The Burning Serpent Oracle (self-published, 2014) is the latest deck from tarot greats Rachel Pollack and Robert M. Place. This deck truly deserves its subtitle: A Lenormand of the Soul. Firstly because, despite four extra cards (an extra Man and Woman, and Isis and Osiris) and the renaming of nearly half the deck (15 cards), it reads very well as a Lenormand. And secondly because it achieves brilliantly its creators’ intent to offer more, for those that want it – a means of soulful communication.
In terms of the cards, they are a nice quality card stock. Lightly laminated front and back, they are flexible enough to riffle easily, while still feeling robust enough to last well. The size is a little larger than standard Lenormand cards, at 7 by 11 centimetres (2 3/4 by 4 3/8 inches), but still noticeably smaller than most tarots. Still, the difference is enough to make Grand Tableaux a bit unwieldy.
I will admit, I’m not a big fan of Robert Place’s artwork, which always feels a little flat to me. The colour palette, too, is somewhat muted, without a great deal of texture. Yet, it works quite well here, given the simplicity inherent in Lenormand imagery.
As for Rachel Pollack’s accompanying book, it is a masterpiece! The introduction gives a good overview of the current understanding of Lenormand history, via Mademoiselle Lenormand, Hechtel and the original Game of Hope, and back to the Coffee Cards discovered in the British Museum. She also explains that she based her interpretations on the study of the original meaning sheets included with Lenormand decks for decades, as well as the verses both on the original Coffee Cards, as well as on several traditional Lenormands.
For each card, Rachel gives four levels of interpretation: keywords; an expanded look at the basic meaning, including where it came from traditionally; a broader context to the subject matter including myth and popular culture; and finally an examination of the image specific to this Burning Serpent Oracle. So, for the Scythe, there are keywords including danger and a shock. The expanded basic meaning describes what a Scythe is and does, and how this relates to it being used in the Lenormand system for weapons and tools generally, as well as for surgery. Rachel discusses near and far interpretations in a Grand Tableau, before moving on to the Scythe’s iconographic connection to Death through Saturn and Chronos. Finally, she discusses the image chosen for this deck, which includes Demeter as grain mother, the Eleusian mysteries and the shock of life changes.
There is also a section on readings, including thoughts on the differences between tarot and Lenormand. All the basics are covered: reading lines; the nine square; and the Grand Tableau. There are brief yet thorough explanations of diagonals, knighting and houses. And there is also an interesting spread that Rachel has designed, a ten card triangle, which is very fluid in how it can be read.
A word must be said about the renaming of many of the cards, fifteen in total. Some of these are simple expansions which are obvious and easy to understand, such as the ‘Red Clover’ for the Clover, the ‘Book of Life’ for the Book, and the ‘House on the Hill’ for the House. Others are a little more complex, substituting the ‘Voyage’ for the Ship, and the ‘Girl and Boy’ for the Child. Still others are more challenging yet, altering the Coffin to become the ‘Dead Tree’, the Birds to become the ‘Owl and the Mouse’, and the Rider to become ‘Hermes the Messenger’.
While the book makes clear how these connect to traditional titles, they are certainly a little surprising at first glance. The cards remain readable according to traditional Lenormand keywords and systems, though they may take a little mental adjustment on the part of the reader. Yet, it is precisely this which is one of the strengths of the deck, making us stop and think about our understanding of the cards. In this way, the deck can both strengthen our understanding of traditional meanings, as well as opening us up to different ways of reading, should we so choose.
Altogether, this set offers everything necessary for a beginner, as well as a lot of extra insights and interest for those already familiar with this system. While taste in artwork is very personal, the book is undeniably erudite, encompassing the Lenormand tradition as well as a broad range of cultural understandings. And while the renamed cards may take a little getting used to, the Lenormand numbering and playing card associations are clear. In this way, the cards remain fairly easy to read straight out of the box.