Most of us have heard of Mlle. Lenormand, known for having read cards to make predictions for Napoleon and Josephine, but few know much more than this about the most famous card-reader of all time. She was born May 27, 1772 in Alençon, France and died June 25, 1843, having written over a dozen books. Look over her natal chart analysis by Elizabeth Hazel in the Comments (thank you, Liz). Marie Anne Adelaide Lenormand claimed to have obtained her first deck of cards when she was 14 from gypsies who taught her how to read them. It wasn’t until two years after her death that a deck of cards called “Le Grand Jeu de Mlle. Lenormand” was first published by Grimaud. This 54 card deck was actually created by a Madame Breteau, who claimed to be a student of Madame Lenormand. The 36-card “Petit Lenormand” was published in Germany around 1845 and was actually based on a race game called the “Spiel der Hoffnüng” (“Game of Hope”). An overview of her life is available at trionfi.com. A short biography published 15 years after her death can be found here. Learn to read the various Lenormand-style decks here, here, here and also here. Get a computerized Mlle. Lenormand-style reading here. Several portraits are available here and card meanings here. Get the DVD or internet link to my webinar “Introduction to the Petit Lenormand,” which demonstrates how the deck is read. (More links at the end.)
In the Sibyl’s Boudoir
You can imagine my delight in coming across this first-person account of a visit to Madame Lenormand made by Captain R. H. Gronow of the Grenadier Guards & M.P. for Stafford in his book Celebrities of London and Paris (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1865). Gronow probably met her during his 1815-1816 stay in Paris.
“One of the most extraordinary persons of my younger days was the celebrated fortune-teller, Mademoiselle le Normand. Her original residence was in the Rue de Tournon, but at the time of which I write she lived in the Rue des Sts Pères. During the Restoration, the practice of the “black art” was strictly forbidden by the police, and it was almost like entering a besieged citadel to make one’s way into her sanctum sanctorum.
“I was first admitted into a good-sized drawing-room, plainly but comfortably furnished, with books and newspapers about, as one sees them at a dentist’s. Two or three ladies were already there, who, from their quiet dress and the haste with which they drew down their veils, or got up and looked out of the window, evidently belonged to the upper ten thousand. Each person was summoned by an attendant to the sibyl’s boudoir, and remained a considerable time, disappearing by some other exit without returning to the waiting-room. At last I was summoned by the elderly servant to the mysterious chamber, which opened by secret panels in the walls, to prevent any unpleasant surprises by the police. I confess that it was not without a slight feeling of trepidation that I entered the small square room, lighted from above, where sat Mademoiselle le Normand in all her glory.
“It was impossible for imagination to conceive a more hideous being. She looked like a monstrous toad, bloated and venomous. She had one wall-eye, but the other was a piercer. She wore a fur cap upon her head , from beneath which she glared out upon her horrified visitors. The walls of the room were covered with huge bats, nailed by their wings to the ceiling, stuffed owls, cabalistic signs, skeletons – in short, everything that was likely to impress a weak or superstitious mind. This malignant-looking Hecate had spread out before her several packs of cards, with all kinds of strange figures and ciphers depicted on them. Her first question, uttered in a deep voice, was whether you would have the grand or petit jeu, which was merely a matter of form. She then inquired your age, and what was the colour and the animal you preferred. Then came, in an authoritative voice, the word “Coupez“, repeated at intervals, till the requisite number of cards from the various packs were selected and placed in rows side by side. No further questions were asked, and no attempt was made to discover who or what you were, or to watch upon your countenance the effect of the revelations. She neither prophesied smooth things to you nor tried to excite your fears, but seemed really to believe in her own power. She informed me that I was un militaire, that I should be twice married and have several children, and foretold many other events that have also come to pass, though I did not at the time believe one word of the sibyl’s prediction.
“Madamoiselle le Normand was born in 1768, and was already celebrated as a fortune-teller so early as 1790. She is said to have predicted to the unfortunate Princess de Lamballe her miserable death at the hands of the infuriated populace. She is also reported to have been frequently visited and consulted by Robespierre and St Just; to have reported his downfall to Danton, at that time the idol of the people; to have warned the famous General Hoche of his approaching death by poison; to have foretold to Bernadotte a northern throne, and to Moreau exile and an untimely grave.
