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Have you ever noticed that after seeing some films you are snappish or silent, yearning or ponderous, giggly or jumpy, and that the affects can last for minutes, hours or even days, abducting us from our normal means of perception?
I was reading one of my all-time favorite books Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram and came to the part where he describes his own growing awareness that certain movies and books would “surreptitiously enter into my bloodstream, like a contagion . . . a curious spell that my organism was under.” He further characterizes these effects as a “capacity for being draw, physiologically, into the terrain of certain stories—abducted into another landscape that would only belatedly release me back into the palpable present.” His description is reminiscent of being stolen away into the land of fairy.
I recently experienced such a state after going to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild”: my friends noticed that I couldn’t speak after the movie and that I refused their ride so I could walk home alone. I realized that Abram’s insights provided a second part to my established practice of active reading and movie-viewing, in which I draw cards before partaking of the work so as to sharpen my perception and enrich my understanding and appreciation of the work. Based on Abram’s commentary I’ve designed a spread that assists us in seeing how a work ensorcells us, temporarily coloring our perceptions and feelings and even influencing our actions.
Place the first six cards in a clockwise circle, beginning at the top, with the seventh card in the center.
1. What feeling tone colors my general outlook after seeing the film (or reading the book)?
2. How does this influence my immediate approach or response to things?
3. What fears does it stir?
4. What longings awaken?
5. What shifts do I perceive in my immediate surroundings? How do I see things differently?
6. What do I need from those around me? And, once I’ve answered that: How can I give this to myself?
7. What is the major lesson that this work offers me?
I went to see this movie because some friends had invited me, based on the recommendation of another friend. Before going I knew nothing about it and couldn’t even remember the title. So, I thought I’d try out the Petit Lenormand cards as a prediction of plot. I got Lilies-Clouds-Snake-Scythe-Whip, all of them Court Cards. Turns out it was pretty darn accurate for “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” It’s a coming-of-age mythic fable about a little girl, Hushpuppy, and her father who live on a fragile island, the Bathtub, south of the Louisiana dikes in the Gulf. It also features other people who exist in these unbelievably harsh conditions (all the Court Cards). There’s the dying father, a huge storm, a wise female teacher (as well as a dream-like encounter with a mother-figure), the poisoning of the creatures on the island, breaking through the dike, lots of arguments, and the inhabitants battle with the authorities. It’s an emotionally wrenching film with incredible acting – especially by the young girl and her father.
I drew five cards:
- Lilies -Family (also innocence and Father)
- Clouds – the Storm
- Snake – Poison/Wise Woman (at the center)
- Scythe – Decision to stay on the island; Death and Destruction
- Whip – Arguments, violent activity
An even better way to read Lenormand is in pairs:
- Lilies+Clouds – disfunctional family or problems with the father.
- Clouds+Snake – bad mojo, lack of clarity regarding a woman.
- Snake+Scythe - cut off from a woman; a treacherous decision; a poisonous death.
- Scythe+Whip – violent cutting, a decisive battle.
I was prepared for what could be a very dark, tragic film. It almost was, but something else broke through. My strongest thought during the intermission (they have to change the reels at our local art theatre) was, I couldn’t live like that! Several people left.
I later did a reading with the Mary-El Tarot to help me explore my conscious and unconscious reactions, responding directly to her images. I’ll only mention a few brief highlights of what I saw.
1. What colors my general outlook? 5 of Wands. First thought on looking at the growling red lion: “red-in-tooth-and-claw”. I had a very visceral reaction that touched on my most primitive fight-flight-freeze physiology.
2. How does this influence my immediate approach or response to things? 10 of Wands. This shows a warrior with bow and arrows on a horse. Flight. But I also wanted to be a defender of the movie to those who were repelled by it.
3. What fears does it stir? Page of Disks. This image of a sleeping baby with marks like nails surrounding it arouses my protectiveness. I fear that something primally innocent – the exquisite nature of the sentiment in the film – might be harmed. I also fear that I might slumber when I should awaken.
4. What longings awaken? Knight of Disks. The next stage of maturity: Knight as protector of the Page/Baby of Disks. This immediately reminded me of the scene shown in the lead photo above. I long to stand up for and to what might otherwise overwhelm us.
5. What shifts do I perceive in my immediate surroundings? How do I see things differently? 7 of Disks. I see a split, like two separate meteors. I am aware of the lack of words when I feel drawn out of myself.
6. What do I need from those around me? How can I give this to myself? The Tower. Strong words and opinions. Instead, both I and my friends retreated into silence. I can give myself the words, the surpressed fury, the burning to act on this film in some way.
7. What is the major lesson that this work offers me? Ace of Wands. That some creative spark can be birthed out of this fiery angelic torment. The reading is all Fire and Earth.
Words still fail me. Please let me know what you thought of the film and/or your experience in reading cards for enhancing your experience of films and books.
I’m happy to announce that I will be presenting, in webinar format, my recent slide-show on the Petit Lenormand Deck. It was showcased at the latest San Francisco Bay Area Tarot Symposium to great acclaim. Of course a few things will change (to make it even better), and I’ll have more time to explain the concepts shown. Here’s the description:
Webinar with Mary K. Greer
“Introduction to the Petit Lenormand Deck”
Discover the 36-card Lenormand deck via this 64-slide visual feast covering the history, variety of decks and a brief overview of reading methods and traditions. What’s so special about the Lenormand deck? Where did it come from? What does Mlle. Lenormand have to do with it? How is this deck different than or similar to Tarot? What can it do for me and how do I read with it? Learn how the Lenormand cards clued me into something that saved a trip from certain disaster. Discover what the hoopla is all about and get a look at these 212+ year old cards that have exploded onto the divinatory scene in the last three years. Join me in exploring one of the most practical and precise divinatory tools in existence.
