Witchy Stuff

A Brief Synopsis of the Vast History of Divination Cards

The history of divination cards is extremely vast, and most card decks in history have had multiple purposes as divination tools and as games. This will be a small synopsis of the major events in the card decks we know and love in divination history. In traditional use, all divination cards can trace their roots back to playing cards, and even the first Tarot cards were used as a game before their use as a divination tool. The Lenormand deck originated in 19th century Europe and was the first divination focused card deck. Oracle, Tarot, and even modern Lenormand cards are the most used card divination decks. They all were influenced by the original Lenormand deck named after the most famous fortune-teller of her day, Marie Anne Adelaide Lenormand, who traveled throughout Europe during the Napoleonic era.

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Lenormand was born in Normandy but moved to Paris in 1786. She became the most famous fortune-teller in Europe, mainly due to self-promotion and having many famous clients, which helped spread her reputation. She used various practices besides card reading, including palmistry, numerology, scrying, necromancy, Greek sticks, a magic wand, a special talisman, and doing readings with egg whites and coffee grounds. For her card set, she used a 32 French piquet card and a German 36 card deck. She was also an admirer of the French occultist Eteilla and may have used the Tarot he designed, “The Grand Eteilla,and used the original French Tarot.

Lenormand became such a household name because she was the author of fourteen best-selling books in which she described her dealings with famous clients. This gossip fuelled interest in celebrity lives helped get her name on the lips of many in French and German noble circles. Some of her predictions were exaggerated and never came true, but many predictions did come true, like predicting Napoleon’s rise and fall. She was a confirmed member of the secret society called the members of Mercurii, which also housed many famous occultists of the time period.

The wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, Josephine Bonaparte, was one of her most well-remembered clients and had her cards read during major events she experienced in her life by Lenormand. She was a believer for an excellent reason. Lenormand may have been considered a fake by many, but her predictions for Joesphine did come true. Mrs. Bonaparte had seen firsthand the power of her favorite psychic. One of the most famous cases that made Josephine a staunch believer in her fortune-teller was Lenormand’s first prediction for Mrs. Bonaparte. Lenormand had met her originally as Madame de Beauharnais in a French prison where Miss future Bonaparte was married to the Aristocrat Alexandre de Beauharnais. She predicted that Josephine would survive the ordeal, but her husband would not, and Josephine would go on to marry a soldier that would rise to great power. This is exactly what happened for Josephine, as the story ended up coming to fruition when she married Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon did not trust his wife and Leonormand’s relationship, but many detractors say it was because she predicted his fall and death in exile. These stories of Lenormand could have been exaggerated over time, but it does seem like she was the real deal in the eyes of Mrs. Bonaparte.

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The first deck to bear the name Lenormand was printed in 1845 by the Grimaud in France. The second deck was published in 1846. This time in Germany, so both of the cultures that influenced her early career eventually were influenced by her later on a divination level. To have one of the first Oracle decks named after her was quite an honor and even more of an honor that that deck still gets used to this day.

History had proved that there were early divination cards before the Lenormand deck, with divination decks discovered from 1818-1836 created in Germany and Austria. These decks have iconic images similar to Lenormand’s imagery, and this is proof that she only influenced the oracle card’s popularity. One of these earlier card decks was “The Game of Hope,” published in Nuremberg in 1799. This was a type of race game where each player needed to roll a dice to see how many cars along the square they may move until they reach the last card in the layout. The last card was the “Hope card,” as stated in the booklet and meaning the player had reached the end of their journey. At the end of the booklet, there was an explanation of how the deck could be used for divination, similar to a modern Tarot deck with a story attached.

Tarot scholar Mary Greer found an oracle type deck in the British Museum archives recently accompanied by a 31-page book. The name is roughly translated to the “Diversions of the Court of Vienna,” which was published in England in 1796 but based on cards that were published in 1794 in Vienna. These cards are the closest to matching the deck of the Lenormand and the Oracle deck’s closest ancestor. They were meant to be used with coffee ground readings and tea leaf readings. Tasseography is the reading of leaf leaves or coffee grounds and dates back to ancient Greek and Chinese culture, and the symbols on the cards were formed with pictures of what the major tea symbols started to form over time. This was the first foundation for the pictures that ended up being linked and put onto oracle cards, especially the Lenormand deck.

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Cartomancy has been around since the 14th century with the Islamic paying cards called the Mamluk deck. These cards were the foundation for the standard four suit cards. Even though the suits were coins, cups, scimitar, and polo sticks, they were very similar to modern playing card decks. These cards were copied by the Spanish and Italians, and these were distributed across Europe as a playing card game, but the imagery is more in line with the modern divination card decks. These cards were the foundation for the decks of playing cards that we are familiar with today. Just the symbols have changed over time. Playing cards were the first divination tools. One of the first historical documentation of this act was in 1450 in Juego de Naypes, Spain, by Fernando de la Torre, where he did fortune-telling readings with playing cards.

There is such a vast history of cartomancy, and really most divination tools that are card decks have the same foundations, just subtle changes between which country they were created in and at what time period. The Lenormand deck is credited with being the first because she created the popularity with the actual act of card readings and brought it to the public consciousness unlike any fortune-teller before.

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Tarot cards were used after fortune-tellers commonly used playing cards to tell the future and did not become widely used for divination purposes until the late 18th century. The tarot cards were originally used as a game and set up similar to the standard playing card deck with four suits and many different face cards. Tarot cards also have many different design styles but always have the 76 main cards that stay the same with the 4 different suits, the wands, swords, pentacles, and cups in the Minor Arcana with numbers 1-10 and Knight, Queen, Page, King, and Ace cards in each suit. The Major Arcana has 22 face cards, and they are all different from one another, but it starts with the Fool, who is on a journey to meet all the different cards in the deck and learn something from each one. Even if the designs are different, the divination cards are always the same names and messages from the individual cards—just the meaning changes with interpretation.

The word Oracle means “God’s Delegation,” and the use of Oracle cards has a long history like Tarot do but somehow does not come up in the minds of those looking for divination tools. Oracle cards are great starting cards for those looking to get into divination since Tarot can be difficult for beginners. There is much more individualization with Oracle cards since they come in many different deck styles and appeal to many different spiritual practitioners. From Angel cards to Astrology decks, the combinations are endless for the budding psychic to get in tune with the practice of divination. Oracle cards are usually more obscure and have cards that only have meaning in the particular deck on not on a large scale like Tarot cards.

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The Greeks used Oracles to speak to the Gods, and a virgin prophetess would use messages on a leaf, a feather, or a piece of paper with ambiguous poems to give the gods messages back. Oracle cards are still used as this divinatory tool and much more about receiving abstract messages from the gods than real advice. Tarot is an intricate form of cartomancy. Many fortune-tellers have a pretty vast knowledge of magickal manifestations and meanings before giving intricate Tarot readings. The cartomancy tools are fun to play around with, but they need advanced knowledge to use the highest potential fully to give fortune readings.

I recommend the Oracle cards to beginners because their messages are not as complex and are basic to understand the meanings until more advanced cartomancy terminology is learned. The Lenormand cards are even more intricate than all the other options and are a bit dated, so only the most advanced magicians should use those decks since there is a chance of extreme frustration. Everyone’s journey is different. It really should be about the particular witch and what they are drawn to for divination. Have fun experimenting and researching as much as possible until you find the card deck that speaks to you. This is when real magick happens in divination.

Do you agree with oracle cards being the easiest? Leave your favorite divination style of cards, and what is your favorite deck?