I just know when there is something there for me. Like a truffle pig led into the right part of the forest at exactly the right time. I sense my nose transforming Pinocchio-style into a divining rod, my beating heart is like a pendulum and seems to guide me hot and cold. Something pushes me there. And it’s so often on the days when I almost don’t go, or when I think the sky looks overcast and it might rain or that I have other more important things to do. The last time this happened, I was led to an original 1968 Tarot Productions Albano Waite Tarot- as if fresh out of shrinkwrap – complete with box and pristine booklet. Today, shortly after arriving, I came across a stall selling a pile of vintage playing cards. Most of them were conventionally Canasta, I have to say, but as they were only 2 euros each I decided to rummage and subsequently came across a Piatnik Schnapskarten (don’t ask me what that is) deck, three cards from which are at the top of this post. They have a lovely, discoloured and aged feel with colouring rather like the tints on old engravings, a kind of faded vividness. The deck only has 24 cards; three courts per suit, Aces then a nine and ten from each suit. I know the deck is complete as the box says 24 and the cards are a very snug fit in the box. I also found a bit of an oddity; some Fournier cards called “Lady Cards” with cardbacks which have an art deco illustration of an elegant lady in cloche hat smoking, circa 1928. It is a Spanish deck which means it has only forty cards and it has been scented (the box says so and it is very noticable). Because ladies like heady, sickly perfume, apparently. I may well have to air them out for a couple of weeks.
Because it isn’t just tarot which fascinates me. I have long been fascinated by playing cards. In fact, it was probably playing cards which got me interested in tarot cards. It’s rather like the history of cartomancy itself; which came first, tarot or playing cards? As in history, it was playing cards that came first for me. I can remember buying my first set of them – a Waddington’s patience pack – when I was younger. I have long since lost the box but still have the cards and found a small leather cigarette case into which they fit perfectly and where they live, snuggled up with my Lenormand cards on the bookshelf. I still cannot see abandoned playing cards at the flea market without wanting to buy them. And they’re usually so cheap. Even if the decks are incomplete, I find something indescribably fascinating about old cards which contain all the warmth of past shuffles. Patience decks in particular fascinate me as I have always been partial to patience decks, and there were some there today which I bought. I also found a German deck, smooth and unlaminated, which still has the price tag on the box (from a shop in Munich) and which can be seen below. The shop sticker says “tarock” but it has 36 cards rather than the 78 required for tarock. The 36-card decks are used for playing Schafkopf (“sheep’s head”), a common game in the south. And of course there is always the sense that at some time in history, somewhere, someone might (just might) have told fortunes with them.
All decks were 2 euros each. I bought five to round it up to ten, one of which was a gilt edged Dutch deck which feels brand new, though it is evidently an older publication, and shuffles like a dream. Whenever I buy beautiful playing cards, I vow to develop my own system for reading with them one day, but never do. However, my repertoire of patience games (I know dozens, and not a single one is ever played on the computer) means that they do get used and they do get loved and – as I once read in an old book – patience too is divination. If the game comes out, take it as a yes in answer to your question. If it doesn’t, well, shuffle, deal again and hope it comes out the next time. This is how leisured Victorian ladies would bide their time.
So I meandered back and forth some more. I was sure there was something there for me. Then I turned a corner and came across a man selling a whole stash of Lo Scarabeo Oracle decks. They were from that series which was published together with the Italian publishers Fabbri/Orbis in 2001 and distributed in a few European countries together with a magazine on the history of cartomancy. I have written about one of these decks here before, the Oracolo dei Visi. Incredibly, shortly before my current tarot renaissance, on this very same flea market I saw a similar stash of these Lo Scarabeo/Fabbri/Orbis oracle decks and didn’t buy them, then kicked myself afterwards. As 2001 recedes further and further into history, I see these decks around less and less. Sometimes I see ebay sellers overcharging for them, and reluctantly suppose their claims of “rare” now begin to have some truth in them. Then today, there in front of me, were ten of them all lying together. A few squashed boxes but all decks still shrink-wrapped. I knew it wasn’t a complete lot as there are other ones I have seen in the series which weren’t among them. But what the heck.