This webinar will be followed by two Lenormand training webinars with Caitlín Matthews whose new deck and accompanying book will be out next year.
In the meantime, here are some great online resources.
I recommend the series of youtube videos by Claire (from Germany but in English) that introduce each of the cards. While each country has its own variations there are still enough commonalities that share core meanings, and Claire is good at presenting these (click on the youtube link).
I also recommend the list of basic Lenormand card meanings found at Helen Riding’s blog, MyWingsofDesire. And don’t miss out on her other great Lenormand pages and the links on her site.
Donnaleigh de LaRose has a whole page of media-based Lenormand Lessons from her blogtalk “BeyondWorlds” radio shows with Rana George and Melissa Hill, as well as her own youtube videos.
Andy Cerru’s excellent free course, Cartomante’s Cabinet, is available again. Highly recommended but requires a commitment to do the work. See also:
Much is made of how tarot cards can be interpreted through their images or symbols—especially modern decks that feature pictorial scenes with lots of images on all the cards. This post is about how to combine and translate the language of imagery into statements, such that these statements can be more easily interpreted than the images by themselves.
Many of us have spent fruitful hours pouring over symbol dictionaries in order to better understand each detail in the tarot. For instance, we might research and discover that a key, in addition to simply opening or locking a contained space, is seen as the means to unlock hidden meanings in symbols or doctrine. More specifically, in the Hierophant/Pope card, keys have a special meaning regarding the priesthood: the gold key represents mercy and absolution, and the silver key stands for judgment and penance. Furthermore, these keys refer back to the gospel of Matthew (16:19) in which Jesus tells Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Going further, you will discover that Mercy and Judgment (the gold and silver keys) are the two columns on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.
Alternatively, a reader might try to discover the querent’s own, in-the-moment, personal associations with this image: “Oh, my gosh. Those are my car keys that I lost yesterday at church!” Or a reader will offer up his or her own projections and intuitions, as in, “As I’m seeing it right now, the keys are saying that your spiritual leader or tradition “holds the keys” to whether you should get a divorce.” These can certainly be rich ways to read the tarot, but they can sometimes get you sidetracked from the essential message of the card. Even the artist’s stated intention for a symbol can be so personal and idiosyncratic that it, too, misses the mark. I’m not saying that the following technique is the “best” method for interpreting images, but rather that it can be helpful and serve as a checkpoint to make sure you’ve touched on its roots.
What I offer here is a method that involves translations of the essential, objective meaning of an image—its denotative and connotative definitions and its core characteristics or functions (how the thing is used).
At the denotative level, a key is a small piece of metal shaped with parts that fit with parts in another mechanism (usually a lock) so that manipulation (turning) changes the latter mechanism’s function—usually to open or close things. The connotative meaning is that it binds or loosens, and a key often suggests gaining access to something. If we abstract it one more level, then it suggests obtaining the answer, solution or means to something crucial or important. Connotative meanings are more subjective and often convey pleasing or displeasing feelings about the word. [Note: I use ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ here, not as absolutes, but as relative points along a continuum.]
To try out this technique, you need to start with the most “objective” meanings and functions—what I often call the “literal” level of a symbol—rather than personal projections or mythic, occult, alchemical, astrological or psychological significances. In other words, try to use as little abstraction, impressionism or subjectivity as possible.
To try another example, the denotative level of the RWS dog in the Fool card is “a domesticated, four-legged, carnivorous mammal with an acute sense of smell.” The functional aspect is that it is tamed by humans to function as a companion, protector or hunter. A further, connotative abstraction includes ideas such as loyalty, instincts or, sometimes, a scoundrel or wretch. (In this process, we won’t consider the mythic associations of dogs with death, like Cerberus at the gates of Hell, nor the Egyptian dog-headed Anubis, nor the association of dogs with the Moon and Artemis, nor the dog of Odysseus, or that in alchemy a dog represents sulfur or primitive, material gold. Nor will we consider that god is dog spelled backwards.) When in doubt, think of a dictionary rather than a book of religion, mythology or literature. In fact, a dictionary is often a good place to start when translating images.
Step 2 involves linking together the most essential definitions, functions and connotations of three to five core images from one card into a “literal translation” of these images.
With the RWS Six of Cups as our example, let’s go through Steps 1 and 2. (We should also be aware that traditional meanings for this card often include gifts, pleasurable memories and emotions, nostalgia and old things.) Here are three dominant images from the picture created by Pamela Colman Smith:
• Children – more than one pre-pubescent human being. Their key characteristics are small size, immaturity, innocence, vulnerability, playfulness, learning and development, and being a descendant or establishing a lineage.
• Flowers – the reproductive organs of a plant, usually with characteristics (scent, shape and color) that attract fertilizing mechanisms. Flowers are cultivated to function as decorations or gifts. Blooms suggest the flourishing peak of beauty, health and vigor.
• Glove/mitten – a garment covering the hand. It protects or safeguards the hand to avoid discomfort, damage, disease or contamination of self, others or environment. It may also serve as a fashion ornament.
First we combine these individual images into a simple statement: “A larger child hands a flower to a smaller child wearing a mitten.”
To translate this, we substitute a key word or phrase for each image:
“A larger, innocent offers a gift of beauty and reproductive vigor to a smaller, innocent whose vulnerability has some safeguards.”
Let’s add two more images to see if this changes anything:
• Courtyard – a private space surrounded by walls or buildings. It functions as a place of air, light, privacy, security and tranquility.
• Guard – a person who keeps watch. He functions in a defensive manner to watch or protect what is vulnerable or to control access.
A very literal description might be: “In a private, guarded space, a child offers a gift of flowers to a another child.”
The next level of abstraction looks something like this:
“In a private, secure and guarded place, but with inattentive watchfulness, youthful innocence and vulnerability handle, with some safeguards, a gift of beauty and reproductive vigor.”
