History of Lenormand cards

Fortune-telling is hardly a new form of entertainment and predicting what will come to pass. It has been around for millennia and is perhaps as old as human civilization itself. Cards are a bit younger, appearing on the European soil some seven or eight centuries ago. First used for gaming, they were quickly adapted to divination and the common playing cards as we know them now, along with Tarot and a few other systems, all thrived despite continuous opposition from the church. The 18th century in particular prove to be a fertile ground for occultists and fortune-tellers of all sorts.

Despite its similarity to playing cards and Tarot, Lenormand actually came into being through a different process of formation altogether. The baroque period (roughly covering the 17th and the 18th century) saw the proliferation of emblem books – collections of allegorical illustrations accompanied by explanatory text – typically morals or poems. They were intended to inspire the readers to reflect on the general moral lessons provided by both text and picture. The Anchor, the Heart, the Cross etc. thus became universal symbols. Still, not all images in the Lenormand could be accounted for in this way.

The other half came from a more mundane and less morally uplifting source. The 18th century saw the rise of popularity of coffee drinking and with it the proliferation of the old Turkish custom of coffee ground reading. From it stemmed a deck of instruction cards explaining the symbols that could be found at the bottom of the cup. Some, like the House, the Fox and the Bear, were to find their way into Lenormand soon.

The first deck of this type appeared in 1799 and was in fact not a creation of the famed sibylle des salons Mlle. Lenormand, the personal confidante of Empress Josephine, but instead an idea of a shrewd German businessman. Not quite as mystical nor as romantic as you would like it to be but historic facts are historic facts and there is no way around them. Das Spiel der Hoffnung (The Game of Hope), as it was initially known, was created and published by a jack-of-all-trades named Johann Kaspar Hechtel. He devised the deck as a multi-purpose parlour game, including divination symbols, French and German playing card inserts, as well as an instruction booklet on how to play a game he himself invented. The name Lenormand was to come about half a century later, after the death of both Herr Hechtel and Mlle. Lenormand.

The deck published by Dondorf, again in Germany, in late 1840’s, used the name of the celebrated fortune-teller as a mere marketing ploy to boost sales. Hers was an important legacy, having been the most celebrated cartomancer and psychic of her time. She was associated with grand figures such as Robespierre, Marat, Empress Josephine (the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte) and Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Chances are however, Mlle. Lenormand herself never used any such system and, according to what one can gauge from contemporary accounts, either stuck to a 52-card deck, or the piqued one consisting of 32 common playing cards. The Game of Hope, now named Lenormand, had 36 and was, by this time, freed from German-style insets, only retaining the (now globally spread) suits of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs.

During the next century or so, more decks appeared, mostly notably the Brepols in c.1910, Blue Owl in 1920, and the classic Patnik just before WWII. During the time, the popularity of the Lenormand spread to the Low Countries, Central Europe, the Balkans, Russia and even Brazil. The cards remained a staple of the fortune-telling practice of the common folk, perhaps only rivaled by Kipper in Germany and Zigeunerkarten in what was then Yugoslavia. The English-speaking world however clung to the mysteries of the Tarot and it is only recently that the public in the UK, US, Canada and Australia finally managed to catch a glimpse of the little deck of cards.

The 21st century promises to be an exciting time as new books and decks seem to be mushrooming out of nowhere and more and more people are getting involved and starting to ride the tidal wave of Lenormand. I hope that the posts on my blog will become a small part of this trend and contribute to the learning process of as many future enthusiasts as possible.