Forty-four days after paying priority mail for this infamous deck, it arrived. All part of the ongoing saga of the (doomed? cursed?) Gamecrafter Game of Hope “Original” Lenormand deck. It all started off so romantically, so sweetly. So let’s get facts out of the way first. The Original Lenormand, as it was titled, is a reproduction of a deck housed in The British Museum [Reg. 1896 0501.495], created by a J.K Hechtel and published in 1800 (“around 1800”, Decker et al) as Das Spiel der Hofnung by G.P.J Bieling in Nuremberg. It was reproduced in a limited edition of 250 copies with additional research by Tali Goodwin and Marcus Katz and bears a new cardback design created by Ciro Marchetti. The Lord and Lady cards are duplicated for use in readings about same sex issues so that the deck has 38 cards in all. It comes in a small, plastic, resealable bag with companion notes by Steph Myriel Es-Tragon and the cards themselves have excellent quality cardstock; flexible but resistant, not too highly glossed, and measure 6.3 cm by 9 cm. You could say that the cardstock is comparable to that used by Lo Scarabeo, maybe slightly thinner. I had read about this deck a couple of years ago in A Wicked Pack of Cards: Origins of the Occult Tarot by Ronald Decker, Thierry Depaulis and Michael Dummett. It was originally a type of portable game that could be carried around by soldiers and the like, with cards laid out numerically (1-36 in rows of six cards each) to form a kind of impromptu board game. Dice are thrown and the players move a token from one card to another with certain cards giving advantages or penalties (for example, from the companion notes; The Mountain, “On these steep Alps, the player has to remain until another arrives to release him or he has to cast a double.”) Remember, at the time this deck was published, Marie Anne Lenormand was maybe 28 years old and hadn’t written any of the books she would later write or yet risen to fame as a cartomante, the Sibyl of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.
This deck is called the Original Lenormand because, in effect, this is the deck upon which the familiar – some may say ubiquitous – Lenormand deck was based. Quite how the leap was made from gaming deck in Nuremberg to fortune telling tool in the Faubourg Saint-Germain a few decades later I have no idea and it isn’t really explained anywhere. All I can conclude – as with all the inexplicable loopholes in the history of cartomancy – is that people travelled with it. But this is the deck that started it all, and it is incredible to think that we still have it to refer to. In the chaos and haze of outrage surrounding this deck’s reissue a few months ago it is easy to forget what an extraordinary contribution to card-lovers’ collections this deck actually is. Whatever the story is behind the so-called petit Lenormand deck itself – and we will probably never know the full truth – this deck piques our curiosity like no other.
There were complaints from the start about the excessive packaging of Gamecrafter, packages which will always tempt the beady eye of Customs due to their (unnecessary) size. They seem oblivious to the environmental issues involved; tiny decks swathed in acres of paper and tape, boxes that are virtually empty occupying space (unnecessarily) in an aeroplane hold. Then when people started receiving their decks, many were found to be misaligned. The printing was offset, sometimes on the front but usually on the card backs. Some of us like a little roughness in our historic decks and I suppose we all know the charm and pitfalls of self-publishing or small print runs, but sometimes it is simply too much. As an organisation, Gamecrafter’s way of doing things is losing people’s sympathy so there is inevitably less patience with flaws such as these. Then there were complaints that the deck seemed a bit too heavily green, that the saturation needed adjusting. This doesn’t bother me in the slightest as we all know what happened the last time a deck was too heavily green (Thoth, I’m looking at you); everyone complained, got rid of their copies and they then became collectible. How fickle we card collectors are. As Ciro wrote elsewhere, as cardreaders we look more closely at our cards than gamers usually do and so we tend to have a more critical eye. This rings true for me. The Original Lenormand is, I suppose, a bit green but it makes it feel more aged. Not mouldy exactly, though there is a distinct green wash on some cards, though not enough to make me dislike the deck. It goes nicely with the backs too; Ciro’s delicate design uses a pale green in the centre of the card back which goes beautifully with the fronts and complements the overall tone. It has something of graceful 19th Century drawing room stuccowork in its gentle curls and rhythms.