Relate this translation back to the querent’s question or situation (via the spread position, if applicable). Now you interpret what the translated images in the cards add to the situation. Generating questions based on the translation is a good way to start.
Let’s add a keyword from the basic card meaning so that we have the following translation:
“A memory in which youthful innocence and vulnerability, in a private, secure and guarded place, but with inattentive protection, handle, with some safeguards, a gift of beauty and reproductive vigor.”
The following are example questions that emerged from the image translation:
Can you remember moments of former pleasure in which a mature, adult significance was not apparent at the time but may now be? Perhaps you were attracted to or given something that continues to reproduce emotional (Cups) reverberations in you? Have you been too guarded and naive to fully appreciate a gift given or received?
Alternatively, could a larger or more dominant self/person have offered something to a smaller self/person who covered up (gloved) her response as she wasn’t completely open to the experience?
Are some of your memories guarded? How do you protect yourself from what happened in the past? A worst case scenario suggests some kind of childhood abuse from which memory you’ve tried to protect yourself. There may be an element of seeing a difficult past through rose-colored glasses (and this card has had those difficult meanings on more than one occasion)—although, generally, it is a very good card.
In the Comments to this post you might want to try combining the image definitions into other translations, because even the most literal translations will vary. See where different translations take you. Feel free to explore this technique in your own way on your own blog or with others—just include a link back here.
Comparison with Cartomancy
It’s worth noting that readings with decks such as the Lenormand, Sybilla or Old Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards use a process similar to that above, in which each card represents a single image. The meanings of these cards have even more restricted parameters, but can be creatively combined. For instance, the card depicting a dog means loyalty and friendship. The child card can mean one or more children or anything small, young or innocent. A set of these cards are linked together in a fashion similar to what we’ve already done, although the result tends to be more mundane and may yield a single new image. For instance, Dog + Child can indicate a puppy, playmate, or childhood friend.
I’ve selected four cards from the Mlle. Lenormand deck (from Piatnik publishing) that are most similar to images in the Six of Cups just to see what happens if we use their meanings:
Child – Lily – Garden – Crossroads
• Child: Child or children. Play. Anything small, immature. Naïve, innocent, trusting, sincere. Sometimes, gifts.
• Lily: Mature, old, the elderly. Commitment. Peace, satisfaction, contentment. Wisdom, soul development. Social welfare.
• Garden: Meetings, gatherings, parties, events, conferences. Social encounters and places for this. An audience. Outdoors.
• Crossroads: Options, choices, alternatives. Decisions. Separation. Many of something.
The most simple statement we could make about these cards is: “Many wise children (or immature elders) gather together.” (The order of the cards in an actual reading would affect the interpretation.)
To expand on this idea, we could say:
It is about a social interaction involving young and old, innocent and wise (to play old-fashioned games?), and that a choice may be involved. Peace or wisdom could be gained from childhood choices or from an older sibling. An older person could be reconnecting with past friends or relatives (or grandchildren) or, simply, remembering them.
[Notes: Traditional playing card meanings are usually not part of the standard interpretations for these cards (although it is interesting that three Court Cards appear. Regarding modern interpretations: Garden+Crossroads is a perfect description of social networking, ala facebook and twitter.]
Some Final Thoughts
I use the “Image Translation Technique” as a checkpoint to keep me on track and to compare with other card possibilities including projections and intuitions. Studies of intuition show that intuitions are just as likely to be wrong as right, but you can often get to a right understanding faster and more accurately than through any other known means. What works best is to check your intuitions against ‘rules of thumb,’ or what I call ‘checkpoints.’ The true issue is sometimes precisely what is shown by juxtapositions among traditional meanings, literal translations and the reader’s and querent’s projections and intuitions, revealing the tension or conflict causing the unease at the core of a reading.
I want to reiterate that translations of tarot card images are only one level of working with images (and some people prefer not to work with the pictorial images at all). But, even card keywords are images, and I believe that keeping in touch with the essential meaning of any image provides an important checkpoint for one’s intuition. I’d love to hear about how you work with these ideas and whether they are helpful to you or not.
Acknowledgements: Yoram Kaufmann’s book, The Way of the Image: The Orientational Approach to the Psyche, clarified and helped me to explain the technique I often use in readings. I’ve adopted a few, but not all, of his terms and methodology, and I’ve tried not to psychologize the above material too much (Kaufmann was writing about a Jungian approach to dreams). The concept of using “rules of thumb” with one’s intuition is discussed in Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. Sylvie Steinbach’s The Secrets of the the Lenormand Oracle was helpful in putting together the Lenormand interpretation. See my book 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card for lots of other interpretation techniques.
April 1, 2008 in Book/Story/Poetry Reports, Lenormand, Playing Card Divination, Tarot History & Research, zPictures of Cartomancers | Tags: Cartomancy, Casanova, divination, Etteilla, fortune-telling, gypsy, Lenormand, Playing Card Divination, playing card meanings, Tarocchi | 20 comments
Information on the Mamluk cards inscriptions below comes from The World of Playing Cards website. A few notes added on the Grand and Petit Lenormand decks.
Updated: 5/2011: There are a scattering of references to cards and their use in “lots” (sortes) or fortune-telling from the 15th century on, including analogies between the four suits and characteristics such as the virtues and the elements. Recently Ross Caldwell discovered a treasure-trove of Spanish references that he describes here. He notes: “The main points to be taken from the recent discoveries are that, in Spain at least, there were professional cartomancers in the 17th century, and they used layouts with multiple cards and positional significations.” Follow the trail of evidence below (and add to it Ross’s recent contributions) to see the development of divination with cards.
