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This post should help place the Viennese Coffee-Ground Cards of 1796, forerunners of the Petit Lenormand deck, in the context of the time.

Young FranklinIn 1724 eighteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin and his good friend, James Ralph, travel to London, ostensibly to buy printing equipment for Franklin’s first print shop, but instead they hang out at coffee houses, attend the theatre and other entertainments, and read voraciously, with Ralph living off an almost destitute Franklin. Franklin returns to Philadelphia eighteen months later. Remaining in England, Ralph attempts to become a man of letters, turning his hand to poetry, plays, and social commentary, writing The Taste of the Town: or a Guide to all Publick Diversions, by A. Primcock (1728/30). Since theatres are rowdy places where one goes mostly to “chat, intrigue, eat and drink” (and tell fortunes?) Ralph advocates the pleasures of “low theatre,” farce, and tales of British folk heroes instead of the lofty classics. He meets the young Henry Fielding, who is just starting his writing career (Fielding is credited with writing some of the first English novels including Tom Jones and creating the first municipal police force, the Bow Street Runners).
Ralph’s theories influence Fielding’s most successful plays, one named The Farce and the other, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb, the Great. They would remain life-long friends and collaborators. 

Henry FieldingFielding’s The Farce features two main characters: Luckless, a penniless writer and Jack. A farce “is a comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable. They are incomprehensible plot-wise . . . and  viewers are encouraged not to try to follow the plot in order to avoid becoming confused and overwhelmed (wikipedia).” 

Later in 1730, the same theatre presents a short, anonymous play, Jack the Giant-Killer: A Comi-Tragical Farce, that is a striking parody of James Ralph’s theatrical theories and Fielding’s comedy. It features the poet Plotless and the “hero,” Jack. This parody could have been written by Fielding and Ralph themselves as a spoof of their own theatrical endeavors. Or it could have been written by a rival playwright who hoped to make a laughing stock of the two of them. In the play, the Giants tell Queen Folly (who has usurped Reason) in a self-congratulatory way,

“’Twas we who snatch’d you from Obscurity, and to the grinning World disclos’d your Charms. . . . We vow ourselves your ever grateful champions. . . . Folly for ever, say we all.” 

Hogarth, preparations for “The Devil to Pay in Heaven” (1738).

What is of most interest to us is that when Jack arrives to champion Reason and defeat the royal Sorceress Folly, Folly declares that before setting off to battle,

“First we’ll examine the Decrees of Fate, in mystic Coffee-Cups and Tea reveal’d; The new-invented Arts of Snuff and Cards, Shall all be try’d, the grand Event to show, If we, my Friends, shall conquer, or the Foe.” 

I’ll present the text with several unacknowledged cuts so as to focus on the readings.

SCENE: the Palace of Folly 

A Table, Coffee-Cups, Folly, and the four Giants turning the Cups; three Women looking into them.

First Woman. I see a Gallows in this Cup, that must be for the Traitors to be sure: Here are small Crosses indeed, but you stand above ‘em. [The Significator is above the Crosses.]

Second Woman. Here is a Cock crowing in this, that betokens good News—Does not your Majesty expect a Letter? I see ’tis from the South—it comes from that Part of the Compass—the Cup being round, we have at once every Quarter of the Globe before us—your Allies are all firm to your Interest. But please to throw again—Your Majesty knows the third time is most to be depended on.

(To Gormillan (one of the giants)): You stand on a huge high Mountain, with several People about you, who seem to beg something. [I see] a Ring, my Lord, over a fine Lady’s Head: She sits by the Sea-side—she must be some Foreign Princess. 

(To Thunderdale): I am certain you will conquer, for an Angel with gilded Wings holds a Laurel to you—an undoubted Sign of Triumph. 

(To Blunderboar): A divided House! my Lord, you’ll be divorc’d from your Lady.

(To Galligantus): And you’ll be married, my Lord, to the great Fortune you have courted so long—here you are at the very Top of the Cup, and all your rivals are under your Feet—O, she has a vast Estate, I see Acres with Cattle feeding on them, Trees loaded with Fruit, Rivers and Ponds full of Fish—you’ll be a happy Man—you have been with her lately, I believe. [He responds that she didn’t treat him kindly.] I see now she was reserved—there was a little Cloud between you—but ’twill do for all that, my Lord; or I’ll never turn a Cup again.

