Back to the Basics — The Philippe Lenormand Sheet

Similar to the tarot, which has Arthur Edward Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot as the first — if not necessarily the best — gateway to the most popular style of modern tarot reading, the Lenormand cards have their watershed moment in the Philippe Lenormand Sheet, a single page of keyword meanings and interpretive guidance that, as a pack-in to the early versions of the deck, amounted to the first “Little White Book” in cartomancy. It was originally written in German and accompanied most Petit Lenormand decks published between 1850 and 1930. Philippe Lenormand was allegedly a nephew or cousin of Marie-Anne Le Normand, but he was apparently apocryphal — just a convenient “face” the publisher put on it to legitimize the deck for consumers; her actual heir denounced her practice of divination.

I was fortunate when just starting out to be pointed at the document right away, before picking up any of the very few books available in English. It has set the general tone and framework for much of my own approach (particularly to the Grand Tableau) since that time. Some of its content is dated — the Rider obviously meant horseback or horse-drawn travel — but it was the first in Lenormand terms to present the idea of the proximity of specific cards to the Significator and to various other positive or negative cards as an interpretive clue, as well as that of “direction” (technically, position) — left or right of the Significator and above or below it. Directionality — the “facing” of the figures on the cards — was used sparingly and was limited primarily to the light and dark sides of the Clouds; in fact, “surrounded by clouds” was the principal indicator of misfortune for otherwise beneficial or neutral cards. Later wrinkles included the “pointing” of the Rider, Scythe, Snake, Mice and Book as well as the Gentleman and Lady significator cards. I’m not sure to what extent any of these techniques existed in playing-card cartomancy prior to publication of the Lenormand deck as the “Game of Hope,” but it’s probably a safe bet that some of them were carried over into its use for divnation.

The Philippe Lenormand Sheet set something of a “minimalist” tone that has since been trampled on by modern practitioners, who tend to load up each card with a cornucopia of keyword meanings and an intuitive, free-association interpretive style that has its roots in tarot reading. These “aids” may ease the neophyte into working with the cards by offering familiar hand-holds, but they represent a serious misstep in coming to grips with Lenormand’s literal nature. In her book, The Complete Lenormand Oracle Handbook, Caitlin Matthews observes in essence that “tarot is not your friend” when it comes to tackling Lenormand reading. On her site “Game of Hope Lenormand” (http://gamofhopelenormand.bigcartel.com/), Lauren Forestell makes the Philippe Lenormand Sheet available for free download and encourages visitors to do so. Do yourself a favor and take advantage of this, if only to see where it all started.

Source: Game of Hope Lenormand

Some time ago, while we were both members of the Aeclectic Tarot forum, I captured the text of a post made by author Andy Boroveshengra regarding “directionality.” In the context of my current essay, it is relevant and useful to bring his thoughts to the attention of my readers (with some minor editing by me). Thank you, Andy for your wisdom and generosity.

Andy Boroveshengra on Directionality

“I do not believe there is a ‘proper’ or universally accepted orientation or direction for the cards’ emblems. However, I know and know of German-influenced readers who would passionately disagree.

The issue comes down to standardisation. I would be interested to see how we would define the correct placements — would we have to use the Game of Hope, only recently rediscovered, or would we opt for the Dondorf which, I believe, was the most widely distributed pattern in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Where does that leave the Blaue Eule — often the deck of choice for the direction-heavy readers?

Madame Al-Ansari — my French mentor — did observe some directionality. For example, if we look at the Book card, the spine is what is known while the pages are the unknown, and the card the Cavalier faces away from is the topic, or origin, of the news he delivers. The card to the right of the Cross gains importance; however, the card to its left wanes in influence. The card the Snake looks at is where she will deliver her poison. The tip of the Scythe is the trigger, e.g. if she had Scythe + Fish that would be a financial threat, if the tip of the Scythe faced left she would have looked at this card. If it was 28, the Man, it would mean that the man did something to jeopardise finances. If it faced the Fish, it would indicate some financial difficulties, in general, threaten one’s money.

However, Madame emphasised order above everything. None of this could override the order of cards. For example, the card that falls after the Fox is worth close attention as it shows something that should not be taken at face value. This also applies to people cards immediately following the Fox. For this reason, Fox-Snake is the more sinister pairing of these two cards — and she gave the analogy (that) the Snake bites at Fox’s heel. That is just an explanation she gave — I was using the Jeu Lenormand at that time, unlike her, and I just saw it as ‘my fox sniffed out a snake pit.’

Direction, as far as I am concerned, is just when we make little inferences or add a little detail or clarification, such as for combinations where order matters very little (Scythe with the Whips or Clouds with the Birds). They can help you then. However, I cannot see the logic of shuffling, cutting and dealing cards left to right and then changing the order to fit the pictures. However, for some, primarily German-influenced readers, it is sacrosanct and I cannot dismiss their views. It just does not work for me. However, I do things that are an anathema to them — but are de rigeur in French cartomancy.

One thing I do endorse. When I read the Grand Tableau I do highlight the cards the significator faces horizontally. This row of cards describes topics that usually happen within a couple of weeks’ time.”

It now seems to be fashionable for modern practitioners of Lenormand divination to cringe when the “PL Sheet” is mentioned, as if it is some kind of atavistic embarrassment that should be kept in a closet. Its terse brevity and glaring anachronisms appear to be “sticking points” for many, but aversion to its simplistic structure seems to run deep in the hearts of those who chafe at any kind of arbitrary curbs on their mystical vision, who see Lenormand as a spiritual and psychological diagnostic tool to rival the tarot, and who attempt to free-associate intuitively from the images as a result. To those tarot enthusiasts who are contemplating a Lenormand adventure, I would offer a few words of advice:

Perhaps most importantly, you can leave most of your finely-honed creative visualization (aka “free-association”) skills at the door. Lenormand is decidedly non-intutive in its operation, being far more literal and pragmatic than mystical or psychological. Each card represents a limited range of meaning that only gains broader interpretive potency through its combination with other cards, both in narrative flow and positional significance. Intuition certainly plays a role in shading the degree of influence to accord each card in a set, but there are still a few guidelines for its application. It’s a much more structured system than tarot, so if you’re used to just letting your imagination loose on the images you could have a discouraging “square peg in a round hole” experience. The recent trend to include extraneous elements in Lenormand card design (usually putting people in scenes that have no need of them) seems to be aimed at making the atmosphere more familiar to tarot transplants, but it does a disservice to those who are serious about penetrating to Lenormand’s traditional roots. So get yourself a basic, inexpensive deck like the Piatnik or the Blue Owl to start.

Next, before shelling out for one of the more comprehensive Lenormand textbooks, download a free copy of the “PL Sheet.” It includes all of the core knowledge needed to get a firm grip on what each card is about, and it provides an interpretive baseline that will mostly hold true (with some allowance for historical obsolescence) throughout your involvement with the cards. This was the single best suggestion I received when starting out. When you’re ready for more, I heartily recommend Andy Boroveshengra’s Lenormand, 36 Cards as the most accessible next-level treatise.

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at www.parsifalswheeldivination.com.

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