Since its creation in Germany in1846, the Lenormand oracle deck, originally known as the Petit Le Normand, has enjoyed continuous popularity in Europe, and recently the deck has drawn the attention of American card readers. By now, most people who work with the Lenormand cards are aware that it is based on an earlier deck, The Game of Hope. Here are the facts.
The Ship from the Game of Hope, 1799
The Game of Hope
In their history of the occult Tarot, A Wicked Pack of Cards, historians Decker, Depaulis, and Dummett wrote that in 1972 historian Detlef Hoffmann discovered that the German Petit Le Normand is based on a deck published in Nuremberg as a game in 1799, and authored by Johann Kaspar Hechtle. This deck was titled The Game of Hope. The numbering and subjects on the thirty-six cards in this deck are identical to the Petit Le Normand, but there are two miniature cards at the top of each card, one with French suit symbols and one with German, whereas the Petit Le Normand only has one with French suit symbols.
The Game of Hope was a race game and it came with the following instructions. The thirty-six cards were to be arranged in a square of six rows of six cards, in numerical order and two dice were thrown to see how many cards along the square a player may move his or her marker. There are lucky and unlucky cards, and landing on them brings rewards or penalties. The first player to land on the next-to-last card, which is the Anchor (called Hope in the booklet), wins. If you land on the last card, the Cross, you are stuck. There were also instructions on how to layout the cards for divination, and we can see that, as in the game, the Anchor card was considered a favorable omen and the Cross was not.
The Ship from my recreation of the New York Lenormand, 1882
Coffee Grounds Cards and Conversation Cards
More recently, Tarot scholar Mary Greer was doing research in the British Museum’s archives when she found a deck of cards accompanied by a 31-page book that is an earlier model for the Petit Le Normand. The deck, whose full title is Les Amusements des Allemands, or The Diversions of the Court of Vienna, in which the Mystery of Fortune-Telling from the Grounds of the Coffee-Cup is unravelled, and Three pleasant Games, viz.: 1. Fortune-telling from the Grounds of the Coffee-Cup. 2. Fortune-telling by laying out the cards. 3. The new Imperial Game of numbers are invented, (commonly referred to as the Coffee Grounds Cards) was published in England in 1796. The book states that these cards were based on an Austro-German set of cards published in Vienna in 1794. The cards consist of uncolored engravings with a full landscape on each card dominated by the singular subject. There are a few lines of text on the bottom of each card that are meant to be the divinatory meaning but also offer moral advice.
There are only 32 cards in this deck, like a Piquet deck, four less than the Lenormand, they are numbered differently, and some cards, like the vipers card, do not relate to any Lenormand cards. The majority of the cards, however, can easily be matched with Lenormand cards. Beyond this, I have found that nearly all of these images and subjects, as well as the ones found in the Lenormand, can be traced to a deck created in England two decades earlier, in 1775, called Hooper’s Conversation Cards. Conversation cards are a game in which the cards are used to create a story. Each player picks a card and uses it as inspiration for their addition to the story. These decks also seem related to divination.
The Anchor from the Coffee Grounds Cards, 1796
Hope from Hooper’s Conversation Cards, 1775
I wrote about this in detail in my October 2015 blog, A History of Oracle Cards. In case you want to see what I wrote, here is a link:
At the conclusion of that article I stated that I believe that the Hooper Cards are one of the earliest, if not the earliest oracle deck. Oracle decks are not a variation on the Lenormand deck but the larger group to which Lenormand belongs. The Lenormand is an oracle deck and the earliest oracle cards contained moral allegories and references to divine figures. Since I wrote that, I have come across another conversation deck, Sketchley’s New Invented Conversation Cards. There is an advertisement for this deck from 1775, but this deck may be older. However, this still may not be the oldest source for oracle decks.
Oracle decks are based on earlier forms of divination that made use of regular playing cards. That is why each figure card in the standard Lenormand also has a smaller playing card depicted on the face. If we substitute Tarot pips for the equivalent playing card pips we find that there is no correlation between the Tarot’s divinatory meanings and the standard Lenormand meanings. This led me to believe that they are two separate independent systems, but now it seems to me that there is a connection between Oracle symbols and the Tarot. To illustrate this connection I will make use of the Anchor, the decisive symbol in The Game of Hope.
The Anchor, a Symbol of Hope
The anchor is a crucial part of a ship. It holds the ship securely in port and can be dropped during a storm to prevent the ship from being blown off course. Because of this, early Christians used the anchor as a symbol of the Christian virtue hope. This connection can be traced to a quote in the New Testament:
“God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”
Hebrews 6:18. 19
Because the anchor also forms a cross on its upper portion, it became a popular Christian symbol that we find carved in the catacombs, where the first Christians held their services in secret in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
Early Christian images of the anchor symbol
In the Middle Ages, Church leaders combined the three theological or Christian virtues that are praised in the New Testament: Faith, Hope, and Charity, with the four cardinal virtues that were praised in the works of Plato, and Aristotle: Temperance, Strength, Justice, and Prudence, to form a list of seven principle virtues. By the 14th century, we find examples of the seven virtues carved or painted on the walls of churches. Here is a painting of Hope, labeled with her Latin name Spes, painted by the famous Renaissance artist Giotto on the wall of the Arena Chapel in Padua, in 1306. It depicts a winged figure reaching for a crown held aloft. Other images made at that time are similar, but the winged figure is shown praying, as in this engraving of Hope from the 15th century Tarocchi de Mantegna.
