by Karen Mahony
Magic Realist Press
A head on a carved stone pillar in the Old Town.
Going through immigration on a trip back to the UK last year, I was standing behind an attractive girl whom the officer was attempting to chat up.
“Prague,” he said, looking at her ticket. “I’ve heard it’s beautiful.”
“Nah,” she said, clearly bored. “It’s quite pretty, but I can’t see what all the fuss is about.”
I actually laughed, because that’s so typical of Prague – a city that you either “get” immediately or that completely evades you.
When Jean-Michel asked me to write this piece on Prague and tarot, I realized that what I really want to express is how influenced Alex and I have been by Prague as a “magic city.” It’s an aspect of the Bohemian capital that continues to exercise a tremendous impact on some people – you can see it in the work of many local artists – while having no effect whatsoever on others. In the words of one elderly lady we met, “Prague calls, but not to everyone – only to those it wants.” A bit of mystic nonsense, perhaps? Well, yes, but it also possesses more than an ounce of truth. Prague does have a rich tradition specifically around tarot, but it also – and crucially, for us – has a broader and more fantastic one in the general area of the hermetic and the magical. If it doesn’t charm you on your first visit, perhaps you’re not looking hard enough.
I first came to Prague in 1991, and for all sorts of reasons, it was a memorable trip. I was quite aware that something had happened – some type of falling in love with this aged, and at the time, dilapidated city. I returned years later, until my visits became more and more frequent.
One day I found myself walking along Uvoz, the street on which Alex and I now live (coincidence is, after all, part of everyday life in this city), wondering – Do I want to disrupt my whole life for the sake of coming to live here?
When I decided that yes, I did, a sequence of absurd events immediately took place. First, a bird burst into song right beside me; then, a bell began to peal; then (and yes, it’s true), a HUGE cheer went up from the whole city below me – windows were opening, with people waving flags and bellowing and shouting. Right above me, through a window someone yelled “Yes, yes, oh yes!”
It took me a little while to realize that, while I was out walking and thinking, the World Final of the ice-hockey championship was being played out, and at the moment I made my decision, the Czech Republic won. Did I already say that outrageous coincidence is commonplace here?
An 18th century decoration on one of the pillars of the old Jesuit college here – and a typical example of the bizarrely amusing imagery that abounds in Prague.
Prague is magical, but it’s also a city with a wild sense of humour, a surprisingly whacky mode of irony, a profusion of symbols and an odd grip – that can be vice-like – on the heart of certain people, including me. Oh, and Kafka of course, who notoriously described it as “a mother with claws, who keeps bringing you back.” It’s a city that has a relationship with magic that is there in its very origins. After all, it’s supposed to have been founded by Libuse, a half-elfin Celtic magician queen who found guidance in divination. Although of course you can, if you prefer, take the alternative view that the city was formed when a diadem fell off the head of an angel – and formed the meteoric crater that this city sits in. We may be the only city in the world to have a stone formed by a meteriorite – green moldavite – as our local gemstone. I probably hardly need to add that it’s supposed to have magical properties.
Art Nouveau picture of Libuse by Vitezlav Karel Masek.
Alex and I met in Prague some years back. He moved for reasons that differed from mine, namely a frustration about doing low-level advertising work in his native Crimea, mixed with a hope that more satisfying work could be found in a bigger city. Since we set up the studio, the work certainly has been more interesting, and that, combined with the sheer visual, sensual and intellectual pleasure inherent in the material we’re working with, kept us going through the difficulty of those preliminary years in “set-up” mode.
One of the things that’s given us energy is the good fortune of working in a place so rich in inspiration. As we’ve worked, we’ve felt more and more connected to the art, the symbolism – and the sheer magic – to be found here. More pragmatically, we’ve also become good at discovering new things; new to us, that is; in fact, our findings are often very ancient. In Prague, you have to keep your eyes, and perhaps your sixth sense, open, but if you do, there’s a lot to reward alertness and a bit of research.
The Tarot Tradition in Prague
Without getting into the whole “game or more than game” debate, it is obvious that tarot cards were used here for playing games from quite an early time. Bohemia was prosperous, sophisticated, and in close contact with Italy during the Renaissance, so it’s no wonder that the Prague Castle museum claims tarot cards were used at the Castle during the time of Rudolph II (1552-1612). While these claims are not actually substantiated, they do seem entirely reasonable. However, in spite of modern writers describing Rudolph’s Court as being full of tarot readers, I’ve found absolutely no concrete evidence that this was the case – the cards were probably simply used for gaming. Astrology was certainly important at Court – in those days even eminent astronomers like Brahe and Kepler were also expected to be astrologers. The alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelley notoriously, while in Bohemia, used crystal balls and scrying mirrors to talk to the angels – but of tarot card reading, there is apparently no historical record.
An almost immaculate (though note the slight damage on L’Imperatrice) set of Wirth cards ¥ probably an original 1927 set.
However, jump to the early 20th century and suddenly there is a great deal of evidence of tarot (as opposed to the whole separate question of oracle card) reading. Our most spectacular find to date is a set of Oswald Wirth cards that appear to be the rare 1926/7 set. They were found in an antique shop along with an odd set of printed black and white Minors with an Egyptian theme (what happened to the Majors, or were there any decks around at this time that were Minors only?) and a most interesting hand-drawn set of Majors (but with The Fool sadly missing) that were said to be done by local artist Vojtech Hynais (1854-1925), who also painted some of the murals at Prague’s National Theatre. This set was clearly designed to be used for divination, and was also clearly based on the Tarot de Marseille, although with some interesting, rather erotic interpretations (the choice made in The Lovers card was clearly between a very sexually attractive “brazen hussy” and a more sedate older woman). All the cards had come from one Prague household, so they obviously show that someone was collecting divinatory tarot cards early in the century. It may well be that the owner was connected to the Universalia group.
Universalia, Society of Czechoslovak Hermetic Philosphers, to give the full title, was an esoteric group founded by Pierre de Lasenic [Czech name Petr Kohout], Jan Kefer and others in1927. It published a regular journal Logos, which was in fact revived in the 1990s for several years. There is far too much to say about Universalia and Lasenic to include here, but of major interest is Lasenic’s tarot deck designed in the late 1930s and still available in shops in Prague (although the publisher tells us it’s about to go out of print). Many of the original Universalia members died in the concentration camps of WWII, although Lasenic himself met his end by damaging his lungs fatally during a sandstorm in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, where he was doing research.
In the 1940s, Prague also had a very famous tarot reader, styled Madame de Thebes, who worked in Golden Lane. The painted sign on her shop is very faded now, but you can still just about make out an owl and a crystal ball. During WWII she was killed by the Gestapo for refusing to stop predicting the defeat of the Nazis – an example of courage that should perhaps be better known.
The sign on wall of Madame de Thebe’s shop in Golden Lane.
Finding visual magic
Apart from our interest in the local history of tarot, we also search constantly for inspiring art, graphics and visual images. We’ve learned to go through doors and explore passageways, hidden courtyards, and inner rooms – and we’ve had some delightful surprises. A particularly nice one was the two cherubs congratulating themselves on their fishing success used in the Baroque Bohemian Cats’ Tarot, they were found behind an unexciting looking door, and form a plaster motif on a passageway wall; ne can only assume that the original owner was a keen fisherman.
There are the more obvious and easily found images too of course. Famously, Prague has wonderful door signs (they used to be used to identify houses before the days of standardized addresses – I have to say I still love it when people say something like “I live at the House of the Two Golden Suns” In Nerudova Street – AND I know exactly where they mean, so it still works). The sign of the Red Lion, again from Nerudova Street, is used on our Tarot of Prague Ace of Cups. The alchemical reference is both obvious and very appropriate to the card.
The Red Lion door sign.
In bric a brac and antiquarian bookshops here, you can unearth some real finds. For now at least, books and interesting antiques are still comparatively easy to find and affordable. It’s changing however. We look for things that have some magical or interesting visual qualities – and my goodness, do we find them! Here, for example, is a plate from a mid-century book about the imagery on the Krakov Altar (in neighboring Poland). If you thought The Devil from Tarot de Marseille was strange – take a look at this depiction:
Detail of a plate from a mid-century book about the imagery on the Krakov Altar .
