Tarot of Prague by Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov, Book by Karen Mahony -- Original Printing
Review by Diane Wilkes

Click here for review of the second edition.

Lee Bursten's review of the Tarot of Prague was so uniformly excellent that I took my time writing one of my own. Ultimately, though, I had to add my thoughts on the deck, because it is the best self-published set I have ever seen. Recently, I commented to some tarotistas that I thought the release of the Tarot of Prague was the high point of the tarot year, and I show the deck to everyone with whom I come in contact. So, I knew it was time to commit my rhapsodies to the printed page.

In some ways, this deck is similar to the Tarot of Paris; both are city-themed and use sculpture and architecture from the designated city, and both are also collage decks. There are also some significant differences. One major one is that the Tarot of Prague is strongly based on the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck; anyone who uses RWS or a variant will be able to use the Prague deck right out of the box.

And what a nifty little box it is; the deck is housed in a colonial blue cardboard shell that ties together with golden ribbon. A little white booklet (LWB) is attached to the box, which is good for those of us who would lose our heads if they were not attached. If you order the book with the deck (something I strongly recommend), it comes in an additional box that holds book and deck.

The artwork is an extract of paintings, architecture, drawing and sculpture from Prague fused occasionally with images from a Bohemian playing card deck in order to create pictorial duplications of the RWS cards (with some exceptions). The results could have been a hodgepodge, but to my eyes, are instead 78 exquisite creations that work together seamlessly and cohesively.

Not only is the deck an aesthetic treat and easy to read with, many of the cards add something special to "standard" interpretations. The Magician really does look like he has a direct connection to what's above, so he can easily manifest so below. This muscular Mercury manquée invokes a most powerful Magus. The High Priestess points to her book with the authority of one who knows all its secrets intimately--this is one High Priestess who is as unrelentingly authoritative as her counterpart, the Hierophant. The female in Strength tames the lion with her lush and self-assured beauty; if anything, one fears the large cat is no match for her. The backdrop for the central figures echoes the theme, depicting Hercules subduing a similar beast.

Justice (pictured above) is particularly unique--the woman balancing her sword and scales is in the act of a balancing act herself, standing atop an elephant. While one may question the choice of animal, its relationship to Ganesha was particularly apt in a reading I did recently with this deck. (The book meaning for the elephant is to consider things within a larger context, not getting bogged down in minutia.) Another terrific feature of the Tarot of Prague is that the artists created two Death cards: one depicts the skeletal rider, complete with black flag, making his way through the bone graveyard, the second, referred to as the "Memento Mori card" is considered more grim by the author; I am not sure I agree with that assessment. Still, it's lovely to have a choice.

One last card I must mention is the Moon, as it is perhaps my favorite of the Tarot of Prague Major Arcana. The blue cast and the image itself create a watery atmosphere that ripples and ebbs, much like the journey demanded by the depths of the Moon card. The more you examine this card, the more you see beyond its surface.

The only Major card that I am less than enthusiastic about is Temperance--I see this card as dynamic, and the white stone figure seems cold and static to me. One would not remember that the Golden Dawn astrological attribution for this card is Sagittarius from the image depicted; instead, the temperate aspect of Temperance is highlighted.

There is slightly more divergence from the traditional RWS imagery in the Minor Arcana in the Tarot of Prague, yet I find myself most impacted by some of the cards that hew to that standard imagery but add an extra emotional charge through the depiction itself. I love all the Threes, but the Three of Cups stands out for me. Three Graces are depicted, adorned only in sheets of scarlet, but they stand on foaming, cloud-like seas. One makes a toast to the cherubs in the sky, who are also in celebratory mode. For me, this shows that we touch the heavens when we truly and openly share joy with others, finding true kinship despite any minor differences. The taupe sky and umber tones of the Ten of Swords evoke death and decay, but a star of hope in the far distance shines the brighter for its muted surroundings.

Some of the images are different from the RWS, but are rooted in similar meanings. The Five of Swords shows a triumphant dragon gloating at the retreating backs of soldiers, who are scurrying away as fast as their little legs can carry them. The figure on the Two of Swords is blindfolded and holds two crossed swords, but she is standing, and her muscular stance makes one feel that she is taking on her muddled thoughts and will act upon them forthwith. This card can also be read as someone who is determined to hold off unpleasant knowledge, vigorously, if necessary.

The court cards are equally poignant and evocative. The Knight of Cups is mind-blowing, in that he sits astride an upside-down horse. This reversal indicates that he is dreaming or sleeping, and that this Knight's thoughts are not grounded in reality, but in the clouds in which he rides. I am not alone in noting that the Queen of Swords bears some resemblance to Mary Greer. The King of Pentacles is all gold, reminiscent of King Midas, and has two fierce bulls guarding his domain.