I casually asked the price (one must never look too enthusiastic); 2 euros. Presumably each. However, it soon became clear that he was selling all of them, the whole stash, for 2 euros. He started telling me some rambling tale about how there had been a terracotta statue with them that a woman had said possessed magic powers but which someone had bought and so – sadly, he seemed to think – only these cards were left. So, yes, back to business; 2 euros for the lot. I didn’t hesitate and now knew what I had come here for.
The selection included the following decks; another copy of the Oracolo dei Visi (Oracle of “Faces”) which I have mentioned on this blog before and which has never been published in English. There is also a copy of L’Avvenire Svelato which (translating from the Spanish translation as I don’t speak Italian) seems to mean The Future Revealed but which is actually a copy of a traditional German Kipper card deck. There is also the Talismani del Successo which is published by Lo Scarabeo as the Talisman of Success Oracle, as is the similarly available Oracolo Indú del Resveglio, the Hindu Oracle of Awakening. Both of these are readily available as Lo Scarabeo (only) publications. The Oracolo Etrusco is an oracle deck which uses the exact same artwork as that found in the Etruscan Tarot created by Silvana Alasia and Riccardo Minetti, but here more freely used as an oracle. Likewise, the Oracolo de Rasputin is also taken from existing tarot images; this time from the Golden Tarot of the Tsars but without the gold leaf. The Carte della Sapienza (“Cards of Wisdom”) is an oracle created from what look like original 18th Century engravings. Maybe allegorical cards by Mitelli? They look familiar. The Oracolo dei Quattro Elementi (Oracle of the Four Elements) is a similar idea but the images look like they have been taken from rougher woodcut playing cards rather than the finer etchings of the Carte della Sapienza. The Sibilla del Mago di Praga (The Sibilla of the Prague Magus?) – assuming the title is at least a tiny bit accurate – is an old Czechoslovakian Sibilla deck. Last but not least is the Oracolo Moderno, a deck which I have seen in no other incarnation and which depicts futuristic and dreamlike illustrations in a vaguely modern setting (modern as in 1950s). I know that this is not a complete set of the Oracle decks published by Lo Scarabeo in conjunction with Fabbri/Orbis as I have seen others, and also have a few more in my possession. However, I would say that with one fell swoop I got a pretty good selection of them, which is something to be happy about.
Even then I wasn’t finished. Shortly afterwards, I saw some unidentified cards trussed up with a rubber band. I could tell they were for divination as they had titles (in English) like Death, Journey, Encounter, Blond Woman etc and some cards with astrological symbols. There are also six extra cards with instructions for reading and a birth ascendants chart. I have never seen this deck before and it isn’t a particularly attractive deck. The only reference to a name is at the bottom of the instructions; U. Hornsteiner Astrological Fortune Telling Cards, and then what looks like a German address. A quick search brings up some scant information. They seem to date from when there was a West and East Germany and the deck came in 12 formats, one for each zodiac sign, the idea being that you bought the one which corresponded to your sign, though I have no idea which is the one that I have and how I would ever find out, as astrology is not my strong point. The instructions refer to them as tarot cards (“when consulting tarot cards you should choose a quiet place and the atmosphere should be relaxed”), but apart from Sun, Death and Sacrifice (Hanged Man?) the titles do not bear any resemblance to tarot cards. While I was perusing them, the stallholder said I could take them for 50 cents. That’s less than the price of a cup of coffee. Even the ugliest deck is probably worth 50 cents so I took them away with me, not sure that I would ever use them to be honest. I thought it would be worth it just for the tiny pleasure of researching and finding out something (anything) about them.
Once home, I found a review by Gina Pace on Janet Boyer’s website in which she says “The Hornsteiner Astrological Tarots are very hard to find anymore since they have not been imported for sale into this country for many years, so if you see one for sale, grab it. Even if you never use it for anything but a collectible, it’s probably going to increase in value.” So, all in all, a productive day at the flea market. And just so you don’t think I’m a total card obsessive who thinks of nothing else; while I was leaving I came across a charming porcelain butter dish which I couldn’t resist. I was looking for a butter dish of exactly that size – slightly smaller than the standard size – and it has a little March hare sitting bolt upright on it and it was cheap. Nice find for the last day of March. And no it isn’t for keeping decks in.