— Note references above to the following images that appear in the
Viennese Coffee-Cards and Lenormand deck:
Cross, Bird, Mountain, Ring, House, Tree, Fish, Clouds —

Casting the Coffee-grounds, Vauxhall Gardens, 1745

And now to the card reading:

[Everyone clamors to have their questions answered.]

Queen Folly. You shall be satisfy’d anon—but we must lay the Cards first. Give us the Cards, that in our several Turns we all may Cut: I am the Queen of Hearts.

[First Woman gives the Cards to Folly, then to each of the Gyants, who cut, and deliver ‘em to her again, and she lays ‘em on the Table in Rows.]

First Woman. You, Lord Gormillan, are the King of Clubs; Lord Thunderdale shall be the angry Majesty of Spades; the Diamond Crown Lord Blunderboar shall wear; and King of Hearts Lord Gallivants shall assume.

The Knave of Spades, Madam, seems to threaten Danger, but he lies oblique [diagonal], and the Ten of Hearts between them shews he wants Power to hurt you—the Eight of Clubs and Ace over your Head denote a cheerful Bowl, and Birth will crown Night—all will be well—these Princes are surrounded with Diamonds; the Eight lies at the Feet of Lord Gormillan; the Deuce, the Four and Five are in a direct Line with Valiant Thunderdale; the Tray and Nine are at Elbow of great Blunderboar, and the Six and Seven are just over the Head of noble Gallivants. Some Spades of ill Aspect are mingled with them, but the Hearts and Clubs take off their malevolent Quality.

Folly. Go then, my Friends, secure of Fame and Conquest, The Oracles pronounce it.

[Jack and his Party enter. They throw down the Table, Cups, Cards, etc.]

A battle ensues. Jack slays the Giants. The Genius of the Isle [of Britain] descends, giving the Wand of Reason to Jack who touches Folly with it. She turns into a Monster garbed in Snakes. The mob declare themselves against her. Jack touches her a second time with the Wand, the ground opens and she sinks beneath it. Reason’s declared triumphant.

The Layout

The method of reading playing cards is remarkably similar to laying out the Lenormand deck. All the cards are laid in a series of rows. One then finds the person’s Significator and reads the cards immediately around it. You can also examine the cards of significant others or cards that reflect topics of concern. The layout may have looked something like this 4×13 layout, although they might have used 6 rows of 9 cards (except the 6th row with 7).

IMG_0768

In a later play called The Astrologer: A Comedy, Ralph seems to allude to Jack the Giant-Killer when he writes:

“This is an Age of Reason, Man we see with our own Eyes, and give no Credit to what surpasses our Understanding.”
” True, Sir; but my Father’s as superstitious as if he had liv’d two Centuries ago. . . . “

” Men are more ashamed of this Folly, but not less inclin’d to it: witness the very Nonsense of Coffee-Grounds, which is grown into a Science, and become the Morning Amusement of Numbers, in every Corner of the Kingdom.”

 Sources

jack-gyant-killerJack the Gyant-Killer: A Comi-Tragical Farce, anonymous (1730).

The Taste of the Town, Or a Guide to All Publick Diversions. by A. PRIMCOCK• (pseud. James Ralph) (1728/30).

Hogarth print depicting preparations for the play, “The Devil to Pay in Heaven” (1738).

The Astrologer: A Comedy by James Ralph (1744).

“Fielding’s Indebtedness to James Ralph” by Helen Sard Hughes, Modern Philology, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Aug., 1922), pp. 19-34.

“Henry Fielding: London Calling & Poetic Faith” (Madamepickwickartblog).

Henry Fielding: A Memoir by G. M. Godden.

Facsimile of deck printed in London ca. 1750. MacGregor Historic Games.

Also check out: “Reading Coffee Grounds: A Lady’s Hobby” (blog post).

The original 1745 print, “Casting the Coffee-grounds,” is from my personal collection.

Thanks to Kwaw on aeclecticforum.net who first brought this play to my attention.