“The Empress Josephine, who, like most creoles, was very superstitious, used frequently to send for Madamoiselle le Normand to the Tuileries, and put great faith in her predictions; which she always asserted in after years had constantly been verified. But, unfortunately for the sybil, she did not content herself with telling Josephine’s fortune, but actually ventured to predict a future replete with malignant influences to the Emperor himself. This rash conduct entailed upon her great misfortunes and a long imprisonment; but she survived all her troubles, and died as late as 1843, having long before given up fortune telling, by which she had amassed a large sum of money.”
Spellbound by the Prophetess
And from The Diary of Frances Lady Shelley (NY: Scribner’s Sons, 1912) we find that on July 4, 1816 Lady Shelley went to see Madame Le Normand:
“I was shown into a beautiful boudoir, furnished with a luxury which gave evidence of her prosperity. After waiting for some time, the prophetess appeared, and exclaimed “Passez, madame.” She then introduced me into a dimly lit cabinet d’étude. On a large table, under a mirror, were heaps of cards, with which she commenced her mysteries. She bade me cut them in small packets with my left hand. She then inquired my age—à peu prés—the day of my birth; the first letter of my name; and the first letter of the name of the place where I was born. She asked me what animal, colour, and number I was most partial to. I answered all these questions without hesitation. After about a quarter of an hour of this mummery, during which time she had arranged all the cards in order upon the table, she made an examination of my head. Suddenly she began, in a sort of measured prose, and with great rapidity and distinct articulation, to describe my character and past life, in which she was so accurate and so successful, even to minute particulars, that I was spellbound at the manner in which she had discovered all she knew.”
Like a Virgin Druidess
Writing eleven years after her death, the great magician Eliphas Lévi had this to say about Mlle. Lenormand (his reluctantly ambivalent admiration shown only through a few left-handed compliments):
“Mlle Lenormand, the most celebrated of our modern fortune-tellers, was unacquainted with the science of Tarot, or knew it only by derivation from Etteilla, whose explanations are shadows cast upon a background of light. She knew neither high Magic nor the Kabalah, but her head was filled with ill-digested erudition, and she was intuitive by instinct, which deceived her rarely. The works she left behind her are Legitimst tomfoolery, ornamented with classical quotations; but her oracles, inspired by the presence and magnetism of those who consulted her, were often astounding. She was a woman in whom extravagance of imagination and mental rambling were substituted for the natural affections of her sex; she lived and died a virgin, like the ancient druidesses of the isle of Sayne*. Had Nature endowed her with beauty, she might have played easily at a remoter epoch the part of a Melusine or a Velléda**.” (Transcendental Magic: its doctrine and ritual by Eliphas Lévi, translated by A. E. Waite.)
[*According to Paul Christian, the Celtic hero Vercingetorix went to the druidesses of Sayne seeking oracles that would help him defeat Caesar. **There are many legends of Melusine, a kind of water nymph or mermaid who enchanted men, brought them great gifts and then would disappear if betrayed. Velléda was a prophet and virgin priestess whom the ancient Germans revered as a living goddess.]
The First Republic
One of the most fascinating stories of Mlle Lenormand is the account in The First Republic, or The Whites and the Blues (Les Blancs et Les Bleus, 1867-68) by Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers. This work is part of a series of Napoleonic romances that begin with the Revolution and end with the fall of the Empire. Volume 2 contains chapters called “The Seeress” and “The Occult Art” in which Lenormand reads for both Josephine and Napoleon (who have not yet officially met). Dumas, writing nineteen years after Lenormand’s death, claimed that what he wrote was not fiction:
“I can guarantee the truth of this scene, for these details were given me by the friend and pupil of Mademoiselle Lenormand, Madame Moreau, who still lives (1867) at No. 5 Rue du Tournon, in the same rooms as the famous seeress, where she devotes herself to the same art with immense success.”
