The Tarot of Prague
by Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov
A good number of visitors have asked me what my favorite tarot deck is. To this, I have never had an answer, because there are probably at least a half dozen decks that I could think of, none of them really more preferred than the rest. Each one seems to appeal emotionally, or intuitively, or in more literal ways. With the Tarot of Prague, I have an answer. This is my favorite tarot deck, and it isn't simply for reason of emotion, or intuition, or the more literal ... but for all.
Emotionally, I responded to this deck immediately. A long (14 in.) box contains the set of cards and book. The cards are held securely in a very sweet and very pretty handcrafted cover, that is tied with thick gold ribbons, and which also contains a small, attached booklet. Untying the ribbons, as co-creator Karen Mahony described in an email, is a bit of a ritual in itself. Untying the ribbons, as in my experience, slows down the process of using the cards; with the gentle tug of ribbon, there is a gentle undoing of the logical, a putting aside of the everyday, and an entrance into something mystical. The cards are automatically treated with more care, as well with patience in beholding them, removing them from the box, and handling them. The finish on the cards was of immediate note to my husband, who does graphic design for a living (and so has professional experience with papers and printing processes). He commented on how the finish is much nicer than other tarot decks he has seen - which tend to be slick and glossy, and that with their matte finish, the cards would gracefully "age" - and truly become their owner's over time. Such details make this deck stand out among all others.
The artwork on the cards is stunning photo-collage, created from thousands of photos taken throughout the city of Prague. The collage is seamless and beautiful. Images include statues, library bookshelves, city stairways, lions and two-tailed mermaids, mosaics, paintings, house signs, towers, bridges, birds, and saints and angels. Traditional tarot imagery is preserved through the skilled blending done by Mahony and Ukolov. Added to traditional designs are the magic of Prague and the artistic and intuitive insight of the deck's creators. The Fool offers us flight over the city ... he does not stand on cliff or precipice. Rather, he steps delicately off a carving of a young man taken from the Old Town Bridge Tower, who - in this card - has become a "flying pillar." The Fool is joined by a little dog, tail upraised, whose picture was originally part of a deck of Bohemian playing cards from WWII. The artwork of The Empress is altogether different. There are no stone carvings, and no cityscapes. Her beauty is expressed in colorful mosaic, embellished with stars and complete with an abundance of flowers, fruit, and hearts. The Hierophant is one of my favorite cards in the deck, simply for its striking pose and unusual source. The Hierophant is often a misunderstood and undervalued card of the tarot, generally because of its stern appearance and interpretation. The Tarot of Prague's Hierophant is an image of Rabbi Loew, a real figure of Prague (and Jewish) history, and legendary creator of the Golem. In collage, he stands among the books of the Strahov monastery library. Within this library, fittingly, are many theological texts as well as books on Cabbala. I find this version of the Hierophant exciting, and it's a beautiful, commanding card as well. Justice is another card I am drawn to in this deck. The "figure of Justice herself is taken from a remarkable marquetry door in the Wallenstein Palace." This image has a sense of stillness and delicate balance, and as well, the lady is balanced atop a small elephant, which signifies "the need to remember the actions and decisions leading up to the present." In the gaze of this lady of Justice are strength and perhaps severity, but she smiles. Above and behind her rises a phoenix, in black and white, tying in elements of karma - the concept of justice carried out from lifetime to lifetime. There are two Death cards in the deck, both of them striking. I keep forgetting to remove one - which one would I decide to use? - but I have so far not drawn either in readings. They are both beautiful and compelling, and the background of both is a sundial from 1658. The decision to include two Death cards was based on the discomfort many people have with this card. There is a "Memento Mori" version, in which Death as the grim reaper appears nine times! He slips in and out of a crowd of ordinary people - men, women, and children - sometimes seen by those he walks among, other times he goes unnoticed. The second version of the card is meant to be a little less dark, and to present a picture of what the artists call "tongue-in-cheek gothic." It shows Death and his horse in the form of wooden puppets, modern figures from a shop in Prague. The Death card is generally my favorite in the tarot, and I think I'm going to be alternating which I use in this deck.
The intricate designs and symbolism extend into the Minor Arcana, and can be seen and enjoyed in the number cards as well as the Court cards. In the Two of Swords, while the blind-folded woman raises two swords in defense above her head, a lion crouches at her feet, an expression of pure bewilderment on his face. In the Five of Cups we meet Rabbi Loew's Golem, a faceless, armored figure - one of two statues that guard the old Jewish section of the city. He stands beneath a lightening sky, goblets at his feet. Snow falls, beautifully, in the Five of Pentacles, as a sorrowful and perhaps desperate woman passes by a church with her infant. The photo of the church was taken during an actual snowstorm, and the original statue of the woman is titled "the widow." In the Queen of Wands we see another woman and her child, with a fairly opposite meaning, which is even made clear beneath the two on a gold background: "Good cheer, and let us be joyful." In this card there is a content lion, a blue sky with soft clouds, many bright colors, and smiles. The Queen looks about ready to leap off her throne into play or dance, the child along with her.
