For someone who likes symbolic clutter and excess, my preference for sparse Lenormand cards surprises me. Lenormand cards satisfy the need for rules in me, albeit tiny ones. I feel like I am having a holiday from going with the nebulous tarot flow, a well deserved rest from that whatever-you-feel-ness about tarot whilst craving something slightly more rigid, but still – of course – with space for intuition. There is a satisfying rigidity about laying out Lenormand cards, how we read and interpret, how we conjugate our linear meanings. However, where I cannot but help go against the grain is with the combinations. Some of the prescribed combinations don’t sit well with me, so I make my own logical juxtaposition of symbolism but when it comes to individual card meanings and spreads I find comfort in tradition. These particular Lenormand cards, a relatively recent discovery, are an absolute delight for the traditionalist; they are a reproduction of an 1840 deck which was reissued in 2004 and their crookedness appeals to that same part of me that loves the historic Marseilles Tarot decks; wonky eyes, odd figure drawing and a fox that could be a mouse. The Clouds could actually be The Sea (or Waves) if you didn’t know any better, the perspective on the Coffin is all wrong and there are some lovely little arteries where the heart on the Heart card has been wrenched out.
Despite its imperfections though there is something deeply charming about the deck. Not least because it is the deck I always reach for to do a Grand Tableau spread as the cards are small and can easily fit into a relatively confined table space (each card measures approximately 5.5 cm x 8.5 cm). The above picture of the Grand Tableau was done as a reading for my partner on a business issue. When done in the 8 x 4 + 4 format it measures approximately 43 cm x 45 cm, easily suited to a normal tabletop. The backs of the cards are totally blank and both front and back are a gentle beige colour with original staining and some blots on the fronts. The colour palate is very limited, the illustrations are black lined engravings with limited primary colour highlighted tints. The playing card inserts are monochrome, the hearts and diamonds are black like the lines of the engravings. None of the court card inserts have any colour whatsoever .
Another thing in its favour is that hardly anyone knows about it, so it feels like the lost, forgotten, ugly cousin of its dowdy spinster aunt The Piatnik, and I feel like I’m shuffling a relic when I use it (which is more and more often nowadays) and the cardstock is good quality. Flexible, lightly glossy and certainly nothing overpowering . What is its greatest advantage, however, is the sheer simplicity of the images, the fact that they’re a little rough, not dainty. When reading Lenormand cards, I feel like I want the symbol and nothing more. I have experimented and – for me at any rate – readings seem clearer when there is nothing else to interpret and I am spared the urge to start deciphering symbols. This isn’t tarot. There is one symbol and it is the card’s meaning. And then this vast beige blankness on the card which sort of helps the mind swim but not lose itself. No astrological glyphs or pointers of any sort. It comes with a hardback book (in German) entitled Wahrsagen mit Karten der Madame Lenormand under the name of Bernd A. Mertz who must be the author of this book, although the cards go much further back and elsewhere are considered “anonymous” or “unknown” (variously dated 1840-1860) but according to the listing at the Lenormand Museum are indeed known as the Bernd A. Mertz Lenormand cards, a recent name for an old deck. They don’t come with a tin, I must add; I adapted the packaging and made up this little tin to store them in. Such pure symbols, nothing in the way, nothing to distract the gaze. Considering that Mlle Lenormand is believed to have died in 1843, can these cards possibly have been printed three years before her death? Either that’s an oversight or we have here some cards which date from when La Sibylle du Faubourg Sainte-Germain was herself alive. Shame that these cards are in fact German. But didn’t she flee to Belgium? Somewhere nearby anyway. Or something. Maybe she dropped them somewhere whilst in exile (I still desperately want to believe that she read for Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon but nobody will let me). There is much to be skeptical of in the biography of Mlle Lenormand but it is the cards that remain and these are about as historic as so-called Lenormand cards will ever get. Even if they’re not exactly contemporary to the great cartomancer herself, I doubt you’ll get much closer.