it might not be your style. Some may find it too decorative for concentrated reading. But look closely because it is meticulous in its chaos, measured where it matters. Most definitely Rider Waite Smith (yet another reason why some may reject it) but so indescribably seductive, so lush yet erudite, with such a unique artistic vision that it is easy to forget it is ploughing a system which some deem formulaic.  Yet it feels so fresh and dynamic, so rarified, sensual and airborn. At last glamour has a foot in the door. This deck is proof that you don’t need to be dour, dowdy and earthy to enjoy tarot. Here’s a deck that will stop the druids in their tracks.  It feels as if the artist has drawn on all those crooked photocollage decks (which have been plaguing our lives since the 90s) and made of that crookedness an optical virtue, transformed it into an aesthetic, weighed down by decipherable, luminous excess. There are so many trappings, so many textures, so much billowing silk that some of the models seem to stagger under the layers like a 17th Century Infanta weighed down by her bridal gown. This is divination by drapery. I feel I could read the folds, the way the sable stoles fall in the Five of Swords, the angular creasings of brocade, and find in them some sort of message. The artwork truly takes your breath away, the eclectic details are extraordinary.

??????????????????????I would love to know which decks most fired the imagination of the artist Erik C Dunne on his tarot journey. From an episode related in the book it seems that he discovered tarot quite by chance and that it subsequently became a passion. Apart from the Rider Waite Smith deck, which decks inspired him, I wonder? Simply because I can’t think of any deck that could be a springboard to this kind of imaginarium. From certain angles I think I can detect a little of the psychedelia and sensuality of the Cosmic Tribe. It’s as if the cast of the Cosmic Tribe were scrubbed clean then ruffed, turbaned, swathed, improbably bedecked, damasked and plumed ready for a baroque coronation. The sensation of going through the deck card by card is something akin to witnessing a triumphant courtly procession. Yet it has a playful impishness that I cannot help but love. There isn’t a single card that feels weak or where the energy lulls. None whatsoever. It is kept taut from the Fool right through to the King of Pentacles. I love the symmetry in so many cards, thrones flanked by pillars and statues, but it’s the kaleidoscopic effects of the fabrics that impresses the most (and look closely at them as so often there is symbolism concealed among the folds and patterns). So much detail, so much work, finishing touch upon finishing touch to create a consistent effect across 78 cards.

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There are simply too many favourite cards to mention, but I am very taken with the bejewelled heart, studded with rubies in the Three of Swords. The Devil here is most definitely sex and seduction and is one of the most accomplished cards graphically, I think. I love the almost robotic beauty of the woman, proffering herself like a naiad and the shamed man beside her. Behind the devil is what looks like the Mayan calendar, echoed in the bottom half of the card. I love the exuberant exoticism of the orientalist Pentacles suit with its pagodas and dazzling kimonos. I love the King of Cups, pensive and with thick, muscled thighs, whose robes cascade like a waterfall.  There is so much that is fabulous in this deck and it is up to each and every user to unravel it for themselves, but suffice it to say that beyond the ostensibly decorative surface there is a great deal to get your teeth into. If I start looking at one card there is so much to see and if you lay three cards together, it’s like a continuous frieze with faces and glimpses of flesh peeping through the folds.

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Now for the practical details which everyone always wants to know (I suppose I have to begrudgingly admit that there should be more to writing about a deck than rhapsodising); size, cardstock and so forth. The cards are exactly the same length as all other standard Lo Scarabeo decks, but are 4 mm wider. The cards are printed in China and feel a bit like the 2nd edition Bohemian Gothic (for those who have it), nicely thick but not quite as bendy as normal Lo Scarabeo cards. The quality and colouring are excellent. It comes in a box with magnetic closure and the companion book sits on top of the little pit where the cards rest. The cover of the box and book have delicate gold relief highlights. It is a very beautiful box and I hope it will leap off shelves and introduce many casual shoppers to the joy of Lo Scarabeo decks and the riches of tarot. I’m trying to work out how to customise the inside of the box so I can keep my deck in its bag in there, but if you take out the deck cradle insert, you can see rough, grey, unsightly cardboard. I may try and line it with something appropriate as it is a shame to have such a beautiful box and not use it to keep the deck in.

Plus there is a book written by Kim Huggens. I know from the introduction by Pamela Steele that the writer stepped in at the last minute and had very little time before the deadline. It is a very beautifully produced book and what makes it especially useful is that the reproductions of the Major Arcana are bigger than the cards – in fact each Major Arcana fills a whole page – so you can really look closely as you read the book without having the deck at hand. The Minor Arcana card reproductions are about the size of a matchbox. The meanings are quite conventional and I would say the book is more for those who are unfamiliar with tarot. There is one page per card description, with two thirds of the page containing a soliloquy in the first person, then with the divinatory meaning in the bottom third of the page. It is apparent to me when reading the book how little close reference is made directly to the visuals of the card. I like a companion book to zoom in on symbols and explain why. For example, the Nine of Wands; “The wounded warrior (he doesn’t seem wounded in this image); perseverence, strength of will; never giving up fighting despite loss or injury; fighting a losing battle; conserving your energy for the opportune moment; being given no respite or let up; being in the eye of the storm; out of the frying pan and into the fire”.  There is an extract at the back from the forthcoming ebook, which looks fantastic, and it seems that here is where we will find all the cards truly anatomised  There are three new spreads in the companion book and I particularly like the Rising Sun Spread which I shall copy into my trusty spread notebook and incorporate into my readings.