Throughout the deck, both in the Major and Minor Arcana, we see a beautiful combining of statue and chiaroscuro, mosaic and sgraffito, Baroque and Art Deco ... medieval and modern. Color and light radiate from the cards, playing together during readings and giving them a unique energy that adds to the "storytelling" capacity of the deck. And though often very different, the people in the cards fit their meanings perfectly, and are sometimes quite interesting - the Three of Pentacles features Mozart!
I couldn't wait to read with the cards, but I was at first (a little) hesitant to do so, because of the fineness of the set. I made a habit of washing my hands before every reading, and only laying the cards out on a soft cloth - an antique throw from Italy, brought over to America by my great-grandmother. I started with mundane readings, to see how the cards worked in answering direct questions. I then moved on to doing a few little readings for my husband and daughter, and then on to bigger questions for myself. For my first readings, it is enough to say the cards worked very well. They are gorgeous laid out in a spread, and each image gives an immediately understandable and accessible meaning - beginners could read with this deck, and additionally would learn very much from it and the book. My "querents" were intrigued by the images and spent a good deal of time looking at them and finding additional insight. But, the real power of the deck shone in my private readings, the ones I did before bed, when the sky was dark, the night quiet and still. Then, with only the presence of wind and a sliver of moon, I drew cards that pointed to deep truths and offered inspiration for reflection even days later. Together, the cards speak to one another, in scenery - a tower from one card may appear in one that falls below it; in animals - in one card there is a bird who sits still in a hand, in another a bird passes gently on the water; and in people - here a young child dances, and there a boy reclines. Details like these can be found in any tarot deck that has full scenes, but in the Tarot of Prague they are found in layers, and as these layers are noticed, so too are deeper meanings, more insight, and ultimately, greater wisdom. The Tarot of Prague speaks in an intuitive language envisioned through the beauty and mysticism of Prague, expressed with precision by the artists, and understood by the individual reader or querent. Also, the Tarot of Prague exhibits artistic form and feeling generally not expected, or indeed seen, in tarot - but rather in fine art. I have the impression that the artists do not at this point realize how significant their tarot will become.
Pleasing in so many ways emotional and intuitive, how does the Tarot of Prague compare to earlier decks, how does the book read, how closely do the artists follow tarot history? In the guidebook, Mahony explains, "The majority of decks these days are based more or less on Waite and Smith's cards. The Tarot of Prague also follows this system and this means that it can be used with most popular books about tarot interpretation and reading." Rider-Waite-Smith designs are obvious behind the images, but the Tarot of Prague cards are in no way just simple variations on those earlier cards. They can however, be used by anyone as a first tarot set, alongside a good tarot guidebook or in a course. The Tarot of Prague would in fact make an incredibly special gift as a first tarot deck.
The book is a great read. It begins with a concise and interesting introduction that explains many of the choices the artists made regarding the Tarot. The book is organized very nicely, and explains each card with a brief introduction, Short Interpretation, Fuller Interpretation (which includes keywords), and Sources. The Short Interpretations can be used to remember meanings quickly, or for reference in divination work. The Fuller Interpretations teach more complete meanings of each card; explain symbolism, history or background of the cards; offer comparisons to earlier designs; and provide crucial and unique insights drawn from Mahony's own experience. Sources list statues, towers, bridges, libraries, and other buildings or locations throughout Prague, which the artists photographed for their collage. Mahony has kept this section small for each card, but again, it is very enjoyable reading. Each card description is accompanied by a black and white illustration of the card, and oftentimes by source images. A section on tarot readings, including instructions for spreads, is found at the end of the book, followed by a full Bibliography and a list of Terms Used.
Mahony's writing is engaging, as she tells stories about Prague, discusses local history and legend, delves into card meanings, and shares reasons for specific symbols. There is much to be learned through Mahony's wise, warm voice. Her card interpretations provide mundane meanings as well as spiritual, psychological, or mystical. In addition, the book itself is of very high quality - the paper still has the smell of wood in it (as opposed to smelling like chemicals, as many new books do). A gold ribbon accompanies the book. It can help in removing the book from the long box that holds the book and deck, but I have tied off the ends and use it as a bookmark.
As I said right off, the Tarot of Prague has quickly become my favorite ... It holds closely to Rider-Waite-Smith designs, while freely expressing its own unique spirit. It is beautiful and mystical, and draws upon real history as well as legend. It is also very usable, in readings for self and others. And, what comes through perhaps more than anything else, is that the artists put everything into this tarot. It has their soul and their wit, their beauty, joy, compassion, wisdom, even their understanding of sadness and struggle. There is excellence in all aspects of this set, and it is a true joy to use. Is it for everyone? No, certainly, the Tarot of Prague won't appeal to everyone ... but there isn't a thing on the planet that does.
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Card artwork by Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov
All writing and photography © N Levine - Illumination Tarot, unless otherwise noted. 1999-2020