*A. Primcock (James Ralph’s pseudonym). The word, primcock literally means “whore-penis’: a man who sleeps around indiscriminately. It appears as an insult in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Marie d'AgoultIn June of 1834, Marie Catherine Sophie, Comtesse d’Agoult (later known as the writer Daniel Stern), at the urging of her friend, novelist Eugène Sue, sought a reading with Mlle. Lenormand that promised great things. Four days later a hopeful Eugène Sue obtained a reading. Both Marie d’Agoult’s reading and that of M. Sue are recounted in her memoirs.

Thus we learn of Eugène’s unrequited love for Marie and a prediction of her future that was soon to take an astonishing turn. The following year Marie divorced her husband and met the pianist and composer Franz Liszt, with whom she had three illegitimate children (one of whom became the celebrated and influential wife of Richard Wagner).

Here is Marie d’Agoult’s own account.


I went to Mlle. Lenormand on 23 June of the year 1834, at the suggestion of the famous novelist, Eugene Sue, who spoke to me of her as a prodigious person through her power of penetration and intuition. Mlle. Lenormand then lived in the rue de Tournon and gave her consultations from a very dark, dirty, and strongly musty room, to which, using some pretty childish tricks, she had given an air of necromancy.

Lenormand+cards - Version 2

It was no longer the period of her brilliant fame, when, by virtue of her prediction to Madame de Beauharnais, she had achieved credit with the greatest rulers of Europe – it will be recalled that, at the Congress of Aachen, Alexandre visited her frequently and seriously; Lord Wellington also consulted her to learn the name of the man who had attempted to assassinate him in 1818; she was now almost forgotten. Few people knew the way to her home.

Old, thick, sordid in her attire, wearing a square cap, how medieval she appeared, backlit in a large greasy leather armchair at her table covered with cabalistic cards; a large black cat meowed at her feet with a witch’s air. The prompt and piercing glance of the diviner, thrown on the sly, as she shuffled her cards—for a few francs in addition to the common price for what she called the big game (grand jeu)—she revealed to one, without doubt, the kind of concern and mood of the character of the one who consulted her and helped to predict a future that, after all, for each of us, and except for the very limited intervention of chance, is the result of our temperament and character.

What she said amazed me because I did not know myself then, otherwise I could have, to some extent, been my own oracle, and predicted, without consulting anyone [else], what my destiny would be. On my way home, I noted down what Mlle. Lenormand had said to me. I’ve copied it here for those curious about these kinds of meetings.

“There will be a total change in your destiny in the next two or three years. What would appear to you at this time, to be absolutely impossible will come true. You will entirely change your way of living. You will change your name thereafter, and your new name will become famous not only in France but in Europe. You will leave your country for a long time. Italy will be your adopted country; you will be loved and honored.

“You’ll love a man who will make an impression in the world and whose name will make a great clamour. You inspire strong feelings of enmity in two women who will seek to harm you by all means possible. But have faith; you will triumph through everything. You will live to be old, surrounded by true friends, and you will have a beneficial influence on a lot of people.

“Pay attention to your dreams that warn you of danger. Distrust your imagination that enthuses easily and will throw you in the path of danger, which you will escape through great courage. Moderate your benevolence which is blind. Expect that your mind, which is independent and sincere, will make you a lot of enemies and your kindness will be ignored.”

I also found, among my correspondence with Eugene Sue, a letter which refers to Mlle. Lenormand, and I have joined it here to supplement what I have told of this incident.

EugeneSueLetter of Eugène Sue,
Paris, June 27, 1834.

I have taken leave of our diviner, Madam, and I cannot but express my disappointment. You asked me to tell you the predictions she made me, as unpleasant as they are: so here they are:

You see, Madam, that the damned Sibyl varied at least in her prophecies, and your brilliant and European destiny contrasts badly with mine. After I was recognized as one of her assiduous believers, the accursed witch made me a few insignificant predictions, reminded me of others, and then suddenly, stopping to mix the diabolical cards, she fixed me with her penetrating and mocking eyes:

 “Ho Ho!” said she, “here is something new and fatal. You are feeling a sentiment that she will not respond to.”

 I wanted to deny it; she insisted. She spoke to me of a rare spirit of infinite charm; she painted for me a portrait that I would not dare recount here, but which was not unrecognizable. Then, seeing I was so completely divined, I was silent. I limited myself to asking her if there was, therefore, no hope, if some card had not been forgotten, if the combination was without error. The old woman began to re-calculate with an infernal complacency.

