A Fortune in Playing Cards

No. 3, February - March, 1997

For other issues, related links, the catalog of my entire collection, and other administrative or trivial issues, please jump to the end of the page.

Fortune telling is an art as old as humanity. From the dim mists of time immemorial come traditions for understanding phenomena as varied as prodigies in the sky, the strange behavior of animals, the rantings of the mad, the strange visions of dreams, and even the odd arrangements of bones in the fire. Everywhere were trials and danger, where a single misstep could destroy you and your family. To know where those missteps were, and to avoid them, was great power. So they sought and found meaning in the small variations of everyday life - everything that was at all unusual or seemed random was a sign from the Gods, warnings to those who could see and were willing to look against mistakes and transgressions. They shone a light into the unknown.

With civilization came no lessening of that fear of the unknown, and no less a need to know which way the gods pointed. Prophesy and divination ruled the Trojan War, to hear Homer tell it, more even than the mortals fighting it. When he heard it prophesied that the first Greek to set foot on Trojan soil would die, Protesilaus promised his wife Laodamia that it wouldn't be him. But still, in his zeal, he bounded from his ship and fulfilled his own doom. And when Agamemnon looked above the battlefield of Troy and saw eagles on his left, he knew Zeus was against him, and so he retreated. Fickle Zeus would change his stance soon enough, a fact Priam's daughter Cassandra knew only too well. But she was cursed twice, first that her prophecy would always be true, and second that no one would ever believe her.

And so Troy fell, in no small measure because the Greeks paid heed and attention to the Gods, and the Trojans only offended them. A thousand years and more later, Roman soldiers still looked to the Eagles of Jove as much as to their Commanders'. And the Oracle at Delphi was still honored, believed, and followed, even by such men as Cicero who might seem least inclined to accept a present and active divinity.

The decline of the Roman empire saw no reduction in the search for divination, it only redirected the energy. Despite all the best efforts of the Inquisition, superstition and mystery still ruled the minds of the common people. And even doctors of the Church in the Middle Ages, like Gregory Bishop of Tours in the 12th century, spent as much time cataloging prodigies in the sky as they did contemplating divinity. The Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Industrial Age and the Atomic Age have been no more successful at easing the fear of the unknown. The small variations in everyday life may be different now, but people still look to seemingly random events and try to find method under the madness. Even, and perhaps especially, leaders and politicians are attracted to the lure of foresight, and we hear stories of White Houses from Lincoln to Roosevelt to Clinton actively consulting mystics.

Fortune telling has captured the imagination of modern Man for the same reason it captivated ancient Man: anything truly random is the domain of Gods, or fortune or providence, and can be studied to learn the mind of God. Casting Runes, reading tea leaves, or dealing cards are almost completely random, and thus hidden and mysterious processes perfect for the intervention of the supernatural. So, when cards were introduced to mediaeval Europe in the 14th or 15th century, into the dark ages of superstition and magic, they were almost immediately commandeered into the service of divination.

Nowadays, playing cards have settled down into only a few major categories: the "standard" (for want of a better word) English/French deck of 52 cards, the Italian/Sicilian, the Spanish naipes, and the Tarot. Tarot has recently been seeing a real surge in popularity, probably in no small measure because of the image of the Age of Aquarius as a second enlightenment and return to mysticism and magic. Walk into any game or occult store, and you're bound to see a raft of Tarot decks, each built from a different design, appealing to every sort of individual. Many decks being made now are departures from the standard Tarot, focusing instead on some theme of importance to the artist.

Most people view the Tarot and its recent offspring as the last stand of cartomancy, but in reality standard playing cards are still used quite commonly to foretell the future. That's convenient for me, since I only collect the standard decks. Tarot decks can be found all over the Internet, and Yahoo's Tarot page is a good place to start. In this issue, I have four decks of modern fortune telling cards, each intended to be seriously used, and each beautiful in its own right. Three of them have books to teach you how to use them. And finally, I have been granted permission to show what a real deck of fortune-telling cards looks like - a friend's grandmother used just such a true deck, annotated by hand, to tell her fortunes. The deck, and the art, has not been lost.

[Gypsy Witch]First in line this month is the Gypsy Witch Fortune Telling Playing Cards, originally published in 1904 by the Home Game Co. The deck I have is a recent printing from the U.S. Playing Card Co., but is a faithful reproduction of the original, which has remained in continuous publication since its first printing. Each card shows the standard markings, reduced to about 2/3 size, in the upper left corner, with the rest of the card displaying an illustration of its meaning. The drawings and captions are all intriguing, stylized symbolic drawings, colored only with red, yellow and black. The original back design was a river scene, but it has been replaced in recent years with a silhouette of a witch, replete with a pointy hat and faithful cat, tending a cauldron. The faces have remained unchanged.

The deck comes with an instruction sheet, showing two layouts, and offering a concise history of the pack. It is said to be the invention of a famous French mystic, Mme. Lenormand, a woman so famous in her own time that, well, I've never heard of her (much to my own detriment, I expect). She is noted in other historical references of mysticism in the 18th and 19th centuries as having been a card reader for the wealthy and powerful, not least the Emperor Napoleon.

[Gong Hee Fot Choy]The Gong Hee Fot Choy is a bit of a different beast. The deck doesn't have its meanings written out or even pictured on the cards - it's not even integral to the system. The "game," as it insists on calling itself, is designed to be able to work with any standard deck of playing cards. These particular cards are just styled to complement the aesthetics of the book. They're even sold separately, and I finally had to pick it up from Amazon.com, since I couldn't seem to find it locally. The deck alone has nothing whatsoever to say about fortune telling or the game. You need the book.