The 15th Century
Joch de nayps moreschs – 1414, Barcelona
Two Barcelona inventories have entries for “joch de nayps (or ‘nahyps’) moreschs”. The Instituto Municipal de Historia in Barcelona formerly held several sheets of uncut woodblock cards of the Moorish design from around this period. Their similarity to the late 15th or early 16th century Mamluk playing cards is obvious. What makes this important to our discussion is that the latter cards (see below) have calligraphic texts along the tops of the cards consist of rhyming aphorisms that are clearly predictions of one’s fortune. Here are a few of the translations given on Simon Wintle’s outstanding website The World of Playing Cards. Decide for yourself what you would think if you drew a card with such a saying upon it:
“As for the present that rejoices, thy heart will soon open up“
“With the sword of happiness I shall redeem a beloved who will afterwards take my life“
“O my heart, for thee the good news that rejoices”
“Rejoice in the happiness that returns, as a bird that sings its joy”
Juego de Naypes – c. 1450
Ross Caldwell reports here on a Spanish “Juego de Naypes” (Game of Cards) by Fernando de la Torre, dedicated to the Countess of Castañeda, written around 1450. It is played with a 49 card deck, having only two court cards per suit plus an additional Emperador card “which wins over all the other cards” (que gane a todas las otras cartas). In this game “one can cast lots [tell fortunes] with them to know who each one loves most and who is most desired and by many other and diverse ways” (puédense echar suertes en ellos á quién más ama cada uno, e á quién quiere más et por otras muchas et diversas maneras). On each card is to be written a verse having the same number of lines as the number of the card, with each suit describing love according to different categories of women: Oros are Maidens, Copas are Wives, Bastones are Widows and Espadas are Nuns. Early Spanish/Morisca cards can be seen here.
This seems an unambiguous description of divination with playing cards that also includes a single additional “trump” card.
The 16th Century
Playing cards were used for fortune telling in conjunction with the 1505 German Mainz Kartenlosbuch (literally, card-lot/fortune book). Fortunes in this work include such things as:
- You’re criticized because of too much avarice. You’ll lose a tooth and a thief will spend your money.
- You’ll have good luck, winning honors and riches.
- Secret sorrows, possibly connected to an old love.
Lotbooks or (Losbücher) were described by Dr. Johann Hartlieb in 1456:
“One throws dice [or draws cards, mkg], until one reaches a number; in accordance with that number, one looks for the question [listed in the book], which the person has asked . . . there is nothing one will not find in these questions. Afterward one gets to an old man [often a king, god or hero] who points the way to a judge, who will explain the self-same questions [see illustration above]. This is all a singular disbelief and it stands in sharp opposition to God, for it has neither a spiritual or natural basis and is thus prohibited by the Holy Church in its decrees.”
Hartlieb is not entirely correct in that St. Augustine among other church officials spoke of the proper use of sortes (Latin for “lots”) to obtain answers. With the medieval sortes apostolorum or sortes des saints (composed specifically for divination rather than sortes sanctorum that is directly from scripture) one would consult them only after fasting on bread and water for three days and then a vigil with candles and the chanting of prayers (and sometimes a Mass) and the aspersion of holy water, upon which the sortes were deemed to be an “infallibly and entirely Christian oracle.” Of course, limiting the sources to apostles, saints, or scripture and the querents to those who could read Latin was an obvious attempt to limit divination to the educated few and forbid it to the multitudes.
On the Foreknowledge of Things
In 1507 Francesco Pico della Mirandola (nephew of the better known Giovanni) wrote De rerum praenotione (“On the Foreknowledge of Things”) in which he supports the ability of divinely appointed prophets to know the future, while attacking all other forms of divination, including astrology, geomancy, palmistry and all kinds of sortilege/lots:
There are many kinds of lots [sortium], as in casting bones, in throwing dice, in the figures depicted in a pack of cards [in figuris chartaceo ludo pictis]; and in the expectation of whatever first should arrive, in picking the longer husk, or in casting the eyes on a page. [Thanks to Ross Caldwell--see link to his paper describing this at the end of this post.]
Being a work from Italy that specifically mentions the figures pictured on cards suggests that Pico may well have been referring to the tarot.
“The Fortune-Teller” of Lucas van Leyden
While this painting by Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533) has been called, in modern times, “The Fortune Teller” (c. 1508), it more likely commemorates Margarethe (Margaret) of Austria’s ascendancy to the governorship of the Netherlands in 1507 following the death of her brother, Philip the Handsome. Alternately, this painting may be commemorating Margarethe’s tragic three year marriage to Philibert (Phillip) of Savoy. By the age of 24 Margarethe had already lost a fiance and two husbands. She decided never to remarry and took the motto: FORTUNE . INFORTUNE . FORT.UNE, which could be what is being symbolically portrayed. Both this painting and a 19th c. etching based on it has been cited as proof of early playing card divination (see “Chambers” below). Whatever is going on, it seems clear that the fall of the cards is an indicator of a fateful turn-of-fortune. Read my post here for more details. [Special thanks to Huck, Rosanne, and Alexandra—all who had pieces of the puzzle.]
Merlini’s Caos del Triperiuno
Teofilio Folengo’s 1527 work Caos del Triperiuno (written under the pseudonym Merlini Cocai) includes a series of poems representing the fortunes of people revealed by the cards dealt them. In this sonnet we find the twenty-two Triumph cards. Note that Death in Italian is the feminine la morte, and Love (Eros) is male. Love claims that although Death rules the physical body, Love never dies and therefore death is but a sham.