 Alas! Madame, the result was absolutely the same: a deeply passionate feeling, without any hope, disturbed my present and destroyed my future. You see, Madame, in comparing this prediction to that which was made to you, I am doubly subject to accuse the fates; because it is said that the man whose destiny you will share will be famous, from which I conclude that the lover you push away will remain obscure. Oh well, Ma’am, I dare confess it to you, this glory announced to the man whom you will deign to love, I dreamed about it, I aspired to it, I felt strong enough to win it; but now that it is foretold that I will not be loved, I’ve dropped from the height of my dreams and ambitions to sadness and discouragement, empty of heart and spirit.

Regards, etc.


I wish to thank “Terry” who, in a comment on my detailed post on Mlle. Lenormand, introduced me to this material in Mes Souvenirs by Marie d’Agoult, Vol. 1, 1880, pp. 277-279. I cobbled the above account together from internet translators. Please feel free to share any corrections in the comments. The incident is only mentioned briefly in the biography by Richard Bolster (see cover photo above). See also my post: Madame Le Normand: The Most Famous Card Reader of All Time.

How many of us go to a movie or a play—even a really good one—and a couple of days or weeks later don’t remember a thing about it? Yes, movies have a role in relaxation and just plain momentary enjoyment, but there can be something said for the longer term pleasure of ruminating over the themes, questions and ideas presented in good art.

Imitation GameI have found Tarot and, more recently the 36 Lenormand cards, a great aid in meditating on ideas and art. This came into focus when I went to see the outstanding film The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing cracking the Enigma Code that helped end WWII. Themes also include the unconscionable way homosexuals have been treated and, ultimately, what is fair and just? I’ve put aside, for this discussion, the question of how accurate the film is—after all it is art, which serves to entertain and make us think and feel. [Trailer here.]

Note: if you know even the basics of Turing’s story, there is only one real spoiler below (so marked). 

Before seeing The Imitation Game, I drew three cards each from the Petit Lenormand and a Tarot deck as separate readings. I wished to compare, in part, how the messages I received would differ in terms of plot versus philosophical themes, character dilemmas or spiritual content. I knew only the broadest outline of Turing’s achievement: the facts mentioned above.

I asked: “What should I focus on in this movie to gain the greatest insights?”

From the Malpertuis Lenormand deck I received:

Fox – Clover – Bear

Before the movie, I summed up my page of notes: “Risky strategy pays off by protecting Britain.”

Fox is cunning, trickery, strategy; and in modern Lenormand can mean a job.

Clover is luck, chance, risk, fortuitous, brief.

Bear is strength, protection or envy; modern meanings include investment, gain and authority figures like CEOs or police and military.

In my method of doing line-readings the first card is the subject, so Clover modifies Fox: a risky strategy. Clover also serves as a verb, “pays off” leading to a future result: protection (Bear). I also considered that these cards could indicate a fortuitous relationship between an employer (Bear) and a worker (Fox), although with Fox and Bear looking in opposite directions, they might have different agendas. Furthermore, Bear could resent and be envious of the smartness of Fox. After the movie, I also considered Fox+Clover as “code-breaking” and Bear as the fearsome enemy (Bear is described as a “ferocious beast” in the oldest text). So we simply have: “breaking the Nazi code.”

Imagine my surprise when the movie opens with a film of a bear! It turned out to be the logo of the production company: Black Bear. Part way into the movie Turing makes an unsuccessful attempt to tell a joke about two people running into a bear: 

“The first one says, ‘You can’t outrun a bear.’ And the second one responds, ‘I don’t have to. I only have to outrun you.'”

This is a cunning strategy that can pay off when Fox is confronted by Bear. (Later I learned that Turing’s childhood toy bear—I seem to remember it being shown late in the film (?)—was his constant companion and is now featured in a display at Bletchley Park where the code-breaking took place.) 

At a more abstract level, Turing could be seen as the intelligent Fox, with Bear representing his monster of a machine that he named Christopher—after his only childhood friend who protected him at school. Additionally, Fox, which can also represent something false, a faked ploy, is key to how these cards can relate to the “Turing Test” of artificial intelligence and especially Turing’s example of it in his “Imitation Game.”