It seems that one evening Josephine Beauharnais and her friend Therese Tallien decided to see the fashionable seeress, Mademoiselle Lenormand. They disguised themselves as waiting-maids or ‘grisettes,’ and, using false names, made their way to Rue de Tournon No.7. There they were shown into an inner salon to await their turn. A young man silently joined them as he waited for his turn to have his fortune revealed. Therese Tallien went first into the inner chamber and learned that she is to become a princess. What follows is from Dumas’s text:
“Mademoiselle Lenormand at this period of her life was a woman somewhere between twenty-four and twenty-nine years of age; short and stout in figure, and concealing with difficulty that one shoulder was larger than the other. She wore a turban adorned with a bird of Paradise, a fashion of the day. Her hair fell in long curls on either side of her cheeks. She wore two skirts. . . . Near her, on a stool, was her favorite greyhound, Aza. The table on which she did her marvels was a plain round table with a green cloth on top and drawers, in which she kept her cards. . . . Facing the sibyl was an arm-chair, in which the consulting person was seated. Between that person and the seeress lay an iron wand, which was called the divining-rod; at the end turned toward the consulting person was a little iron snake. The opposite end was made like the handle of a whip or cane. . . .
Mademoiselle Lenormand made a sign to Josephine to take the chair which Madame Tallien had just left; then she drew a fresh pack of cards from her drawer, possibly to prevent the destiny given by the last pack from influencing that of the present. Then she looked fixedly at Madame de Beauharnais.
‘You and your friend have tried to deceive me, madame,’ she said, ‘by wearing the clothes of servants. But I am a waking somnambulist. I saw you start from a house in the centre of Paris; I saw your hesitation about crossing my threshold; and I also saw you in the antechamber when your proper place was the salon, and I went there to bring you in. Don’t try to deceive me now; answer my questions frankly; if you want the truth, tell the truth.’
Madame de Beauharnais bowed.
‘Question me, and I will answer truly,’ she said.
‘What animal do you like best?’
‘What flower do you prefer?’
‘What perfume is most agreeable to you?’
‘That of the violet.’
The seeress placed a pack of cards before Madame de Beauharnais, which was nearly double the size of an ordinary pack. These cards had been lately invented, and were called “the grand oracle.”
‘Let us first find where you are placed,’ said the seeress.
Turning over the cards, she moved them about with her middle finger until she found “the consultant;” that is to say, the image of a dark woman, with a white gown and deep embroidered flounce, and an overdress of red velvet forming a train behind, the whole on a rich background. This card was lying between the eight of hearts and the ten of clubs.
‘Chance has placed you well, madame. See, the eight of hearts has three different meanings on three different lines. The first, which is the eight of hearts itself, represents the stars under whose conjunction you were born; the second, an eagle seizing a toad from a pond over which it hovers; the third, a woman near a grave. Listen to what I deduce from that first card madame. You are born under the influence of Venus and the Moon. You have just experienced a great satisfaction, almost equal to a triumph. That woman dressed in black beside a grave indicates that you are a widow. On the other hand, the ten of clubs pledges the success of a rash enterprise of which you are not yet aware. It would be impossible to have cards of better augury.’
Then, shuffling the cards, but leaving the “consultant” out, Mademoiselle Lenormand asked Madame de Beauharhais to cut them with her left hand, and then draw out fourteen of them, and place those fourteen in any order she like beside the “consultant,” going from right to left as the Eastern peoples do in their writings. . . .
‘Really, madame,’ she said, ‘you are a privileged person. I think you were right not to be frightened away by the fate I predicted for your friend, brilliant as it was. Your first card is the five of diamonds; beside the five of diamonds is [the five of hearts] that beautiful constellation of the Southern Cross, which is invisible to us in Europe. The main subject of that card, which represents a Greek or Mohammedan traveller, indicates that you were born either in the East or in the colonies. The parrot, or the orange-tree, which forms the third subject, makes me think it was the colonies. The flower, which is a veratrum, very common in Martinique, leads me to think you were born on that island.’
