Coco Chanels’s Lenormand Cards

Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie
ISBN 9780061963858

I just got this book from the library and it is filled with fabulous photographs and drawings. Right at the beginning of the book, the author talks about Chanel’s fascination with wheat as a symbol of safety and goodness. Chanel had a card deck that she consulted every day which the author mistakenly identifies as a tarot deck. It is actually a Lenormand deck, and Coco’s favourite card was #10 – Scythe. Although it usually depicts wheat with the scythe it is called the Scythe card.

The stated translation from the German is:

Always a scythe around
Will warn you of danger
You cannot ever escape it
Wherever you may go

For those not up on Lenormand history, Marie Anne Lenormand (1768-1843) was a French cartomancer who became famous because of her relationship with Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine. Josephine in particular liked to have her fortune told. Naturally, the high society of the time embraced Mlle. Lenormand enthusiastically and she often did readings for people with a deck she created. Eventually a Lenormand deck with 52 figures that was also associated with the cards from a regular pack of playing cards was published around 1828, and redesigned around 1840 as a 36-card deck, which is the one we know today as the Petit Lenormand.

These decks are wildly popular in Europe and South America, and people who collect cards as I do love them as well. Yes, some people who read tarot cards use them but the history of the cards is associated with a European sensibility of parlour fortune telling and games not linked to tarot.

As for the playing card associations, this is how my 36-card Petit Lenormand is broken down:

Ace, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King

To relate this to cards in general, there is a 32-card pack of playing cards very popular for playing a game called Skat in Europe, particularly Germany, and a well-known game with 32 cards called Piquet and you can also play Bezique using two 32-card decks. The Petit Lenormand resembles those game decks, but with the 6 of the suit added. The revamp of the Lenormand into a 36-card deck took place at about the time Skat decks were developed. There are many games in Europe that use 36-card decks, it seems to be a regional variant of inventiveness, and perhaps some canny publisher figured to cash in on both the playing card decks with fewer cards and the Lenormand focus by modifying the initial Lenormand deck.

We forget in our time of computers and phones that gaming with cards was extremely popular in human society for centuries. It still is. Humans always fiddle around with things and invent their own systems and games, and the fact that some of these games are still played and popular, like Tarock, which is a game played with a variant of a Tarot deck, is fascinating.

For interest’s sake, here is a card comparison of the Scythe card in my small collection of Lenormand decks. You can see the English version of Coco Chanel’s deck in the upper right corner. It is here associated with the Jack of Diamonds and says:

O, dread the scythe,
that you must when to you it is near,
and hope a friendly environment
will aid against the evil you fear.

The dreaded nearness of the scythe refers to how near it is in the card layout to the male of female significator card used to represent you in a reading, and the “friendly environment” to offset that would be reflected in the surrounding cards. It’s quite an interesting system. At the time I bought my cards there were no English books on the subject, so my book is in French but fairly easy to translate.

In the upper middle is the card from the Lenormand deck I designed myself using clip art. The Tarot Lenormand on the upper left is a tarot deck with Lenormand cards added in for some of the usual archetypes and it also has depictions of the French Revolution which was why I bought it. It’s a very nice deck though, despite the mish-mash.

I’m afraid that for me the image of a scythe is always associated with Death from the movie Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Now he was a scary old feller.

There is a long tradition of associating the harvest with human death, using this analogy for the natural cycle of life, but the scythe doesn’t seem to have become associated with Death until about the 15th century when The Grim Reaper became a popular figure. He was supposed to come for you and cut you down to take your life.

No wonder the scythe has dangerous connotations of dread in this card. All humans fear Death, no one wants to be cut down before their time. Coco Chanel seems to have viewed it with rather a brighter tone, that of safety and goodness, wheat as the staff of life, protecting you from Death.

I think I’m going to enjoy this biography.

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