The card backs are reversible and elegant. Bordered by the magical words written on the Old Town Bridge Tower, there are icons in brown and white at the center. The cards themselves are matte and not as slippery as other decks, which adds to the feel of old-world elegance that the entire deck displays. The Majors don't have numbers on them, but Strength is listed as VIII and Justice, XI, in the 300 page companion book.

Ah, yes. The companion book. I can't say enough good things about this, either. All of the images used by the artists are mentioned and discussed, and the interpretations are nuanced and profound. It's a painless way to learn about Prague, a magical city I now want desperately to visit, because it is written in such an interesting manner. The majority of the book consists of card interpretations, but there is also a section on Prague and the images and symbols used, as well as readings and spreads, including a unique "threshold" layout. There is also a bibliography and index. The level of thought and scholarship in this deck is of the highest caliber.

After perusing this deck for myself, I literally called my closest tarot friends--even the ones on a strict budget--and urged them to buy this set as quickly as possible, as it is a limited edition of 3500 decks. As Tarot Passages' readers, you are next on my list for such exhortation. I can't recommend buying the deck (with the book!) strongly enough. You won't regret it.

You see all the cards and/or order the deck separately (for approximately $30.50, US Dollars) or as a set (approximately $36.50 US Dollars) from the deck creators' website. You'd have to be insane not to get the set for that price. I am planning to buy several copies for Christmas/Chanukkah/Yule gifts. 

  Yes No
78 cards X  
Reversible Backs X  
Strength VIII, Justice XI X  
Color Images X  
Standard (RWS) Titles of the Major Arcana X  
Traditional (RWS) Suits (Rods/Wands, Cups/Chalices, Swords, Pentacles/Disks)   X
Traditional (RWS) Golden Dawn Suit-Element Attributions   X
Standard dimensions (approx. 4 3/4" X 2 3/4")                   X  
Smaller than standard                                            
Larger than standard                                                 
     
     

Excerpt:

Three of Cups

Three happy, healthy young women are standing together.  One of them is holding up a golden cup as though she is about to make a toast. There are two more cups on the ground. In the background is a painting that shows a group of celebratory angels (or perhaps they are fairies?) and cherubs.  At the bottom of the card is a dove, holding the olive branch of peace.

Short Interpretation

Other people are at the center of your life right now, and it's a very positive thing.  You may be enjoying working in a team, or it may be more about experiencing good companionship a mutual trust and support, but one way or another you are in a position where you appreciate how important those around you can be.  You should enjoy this sense of harmony and community and let it energize you.

Fuller Interpretation

Celebration * Co-operation and teamwork * Community * Mutual support

The Three of Cups is essentially about teamwork that is based on emotions rather than strict rationality, in which there is a "gut feeling" that it will work well.  When this card comes up in a reading it is an indication that you should rely on the power of friendship, cooperation and every form of teamwork and community.  The card also signifies the sense of happy exuberance you can feel when working closely with others. When a cooperation is working really well it can be a source of pleasure and excitement as each side feels both supportive and supported, and you can feel more relaxed simply because you do not have to carry everything on your own shoulders.  When you can trust the people around you there is no need to be on your guard or to take on too much so you can really enjoy getting on with the task at hand in a joyful and collaborative way.

The image on this card shows three young women who are happily and animatedly talking.  One of them is holding up a golden cup in a toast.  They are all dressed and styled in the same way, and look harmonious and comfortable together. Beneath their feet a dove flies over swirling water. This represents both the "watery" and emotional qualities of the Cups suit, and also the peace and harmony that is at the heart of the card.  The fairies and cherubs in the background add to the air of celebration and festivity.  One seems to be pouring liquid from her jug into the golden cup held aloft -- real teamwork!

Sources

The three Art Nouveau-style young women in the foreground are originally from the entrance of a house in Siroka in the Josefov part of Old Town.  However, in the original there are only two women, one on either side of the door.  We took the liberty of photographing one of them from two angles, and then using her twice on this card.  The background picture of fairies and cherubs is from the murals in the early 18th century Clam-Galas Palace at the corner of Karlova and Husova streets.  The artist was Santin Bossi. The palace is open to the public but this is not always made apparent.  If you go past the slightly forbidding façade you will find one of the most beautifully decorated stairways in Prague.

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The above review referred to the first edition of the deck. In 2004, Baba Studios released a new version of Tarot of Prague. Click here for review of the second edition.


Images and text cited © 2003 Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov
Review and page © 2003 Diane Wilkes