Love, under whose Empire many deeds (6, 4)
go without Time and without Fortune, (9, 10)
saw Death, ugly and dark, on a Chariot, (13, 7)
going among the people it took away from the World. (21)
She asked: “No Pope nor Papesse was ever won (5, 2)
by you. Do you call this Justice?” (8 )
He answered: “He who made the Sun and the Moon (19, 18 )
defended them from my Strength. (11)
“What a Fool I am,” said Love, “my Fire, (0, 16)
that can appear as an Angel or as a Devil (20, 15)
can be Tempered by some others who live under my Star. (14, 17)
You are the Empress[Ruler] of bodies. But you cannot kill hearts, (3)
you only Suspend them. You have a name of high Fame, (12)
but you are nothing but a Trickster.” (1)
Translated by Marco Ponzi (Dr. Arcanus) with help from Ross Caldwell and members of Aeclectic Tarot’s TarotForum.
Another early use of playing cards as oracle comes from Le sorti intitolate giardino d’i pensieri (“The oracle called garden of thoughts) from 1540 Venice, published by typographer Francesco Marcolini with text by the Venetian poet Lodovico Dolce. Read all about it through the title’s link. The method of getting the oracle takes one through a convoluted series of steps to end up at a simple tercet of a type as follows:
Do not take an ugly and angry wife,
But even if you take one pleasant and nice,
I am afraid something strange will happen.
The Sin of Divining with Cards
In 1556, Martin de Azpilcueta (d. 1586) wrote in his Compendio del Manual de Confessores (an instruction book for confessors):
Lo quinto, pecca el que pregunta, o quiere preguntar al adeuino de algun hurto, o otra cosa secreta, o procura de la saber por suertes de dados, cartas, libros, harnero, o astrolabio, y el que encanto bruto animals, con palabras profanas, o sagradas, con obseruancia de alguna vanidad.
Fifth, he sins who asks, or wants to ask the diviner of some theft or other secret thing, or gain knowledge through the luck of dice, playing cards, books, sieve, or astrolabe, and he who enchants brute beasts, with words profane or sacred, with the observance of any vanity.
This book was later translated into Latin and published in France as: Martin de Azpilcueta, “Enchiridion sive Manuale Confessariorum et Poenitentium” (Paris, François Huby, 1620): c. XI, note 30 (p. 191). Thanks to Ross Caldwell for first finding this and to “Doctor Arcanus” for the Spanish original.
It should be noted that condemnation by the Church usually indicates that such deeds are rampant in the culture.
The 17th Century
Henry Cuffe and the Three Knaves
In 1620 John Melton recorded the following story in Astrologaster, or, The Figure Caster. It was repeated by William Rowland, in Judiciall astrologie, judicially condemned (London, 1652) and tells of Henry Cuffe, (1563-1601), secretary to the Earl of Essex, whose death was foretold by cards twenty years before it happened. Cuffe was executed in 1601, so the incident allegedly dates from 1581 when he would have been 18 years old:
“There was another Wizard (as it was reported to me by a learned and rare Scholler, as we were discoursing about Astrologie) that some twentie yeeres before his death told Cuffe our Countreyman, and a most excellent Graecian, that hee should come to an untimely end: at which, Cuffe laughed, and in a scoffing manner entreated the Astrologer to shew him in what manner he should come to his end: who condiscended to him, and calling for Cards, entreated Cuffe to draw out of the Packe three, which pleased him; who did so, and drew three Knaves: who (by the Wizards direction) layd them on the Table againe with their faces downewards, and then told him, if hee desired to see the summe of his bad fortunes reckoned up, to take up those Cards one after another, and looke on the inside of them, and he shluld be trouly resolved of his future fortunes. Cuffe did as he was prescribed, and first took up the first Card, and looking on it, he saw the true portraiture of himselfe Cape a Pe [hat on head], having men compassing him about with Bills and Halberds: then he tooke up the second Card, and there saw the Judge that sat upon him: at last, he tooke up the last Card, & saw Tyborne, the place of his Execution, & the Hangman, at which he then laughed heartily; but many yeres after, being condemned for Treason, he remembred the fatall Prediction of the Wizard, & before his death revealed it to some of his friends. If this be true, it was more then Astrology, and no better then flat Sorcery or Conjuring, which is divellish.” [John Melton, Astrologaster, or, The Figure Caster, p.42. Thanks to Michael J. Hurst.]
Edwin S. Taylor in The History of Playing Cards (1865), claimed the cards were the Devil, Justice and Hanged Man, but there is no justification for this in the original text, which refers to three Knaves (probably Jacks/Valets). Whether the incident actually occurred or not, the account shows that fortune-telling by cards was known in England by this time.
The Lenthall Deck
A deck of 52 fortune-telling cards was originally designed by Dormann Newman and published by John Lenthall of The Talbot, Fleet Street, London, in 1665. (The cards below are from the 3rd edition of 1714, published in facsimile by Harry Margary, Lympne Castle, Kent in 1972.) Update: These appear to have also been published by James Moxon (either father or son), who were British engravers and map-makers as well as producing a whole variety of geographic and educational cards. These card appear identical with a deck they published as ”Astrology Cards” in 1676 [trionfi.com].
Each suit was numbered I to XIII. Odd numbered cards had a sign of the zodiac on them; even numbered cards contained a list of thirteen numbered statements. The Kings had a series of questions one could ask. The court cards were given the names of famous people from myth and legend. According to the directions, “When any person is desirous to try their fortune, let them go to one of the four kings and choose what question they please.” This is followed by an elaborate procedure for determining the answer. The explanation ends, “The stars foretell, they love you well.”
The 18th Century
Destiny in a Game of Picquet
A book called Whartoniana; or, Miscellanies, in verse and prose by members of the Wharton family (and several other persons of distinction) was translated from the French and published in 1727. (Edited by Edmund Curll and translated by Joseph Morgan). It contained a detailed account of a card game that resulted in a divination. In the Table of Contents the piece is titled “To the lovely PALLAS, Or the Game at Picquet.” [Thanks to Stephen J. Mangan, (aka Kwaw) at Aeclectic’s tarotforum for finding this.]