From the 78-card Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck I received:

Tower reversed – Justice – Devil

Having three Major Arcana cards indicates deeply “destined” circumstances. I tried two summing ups: “Justice (logic/right) ends the War with Evil (material dominion).” or “Choosing materialism/shame (Devil as outcome) versus (Justice) a cover-up of flaws and problems (Tower reversed).”

Tower reversed is averting disaster; bailing out; impotence; blocking or overturning destruction.

Justice is measured rationality, seeing the pros & cons; choice; balance; decision; and, of course, law and justice.

The Devil is utmost materiality; power structures; ego; shame; blame. (The parallel to Bear as envious, ferocious beast is notable.)

I considered that Justice in the center represented a balancing act between the Tower R and the Devil. Was shame (the Devil) somehow balancing an end to war (Tower)? Or was it more about needing to find a solution (Justice) that would keep the pressure-cooker from exploding (Tower reversed) that would let evil reign?

Mild Spoiler Alert:

Contemplating these cards since seeing the film, I see a much deeper issue hinted at by the movie—perverted justice done by a blind institution that causes great harm. I’ve learned from reading Lenormand that we have to see cards as being modified by what surrounds them. Justice doesn’t have to be reversed to indicate injustice—the Devil following Justice can show the great evil that justice itself can do. When a person is seen as “inverted” (“inversion” is an old classification for homosexual) then grave injustices are done. A point has been made that the royal “pardon” of Turing for his conviction as a homosexual is a travesty as he was guilty under the law and therefore “justly” convicted as were the 47,000 other men who were also convicted (and not pardoned). What we are shocked by is that a hero who saved millions of lives should have been treated so badly—but is that just to all the others? These cards indicate the reaction of today’s viewers that the “justice” against “inversion” was heart-breakingly “wrong,” while, according to the time, it was not, despite the fact that we now see the institution itself (the law) as as a great evil. 

Major Spoiler Alert:

Upon breaking the Enigma Code, the team is faced with the realization that they cannot stop the Nazi attacks as that would reveal to the Nazis the breaking of the code and the immediate termination of its use. British intelligence would have to allow the killing and destruction to continue in order to know what the Germans were up to. I see this horrifying realization as the main climax of the film, perfectly depicted by the Tarot cards: the breakthrough that could end the war and the decision to allow great evil to continue as the only rational thing to do.

Added: A final summarizing of these Tarot cards in terms of the film:
To achieve true justice and the reversal of a destructive course there will be collateral damage (bad things happen).

I still find the Tarot to be the much deeper of the two decks, but the Lenormand cards astound me again and again with their uncanny precision and succinctness. As mentioned above, I’ll leave to you the implications of these cards to the Turing Test of artificial intelligence and his “Imitation Game.” Feel free to comment on these below.

Regarding the biographical accuracy of this piece of fiction: there are major problems. I can only hope that the film (enjoyable in its own right but only as fiction) will lead you to find out more about the real Alan Turing:
http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/nov/20/the-imitation-game-invents-new-slander-to-insult-alan-turing-reel-history

Check out these other readings for films, plays and books:
https://marygreer.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/whos-afraid-of-virginia-woolf/
https://marygreer.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/reading-the-cards-for-movies-and-books/

The song in English:

Fashion is constantly changing
But as long as the world exists
The Gypsy with an old pack of cards
Will have at least one client…
Someone longing for bizarre miracles
Will knock on her door
And she will lay out in front of him
Those noble kings of hers…
What can I say? What can I say?
All humans are just like this -
They want to know, want to know
Want to know the future
What can I say? What can I say?
All humans are just like this -
They want to know, want to know
Want to know the future

Card-reading can foretell happiness
Or an unexpected blow of fate
Imprisonment and a long journey
Or everlasting faithful love…
Old cards will spread out like a fan
On a shawl decorated with fringe
And suddenly the Gypsy herself
Will believe her noble kings…
What can I say? What can I say?
All humans are just like this -
They want to know, want to know
Want to know the future
What can I say? What can I say?
All humans are just like this -
They want to know, want to know
Want to know the future.

