This deck is but a part of the greater Complete Gypsy Fortuneteller kit, which includes the deck, an instructional pamphlet, a layout mat, and a book on a wide variety of fortune-telling methods. The deck is obviously the central theme, but the book offers a wealth of tangential information. The cards are similar in organization to the Tarot, which is but a distant ancestor. The deck consists of 52 standard cards called the Little Book (Tarno Lil), and 22 other cards called the Big Book (Boro Lil). The Boro Lil bears only a superficial resemblance to the Major Arcana from which it descended, being instead a set of special cards with meanings particular to a family or tradition, with great variation across all readers. This set is the Buckland family traditional set, as interpreted by Ray Buckland.
The Boro Lil in this set contains 22 numbered cards, each depicting and representing facets and circumstances in everyday life, such as Dancers (celebration or excitement), Encampment (fruition, encouragement, friends), Approaching Vardo (news, adventure) and Burning Vardo (endings, new beginnings, opportunity - see the Chinese glyph for Crisis). The feeling behind the cards is very similar to the Tarot's Major Arcana, yet without any clear direct parallels. Nonetheless, it's obvious that they're intended to fill the same roles, as archetypes. Vardo above, by the way, is the traditional horse-drawn living quarters of the Romani.
The Tarno Lil is not without its own set of interpretations, usually with more specific meanings assigned to the cards, defining individuals and circumstances rather than the long-term and large-scale happenings in the Boro Lil. The face cards all represent individuals in various relationships to the querent (the person asking for the reading), and the numerical cards have events and objects tied to them. While the Boro Lil above has no separate meaning when a card is inverted, the Tarno Lil does. And as with all divination systems, you lay the cards out in a pattern on the table and the exact import of each card is determined from the position in the layout.
The deck comes with a small pamphlet which offers a short history of cards in the Romani culture, a quick description of the import of all of the cards, and some sample layouts. The are quick to point out that much of the reading is subjective, with much discretion given to the sensitivities of the reader. If it doesn't feel right, it isn't. The history of cards offered is fascinating, and included below. Whether it's true is guaranteed to be a point of contention among students of the history of playing cards.
Fortunetelling cards first appeared in Europe during the fourteenth century in the form of the Tarot deck. Almost certainly they were introduced by the Gypsies, nomads who had left their native India and roamed - as they have continued to do to the present day - across Europe and Asia, living by their wits. Many people believed that these travelers, with their bright clothing and swarthy features, were descendants of the ancient Egyptians, or 'Gyptians, this later being shortened to 'Gypsies. It's no wonder, then, that the fortunetelling cards they carried have come to be erroneously thought of as originating with the ancient Egyptians.
The Tarot deck consists of 78 cards divided into two parts: the Major Arcana (22 cards) and the Minor Arcana (56 cards). The Major Arcana is made up of individual cards each bearing a different scene and set of symbols. The Minor Arcana is further divided into four suits: Wands, Cups, Pentacles and Swords. Each suit has an Ace through Ten, plus Page, Knight, Queen and King. The full deck can be used for reading, or just the Major Arcana alone.
Over the centuries the Minor Arcana came to be used in games of chance and eventually developed into today's "poker deck." The suit of Cups became hearts, Wands became Clubs, Pentacles became Diamonds, and Swords became Spades. Somewhere along the way, the Knight was discarded, leaving Page (now "Jack"), Queen and King.
Although today many a Gypsy (or Romani, to use the true name) reads the Tarot, the majority also read the poker deck - even though there are only the "pips," with no full scenes to interpret. Over the past two hundred years or so - especially when Tarot decks have not been easy to find - some Romani families have designed their own "Major Arcana" cards to go with the poker deck, thus making up a full deck (but not quite full, since the Knight was still missing - a total of 74 cards rather than 78). These new "Major Arcana" cards frequently bore no resemblance to those of the regular Tarot, and even varied greatly from one Gypsy family to the next.
One such Romani deck is that of the Buckland family of Gypsies, and it is here presented for the first time ever. It will be seen that even the Kings and Queens have become Gypsy Kings and Queens.
All images and quoted text © Raymond Buckland 1989, displayed here for commentary, analysis and appreciation only.
Ace of Spades
Seven of Hearts
Jack of Diamonds
King of Clubs
The cards shown above, of course, have their own special meanings:
Spades seems to be the suit of darkness, despair, and death. Not an unexpected theme for spades, which has historically been the suit of death. This may derive from the Swords from which it descended. I am especially amused that the toll of years has beaten the swords into ploughshares. The ace signifies, "An emotional relationship that could cause trouble. Reversed: Unexpected bad news."
Equally predictable is the identification of hearts with love, friendship and happiness. And it could be said that the analogous Tarot suit, Cups, runneth over in this suit. The seven signifies, "Pleasant thoughts. Tranquility. Reversed: Tedium; weariness; boredom.
Diamonds signify, in general, not money but worldliness. This is a refreshingly broad application, since so often diamonds focus on the narrow pursuit of money. Here we have purloined letters, intrigue, sex, scandal and business pursuits. Hopefully not all in the same day. Of the jack, the kit tells us, "An unfaithful friend or employee. Reversed: Many problems caused by him/her."
Clubs are the suit of the fruits of labor, with such themes as prosperity, wealth, generosity, debt, and cleverness. Diamonds may be the high life in the big city, and hearts love and happiness, but clubs are certainly the community and the family, with contentment more important than power and joy. Of the king, we read, "A frank, liberal man, fond of serving his friends. Reversed: He will meet with disappointment."
Boro Lil Trin (which means three), the Departing Vardo, signifies, "Missed opportunity. Loss; departure. Need to review, to regroup. Endings." A different culture might say you missed the boat or the train.
Boro Lil Bish (twenty), Fortunetelling or Dukkerin', reflects, "Foreseeing. Psychic abilities. Power; control. Mysteries revealed. Hidden secrets. Initiation. Responsibility."
I won't try to outline any of the layouts given in the pamphlet. Fortunetelling is an activity I have neither experience nor skill in, and I couldn't hope to capture the important nuances. Instead, let me spend my closing words discussing the fascinating book that completes the kit. The Secrets of Gypsy Fortunetelling, also by Ray Buckland, is much more than an accompaniment to the deck. It's in fact more often sold separately. Although it has a section on card reading, describing both Tarot and poker-deck systems, it describes in some detail a host of other divination systems. Before everything that follows, think quietly, "according to Ray Buckland."
The four main methods of individual fortunetelling are palmistry, tea leaves, cartomancy, and crystal reading. After a short but interesting introduction giving a nutshell history of the Romani and their divination practices, Buckland offers a wide and detailed introduction to these fields. These sections cover more than half the book, and are a good start for anyone wanting to either satisfy their curiosity, or just dive in and practice. After those, he delves into fortunetelling methods using dice, dominoes, moles on the skin (in a similar vein as palmistry or phrenology), fire-gazing, jewelry, sticks and stones, knives and needles, and omens. And he closes with some advice about how to approach a "cold" reading.
The mechanics he offers are certainly interesting enough to people interested in divination, but the glimpses he offers into the life and world of the Romani through the ages, and especially in the time of his grandparents, are fascinating. Most of the book owes its existence to his grandparents, who were the first in his family to give up the vardo and move into a permanent home. They were the last of his family who could really speak personally about the life of the itinerant Gypsies, and it's knowledge I'm glad is not lost.