A few Days ago, I took it into my Head to make a Visit to the celebrated Theresius, in order to be informed of my Destiny. —Help thyself to a Seat, said he, my Friend, sit down, and give me thy Hand. He pored on it for a considerable while, cast a Figure, said not one Word, but ordered me to return the next Day. His Silence seemed to me very ominous, and to portend me no Good; yet I much rather chose to be at once acquainted with my ill Fortune, than to continue longer in a suspenceful Uncertainty. I therefore very importunately pressed him to let me know his Reason for giving me no Answer to my Quere. Still the old Cuff was mute, making no manner of Reply, but reaching a Pack of Cards, sat down by me, and challenged me to play a Game with him at Piquet; the which, heavy-hearted and out of Humour as I was, I could not, nay durst not well refuse.
Well.— We cut; he has the Hand; I deal; he takes five, and leaves me three.— I find in my Hand a Quint in Hearts, three Kings, three Knaves, the Queen of Diamonds, and three Spades which I discarded. A promising Game! Great Hopes! But, Morbleu! Not one Ace in the three Cards I took in!— Faith, Madam ; I beg your Pardon for swearing; but it was so cursedly provoking, that I cannot keep my Temper when ever I think of it.
Sixty five? says he.— Good.— A Quint to a Knave?— Equal.— He then spreads out upon the Table seven Diamonds. Sixty five are seven, says my Antagonist, very gravely; a Quatorze of Aces, fourteen more.— All good, cries I, with a deep Sigh.— Diamonds, says he, playing his Ace, twenty-two, and plays out all his Diamondsrunning.— Down went my Queen, accompanied with two Clubs and four Hearts.— He next plays his Ace of Clubs, and that quite confounds me; for, the most unluckily in the World, I had left my King unguarded. He redoubles upon me with the Ten of Clubs; I fling him a Spade. Next, upon his Ace of Hearts, I give my Knave, still depending upon saving the Lurch, scarce doubting of his having the Queen.— My King of Spades next falls a Victim to his Ace.— But, how was I Thunder-struck! How were all my Hopes blasted! The Devil a Bit of the Queen of Hearts had he, and poor Charles found himself Capoted.
I have won the Game, said he.— From hence learn thy Destiny. If you must love, pitch upon some Object that is more your Match: For if ever you attack the divine Pallas, you will infallibly be Lurched.— Adieu. Heaven take thee into it’s Protection: Thus we parted.
- Lurch – a decisive defeat in a game (especially in cribbage).
- Capote – to win all the tricks from an opponent in a game of piquet.
Dr. Flamstead’s and Mr. Patridge’s New Fortune-Book containing . . . Their new-invented method of knowing one’s fortune by a pack of cards (circa 1729-1750 in various editions).
I found the source of the card fortune-telling verses quoted below in John Brand’s Observations on the popular antiquities of Great Britain (1777). They are from Dr. Flamstead’s and Mr. Patridge’s New Fortune-Book containing . . . Their new-invented method of knowing one’s fortune by a pack of cards. Read about it here.
Playing Card Divination in the early 18th century London Theatre
Read the earliest example of an actual card reading from a 1730 London play, Jack the Gyant-Killer - here, in which it is said that divination with cards is a newly-invented art.
Gypsy Cartomancy – a Hoax
The Square of Sevens, and the Parallelogram: An Authoritative Method of Cartomancy with a Prefatory Note is a literary hoax. Said to be originally written by one Robert Antrobus and published in 1735, it was then edited by E. Irenaeus Stevenson and republished by Harper & Brothers, NY, in 1896. Read all about Ross Caldwell’s literary detective work showing that this book is a 19th century hoax – here.
UPDATE: Divination in Holland
“That kind of divination is not the only one that still persists in Holland, despite its inhabitants common sense. Pyromancie and Ooscopy, or to speak in a more casual way, the art of guessing by watching a flame, burning coal, sparkles, eggs in a glass, are still commonly used in some part of Holland. The fortuitous disposition of a playing card deck, open and arranged in four or five lines, is another way to tell the future, not despised by certain ladies from this country. It is true that some of them pretend consulting the so-called witches for the sake of distraction. But one would think the exact opposite, seeing how they await with an attentive and worried attitude these women answers, and how they manifest their joy by the sudden serenity on their faces, when those Oracles are favorable.”
(Contributed by Bertrand—see comments.)
Pratesi’s Bolognese Tarocchi
A manuscript written prior to 1750 was discovered by Italian playing card scholar, Franco Pratesi in the late 1980s. It lists cartomantic interpretations for 35 Bolognese tarocchi cards along with a rudimentary method of laying them out. A sheet of 35 Bolognese cards (trumps and number cards) are labeled with simple divinatory meanings such as “journey,” “betrayal,” “married man,” “love.” A later deck of double-headed Bolognese cards from the 1820’s are labeled both top and bottom with similar divinatory meanings, showing a continuity of use. A comparison of four variations on Bolognese divinatory meanings can be found here.
The Vicar of Wakefield – “A very pretty manner of telling fortunes”
In 1762-3 Oliver Goldsmith writes his novel The Vicar of Wakefield in which we find that reading cards can be an admirable accomplishment in a young woman:
And I will be bold to say my two girls have had a pretty good education, and capacity, at least the country can’t shew better. They can read, write, and cast accompts; they understand their needle, breadstitch, cross and change, and all manner of plain-work; they can pink, point, and frill; and know something of music; they can do up small cloaths, work upon catgut; my eldest can cut paper, and my youngest has a very pretty manner of telling fortunes upon the cards.’ [in Chapter 11]
Zaïre, Casanova’s Russian mistress
The famous lover, Jacques Casanova, recounts in his memoires that in 1765 his then 13-year-old Russian peasant mistress would read the cards every day—laying them out in a square of twenty-five cards. As he describes it:
Without her desperate jealousy, without her blind trust in the infallibility of the cards, which she consulted ten times a day, this Zaïre would have been a marvellous woman and I would never have left her.