The fortune-telling system was synthesized by Margarete Ward in 1935 both from Chinese traditions and her experiences of divination across the world. In it you'll find echoes of many other unrelated systems, and yet this one is entirely her own. It isn't based on any one divination system, and doesn't bear much resemblance as a whole to any one either. Gong Hee Fot Choy uses only the seven through King and the Ace of each suit, but the deck is a full 54-card deck (including jokers), so you can use it for normal card games as well. US Games Systems has published both this deck and the accompanying book, under license from Celestial Arts of Berkeley, California.

[Buckland's Complete]Now we come to the serious decks. And by that I mean large, involved productions, not single, unaccompanied decks of playing cards. Buckland's Complete Gypsy Fortuneteller comes with a standard deck of 52 cards, 22 additional cards, an introductory pamphlet offering history and a number of layouts, a large plastic mat for two of those layouts, and the book, Secrets of Gypsy Fortunetelling. It's an involved production. The design of the deck is a distant offshoot of the Tarot (the number 22 should be familiar to some people as the number of Major Arcana cards in Tarot), and is an authentic Romani tradition, that of the Buckland family. The whole work is authored by Ray Buckland, of Gypsy descent himself, who is an author of books about magic and the occult, over a dozen of which are published by Llewellyn Publications, in their New Age series.

The accompanying book is much more than a guide to using the deck of cards. It is actually an overview of a wide variety of Gypsy fortune-telling methods, from reading tea leaves to interpreting moles on the skin to seeing visions in the camp fires. And more than that, it's a fascinating glimpse into the history, life and culture of some of the world's most intriguing people.

[Fortune Teller's Deck]Next, I have the Fortune Teller's Deck, a book-and-cards set by Jane Lyle and Neil Breeden. Lyle wrote the book and designed the set; Breeden did the absolutely stunning artwork. The set includes just the single deck of cards and the book about how to read them. The book itself is broken into three sections. First is a short introduction on the history of cards and cartomancy, always a topic open to wide speculation. Then there is a very long section giving the symbolism and meaning of the individual cards, including the unifying themes across each suit and number. And finally, the last section shows a number of spreads that can be dealt, how to read them, when to use them, and a few example readings. It's a relatively concise and readable introduction to this system, created by Jane Lyle, but based on her wide readings about historical cartomancy.

But for me, the book is no reason to buy this set. The cards are. They are singularly beautiful, in my estimation, individual works of art, painted on wood and photographed for the deck. The number cards are just pips on a painted wood background, but even there the texture of the wood lends the images a grounding strength. The face cards and the aces are made with depth, using a three-dimensional frame surrounding the images themselves, which are finely detailed renderings of the symbolism of the cards' meanings. And the aces have three-dimensional pips as well. In both the faces and the aces, the shadows of the elements added to the texture of the underlying wood creates a compelling feel to the deck.

[Authentic Fortune Deck]And finally, I am pleased to offer something I very seldom get to show. A simple deck of real playing cards. Not a reproduction, not a stylized, targeted marketing effort, but a regular deck of cards, used by the grandmother of a friend for the actual purpose of telling fortunes. The deck doesn't have pretty art work or overbearing, arcane symbolism. It's just a simple red-back Bicycle 808 deck, with a few notes jotted down on it to remind the student of the meanings the teacher already knows by heart. Her grandmother taught her, and she taught her granddaughter. And someday I'm sure the granddaughter will pass it on to her own granddaughter. No one treats it as a serious method for looking into the future, but just as an entertaining parlor game. But still they get chills when, accidentally, they come up right.

The system itself, what detail there remains of it, is also preserved here. The process for laying out the cards, the meanings of all the cards, and guidelines for forming interpretations are shown, in an effort to keep this particular system from losing anything more over the next generation. Much detail has probably already been lost, but the Gypsy ancestry of the system is certainly still visible.

The End of the Page

My collection, the list of publishers and manufacturers, and the history of my personal collection of cards can all be found in the "My Collection" page.

I thought about doing the standard Net thing and assembling a list of useful links surrounding playing cards, collecting and such, but no effort I could produce could possibly rival The Bob Lancaster Gallery of Unusual Playing Cards. He has a monstrous list of collectors, artists, manufacturers and just plain interesting sites about playing cards. And so, in deference to his monumental efforts, I provide only a link to him. I hope he doesn't have to pay by the hit...

And people are always asking me where to buy cards. There are plenty of places throughout the net that sell them, from little theme sites that happen to have a deck or two to enormous cards and games superstores. Bob's site lists many of them, but I have to confess - I just like Newt's Playing Cards. And they've got a heck of a selection.

Other Issues:

Issue 9, 10/99 - 12/99: Oh, the Places You'll Go

Issue 8, 11/98 - 12/98: Playing With Cards

Issue 7, 10/97 - 12/97: Sports Cards

Issue 6, 8/97 - 9/97: A Game of War

Issue 5, 6/97 - 7/97: Playing Cards As Art

Issue 4, 4/97 - 5/97: Court Fashions

Issue 3, 2/97 - 3/97: A Fortune in Playing Cards

Issue 2, 12/96 - 1/97: Literature on Playing Cards

Issue 1, 10/96 - 11/96: Handmade Playing Cards

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