This has never happened before; I mean, I go regularly to the flea market most weeks and – if I’m lucky – I may find and buy the occasional deck I already have as a back-up, but to go to the flea market and find three decks I don’t have is most definitely a first. I couldn’t believe my luck. I don’t go looking specifically for decks; I think I’ve done well if I find something for my reading table – vintage silk scarves or lengths of threadbare velvet, crystal ball supports, leather pouches, potential card cases – plus any other non-divination items. A trip to the flea market is like a holiday for me. I feel my brain soar far away and I get so engrossed routing through all the tat that hours pass and – like pearl-fishing – I always come back to the surface with something to show for my trouble. I always think it’s highly unlikely I’ll find any tarot surprises, but yesterday I came across three decks I don’t have, which is quite a feat. Soon after arriving I spotted the AG Muller Tarot de Marseilles (“edition française”) for 5 euros, see far right in the photograph above. This is a reproduction of the Schaffhouse deck, probably not with the original colouring, but it is a far more moodily muted version of the same deck published in the 1970s by U.S Games and known as Tarot Classic. Although I have a soft spot for all and any 1970s tarot decks, this must be one of the hardest ones to love with its pink tower and gaudy, clashing colours. I always wonder quite what the Golden Dawn would make of its colour symbolism, there must be some collective rolling in graves going on, but thankfully this AG Muller version of the same deck has much gentler colouring, tones which merge and are actually quite pleasing to the eye yet retain some of the dark, slightly brooding atmosphere which I suspect the original deck has. Beware the card backs though; never did card backs more resemble sickly candy wrappings (or sanitorium wallpaper, take your pick). It’s interesting, I have noticed, how when I stumble upon a deck unexpectedly, I often give it more attention than I would have done if I had decided to order it online and wait for it. In short, I didn’t choose to look closely at this particular deck this weekend. These decks which are strewn in my path unnannounced are little surprises I actually end up paying more attention to and loving all the more for it. This is one such deck. It is in perfect condition with most of the cards still in some semblance of order – I think the previous owner only got as far as looking at the Majors (which were left in reverse order from Le Monde to Le Mat) and then packed it away. The cardstock is lovely and the deck itself is from a time when (Thoth apart) AG Muller still had something to contribute to tarot. I love the Devil in this deck. So full of character; he looks impish and cheeky (not some remote, unreal creature with eyes in his belly) and there feels to be a sort of friendly unity – almost 3 of Cups – between him and the two figures chained to the pedestal. The Hanged Man in this deck is my favourite of all Marseilles Hanged Men, a three-quarters profile, he has the patience of a saint, nose grazing the ground, the poles of the gallows like an old barber shop pole (or maybe inspired by traffic cones, who knows). I also love the lumpy cups suit. The Ace of Cups is the lumpiest of all, filling the card frame, coming to get us during the night with its voluptuousness and confectionary colouring. I think I shall use this deck this week. A deck like this, which dropped as if from the skies, demands to be given some immediate attention. It really does have a great deal of charm and – what I most like to see in a Marseilles deck – clearly defined eyes that look in very specific directions and show us in readings where we should be looking.
Then I wandered some more – found a lovely porcelain hanging plant pot and a 1960s bakerlite paperclip dispenser – before going back on myself and wandering among stalls I thought I had already seen until suddenly my attention was drawn to an old toiletries bag stamped with the Delta Airlines logo. I spotted cards peeping out. “Are those cards?” I asked the stallholder, “ah, those are tarot cards” (i.e not playing cards) he said as if to prepare me for disappointment. When I peeped inside I saw a deck I have been looking for for ages – a double-ended Tarocco Piemontese which I remember from Kaplan’s Encyclopedia (Volume I). I love these curious double-ended tarot decks – worth it for the Hanged Man alone, two pairs of kicking legs joined at the waist, and the Tower card which floats disembodied in time and space, no roots, no foundations – and really couldn’t believe my luck. I have no idea who the publisher is as there was nothing with it, no box, no instructions, no title card, no clues.
With it in the toiletries bag was a Brazilian Egyptian tarot deck which I have subsequently (via the card backs) identified. It was published by Pallas “at the vanguard of Afro-Brazilian publishing”, a Rio-based publisher specialising in Afro-Brazilian magic, religion and esoteric books. It came as part of a kit called Tarô Egípcio by someone called Anádora and is basically a version of the Egipcios Kier deck (first published in Argentina, 1970s, then later by U.S Games) but this one is gold coloured, black and white, rather samey it has to be said, and part of that tarot tradition which draws a self-consciously mysterious, rather pompous veil over tarot images by buying into the – don turban and speak in hushed tones – “it came from Ancient Egypt” school of thought. I wonder if anyone still believes this?
It always strikes me as terribly 1970s, or maybe a bit earlier, but still there are people churning out Egyptian-themed deck and I suppose it is considered a “tradition” in the way that the “Marseilles” is a tradition. I have the Egipcios Kier deck but tend to use its numbered cards (1-78) for choosing lottery numbers rather than doing proper spreads with. It’s one of those systems which never quite convinces me but which I find periodically fascinating as it was a way of thinking about tarot which was in a lot of the earlier literature I used to read when I first started getting interested in it. And years later to come across a relic of that belief system in a Delta Airlines toiletries bag made me feel unaccountably nostalgic (“10 euros for both decks” he said, offering me the whole package, “but I don’t want the toiletries bag” I told him, affronted, gearing into bartering mode, “OK then, 8 euros for both decks without the bag.” A deal). Altogether, that was three decks for 13 euros, but what thrilled me more than anything was that they were three decks I didn’t have, and I left the flea market in the afternoon sun with that exhilarating feeling I so love, of – really – anything is possible. You just never know what you might stumble across.