London’s British Museum contains a wealth of antique treasures, but one of its more curious exhibits is a little deck of cards dated to around 1800. They would be cast aside as ordinary playing cards were it not for the intriguing symbols printed upon each. These are the oldest surviving Lenormand cards in the world, and they represent a popular form of cartomancy, or card divination, that developed at the start of the 19th century.
Unlike a traditional deck of 52 playing cards or the 56 Tarot cards, there are just 36 Lenormand cards. Each card has a symbol: there’s a key, a fish, a heart and mice. And each symbol has a unique meaning. The Rider, for instance, brings news or travel; an energy of moving forward. The Star shines with hope, fame and achievement. The four suites also carry their own meaning: clubs challenge while spades bring hope. Numerology, symbolism and suit – whether club, spade, heart or diamond – all work together to map out an intricate and insightful story for the sitter. It’s weaving these together that makes Lenormand cards such a pleasure to work with.
The cards were named after the famous French psychic, Marie Anne Lenormand (1772-1843). Marie Anne was so celebrated for her divinatory skills that she’s rumoured to have read the fortunes of Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife Empress Joséfine, Czar Alexander I and history’s most famous French revolutionaries (Robespierre, St-Just, Marat) to name a few. For her readings, she’s said to have used a deck of 36 cards – close cousin of the 32-card Piquet deck which rose to popularity in the 16th century. These 36 cards have become Marie Anne’s legacy. However, many say the Lenormand deck came from the German Game of Hope, a parlour game developed in 1799.
Whether its origins are a parlour game or a celebrated French psychic, Lenormand cards are a very rewarding tool to use in divination. Laid out tableau-style, a reading is holistic rather than linear. It paints a full picture. Once familiar with the symbolism, numerology and suites, the reader can gain an immense insight into a situation or person… just as Marie Anne must have done for those French Revolutionaries!
College Tutor Geoffrey Beitz teaches the Lenormand cards at the College. Keep an eye on his upcoming events, both online and in-person.
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