Time destroys granite castles
And covers towns with sand
But years don’t mean anything
For those cards in the Gypsy’s hands…
The heart melts as the fortune-teller speaks
And at all the crossroads of the world
The noble kings are telling lies
With the same expression on their faces…
What can I say? What can I say?
All humans are just like this -
They want to know, want to know
Want to know the future
What can I say? What can I say?
All humans are just like this -
They want to know, want to know
Want to know the future.

Translation from around-lyrics.com.

Didn’t think it could get any better? Watch this version:

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.

*The DVD or Internet access to this pre-recorded talk now appears  here.*

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).


Additional Resources

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:

Heidi Kabel as Die Kartenlegerin

The German word for Cartomancer is Kartenlegerin. A YouTube search brings up two fascinating works. The first is the amazing singer/actor Heidi Kabel as the card reader in the made-for-TV play, Die Kartenlegerin (1968). A rough translation by Alexander Kurzwernhart of the reading is available in the Comments. One thing to note is the method of “counting cards,” which is a key cartomancy technique used when reading a layout of the whole deck (usually 32, 36 or 52 cards). One counts 5, 7 or 9 cards in any direction from the querent’s significator and from the significator of the ‘person of interest’. (It looks like she’s stabbing the cards with her finger.) Fast forward to Minute 6:00 to begin the reading.

Schumann’s – Die Kartenlegerin, Op.31 No.2

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote this song in 1840 (based on a poem in French “Les cartes ou l’horoscope” by Pierre Jean de Béranger (1780-1857)), about a young girl stopping her sewing to quickly read her cards while her mother sleeps. Learn more about it here. The translation comes from the Lotte Lehmann League. You might want to listen to the music while you read the English lyrics.

Has mother finally fallen asleep
Over her book of sermons?
You, my needle, now lie still,
Stop this constant sewing.
I shall read the cards,
Oh, what things can I expect,
Oh, how will it all end?
If I am not deceived,
One, I think of, will appear,
Great, here he comes,
The knave of hearts knows his duty.
A rich widow? oh dear.
Yes, he woos her, I’m undone,
Oh! the wicked scoundrel.
Heartache and much vexation,
A school with restricting walls,
But the king of diamonds will take pity
And comfort me.
A nicely delivered present,
He elopes with me, a journey,
Money and happiness in abundance.
This king of diamonds
Must be a prince or king,
Which means that it won’t take much
For me to be a princess.
Here’s a foe, who strives to soil
My name before His Majesty,
And a fair-haired man stands by me.
A secret comes to light,
And I escape just in time,
Farewell, O life of splendor,
Ah, that was a cruel blow.
The one is gone, a crowd
Surges around me
That I can scarcely count them all.
What’s this?
A dumb female apparition,
A wheezing old woman coming my way,
To banish love and happiness
Before my youth has gone?
Ah, it’s mother, who’s woken up,
Opening wide her mouth to scold.
No, the cards never lie.

In 1896 a gem of a book called What the Cards Tell appeared by “Minetta.” Minetta also wrote a book on teacup fortune telling. A special deck by her appeared around 1898 (see ad below), followed by “The Gypsy Bijou Fortune Telling Cards” with a guide by Minetta (Foulsham & Co., 1910; republished 1969). Minetta’s book came out in several subsequent editions, including a 1918 expanded edition called Card Reading: A Practical Guide (William Rider; introduced by Sepharial) that includes a section on tarot using the Rider-Waite-Smith deck.Minetta’s first edition recounts the history of the tarot as follows:

“Since three thousand years before Christ, the art of Cartomancy has been in vogue. Many ancient adepts consulted the oracle before venturing on any great undertaking. The Chinese used to engrave plates of copper and silver with designs of similar import to those in modern use. The Hebrews engraved the sacred symbols of the Tarot on plates of gold, and these were afterwards copied by the Kabalists, and notably by Simeon-bar-Jachai, to whom we owe our knowledge of the Book of Hermes. The art of Divination was in vogue among the adepts of the religious orders in times past, and the vulgar imitation was permitted by them the better to veil from public knowledge the true secrets of the sacred science.”

This brief history contains the much heard claim that the true occult secrets are being veiled from the public. I mention this because I regularly get emails from people asking about the secrets that Waite hid as people are still convinced that someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes.

