Tarot of Prague by Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov, book by Karen Mahony

Review by Lee A. Bursten 


Some decks are a chore to review.  Others are a pleasure.  This one is a pleasure.


I’ve been following the progress of this deck for several months, and ordered it as soon as the authors (who actually live in Prague) had enabled their on-line ordering system.  By the time the package from Prague finally arrived in the mail, my anticipation was at a fever pitch.


I was not disappointed.  While self-published, every facet of this deck/book set meets and, in fact, exceeds professional standards.  The outer box is 14 inches tall, unusually large for a Tarot set.  Inside are the deck itself, which comes in a sort of cardboard book binder, which is held shut with gold ribbons; the Little White Booklet (LWB), which is glued to the inside of the cardboard binder; a 300-page book; and an extra gold ribbon to use as a bookmark.  The outer box, the card box, and the book cover are strikingly beautiful.


Now to the cards.  The authors have taken paintings, drawings, sculpture, architectural features and curiosities, and cityscape photographs, all from their native Prague, and combined them via collage into a stunning artistic achievement.  Just as astonishing is the fact that they have managed to do this while at the same time maintaining a simplicity and directness of symbolism which makes the deck a pleasure to read with.  While the cards each have their own very distinctive and unique perspectives, they also retain enough of a connection with the Rider-Waite-Smith deck to give the them an undertone of comfortable familiarity underneath the exciting newness.


One of the fascinating things about this deck is that, while the various collaged elements are from very different periods and styles (i.e. pre-Raphaelite, Gothic, Art Nouveau, Art Deco), they are put together in such a way as to present an organic whole.  The cards don’t have the “collage-y” look of, say, the Voyager Tarot; instead, the collaged elements of each card give the impression of having been created specifically for that card.


I also like the fact that the authors are not afraid to use bright colors.  Personally I feel bright colors make for a more evocative deck.  As well, the vivid, bold colors and bright blue skies give the deck an overall cheeriness which is a refreshing change from many recent decks.


To my great pleasure, the authors demonstrate their respect for the tarot’s origins as a card game in two ways.  First, the card numbers and suit symbols of the Minor Arcana echo those of playing cards; and second, several cards contain elements collaged from a 32-card Bohemian playing card deck, which adds to the Tarot of Prague’s overall jauntiness. 


The authors also have a respect for the iconic qualities of traditional decks, a respect which I fear is becoming increasingly rare among recent Tarot creators, with the exception of a few artists like Robert Place.  The Tarot of Prague thankfully retains this iconic quality, not only in the images but also in the titles, which use an Edwardian sort of typeface and are set into a golden Art Deco-ish border.


In The Chariot, a mature woman directs her chariot, pulled by eagles (one black, one white), through the air solely by the force of her character.  To me, this card represents absolute perfection in the art of collage.  The combination of separate elements into a cohesive whole is pure magic.


The same is true of the Hermit (at top).  For me, the traditional image becomes more poignant when set against a city street.  Not many of us, after all, can achieve the physical solitude of the monk.  Most of us need to cultivate Hermit qualities while everyday life goes on around us.  There’s also an esoteric subtext here; the street is the Golden Lane, known as the “Street of Alchemists.”  Alchemical equipment can be spotted in the heraldic design at the top of the card.


Justice illustrates the directness of symbolism which I mentioned.  The figure is shown standing on an elephant, which stands on a globe, with a phoenix over all.  There have been too many decks lately which contain obscure symbolism.  Here, we turn to the Tarot of Prague book, and we find that the elephant represents “the need to remember the actions and decisions leading up to the present.”  The globe signifies that “justice often needs to be seen in a broad context.”  The phoenix represents reincarnation, which brings in the idea of karma, that even if justice is not accomplished in this life, “good or bad karma may be taken into account in another world or another life.”  How refreshingly straightforward!


The exuberant lightheartedness of this deck is shown in the World, whose dancer kicks up her heels in good cheer.  This card would be enough to lift the spirits of the most depressed querent – or at least I would like to think so.


The Minors follow the Rider-Waite-Smith pattern, but in creative ways.  In the Five of Swords, a dragon brandishes the swords he has taken away from his human attackers, who creep away rather comically.  The central figure on the Seven of Wands is from that 32-card Bohemian playing card deck.  It looks to me as if he’s so absorbed in showing off his battle moves that he’s in danger of falling overboard.  The Eight of Wands shows rods which are delightfully topped with fierce-looking animal heads (the book identifies them as rain spouts on a palace roof).  Finally, the Four of Swords has a wonderfully medieval feel.


The cards are printed on thick card stock.  While they feel smooth and have received several layers of coating, they don’t feel as coated as U.S. Games or Llewellyn decks.  The authors assure us, however, that the cards are sturdy and should stand up to use.


As far as I’m concerned, the book is just as much an achievement as the deck.  It’s well-written and is full of fascinating lore about Prague itself, its long esoteric tradition, and the individual collaged elements used on the cards.  At several points in the card chapters Mahoney is inspired by a particular feature of a card to take off on a tangent in a “More About” section, and these sections are some of my favorite passages in the book.  For example, after the section on the Five of Cups, which shows a stature which is purported to represent the Golem, there is a two-and-a-half-page “More About the Golem” section containing some history and different versions of the Golem myth.


Besides black-and-white versions of the card images, the book contains many, many other illustrations, including some of the collaged elements in their original settings.  I must also mention the extremely stylish inner flaps of the paperbound book, on which are printed columns of colorful squares showing details from the cards.


After the card chapters, there are sections on learning and reading the Tarot, which contain good, calm, down-to-earth advice.  Mahony sees the tarot as a tool to stimulate useful insights rather than as a device to foretell the future, a viewpoint which I share.  Four spreads are discussed:  The Celtic Cross, a Three-Card, a Five-Card, and an original five-card Threshold spread.  There’s also a sample reading with the Threshold spread, a bibliography, a glossary of terms used, and an index.  This is surely one of the most carefully-put-together and well-thought-out deck-accompanying books that I’ve seen, rivaled perhaps only by the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg book by Cynthia Giles.


I have only a very few small nits to pick.  The book, while completely professional (and beautiful) in appearance, has several typos (the bane of the self-publisher).  The cardboard binder which holds the cards, while striking, wouldn’t really be an effective way to store the cards, because the cards are enclosed on only four sides, and once the plastic shrink-wrap is removed from the cards, they would fall out of the top or bottom of the binder.  Finally, the authors are too modest!  Their names only appear in tiny letters on the outer packaging, and are so well-hidden that I had to search several times before I could find them.


Because of the directness and straightforwardness of both the deck and book, I think this is an excellent set for beginners.  As of this writing, a limited number of decks are available without the book, and although one could certainly read with this deck without the benefit of the book, I can’t imagine anyone who has the deck not wanting the book as well.  The price for the set is not that much more than the price of the deck only, so I would definitely recommend the set as opposed to just the deck.


I’ve been giving a lot of thought to why this deck appeals to me so much, besides the outward attractiveness of the images.  I think it’s because it transcends the usual limitations of geographically- or culturally-based decks.  Somehow, the Prague that it describes is neither the actual city of that name, nor even the imaginary Prague of so many myths and stories, but rather a Prague of the reader’s own mind, an architecture of our own psyches, the twists and turns of tiny lanes, the mysterious houses, the baroque palaces, all filled with myth, with history, and with magic. 


Tarot of Prague by Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov, book by Karen Mahony


Available at the authors’ website


Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.

Images © 2003 Karen Mahoney and Alex Ukolov
Review © 2003 Lee Bursten
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes