Recently I did a reading where the Letter card came up in a way that was both perfect for the subject and an interesting example of how the general meaning can become something specific. First, here’s the text for The Letter just as it will appear in the book:
27. THE LETTER
Correspondence, including email. Important news, for good or bad. Documents, including contracts.
The Letter is one of the simpler and more literal cards to interpret. Its primary meaning is news, information, which in the early 19th century came primarily by letter. The most obvious modern correlation is email, though outside the workplace email has been largely replaced (as of this writing) by messages sent via Facebook and other social networking site. We should realize that card 27 implies messages of some length or significance. Twitter “tweets” and simple “Likes” go more with card 12, The Owl And Mouse (“Birds” or “The Owl” in most traditional decks). The Letter brings news of importance.
The fact of a letter is neutral, only the content matters. Therefore, the card by itself is neither lucky or unlucky, but depends on the cards around it. In the oldest interpretations it was considered positive unless the Clouds lurked nearby. Today, there are a range of possibilities. With the Fox we might be careful not to take the communication at face value. With the Heart, however, we could expect a literal love letter—unless the Scythe is also present, in which case the communication could be what used to be called a “Dear John” letter, breaking off a relationship. The Letter and the Gold Ring suggests a commitment of some kind. We might think of marriage, but a business agreement is also possible. Letter + Gold Ring + Fish would indicate a lucrative contract.
By extension from the basic image the Letter can mean any kind of document, such as contracts, other legal papers, notices, exams, medical reports, tax returns, and so on. Again, other cards would suggest the direction.
In the time when Lenormand was taking shape letters were virtually the only means by which people communicated over distance. The telegram was just getting started, but people mostly preferred the slow and careful process of hand-written letters. This may seem quaint in a time when even birthday cards are sent electronically. As someone who actually writes long letters by hand, I’m sometimes amused by articles about “the death of handwriting” that assure readers that “no one” writes letters. For some card readers it might require an effort to see this card for its vital place in people’s lives. Because writing a letter is a deliberative process compared to email, card 27 can invoke any communication that is careful, serious, and of some consequence.
Most traditional decks portray the Letter as unopened. We see it sealed with wax, lying on a table, or sometimes a silver tray, an example of that wealthy setting found throughout most Lenormand decks. The card carries the quality of expectation. Some document or news is coming, we do not know yet what it will say, only that it matters.
The word “letter’ also means the alphabet, what makes written communication possible. Card 27 does not contain an image as basic as, say, House, Tree, Sun, Man or Woman. And yet it stands for something almost as fundamental—our ability to communicate meaningfully over distance and time. Spoken language is subject to confusion and misunderstandings. It also vanishes the moment it comes from someone’s mouth, surviving only in the memories of whoever is present. Something written may remain long after the people involved have died. We know this about books, of course, and treaties, and historical records. But letters remain as well.
Shortly before writing this—a letter to you, the reader—I saw a play about Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt’s lover and lifelong friend. The entire play was built around more than 2200 letters the two women wrote to each other over many years. The historian who first discovered this correspondence found it disturbing, and even suggested to the Roosevelt Library that they destroy the letters. Absolutely not, the Library told her. The letters were part of history.
The earliest form of air mail was carrier pigeon. Of course, they did not actually hold complete letters in their beaks. The image gives this card a whimsical quality, somehow appropriate to the old-fashioned quality a letter evokes.
The address sets the picture in its time. The card shows an actual envelope from the 19th century, addressed to A.—Abraham—Stoker, better known to us as Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. In his lifetime, Stoker was known primarily for his work in theater, and was on tour in the United States at the time this letter was sent.
Stoker is a fitting subject for this card. His great novel, the fountain for all vampire books and movies that have followed, is also the most famous “epistolary” novel, a book that consists entirely of letters, diary entries, ships’ log, and newspaper articles. It reminds us of written communication, written records, on every page.
Birds appear with some frequency in the Burning Serpent Oracle. Beside the Letter, we have, of course, the Owl and the Mouse and the Stork, but also the Garden, and Isis’s vulture headdress on the extra card, 38. Birds signify beauty but also messages, like letters. This is because birds, with their high flight and their beautiful songs, are said to communicate with the gods. In Genesis, a dove (a kind of pigeon) brings Noah an olive branch, a demonstration that land has once again emerged from the waters of the Flood.
Birds are divinatory animals. Interpreting their flight patterns may be the oldest divinatory system in the world. The tracks birds make may have inspired the invention of writing—of letters.
Card 26, the Book of Life, contains secrets, the book of our destiny, what is written. The news and messages signified by the Letter might be the reading itself, the “news” of our fate. And isn’t it interesting that we use the same word for what we do with the cards as what we do with a letter. We read them.
The reading was for someone working very hard in a creative writing program. She had a book in progress but felt she was struggling, both to get it right, and within the structure of the program. The Letter came up as the center card in a line of seven. The first thing that struck me was that one of the ways the modern meanings have developed is that the card can signify any written document (including email). So, not just a letter, but also contracts, wills, data from experiments…and a manuscript. This placed the work itself at the center of the reading–not the courses, or the people, or her beliefs, but the actual text. And then I realized that the reason it was card 27, the Letter, and not card 26, the Book of Life, was because it was still in progress, still a document rather than a finished work.