What’s most interesting to us is the spread Minetta calls “Method II,” which also appears in a book by Madame Xanto in 1901 and in 1903 in a book by Mme. Zancig (from which comes the illustration below). It may be what inspired Waite’s Ancient 10-card Spread, as it appears to be one of the oldest spreads that is not based on cards placed in lines or a fan, but rather forms a picture.

Method II (later called “The Star of Fortune”) describes a thirteen card reading laid out surrounding a Significator.

“Those cards which crown the Significator predict the near future; those at the feet, the past; those to the left, obstacles; those to the right, the distant future; the top corners, present details; those at the feet, the past details; the card on top of the Significator [covers it], the consolation.” The book also notes that, “If the Nine of Hearts [Cups] comes out in the thirteen, it augurs good luck for the consulter and success to his wishes.”

Originally it was laid out around the significator: above, below (inner); above, below (outer); left, right (inner); left right (outer); left, right (corners above); left, right (corners below); final card crosses the significator. Later it was laid out as a cross: above, below, right, left (inner); above, below, right, left (outer); rest as above.

Who was “Minetta”?

There’s some thought that she might have been Waite himself, who had just published, through Redway, his own Handbook of Cartomancy and Divination, advertised in the same work as Minetta’s cartomancy deck. Usually the authors of popular fortune-telling books are hack writers for the publisher, using a mysterious pseudonym. Another clue lies in the fact that Minetta is the name of a young but resourceful gypsy fortune-teller in W. H. G. Kingston’s book, Fred Markham in Russia: The Boy Travellers in the Land of the Czar. Kingston (1814-1880) wrote more than 130 adventure tales for boys (although is best known for his translations of Jules Verne—which were actually translated by his wife!). In his autobiography Waite wrote about his own youthful fondness for such adventure stories. On the other hand, the style is gentler and not near as bombastic as Waite’s.

A Lagniappe*

Even authors of fortune telling books don’t want to be seen as gullible and so tend to hedge their bets by making sure that everyone knows they aren’t complete believers. Here is a typically convoluted, yet perspicacious, disclaimer, written by the male author of a fortune telling book: The Cup of Knowledge: A Key to the Mysteries of Divination by Willis MacNicol (1924):

“The male sex holds aloof, and leaves the ladies to ‘perform these follies.’ Some ascribe it to man’s superiority; or, as briefly summed up by a member of their sex, who when declaiming against the possibility of the future being made visible, said, ‘with all apologies to you, I must say I am not so profoundly stupid as to believe in these things; it cannot be anything more than rot.’ It is remarkable how such protests die away when some remarkable manifestation has been made by the cup in accurately predicting some event of the distant future that, at the time, appeared absurd and impossible of happening. Women may lawfully claim superiority with regard to her intuitive faculty, and thus she is well equipped for exercising her divinatory powers.”

* “Lagniappe” is a Louisana term for a little something extra (like a 13th donut in a dozen); supposedly it was originally a Peruvian Quechua word that traveled with the Spanish conquistadors, ending up with a French spelling.

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.

How many times have you mentioned any of the above references in an actual tarot reading?

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.]

Step 1

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

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.”

Step 3

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:

ChildLilyGardenCrossroads

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.

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 appears to be the oldest book with instructions on fortune-telling-with-cards in the English language.  The first edition seems to be from 1729—well before Etteilla wrote his 1770 book on “cartonomancie” and contains a “lot” style method of divination in which the card chosen leads to a verse based on your choice from a list of pre-set questions. However we know from the 1730 play Jack the Gyant-Killer that multi-card spreads with meanings for each card were already current in England. (Thanks as always to Ross Caldwell for additional information and corrections.)At some point between 1750 and 1770 a new, much shorter book appeared called Patridge and Flamsted’s new and well Experienced Fortune Book, delivered to the world from the Astrologer’s Office in Greenwich Park, for the benefit of all young men, maids, wives, and widows. Who, by drawing Cards according to the direction of this Book, may know whether Life shall be long or short; whether they shall have the person desired; and every lawful question whatsoever. The signification of Moles in any part of the body; and the interpretation of Dreams, as they relate to good or bad fortune. Along with the change in author spelling there was a major change in the technique portrayed. For the first time we have instructions for a one-card spread and individual meanings given for each card (text appears below).