Our decks are full – some feel over-full! – of our finds. In the picture book, Bohemian Cats, we were able to show wonderful objects and interiors at a glorious size: this was particularly satisfying and has made us feel that we should perhaps work at a larger scale more often.
Exploring and meeting people
Our surroundings, both town and country, are as magical as Prague itself. For Baroque Bohemian Cats’ Tarot, we did a lot of photography in Cesky Krumlov – perhaps the most perfectly preserved Renaissance town in Central Europe. One particularly unusual set of sgraffito that we photographed there are believed to have Alchemical references although these have yet to be properly explained. So far, we haven’t used these images for a deck – but it may well happen.
From the same house. We only managed to photograph two of these clearly. A shame, as the fragment on the left (with a hand just showing in the corner) looks especially fascinating.
Of course, places like Cesky Krumlov are so rich that for every image we use, there are many more left. In the Baroque Bohemian Cats’ Tarot for example, we were able to incorporate a wonderful Renaissance wall painting of Temperance in the background of the card, but this sister image of Fortitude could not be used, although it¬s equally evocative.
Recently, we’ve also spent time photograph at the famously bizarre bone chapel at Sedlice, one of the best-known attractions outside of Prague, and in nearby Kutna Hora. The bone chapel is bizarre, but surprisingly beautiful – and for tarot people the idea of "memento mori" may not be so alarming as it is to most visitors.
While we were in the Old Town section of Kutna Hora we also found yet more remarkable sgraffito. Later, As Michal Pober, the curator of the Museum of Alchemy remarked “Ah yes, well worth looking closely at those particular pictures“. If anyone reading this would like to offer more explanation of this scene – which is believed to have alchemical references – we’d love to hear more.
Michal proved generous with his time, his knowledge and indeed, his very good humour. I have to say that one of my favourite recent moments was walking with him and Alex in the moonlight around the Cathedral of Saint Barbora, while Michel airily described the last alchemy course he ran “Yes, we did succeed in the transformation of zinc to plant matter, but unfortunately it immediately exploded.” Shades of Hogwarts? Perhaps he would make a perfect Potions teacher. The next course is coming up this autumn and I’m very tempted to join it, in spite of the potential hazards!
What’s coming next?
Our next picture book, provisionally called Nosfelinu the Vampuss is more of an adult graphic novel than Bohemian Cats. Dracula, and features some incredible local castles complete with interiors. The book is high Victorian Gothic with some very odd twists – and tails. Appropriate too, as in fact many of the early vampire myths seem to centre on this region, rather than on Transylvania.
Our next deck? Importantly, there is the See of Logos Oracle deck that we are making with Rachel Pollack. Rachel bills this (with one raised eyebrow I suspect) as “100% accurate divination – guaranteed” One of the thirty-two prophecies in the deck begins:
“Your body is an engine of prophecy. Thousands of years old, you were constructed by a team of seers and alchemists. Every hair, every fold of skin, every bend of your joints, they all symbolize hermetic wisdom of future eventsé "
We are also working on another rather more conventional tarot based on traditional and unabridged fairy tales, including Grimms, Andersen, and some less well known tales from non-European cultures. The illustrator for this deck is the very talented Czech artist Irena Triskova, who is developing the images with Alex. I am hard at work on the companion book, which is intended to be a serious consideration of the relationship of fairy tales to tarot. We hope to have this published next autumn – for me it will be the culmination of a long interest in the symbolism of fairy tales. Lastly, for this year, we are doing a surreal and, we think, beautiful, animal fantasy tarot. More of that later – but suffice for now to say that it’s in a totally different style from anything we’ve done so far.
Into 2006, there are three projects in planning, one of which is a book with Rachel Pollack which is provisionally entitled "The Tarot of Perfection" (I think that eyebrow is still raised). Life is exciting!
Our very favourite insouciant stone lion from Charles Bridge ¥ he’s seen it all.