To convince me of my crime, she shows me a square of twenty-five cards wherein she makes me read all the debaucheries that had kept me out all night long. She shows me the tart, the bed, the love-play and even my unnatural acts. I didn’t see anything at all, but she imagined that she saw everything. After letting her say, without interruption, everything that might serve to assuage her jealousy and rage, I took her grimoire [the deck of cards] and threw it into the fire.
(From The Complete Memoires of Casanova by Jacques Casanova, Chapter CXVII. This translation by Ross Caldwell.) The painting entitled Fortunetelling (1842) is by Alexey Gavrilovich Venetsianov (1780-1847) and is in The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.
Casanova was one of the first to mention the card game solitaire or patience. Other names for these games suggest an origin in fortune-telling. In France, it was known as réussite (“success”), explained in Littré as “a combination of cards [by] which superstitious persons try . . . to divine the success of an undertaking, a vow, etc.” From at least 1783, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic solitaire was called kabal(e), or “secret knowledge,” a term reserved in Polish specifically for fortune-telling with cards. For more, visit David Parlett’s “History of Patience/Solitaire”.
Goethe has his cards read
In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit (“Poetry and Truth”), he recounts that in 1770, when he was 20 years old, he took dancing classes in Strassburg from a Frenchman with two daughters who had both become enamored of him. He cared only for the younger. The girls brought an elderly fortune-teller to the house who agree to read the cards for all three. She began with the older girl:
“She carefully observed the positions of the cards, but then seemed to falter and be reluctant to speak — “I understand,” said the younger girl, who had already become better acquainted with interpreting this magical board. ‘You are hesitating because you do not want to reveal anything unpleasant to my sister, but that card is cursed!’” (The cards revealed that the older girl loved and was not loved in turn.)
“‘Let us see if it will get better,’ replied the old woman, shuffling the cards and laying them out a second time; but it had only grown worse, as we could all plainly see. The fair one’s card was not only more isolated, but was surrounded with many troubles; her friend had moved somewhat farther away and the intermediate figures had come closer.”
With uncontrolled weeping the older girl fled the room. Goethe couldn’t stand to be present while his cards were read, so he went home. When he returned the next day, the younger sister told him,
“I had the cards laid out for you, and the same verdict was repeated three times, always more emphatically. Your card was surrounded by all sorts of good and pleasant things, by friends and men of importance, and money was not lacking. The women kept themselves at some distance. My poor sister, especially, was always the one farthest away; another girl kept moving closer to you but never came to your side, for a third person, a man, placed himself in the way. I shall have to admit to you that I imagined myself to be the second lady, and after this confession you will best be able to understand my well meant advice. I have pledged my heart and hand to an absent friend, and up to now I have loved him better than anyone else. But possibly your presence would grow to mean more to me than before, and just imagine the difficult position in which you would be between two sisters, one of whom you had made unhappy with your affection, and the other with your coldness, and all this misery would be for nothing and for the sake of a short time. For if we had not already known who you are and what your prospects are, the cards would have set it before my eyes very plainly.”
There ensued a jealous scene with the older sister, and Goethe left, to never see them again. (Thanks to Christian Joachim Hartmann for finding this.)
It was around 1750 that the print-seller and teacher of algebra (i.e., numerology), Etteilla, said he learned the art of telling fortunes with playing cards from three cartomancers, one of whom came from Piedmont in northern Italy. In 1770 he published his own book on fortune-telling with cards, for which he coined the term cartonomancie (which became cartomancy). Learn more about Etteilla’s tarot here. But, as we’ve seen, Etteilla was not really the first to write on the subject. In Germany we find a general Cartomancy text in Germany (1769): Abhandlung der Physiognomie, Metoposcopie und Chiromantie by Christian A. Peuschel (thanks to Huck). Julia Orsini wrote a book on reading with the Etteilla cards. In Le Grand Etteilla, ou l’art de tirer les cartes (Paris, 1838) containing a rare etching of a man reading the cards, identified as the scondrel, con-artist Count Cagliostro (1743-1795) who was made much of in Masonic circles.
Marie-Ann-Adélaïde Lenormand then arrived on the scene saying she had learned to read the cards from gypsies (read about her here). Between Etteilla’s several books on the subject and the dozen or so by Lenormand, divination with playing cards became known to the world. (Picture on right: A supposed-Madame Lenormand reading for Napoleon— talk about pressure on the job!)
Upon the death of Mlle. Lenormand in 1843, as was the tradition, publishers began publishing Lenormand decks and books that had nothing to do with the original person. In France a Grand Lenormand deck was produced with designs taken from myth, constellations and flower oracles. Germany produced the Petit Lenormand – a 36 card deck with simple images (Dog, House, Mice, Anchor). It was based on a card race game called the Spiel der Hoffnüng (“Game of Hope”) from around 1799 in Nuremberg that included suggestions for its use in fortune-telling.
From an old English chapbook
John Brand in his 1777 book, Observations on the popular antiquities of Great Britain, quoted from “an old chap book” what he called “curious lines on divination by drawing cards,” the source of which I’ve now found here. Example:
This noble king of diamonds shews
Thou long shalt live where pleasure flows;
But when a woman draws the king,
Great melancholy songs she’ll sing.
“The Fortune-Teller” (n.d.) by French artist Martin Drolling (1752-1817)
Napoleon’s soldiers and their families seek reassurances about what is coming next in their lives.
