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Marie Anne Lenormand (1772–1843) was a famous—or infamous—French card-reader during the Napoleonic era. She is a fascinating figure and, to my mind, a bit of a feminist hero in the often male-dominated era of the occult revival. She read futures with a collection of cards, apparently ordinary playing cards with various symbols and cryptic words written on them. Her fame was so great and pervasive that her name quickly become synonymous with card-reading, and it is no surprise that it became attached to divination decks. Two of those decks are particularly popular today, especially in Europe: the petit and the grand Lenormand. The grand Lenormand is a fascinating and bewilderingly complex deck of 54 cards, covered in arcane symbols from mythology, alchemy, geomancy, astrology, and even the language of flowers. Conversely, the petit Lenormand is a simple and clear collection of thirty-six emblems affixed to an abbreviated deck of playing cards; this is the deck I explore in my new book, Cartomancy with the Lenormand and the Tarot.
These cards actually have nothing to do with Mme. Lenormand. They were originally a game—as was the tarot, which is important to remember if we ever start taking ourselves too seriously! However, the original game—das Spiel der Hoffnung—did contain simple instructions for divination. And by simple, I mean a suggestion that it was possible to do so, without much guidance what the cards mean. (Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin translate the original instructions for this game in their Learning Lenormand, which is itself an excellent introduction to the Lenormand.)
It didn't take long for people to elaborate and modify these simple instructions for their own use. Many different traditions of Lenormand arose, and contention between them can even get somewhat heated (again, remember—it started as a game! Take a breath!).
In the United States, these cards have not been as well-known as the tarot, and so unlike in France, Germany, and South America, the United States has no native tradition. Instead, what we're starting to see is something that's been called the "American mutt" tradition—not entirely approvingly, although I am willing to adopt the label with pride, being myself a bit of an American mutt. Below, in simplified keywords, are some of the meanings that I see arising from this "mutt" tradition, although you should certainly not be bound by these keywords as you begin to contribute to this tradition yourself.
If you wish to experiment, you can get a deck of playing cards and sketch these symbols on them yourself with a Sharpie or other permanent marker. Eventually, though, you'll get the Lenormand bug and start buying decks. There is no cure for this addiction, I'm afraid, so you might as well enjoy it.
This simplicity allows the Lenormand cards two great advantages as divination systems. First, you as a reader can control the amount of complexity you want. Second, because they are simple, they can be very clear and practical.
One way that you can control the complexity of the Lenormand is through combinations; each of the cards gains new meaning when placed next to other cards. For example, if you place Heart next to Sun, you have a combination of happy emotions. Place it next to Clouds, though, and you might have a confused heart. Next to Cross, and you have a burdened, worried heart. As you lay out the Lenormand, you can decide how to put together the combinations in ways that speak to you.
The clarity and practicality of the Lenormand is sometimes startling. For example, while Heart next to Cross might mean a worried heart, it sometimes means something very literal: It could indicate a location such as a hospital or church called "Sacred Heart." I often have to chuckle a bit at the apropos spelling out of words and ideas when I play with the Lenormand. You should never stray too far from the literal in reading the cards: Dog usually means friend or loyalty, but it can also simple mean, "dog."
There are traditional ways of laying out the cards, which are discussed in Cartomancy with the Lenormand and the Tarot, but I sometimes find it enough just to start laying cards down and reading them in combination like a book, until I have my answer or the insight I'm seeking. Start by just laying out three or four cards and trying to group them into combinations. Often, that's all that's needed, although more elaborate systems exist for those seeking greater depth.
Lenormand and Tarot: A Good Match
Often, symbols on the Lenormand appear in the tarot. Take the Heart card, for example, which appears on the Empress as a shield. Or the Key card, which appears at the feet of the Hierophant. These shared symbols can often help us make links between the two sets of cards. Also, meanings tend to overlap. For example, Coffin shares a very similar set of meanings as the Death card in the tarot. And Sun, Moon, and Stars make their own appearances in both decks, sometimes with similar meanings. I sometimes think of tarot cards, now, as frozen Lenormand combinations—and Lenormand cards are the alphabet of tarot.
The Introspection Spread
Lay out three major arcana cards from your favorite tarot deck. The first card is at the top of the triangle, and it represents the Reason, your conscious, thinking mind. It answers the question, "What do I think?" The card to your right, below the reason card, is your Desire: it shows what you want to get, what you tend to chase after or what you are currently seeking. It answers the question, "What do I want?" The card to the left, also below the Reason card, is your Emotion card. It shows your emotional state, and usually represents how you feel about what you are Desiring, and so answers the question, "What do I feel?" At the best of times, reason should mediate between desire and emotion. If these cards are not cards in natural harmony with each other, it might show a conflict.
Now, take your Lenormand deck and draw two cards to place on each card, again starting with the Reason card. Look for repeated symbols or meanings, and use those to draw links in your mind between the ideas represented in those cards. For example, if the Lenormand cards on your Reason card repeat symbols that appear in Emotions or Desires, clearly your Reason is working to control those areas—or is controlled by them, depending on the nature of the cards.
Let's do an example spread for someone considering starting a new business partnership with someone.
In the place of Reason, the tarot card is XVI, The Tower, and the Lenormand cards are 5, Tree, and 21, Mountains. The tarot is telling us that the querent thinks that this decision may require an upheaval, but the Lenormand reveals that the querent sees a block in her growth, which the tarot Tower card might overturn. This also makes me think of slow growth, like a tree trying to grow on a rocky mountain.
The card in the place of Desire is II, The High Priestess, with the Lenormand cards 1, Rider, and 24, Heart. Here the tarot tells of the desire for knowledge, perhaps knowledge and skills that the partner has. The Lenormand rider is a visitor with the heart, the courage and emotional energy, to drive the business forward. The priestess wants to welcome him into the sanctum she guards—but does she have the heart herself?
The card in the place of Emotion is XII, The Hanged Man, with the Lenormand cards 22, Crossroad, and 25, Ring. The emotion is one of being hung up, stymied, in making the decision about whether or not to enter into partnership with this person.
5, Tree, is repeated symbolically in the tarot card XII, The Hanged Man, where it is the tree he hangs on. This would seem to indicate that the reason is telling emotion to get off its behind—or, in this case, head—if it expects to grow and flourish. The Lenormand card 25-Ring shows up in all three tarot cards, if you squint a bit: In the Hanged Man, its his halo. In the High Priestess, her head-dress, and in the Tower, the falling crown. Each of these is located in the region of the figure's head, pointing, again, to reason. The querent knows logically—but may not want to admit—that a partnership is necessary and beneficial. Finally, I see 21, Mountains, underneath the falling tower in XVI, The Tower; that tells me that this disruption is a breaking through blocks, not a disaster.
Of course, if you use a different tarot deck, you may have different interactions between the symbols of the tarot and the Lenormand, which I regard as a strength, since I have a drawer full of tarot cards I rarely get to use. Now, changing decks can change the synergy, and choosing a deck can be a divinatory act in itself.
Patrick Dunn (Chicago, IL) is a poet, linguist, Pagan, and a university English professor with a PhD in modern literature and language. His understanding of semiotics and the study of symbols arise from his training in ...