Of Spanish naipes and la baraja española

Dear Seeker,

I love Tarot and cartomancy. I love reading cards. I’ve been a card reading enthusiast for as long as I can remember. I’ve been drawn to the cards ever since my grandmother took me to my first card reading. I must have been six or seven years old. It was summer. And with me in tow, my grandmother took a bus to a lady’s house where I experienced my first cartomancy consultation.

There’s little I remember about the day, but I do remember that this woman lived alone in a small apartment. She wore loose clothing to beat the summer heat. She sat on a lounger chair while she laid the cards down on a folding table. She must have said something my grandmother did not like because we never went back. It didn’t matter how many times I asked her; abuela always found some reason to say “No.”

Another thing that stuck with me: the cards the woman read were not Tarot cards; the cards were Spanish naipes, instead. I was to learn this years later when, in junior high school, I acquired my first deck of Tarot. My Tarot was big, colorful, bold. It was the Morgan Greer Tarot, one of the most popular decks on the market. I liked it because the cards had huge faces that seemed to call out to me. I never did get to learn how to read them, but I remember looking through them, memorizing the art on the cards, studying the little white book that came with it, wishing I could read as well as the woman my grandmother kept me from.

The Spanish baraja excelled at telling of infidelities, children to be born, lovers secrets, and curses — even!

The deck the woman used for my first reading had little in common with the Tarot. Instead of big, bold, colorful cards, she used regular playing cards with white backgrounds, spare images, and no Majors. It was more a playing card deck than a Tarot, something I would learn much, much later.

I was curious at the time as to how the woman could see or tell so much from such sparse pictures. In the Morgan Greer, I could tell stories about strong men seducing or rescuing fair damsels. I would also have a thing for the King of Cups and wonder if I could work magic like the Magician.

The naipes the woman used, as I later would learn their name, was nothing compared to the Tarot. It seemed anemic, underwhelming, and obtuse to me. I could not penetrate the meaning of the cards, nor could I decipher what they were trying to tell me when I held them in my hand. I believed that anyone who used these cards to predict the future, or see into the past, must have some clairvoyant talent I lacked that enabled them to read the symbols and interpret what angels, spirits, or daemons whispered in their ears. I wanted to such talents for myself, and the only deck that afforded me what I wanted was the Tarot. So I dismissed the naipes, Spanish barajas, and playing cards for the vividly drawn world of the Tarot.

It must be 50 years since that reading and the baraja still haunts me. I ran across it several times when card readers I consulted used them to tell me about my future. These were all Hispanic cartomancer women adept at deciphering the cards. None of them used Tarot, but accurately depicted and predicted everyday, mundane events the Tarot seemed impervious and indifferent about.

Tarot concerned itself with bigger things; it seemed to ignore the day-to-day struggles we face. At this, the Spanish baraja excelled, telling of infidelities, children to be born, lovers secrets, and curses — even! The naipes uncovered things I wanted to know so I could get to the end of the week. Its readings were gritty, lurid, sensational — real! That’s what I wanted to learn how to do and could never get to with the Tarot. So, 50 years later, after my first reading with naipes, I bought myself my first deck and began trying to read and learn the language of these cards.

Baraja española or Spanish naipes

It hasn’t been easy learning the meaning of the cards. In fact, it’s been near impossible. I’ve had so many false starts I’ve almost given up on the task. Unlike the Tarot, there are not many books written on how to use the Spanish baraja for fortune-telling. There are hundreds of book written about Tarot, and it seems like one is being published every day. Anyone who is reading Tarot seems to want to share the same information they learned from books by Rachel Pollack, Mary K. Greer, Robert Place, and everyone else with a published deck. Do a search for how to read naipes and you’ll come up almost empty.

Tarot currently is experiencing a renaissance of use. It is the darling tool for divination. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you they own a Tarot deck. Naipes? No hands go up.

I think this is because naipes are not as readily accessible as Tarot cards. Naipes are mostly used in Spain and Latin America, and the meanings of the cards are passed on from one person to another, orally, rather than studied from books or weekend workshops. Naipes are a “family thing.” A grandmother will teach her daughter or granddaughter how to read and interpret the cards, and she, in turn, will amend or make changes to the cards according to how she sees them. This leaves a wide berth for card meanings and interpretations. None of the books I’ve found on reading la baraja española agree with each other, and card meanings vary widely from one source to another. Even the writers of these books or pamphlets agree on this: when it comes to the naipes, no one has the final word.

So, I’m learning to read la baraja espñola by intuition. IF a good cartomancer uses his intuition to read the meaning of the barajas, shouldn’t I train my intuition to lead me to the best, possible available source?

I’ve gone back and forth between books, Web pages, pamphlets, and articles about the cards. I’ve considered Pythagorean, Chaldean, and modern numerology to work with the naipes. I’ve even tried to mix Tarot’s card meaning and applying them to the baraja (my advice: DON’T!), but I come back to the same point: Tarot and naipes are not the same thing. They evolved and became what they are differently. They may share similarities, but they are completely different systems of divination, and each has different purposes.

Tarot provides advice on a person’s larger life themes; the naipes get down to the daily grind of a person’s life. They have more in common with a Lenormand deck, I would say, than Tarot. They are probably more a kin to a gypsy’s oracle deck than to the mystical, occult talents of the Tarot. In my view, the Spanish naipes are more practical and pragmatic than its lofty and top heavy cousin, the Tarot.

I’ve begun recording my notes about the cards, their meanings, and their interpretation in a journal for safekeeping and reference. I decided, just like with Tarot, to perform daily readings to practice my reading skills and keep track of my own impressions and insights with the cards. Though I have more history and knowledge of Tarot than I do with naipes, I hope to learn as much from the Spanish cards as I have from Tarot. I think the two systems are cousins and their similarities can help me find and learn about the differences for each.

No better or worse than Tarot, I think the naipes do fill in the gaps Tarot leaves open for other divinations systems like geomancy, oracles, Lenormand cards, numerology, and astrology. Perhaps, the Spanish naipes are more adept at day-to-day inquiries. I hope to find out how well we work together in the coming days and weeks, and shall be recording my findings in this journal.

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