Following complaints about misalignments and dislike of the green tinge, Gamecrafter abruptly stopped selling the deck shortly after I had ordered mine. I was on the fence for a long time (because of what I had heard) but bit the bullet and bought not one, but two; historical decks being my weakness. Both decks were sent early August. Some time later I got a letter from Customs saying I needed to produce proof of payment before my package would be released. I sent them my invoice. Heard nothing for two weeks or more. Then I got another letter (the same as the first) requesting proof of payment. Again. So I sent it again, always too busy to question. Still heard nothing. The morning I decided to send an email wondering just where my package was, it was delivered with a surcharge of 34 euros. So apart from the postage and packaging excesses, I also had to pay an extra 34 euros. A bit of a disaster all round really but between them posting my decks and me receiving them, the whole debacle had exploded, Gamecrafter had ceased selling them, and the first whimpers of regret were beginning to sound like a distant hunting horn. I also realised that, with time, there were actually going to be very few copies of the Original Lenormand around and I was getting impatient about welcoming them into my collection and needing to know whether mine were faulty ones or not (apart from hoping the package hadn’t got lost). Last Friday, they arrived. Of the two; one is absolutely perfect, while the other one has only a few cardbacks ever so slightly misaligned. I can live with that. I shall keep the perfect one safe and use the other one because when I read Lenormands I usually do a Grand Tableau, shuffle, deal all cards and hardly ever see all the card backs anyway, unlike tarot where I often fan them out across the table and choose cards at random, so problems with the cardbacks would distract me more. The centring of the cardbacks here doesn’t greatly matter to me to be honest and in my opinion the greenness has been exaggerated. It would be odd if there were a few weirdly green cards different from the rest but the whole deck has the same consistent tone and they all harmonise well with each other and with the cardbacks. I have tried to capture this greenness in my photographs but cannot. The photographs included here do not feel fully representative of exactly how the cards look close up.
Bearing in mind all this background information, it has been hard to look at the deck and evaluate it from a neutral place, but I think in the three days since I received them, I find myself thinking more and more that – yes – this is definitely going to be one of my top Lenormands. I can feel that the wait was worth it (and the wait was not due to Gamecrafter but entirely due to Customs at this end). The colouring of the cards is impeccable (“the cards are etched and nicely hand-coloured”, Dummett), and in terms of the reproduction of the actual image, they seem to me flawless, though admittedly I haven’t seen the original. Yet there is a wide spectrum of tinted hues giving the cards a very rich overall feel, much richer than my other favourite 19th century Lenormand reproductions like the Mertz and the Glück Wahrsagen deck but this doesn’t come across in the photographs. I love how they have two types of playing cards set into the top corners. On the right is the “Bavarian French pattern” with single ended courts and on the left, the German “Ansbach” pattern, with bells, acorns, hearts and leaves. Some of the artwork seems more dynamic than is usually seen in playing cards of the period. I love how the Rider twists, has his back to us, cracks the whip and his horse exits the card diagonally away from us. I love the snake coiled around a rotten tree stump. What I find endlessly fascinating is remembering how this deck is the first, so the images you see are the very first Lenormand images. The original Stork had a little frog in its beak (see above). It’s as if we discovered the original Marseilles and all our questions were answered in one single deck. Imagine this happening. That’s the analogy that keeps coming back to me. So when we say card number 5; The Tree, actually it is “Trees” (see above), as there are three of them in the image. This card doesn’t have a title in the notes as there is no forfeit attached to it, so it may actually represent a small wood or the entrance to a forest. In card number 3, The Ship is actually sailing away from us, so I begin to question the “good tidings coming in to dock” meaning that we are given, and I have seen modern Lenormand decks criticised for having the ship sailing away from the viewer when in fact it was originally like this. The child card in The Original Lenormand (see above) features a tiny butterfly just out of the child’s reach. What intrigues me is how the meanings from The Game of Hope have not always worked their way into accepted divinatory meanings, though the original instructions do refer to the fact that the cards can be used to tell fortunes. With some cards, the meanings have filtered through (as in card number 16, The Star, bestowing “good prospects”). However, from the Tower, we have “pleasant vista, pay 2 marks”, so the card could mean by extension (perhaps) having to pay dearly for a temporary advantage. Card number 26 is no mere book, but a grimoire (it says) and whoever lands on this is forced “by a hex” back to card number 20, The Garden. So what we know as The Book could actually mean a setback. This deck and its accompanying translated notes are an absolute delight. I have long wanted to get to the essence of the Lenormand deck as we know it and with this edition I feel as though I have exactly that in my hands.
When I get a new deck that I love this much, one of the first tasks is to get an appropriate bag or pouch for it, moreso with this deck which came only in a plastic bag. So the day after receiving it, I went to the flea market and (this always happens; I am truly blessed!) found a small leather pouch which fits and suits the deck perfectly, a good serendipitous sign. I rehydrated and cleaned the leather as best I could, while maintaining the stained, aged look so in keeping with the cards. This is exactly the type of leather pouch – see top photo – I can imagine this deck travelling in, tucked inside a soldier’s backpack during the Napoleonic wars, trekking across Europe. This is the most perfect little deck and I know I shall be using it for many years to come. I’m so thankful I took a risk and ordered two, as I feel more relaxed about using it and taking it out and about with me in its perfect little case. All those involved did the best they could to bring us a vital piece of Lenormand history that we can read with and study. There were complications, and the decks cost me rather a lot of money but I would like to thank them for their efforts to make this precious, magical little deck available. I know that Tali Goodwin, Marcus Katz, Ciro Marchetti and Steph Myriel Es-Tragon did the very best they could and although it has been a long wait, I have in my hands one of the most beautiful Lenormand decks of all time. I am tempted to say the most beautiful Lenormand deck. For this I am extemely grateful.