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Igniting the Serpent Part 1: Rachel Pollack on transforming a traditional oracle

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Rachel Pollack and Robert Place, both internationally respected experts on Tarot and cartomancy, have created a new deck inspired, but not in any way limited by, the well known European tradition of Lenormand oracle cards. In a three part series, Rachel and Robert will share their aims, techniques and reflections on blending tradition and inspiration while bringing a new divination deck into being.

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Lenormand cards, as Rachel will explain, are generally associated with Marie Anne Lenormand, a fortune teller and prophetess who became extremely popular during the early 19th century. It was said that she read for many in Napoleon's court, although it's not entirely clear whether she ever actually read for the General himself. For many in the German and French fortunetelling traditions, Mlle Lenormand became the very definition of a master card reader.

Although her life was often steeped in controversy and she was arrested by the police a few times, Mlle Lenormand was never held long and her popularity far surpassed any notoriety. Decks, fashioned after the oracle she used, have remained popular in Europe, even as the Tarot began to catch public imagination on into the 20th century.

Historians don't believe that Mlle Lenormand actually invented the deck that made her famous since there were many divination, gambling and divination decks available at the time. Rather, it was the woman herself and her skill with the cards that cemented her name and reputation with this particular form of cartomancy, or divination using cards.

There are generally 36 cards in the Lenormand deck, although this can vary. Each card has a simple picture and is associated with very specific words. One builds up the meaning of the reading by associating the words, rather than the pictures, together.

Rachel Pollack, who is best known for her successful books, 78 Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot and The New Tarot Handbook: Master the Meaning of the Cards, reveals the particulars of her new project, the Burning Serpent Oracle. Illustrated by the noted Tarot artist, Robert Place, the Burning Serpent Oracle draws on, but also goes beyond the classic Lenormand decks now available. As Rachel explains:

What can you tell us about the sources for the illustrations in the Burning Serpent Oracle?

The deck is grounded in a 19th century European tradition known as Lenormand, after the name of France's most famous fortune teller and card reader. Lenormand has always been popular in parts of Europe, but has recently had a huge resurgence in America and England. The Lenormand cards are very basic--House, Tree, Man, Woman, Sun, Garden and so on. This gave Robert and me a starting point to create our pictures and text. The goal was to create beautiful, clear images, with subtle layers of symbolism.

What is the significance of the “burning serpent?” Why is the deck named specifically after this arresting image?

We actually began this project before we really knew of Lenormand. I had suggested to Robert we do a deck of primal symbols. Then we discovered that almost everything we had planned was in Lenormand! However, the "Snake" card in Lenormand traditionally means danger. While that quality remains, we wanted to evoke the deeper levels of serpents in mythology. The serpent in flames becomes like the phoenix bird, able to rise from its own ashes. So, the card is danger, but there is a hint of transformation.

I'm thinking of books you've written for other decks, such as the Haindl Tarot: your text is so much more than just a description of the meaning for each card. Can you describe how you intend the book to provide a kind of infrastructure for the deck?

The book gives the history of the deck--Lenormand's roots and how we came to create this work--and how to read with the cards. The core, however, is the card descriptions. Each card is presented on four levels--its "key words," or basic meanings, mostly from the Lenormand tradtiton, an exploration of what those traditional meanings are about, a look at the wider ideas surrounding that symbol, including myth and spirituality, and finally the special qualities and symbolism of our version. It sounds a bit dense, but since it's all grounded in Robert's very clear and direct images people who've seen it have found it clear and easy to work with.

How does the Burning Serpent Oracle differ from regular or more traditional Tarot decks?

As said, it's actually part of the Lenormand tradition rather than Tarot. One thing I love about Lenormand is that it's all about readings. Tarot has a large set of outside references--astrology, Kabbalah, even these days quantum physics--but Lenormand returns us to the basics. I also love that any card's meaning only comes to life in combination with at least one other. For example, Gold Ring means commitment, but what kind? With Heart it can be emotional, maybe an engagement, but with Jumping Fish, a card traditionally symbolic of money, it can be a financial commitment. People have found very creative ways to bring the modern world into the 150 year old tradition through combinations. Email is seen as Stars (for electricity) and Letter. Social media, like Facebook, however, is Stars and Garden, since Garden stands primarily for places where people gather. It's very creative, dynamic--and fun.

The book and cards are available for preorder through Indiegogo. What inspired you and Robert Place to go with an Indiegogo campaign rather than the regular card/book publication route?

We wanted to create exactly the deck and book we envisioned, and bring it directly to our readers. Luckily, both of us have a good following and are known to the world of Tarot and divination.

If you want to pre-order the deck and book from Rachel and Robert, as well as support the printing and publishing costs, you can find all the information you need at their webpage at Indigogo. Some ordering options have special premiums attached.

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