Karen Mahony’s The Tarot of Prague

I picked up this beautiful Tarot deck when it arrived in the Green Man mailroom a year or so ago. I had to use it a few times before I established enough familiarity to review it. Now I’m ready!

As I’ve written in other reviews on this site, I have been reading Tarot cards as a form of self-realization for decades. Over the years, I have given away more decks than I have kept. The rational part of my decision to keep a deck or give it away has two components: one is, whether I like the look of the cards; the other is whether I understand what they mean. The latter is especially important if the symbolism of the deck deviates in any way from the Rider-Waite ‘standards’. Now, mind you, after my initial introduction to Tarot in the late 1970s, I haven’t encountered or used a Rider-Waite deck, but those images have stayed with me.

The creators of this deck have made judicious use of those classic images, using design elements from Prague arranged in collage format. The Tarot of Prague is the creative child of Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov, who run baba studio (the use of lower case is their choice) in Prague, that magical and ancient city on the Vltava River in the Czech Republic. Their in-house publishing company offers several other Tarot decks in addition to The Tarot of Prague. The on-line baba store, which may or may not have a physical storefront in Prague, offers strange and wonderful articles like pillows, so-called bucket bags, original and vintage prints.

I think the best way to introduce the deck is to describe a few of the cards I drew in the reading I did last week.

One of the cards in that reading was the Ace of Pentacles. The Tarot of Prague uses the traditional images of Pentacles, Cups, Swords and Wands for the Minor Arcana cards. I have always liked the aces, which tell of new beginnings and awakening energy. The Ace of Pentacles in this deck shows in the foreground a hand holding a palm-sized blue disk with a golden sun embossed on it. The sun’s rays look like petals on a flower. Below the outstretched hand and in the near background of the picture is a stone wall. In the middle of the stone wall is an open doorway with a stairway leading upward. Behind the stone wall and in the farther background are a number of white buildings on a steep hillside. The sky above the buildings is fair, with just a few wispy clouds. I get a feeling of optimism from this card, which in a typical reading means that prosperity is on its way. Mahony’s source description for this Ace of Pentacles tells a tale about the real stone doorway, that anyone who walks through it on New Year’s Day can leave an old life behind and begin a new and better one. A splendid image for this card!

I also drew the King of Cups. He’s a pretty stiff-looking fellow on a golden throne, holding an ornate cup in his left hand. In the lower left foreground of the card is a bare-breasted golden mermaid statue. Behind the King is a sparkling body of water with a sailing ship on it. In the far background are the buildings of a city with several domes and steeples. Mahony’s interpretation for this card confirms that initial impression of stiffness. She notes that the King is so tightly ‘buttoned-up’ that he doesn’t even notice the playful mermaid. She suggests that this card refers to someone who usually puts intellect before feeling. Her source description for this card tells that the King is from an old Bohemian Tarot deck, while the mermaid is part of a group of magical figures that can be found on Smetanovo nabrezi (your web browser would not like the diacritical marks on four of the letters in that last word!) The body of water is the Vltava River, with a view of the Old Town behind it. The book doesn’t refer to the ship in its description of the card or its sources, which is a bit odd.

I also wanted to describe one of the major arcana cards I drew in this reading. I chose the Hanged Man, which some of the less traditional decks call the Hanged One. It’s a convention in most Tarot decks for the major arcana cards to be numbered, using Roman numerals. In this deck, the cards are not, although the corresponding sections of the book are; the Hanged Man is XII. The card shows a somewhat androgynous statuary figure suspended upside down from an ornate piece of rope with arms extended over the figure’s head, touching the rays of an upright black solar disk with a face on it. The figure wears a sash of silver and golden fruit from shoulder to waist. Mahony’s description of the card also refers to a golden door behind the figure, although the design looks more like a wall covered in red with gold leaf trim — there are no visual cues to suggest a door. Her interpretation, like this image of the Hanged Man, hews to the Rider-Waite convention, referring to a need to assume a different point of view in order to achieve enlightenment. She explains that the black sun is an alchemical symbol that is found in many locations around Prague. The fruits are pomegranates (on a Tarot card, such details are difficult to ascertain without commentary), which symbolize rebirth.

The Tarot of Prague deck, which can be purchased separately if you so desire, comes in a cardboard sleeve that fastens on the open side with gold ribbons. It’s pretty and works fine if you keep your Tarot decks in a relatively static environment. I’m not sure I’d want to leave this deck in this wrapper out on a shelf where an enterprising cat or small child might find it. I also wouldn’t want to carry it around in a backpack or shoulder bag. The cards would fall out, and that would be the end of that. They would probably appreciate a nice bag of velvet or leather if you wanted to take them out with you!

The sleeve has a very small booklet of interpretations bound into it; however, I highly recommend purchasing the companion book, particularly since the combination is available from the usual Web-based retail source at a price so low you won’t quite qualify for Super Saver shipping! The book is a handsome, good-sized paperback, containing several brief introductory sections as well as detailed and well-documented commentaries on each of the cards. As you can readily infer from my descriptions of some of the cards in my last reading, each of Mahony’s commentaries features a black and white image of the card, a paragraph describing its components, a short interpretation, a longer interpretation, and a list of the sources for the images used in designing the card. I think that even experienced card-readers who rely on their own interpretations will find the background information on the deck and the individual cards interesting and useful.

(The Magic Realist Press, 2004

About Donna Bird

I am a former lecturer of Sociology at the University of Southern Maine in the beautiful Portland area, where I have lived since 1992.