Tawny Rachel, or The Fortune Teller; With some Accounts of Dreams, Omens and Conjurers was a chapbook published in London in 1796. It tells the story of Rachel, a seeming “sun-burnt oracle of wisdom” who was actually a skilled con-artist (unfortunately they do exist).
She used a variety of methods of fortune-telling from reading moles to dreams to the disposition of plants. Having found a gullible young girl who was eager to find a husband, Rachel explains:
“If you cross my hand with a piece of silver I will tell you your fortune. By the power of my art I can do this three ways; by cards, by the lines of your hand, or by turning a cup of tea-grounds: which will you have?”
Unfortunately there is no account of her reading the cards. Eventually she is arrested, found guilty and sent to Botany Bay: “And a happy day it was for the county of Somerset, when such a nuisance was sent out of it.”
The author thought it was his duty “to print this little history as a kind of warning to all you young men and maidens not to have any thing to say to cheats, impostors, cunning women, fortune-tellers, conjurers, and interpreters of dreams.” He continues, “Listen to me, your true friend, when I assure you that God never reveals to weak and wicked women those secret designs of his Providence, which no human wisdom is able to foresee.”
The 19th Century
Many a Fine Lady . . .
Much about that period, 1572, there were reckoned, in Paris alone, no less than thirty thousand astrologers. At the present day, the ambulating magicians frequent the Old Boulevards, and there tell fortunes for three or four sous; while those persons that value science according to the price set on it, disdaining these two-penny conjurers, repair to fortune-tellers of a superior class, who take from three to six francs, and more, when the opportunity offers….
Formerly, none but courtesans here drew the cards; now, almost every female, without exception, has recourse to them. Many a fine lady even conceives herself to be sufficiently mistress of the art to tell her own fortune; and some think they are so skilled in reading futurity in the cards, that they dare not venture to draw them for themselves, for fear of discovering some untoward event.
This rage of astrology and fortune-telling is a disease which peculiarly affects weak intellects, ruled by ignorance, or afflicted by adversity. In the future, such persons seek a mitigation of the present; and the illusive enjoyments of the mind make them almost forget the real sufferings of the body.
Les Jeunes Femmes
A description of fortune-telling with cards by a maid for her lady was translated into English from Les Jeunes Femmes, of M. Bouilly and published in Belle Assemblee: Or, Court and Fashionable Magazine in 1820. In this work, Madame de Saucerre wishes to discover her husband’s activities on the previous night. What is revealed is another matter altogether. Read this story and learn the truth discovered here.
Rossetti’s Femme Fatale
Read about the poem, “The Card Dealer” (1853), that Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote to Theodore von Holst’s painting “The Fortune-Teller” (1840) – here.
To jump ahead to 1863, Robert Chambers, with his Book of Days, published a two volume “miscellany of popular antiquities” organized around the calendar year. For February 21st, he includes an article on English cartomancy called “The Folklore of Playing Cards” (illustrated by the picture above). In it he gives the card meanings he was taught as a child when struck by illness in a foreign land. (Read the whole article here—you need to scroll down a ways.)
The English system is used in all British settlements over the globe, and has no doubt been carried thither by soldiers’ wives, who, as is well known to the initiated, have ever been considered peculiarly skilful practitioners of the art. Indeed, it is to a soldier’s wife that this present exposition of the art is to be attributed. Many years ago . . . the writer, then a puny but not very young child, [was] left for many months in charge of a private soldier’s wife, at an out-station in a distant land. . . . She was too ignorant to teach her charge to read, yet she taught him the only accomplishment she possessed,—the art of ‘cutting cards,’ as she termed it: the word cartomancy, in all probability, she had never heard.
The above engraving that illustrated Chambers’ article first appeared in the Magasin Pittoresque in 1842 (according to Detleff Hoffmann). It loosely reproduces a painting by Lucas van Leyden that was later named The Fortune Teller (c. 1508) though it may actually commemorate a political negotiation mediated by Margaretha of Austria (see painting near the beginning of this post).
To Sum It Up
Never as ubiquitous as dice, palmistry or astrology, divination with cards goes back to at least the 16th century and probably earlier, though the form may not have been what we now call cartomancy, which emerged more recognizably in the 18th century. We can see from all the above that historically card divination was practiced mostly by illiterate gypsies, courtesans, soldier’s wives and old women, and by literate young women for whom it was a parlour game. It was largely scorned and more often officially ignored, until the stakes got higher. With the exception of Madame Lenormand’s fame, it wasn’t until a few men deemed the art worth mentioning and the decks or books worth writing that it was really acknowledged. Still, it was not to be taken too seriously and generally kept to the confines of frivolous social entertainment. (Out of 100 pre-1900 pictures I’ve found of cartomancers only two have been men.) A. E. Waite integrated Chambers’ soldier’s wives card meanings into many of his Minor Arcana tarot interpretations, where they are still in use today.
See more paintings of nineteenth century cartomancers here.
Watch the 45 minute History Channel TV special on “Secrets of the Playing Card.”
- See especially Ross Caldwell’s presentation on playing cards (including Tarot) in divination and magic for the International Playing Card Society, September, 2006 – here, and his more recent report on references in Spanish documents here. I want to thank Ross for his historical professionalism and dedication to setting the story straight with concrete evidence.
- An account of cartomancy that draws from Chambers: The Gaming Table: its Votaries and Victims, Vol. II (1870) by Andrew Steinmetz – here.
- A set of modern playing card meanings can be found here.
- Seaqueen’s examples of Lenormand-style readings (here) are some of the best. Also check out the Lenormand card meanings at Chanah’s “Confessions of a Freaky Fortune Teller (here).
February 12, 2008 in Lenormand, Playing Card Divination, Tarot History & Research, zPictures of Cartomancers | Tags: divination, Empress Josephine, fortune-telling, Madame Lenormand, Napoleon, Playing Card Divination, tarot | 37 comments
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.