‘You are not mistaken, madame.’
‘Your third card, the nine of diamonds, indicating long and distant journeys, implies that you left that island young. The convolvulus, which is pictured at the bottom of this card, represents a woman seeking a support, and makes me suppose you left the island to be married.’
‘That is also true, madame.’
‘Your fourth card is the ten of spades, and that indicates the loss of your hopes; nevertheless, the flowers of the saxifrage which are on the card authorize me to say that those griefs will pass away, and that a fortunate issue—a marriage probably—has succeeded those distresses which at one time seemed to exclude all hope.’ . . .
[Lenormand correctly divines that Josephine's husband died a violent death on the scaffold, that she has a son and daughter, and that the son is involved in an 'affair of the sword' but that hope will never fail him.]
‘And here, madame, is the eight of spades, which is a sure indication of marriage. Placed as it is next to the eight of hearts,—that is to say, near the eagle rising to the skies with a toad in his talons,—the eight of hearts indicates that this marriage will lift you above even the loftiest spheres of social life. But, if you doubt it, here is the six of hearts, which, unfortunately, seldom accompanies the eight,—that six of hearts in which the alchemist is looking at his stone now turned to gold; in other words, common life changed to a life of honor, nobleness, and high employments. See, among these flowers, is the same convolvulus, which entwines a broken lily: that means, madame, that you will succeed, you who seek a support, you will succeed—how shall I tell you this?—to all that is highest and noblest and most powerful in France,—to the broken lily: you will succeed that lily in a new sphere; passing, as the ten of spades has shown, over battlefields where—see on that card—Ulysses and Diomed drive the white horses of Rhesus, placed under the guardianship of the talisman of Mars.’
‘When you reach that point, madame, you will have the respect and the tender regard of every one. You will be the wife of that Hercules strangling the lion in the forest of Nemaea; that is to say, a useful and courageous man exposing himself to all dangers for the good of his country. the flowers which crown you are lilacs, arums, immortelles; for you will combine in your own person true merit and perfect kindness.’
She rose, with a movement of enthusiasm, caught Madame de Beauharnais’s hand, and knelt at her feet.
‘Madame,’ she said, ‘I do not know your name, I do not know your rank, but I know your future. Madame, remember me when you are —empress.’
‘Empress! I? You are mad, my dear.’
‘Eh, madame! do you not see that your last card, the one that leads the fourteen others, is the king of hearts; that is to say, the great Charlemagne, who bears in one hand a sword, in the other a globe? Do you not see on the same card a man of genius who, with a book in his hand, and a map at his feet, meditates on the destinies of the world? And, lastly, see on two desks opposite to each other, the books of Wisdom and the laws of Solon; those books prove that your husband will be not only a great conqueror, but a great lawgiver.’
[Josephine cries, 'Impossible!' and immediately leaves. Meanwhile, the young man who has been waiting his turn in the salon has ignored all the efforts of Therese Tallien to discover anything about him. He, too, has tried to disguise his real persona, but Mademoiselle Lenormand sees through it. She offers him many forms of divination and he chooses a palm reading.]
‘Your hand is the most complete of any that I have seen; it presents a mixture of all virtuous sentiments and human weaknesses; it shows me the most heroic of all characters and the most undecided. . . . The enigma I am about to read to you is far more difficult of interpretation than that of the Theban sphinx, for though you will be greater than Oedipus, you will be more unfortunate.’ . . . [She describes his rise and fall and several injuries he will sustain.]
‘But,’ said the young man, ‘ this is the second or third time you have mentioned an alliance which will protect the first eight lustres [glories] of my life. How am I to know that woman when I meet her?’
[Lenormand describes the dark-haired Josephine. She warns Napoleon that eventually he will forget Providence gave him her as a companion, and that he will abandon that companion. Then his happiness will be destroyed by a second wife, who is fair and the daughter of kings.]
‘You will be Alexander, you will be Caesar: you will be more than that,—you will be Atlas bearing the world on your shoulders. . . . As success came to you through a woman, so it will leave you through a woman.’ . . .