Giotto’s fresco of Hope, 1306
Hope from the 15th century Tarocchi de Mantegna
The standard set of 21 Tarot trumps contains three of the Cardinal virtues: Justice, Strength, and Temperance, but not the Christian virtues. However, this was not the case in the beginning. The oldest Tarot decks in existence are The Brambilla Tarot, created 1420 -1444, and The Cary-Yale Visconti Tarot, created circa1445. These were both created for the duke of Milan. The Brambilla only retains two of its trumps: the Emperor and the Wheel of Fortune, but the Cary-Yale retains eleven trumps. Most of these trumps are recognizably similar to modern ones, such as the Emperor, the Empress, the Wheel of Fortune, and the World, but the deck also contains the three Christian virtues as well as the cardinal virtue Strength. The Cary-Yale Strength card depicts a praying woman kneeling on, or triumphing over a male figure, representing the vice despair. Her crown is now on her head and she is focusing on a source of light above. But the biggest change is that we now find an anchor tied to her hands.
The Cary=Yale Visconti Hope card, c1445
In the Visconti-Sforza Tarot and later Tarots created in Italy and France the Christian Virtues are no longer there, except for a variation of the Tarot that was created in Florence in the 16th century.
The Minchiate’s Influence
In 16th century Florence, an unusual variation of the Tarot was created that had 40 trumps and a Fool in the fifth suit. It was given a new name, the Minchiate. The name Minchiate is first found in a letter written in Florence by Luigi Pulci, but he was applying it to the standard Tarot deck with 78 cards. This deck is believed to have originated in Florence but was originally called Trionfi. The name Minchiate seems to be derived from a dialect word for “nonsense.” Perhaps he intended it to be a reference to the fact that the Tarot contains a Fool card. The name caught on in Florence.
By 1506, a new 97-card deck was created by dropping the Papesse and adding 20 new trumps, which included the four elements, the twelve signs of the zodiac, Prudence, and the three Christian virtues, including Hope. At first the deck was called the Germini, a reference to Gemini the last zodiac sign depicted in the deck. By the 1540s the game became so popular that Florentine printers ceased production of the 78-card decks and the name Minchiate was applied to the new 97-card deck. In the 17th century Minchiate spread throughout Italy and into France. By the 18thcentury it was more popular in Italy than the Tarot. After the 1930s, interest in the game died out.
Hope from a Minchiate published in Bolognas, 1763
The figure of Hope in the Italian Minchiate depicts a praying woman with a crown above. She does not have wings but she does have a halo. This figure is similar to the Cary-Yale Hope but the anchor is missing. Yet, in other 16thcentury images of Hope we do find her holding an anchor. In 1655 a French version of the Minchiate was published in which Hope’s anchor was restored to the deck. This was the Francois de Poilly Minchiate, also called the Minchiate Francesi. Besides the restoration of an anchor the deck differed from the Italian decks by substituting five Classical gods: Mercury, Cupid, Venus, and Bacchus for the first four cards, and Mamus, the god of folly, for the Fool. The deck’s publisher also dropped other trumps to make room for the four ages of man and the five senses, but it kept the seven virtues, the four elements, the twelve signs of the zodiac, and the Star, Moon, Sun, World, and the Angel of Fame (the Minchiate version of the Judgement card).
16th century engravings depicting Hope with her anchor
The Minchiate Francesi has a distinct style that is different form the Italian decks. Later a version was created that reduced the number of trumps back to the original 21, but it still retained the gods and the virtues including Hope. What is important for our study, however, is that the gods, the virtues, and the ages of man all had an influence on later oracle decks, and Hope’s anchor found its way into the Lenormand decks.
The Minchiate Francesi Hope card, 1655
The Minchiate Francesi depicts hope as a beautiful woman stranded on an island with her anchor in the midst of a turbulent sea. Compare this image to the numerous images of lady Hope found in later oracle and Sibilla decks. In Hooper’s Conversation Cards, a shipwrecked sailor has been substituted for the woman. In Sketchley’s New Invented Conversation Cards the symbol of Hope has been distilled down to just her anchor. This is the version that found its way into The Game of Hope and from there into numerous Lenormand deck.
Robert M Place
Hope from Das Oracle des Dames des Etteilla, 1797
Hope from a French Oracle Deck, 1890
Hope from an 19th century Austrian Oracle Deck
Hope from Jue de la Fortune Tres Fin, 1880
Hope from Sibilla Originally, 1890
The Anchor from the Old Gypsy Fortune Telling Cards, 1940
My recreations of Hooper’s Conversation Cards Hope card, 1775
Sketchley’s New Invented Conversation Cards, c1775
The Game of Hope Hope card, 1799
My recreation of the Anchor from the New York Lenormand, 1882
The Anchor from Wabrfagekarten Lenormand, 1875
The Anchor from my Burning Serpent Oracle, 2014
The Anchor from my An Ukiyo-e Lenormand, 2019
Four nines from my Hermes Playing Card Oracle, 2015
Since writing this article, I was introduced to the Petit Oracle des Dames, an oracle deck published in France in the late 1790s. This deck combines images from an earlier French oracle, Jue Divinatory Revolutionnaire, 1791, with images from the first occult Tarot deck the Grand Etteilla. Thus forming a indisputable link between oracle decks and the Tarot.
Petit Oracle des Dames, 1790s