But it’s the cards I come back to. They stand up and speak for themselves. Interestingly, the morning after I had received my kit, I was reading the companion book on the rush hour subway on my way to work. I saw a woman nearby peering surreptitiously, looking at the book cover then edging nearer to get a closer look. I thought she was being nosey and tilted the book slightly so that she couldn’t see (I hate that!) and carried on trying to read. Eventually she leaned over and asked – with that gently fevered look I know well from seasoned tarotists  - “where did you get that book?” Rather taken aback, I forced a smile and said “online”. “It’s just that I’ve been looking for it all over the place she replied  “and haven’t been able to find it anywhere.” We came to my stop and I got off, then later wished I had struck up conversation with her. It’s not every day that you get asked about tarot by a complete stranger in a big city. And it heartened me to think that this deck will find its rightful public. And that it’s already creating quite a stir.

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The Deck of the Bastard

??????????????????????Oh heavenly, blissful gift to the fickle world of tarot! This is exactly the deck that so many of us have been thirsting for. I resisted for so long – I don’t need it, surely I don’t need it, I tried to tell myself – but it haunted my waking hours, each scan I glimpsed nudging me ever closer, until finally I gave in and ordered.  I think it was the sheer uniqueness of this deck that finally pushed me over the edge. That together with the idea of all the different backs and very contemporary potential for customisation. Torn between two back designs, I ended up ordering both as I knew that whichever one I didn’t order I would regret forever. The idea is superb. You invariably ask yourself, why didn’t someone think of this before? The fact is, I’m sure they did, but it required proficient and meticulous computering skills to bring the whole thing off with aplomb, and the creator Seven Stars has done exactly that.

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The Deck of the Bastard is basically a chance for us to own a useable, antique, well-thumbed deck with scenic Minors, all at an accessible price.  And, as if that were not enough, we can also choose our own cardbacks, and for a little extra we can even have the deck personalised. There are various possibilities  - with titles and keywords, without titles and keywords – so you can really have exactly the deck you want. You can even send the artist images you would like incorporated into the deck. Anything in fact. The impeccable selection of card backs she has available (I think there were about 40 at the last count) really make a difference, but you can always send her your own. Because those of us who use tarot, read with tarot, love tarot, know that card backs make a difference. I was torn between the standard snake and spider backs and a back taken from a Victorian story book cover featuring a fairy. Perhaps taken from a spooky children’s nursery tale book cover from the haunted nursery. Very sinister, very perfect. And I opted to have no titles or keywords, just images all on premium linen cardstock (I think that’s how it’s categorised; not dissimilar to the Tarot of the Holy Light cardstock for those who have it).

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This deck creator has fantastic taste. She recognises that very specific atmosphere of tarot cards which so many of us crave. I am thankful that with so much technology at our fingertips and so much advanced, professional printing available we see talented individuals who know tarot and can pursue and share their vision to give us exactly what mass marketing publishing houses don’t give us; a unique, quality, customised deck, created with passion by someone who really knows, who really feels the magic of a deck of tarot cards.

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And what a deck. It is a deck which has been stitched together with a bit of antique Etteilla, a bit of the Soprafino and a healthy dose of Rider Waite Smith then smoothed out for easy use. It may be brand new, arriving shrink-wrapped and pristine (no bag or box and I for one don’t care), but it comes to us already brown with age. What Seven Stars has done is take an antique Etteilla deck and morphed it with familiar Rider Waite Smith Minors and Soprafino Aces (plus Pope) so that all the cards have superimposed dirty edges from a century or more of sweaty shuffles in grimey taverns, then worked at the images so they all blend harmoniously and are unified in their filthiness. The card borders are all different, this is not one dirty border that has been used as a template for all. You can put the cards side by side and see that the borders are all different so it feels like a genuinely old deck. All the filth of a well-shuffled deck and none of the contagion.

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What makes this deck especially wonderful is that for years I have wanted to use the Etteilla cards more for readings, especially that spooky 1870 deck Grande Jeu de Oracles des Dames, but been put off by some of the more difficult cards and odd titles. Here we have all the eeriness of Etteilla – the floating, bloated moon, that benign and melancholy sun – inserted into a readable deck. This is such a thrill for me. The Etteilla deck has also been used for the Court cards and (where possible) the Majors. Perhaps the most stitched together cards are the Emperor and Empress (see below); you can see the artist’s retouching, the construction of the throne and the slightly Frankenstein bodies (I’ve no idea where the Emperor’s torso comes from), but this all adds to the joy of the deck. And really, if you didn’t know your historic decks – and I suppose most querents don’t –  you’d have to look pretty hard to see that some cards don’t quite match.

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The name, The Deck of the Bastard, is perfect for exactly this reason. It is already self-consciously mixed and matched from various sources so I genuinely don’t mind the fact that I can see the artist’s interferences on a few cards. Sometimes the cards are used in their entirety, like the Soprafino aces, The Etteilla Fool with his hands over his eyes, Judgement, Death etc. Other times there’s a lot of inventive juxtapositioning. I look at the aged brown grime spots, reproduced creases, fraying corners and morose faces of this deck and reflect on how fantastic it is that we can now own our very own personal, useable version of an antique deck, a deck that somehow escaped the clutches of fanatical religious types, a deck that escaped being thrown onto the bonfire, a deck that was, by chance (and it always is by chance; what survives is a miracle), spared and came to us through the centuries, raw materials for a curiously modern deck, a deck only possible to construct now with all that we have available to us. It is a deck that pulls into its net and harmonises three distinct tarot traditions, the historic pip decks, Etteilla and Rider Waite Smith, a deck we can read so easily with and yet still feel the throb of history. I like to reflect on how each antique tarot deck that survives is sneering across the centuries at the zealous fanatics from whose clutches it escaped. Each antique tarot deck is a tiny revenge. That’s what I think of when I look at this deck. Seven Stars has allowed us all to own a little piece of that triumph and use the reading skills we have in the 21st Century to give antique tarot a new lease of life.  Quite simply there is no other tarot deck like this.

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