‘It is Caesar’s fate that you predict for me.’
‘More than Caesar’s fate,’ she replied; ‘for Caesar did not attain his ends, and you, you will attain yours. Caesar only placed his foot on the steps of a throne, you will sit upon the throne itself. Only do not forget the dark-haired woman, who has a sign above the right eyebrow, and puts her handkerchief to her lips when she smiles.’
‘Where shall I meet that woman?’ he asked.
‘You have already met her,’ replied the sibyl; ‘and she has marked with her foot the spot at which the long series of your victories will begin.’
It should be noted that the deck of cards described in the text,”Le Grand Jeu de Mlle. Lenormand” is known to have only been created after the death of Mlle. Lenormand, although it was named after her in order to take advantage of Lenormand’s fame. The book that came with my deck is dated 1845.
Society Under the First Empire
Here are a few short quotes from The Court of Napoleon: or, Society under the first empire by Frank Boott Goodrich and Jules Champagne, (New York, 1858). [Thanks to Caitlin Matthews for passing this on.]
M’lle Marie-Anne Lenormand, the most distinguished sibyl of modern times, the counsellor of Robespierre, Napoleon, and the Czar Alexander, the confidante and biographer of Josephine, and who possessed the ability to subject the most brilliant and enlightened court of Europe to the authority of her shuffles of cards and perusals of palms, merits more than a passing notice. . . .
She rejected cartomancy, or the art of reading cards. It is true that she used cards, but this was merely cabalistically, for the sake of the figures upon them, and to aid her in numerical processes. . . .
M’lle Lenormand became, therefore, the protégée, and was, in a certain sense, the object of the affectionate consideration, of Josephine. Her cabinet was now crowded with the elite of Parisian society—priests, nobles, magistrates and soldiers. The visitor to the dwelling of the pythoness was shown into a room in which books, prints, paintings, stuffed animals, musical and other instruments, bottles with lizards and snakes in spirits, wax fruits, artificial flowers, and a medley of nameless articles, covered the walls, the table and the floor, leaving the eye scarcely an unoccupied spot to rest upon.
The furniture of the cabinet of consultation was in maple; the walls were adorned with portraits of the Bourbons, with a painting by Greuze of great value, and with her own portrait by Isabey. Her cards, which were of large size and covered with colored hieroglyphics, were painted by Carle Vernet. . . .
On one occasion M’lle Lenormand was summoned by Fouché to his cabinet. He reproached her for the aid and comfort she had given to the Bourbons by her late predictions. She paid no attention to his complaints, being engaged in shuffling a pack of cards, and muttering from time to time, “The knave of clubs!” He then said that he intended to send her to prison, where she would probably remain a long time. “How do you know that?” she returned. “See, here is the knave of clubs again, and he will set me free.” “Oh, ho! the knave of clubs will set you free, will he? And who is the knave of clubs?” “The Duke de Rovigo, your successor in office.” . . .
One of the biographers of M’lle Lenormand has remarked, witch or no witch, a certain share of admiration will always be due to her, for having contrived to be believed in an age which neither believed in God and his angels, nor in the devil and his imps. . . .
In detailing the incidents of M’lle Lenormand’s life, we have sufficiently described the sate of the art of fortune-telling in France and the consideration with which it was regarded, during the period of her professorship. Her success does not seem to have been derived from any previous credit accorded to the art of necromancy, but was the result rather of her remarkable skill and the tendency of an atheistic age to fill the void it had itself created, with superstitious dreams. She estabished a faith in astrology and chiromancy, for a time; they fell, however, into disrepute at her death, being afterwards exercised only by acknowledged charlatans, and obtaining support only from the ignorant and the credulous.
More Lenormand-style deck resources (see others in the intro paragraph at top):
- Examples of historic decks can be found at the Lenormand Playing Card Museum.
- Overview of spreads and meanings. Bio, tutorial & meanings.
- A brief overview of material from the highly regarded Treppner course.
- Here’s a book and a forum discussion with its author.
- A Lenormand blog with videos.