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Beware the Diamond interest! - adventures in the Russian card meanings

“Oh, he’s got such a Diamond interest in you, don’t fall prey”! “Are you going to the State House today, take my papers with you, OK”? “I bet she’s having a date with that Noble King”! For an everyday Russian speaker all those phrases wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary, despite a certain playful overtone they may have. The Russian cartomancy, its terms and expressions, has been very successful in permeating the colloquial Russian during the last 200 years.

It is, of course, a well-known fact that folk cartomancy reflects the most basic worries, bothers, and occurrences widespread in a given nation – we could almost compare it to the foundation upon which a nation’s collective unconscious is based. These traditions were brewed and honed in salons and parlours, however, it’s rare to see a traditional cartomantic tradition that would’ve survived into the XXI century with such a strong hold over the language and national consciousness as the Russian cartomancy.

A little bit of history is required, though. The Russian system is a late bloomer, compared to its French or German competitors – the first appearances of what we could call a proto-Russian method can be traced to mid-XIX century (before that, the books published were translations of the German and French sources). In 1899, a booklet called “The Friend of the Yearning” was published in Saint-Petersburg, marking one of the first documented appearances of the spread that would later be known as the Classic Russian. However, if we were to look at the meanings included in the booklet, they would be quite a far throw from those that we associate with the Russian cartomancy nowadays – and they certainly didn’t have all those interesting colloquial names!

The 1901 “The Million Dreams, or The New and Complete Dream Book” offered not only the, now common, way of spreading the cards – it also was one of the first appearances of the whole system of meanings that stood the test of time, political changes, and social prejudice towards fortune-telling. Now, where did this system, very different from the popular “Friend of the Yearning” came from? We can only speculate, unfortunately! Was it the invention of the book’s author? Was it the invention of the people? The latter variant seems more plausible to me personally, especially taking into consideration the immense popularity of this system of meanings and its prevalence in the Russian villages (unfortunately, notorious for low literacy level). To imagine a situation in which a village babushka would be getting her meanings from a Moscow published book would be a load of balderdash!

Now, after all this historical background, we may as well look at this whole fascinating cultural layer! The Russians are a card-playing nation – the cards are played on the road and in the parlours, in the gazebos and the dining rooms! Of course, fortune-telling ranks quite high in the list of pastimes – almost every Russian has tried to tell their fortune using cards, most of the times through the games of patience, they still hold a certain mystical significance for a Russian: every game that’s won is always a positive answer about a dream or a question (Leo Tolstoy, for example, was known to consult the games of patience, when working on the plot of his last novel, “Resurrection”). The Classic Russian Spread and other more complicated forms of cartomancy are passed down from babushkas to their grandchildren (many people in Russia call The Classic Russian “the babushka spread”), and with them, of course the cultural significance, the connection to the days long gone and the ways fading is kept alive.

However, while not every Russian knows their babushka’s cartomantic secrets and may get lost, if given a deck of 36 cards and asked to “untie the strings of kismet”, everyone will tell you what a “Diamond interest” is, and why a “separating villainess” is not to be crossed – oh, and why a “married bed with God-knows-whom” is not really a good way to end the “cognac glass” party! The colloquial nature of those folk meanings, the humorous sounding names (very much akin to the bingo call-outs), the ease of remembering – all of this made such widespread appeal possible. The fortune-telling parlance can be encountered in the colloquial speech, in films, in songs – almost everywhere, so to say! Does it make the Russian cartomancy special? Well, in my opinion, it does – aided by all the ease and playfulness of its meanings, the cozy, comfortable feelings it creates of visiting your old babushka, who gets the cards out of the drawer after teatime.

And now, the fun part! Let’s learn some of the colloquial expressions that would help you understand the Russian meanings a bit better!

  • Now, if you’re told someone has a “Diamond interest” (10 of Diamonds) – they are interested in money, and money only!

  • If a “cognac glass” appears (Ace of Spades, upright) – get the glasses out, there’s going to be a grand party!

  • The “separating villainess” (the Queen of Spades), of course, does what her name implies!

  • The “far-away road” (6 of Spades) is something any Russian would fret at the mention of – many people associate this phrase with imprisonment (especially because of a line in “Taganka”, a very popular prison song – “The Gypsy with her cards, the far-away road, the State House – maybe the old Central Jail is expecting the lad again”).

  • And, since we’ve already discussed the “State House” (Ace of Clubs) – that would, of course, mean any official building, but the Russians usually jokingly imply that the prison is looming, when they talk of a “State House”!

  • The “married bed” (10 of Spades)! Now, that’s a steamy one, so get the kids out! Just like in many European countries of the XIX century, the sexual climate in Russia was quite repressed (the same attitude towards sex continued well into the post-Stalinist XX century). The French-sounding “mariage bed” (yes, the Russians use the French word) became a well-known euphemism for a bit of techtelmechtel!

So, isn’t Russian cartomancy fun? Of course, it is! And, believe me, the meanings and the little phrases always help build a bit of a better accord with the querent!

Dmitry Korolev

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