The individuals in the title are supposed to refer to Dr. John Flamsteed (1646 – 1719), the first Astronomer Royal, and Mr. John Partridge (1644-1715), a well-known writer of astrology books and almanacs and associate of the astrologer William Lilly. However, the names of both Partridge and Flamsteed were appropriated by others as documented by Adrian Johns in The Nature of the book: print and knowledge in the making, p. 619: “But did Flamsteed remain Flamsteed? The question of his identity had been a real one in his own time. Before him there had been no royal astronomical observer in England, and there is evidence that Flamsteed himself was represented by various contemporaries as a virtuoso, an astrologer, a rogue, pedagogue, and a pamphleteer.” He mentions, as an example, a pamphlet, purporting to be by Flamsteed, entitled Plemstadts most Strange and Wonderful Prophecy.

John Partridge was made famous by Jonathan Swift who, under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, wrote an April Fool’s prediction for the death of Partridge in a spoof astrological almanac (followed by an announcement of Partridge’s death on the date given), after which the name of the still-living-Partridge became legion, appearing on many spurious publications.

Whoever it was who wrote this book, we can be grateful for the first publication in English of playing card meanings. So, without further delay, the instructions and meanings according to Patridge and Flamsted’s new and well Experienced Fortune Book:

Directions whereby the Reader may be informed of the Rules in this Book.

Take a new pack of Cards. Shuffle them well together, Read the rest of this entry »

Gustave Doré - Les Saltimbanques (Entertainers), 1874

Gustave Doré (1832-1883) – Les Saltimbanques (Entertainers), 1874

Updated: Jan. 29, 2015 (see at the end)

Several paintings of card readers tell fascinating stories. As tarot readers we work with the images in pictures as rich symbols of the human condition. It would be interesting to hear what story you see in this powerful and heartbreaking painting by Gustave Doré. Use the “Comments” to share with us what you think has just happened and what message the artist may have had. Refer to as many of the symbols as you can to tell us what their story is. As noted above, Saltimbanque, while a French word, is from the Italian saltare in banco, “jumping on a platform,” and signifies “tumbler, performer, entertainer.” Saltimbanques are a subset of acrobats, performing only on the ground.  I understand the word has a slightly perjorative connotation that includes buffoonery and charlatanism. Marilee reports in the Comments that the painting is also called “The Injured Child,” which suggests that all hope might not be lost. (Click on the picture to make it larger and then click again for one more zoom.)

UPDATE: In an 1874 interview with Gustave Doré for Appleton’s Journal (in England), Doré made his own intentions for this painting clear to the interviewer (this was the same year in which he painted the work):

[Interviewer:] Turning to that picture of ‘The Mountebanks,’ which had so struck me, I asked if the poor wounded child were going to die.

“Yes,” answered M. Doré, “he is dying. I wished to depict the tardy awakening of nature in those two hardened almost brutalized beings. To gain money they have killed their child and in killing him they have found out that they had hearts. . . . The English engraver wishes me to call it ‘Behind the Scenes’ but its French title will be I think simply ‘Agonie.'”

Why do you think the artist included playing cards in this scene? What do they represent?  Read this original story by ‘Helen’ inspired by the painting, which includes a brief reading of the cards.

Added: Here’s an enhanced close-up of the cards for those who would like to try reading them:Saltimbanques card spread

See this post for a couple of animoto videos of this picture.

Doré created a second version of this work.

8617828814_0c0b218722_k

Here the child is clearly dead, no animals are present, the cards are missing, and the father looks like an underworld denison—a demon from the depths. Striped down to raw emotion, Doré is letting the family themselves tell the story rather than through the symbolic accoutrements of the other work. The Virgin Mary-style robe of sky blue and gold stars of the prior painting has been cast aside to reveal a filmy dress of youthful, blossom-pink. It’s as if the child were posed between dawn and night. It seems that Doré himself trained as an acrobat and had a life-long fascination with common street performers. He was struck by a report of just such an accident in the papers and not only produced one of his scarce paintings, but actually poured himself into two versions, seeking to capture that moment of unspeakable grief.

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Mary K. Greer has made tarot her life work. Check here for reports of goings-on in the world of tarot and cartomancy, articles on the history and practice of tarot, and materials on other cartomancy decks. Sorry, I no longer write reviews. Contact me HERE.

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