“Explore the shadow sides of life; the wisdom and truth that may lie in nightmare, dark imagination, and the fear of the supernatural.”
The Bohemian Gothic Tarot is the latest deck from publishing house Magic Realist Press, and their first with a dark and Gothic-inspired theme.
Artistically, the style of the cards is based on nineteenth century studio portraits and German romantic photographic postcards. It was in the eighteenth century that Gothic began, with the book of ‘The Castle of Otranto’ which was written in 1764 by Walpole, though it’s most well-known for the revival in Victorian times, thanks to Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The cards aren’t linked with specific Gothic tales or characters, but Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov have blended typical aspects of the genre to create an incredibly atmospheric deck. It’s designed to a work on a subconscious level, provoking the imagination and tickling at the mind rather than being outright freaky or gory. There are a couple of cards that tend towards a horror movie, but generally they rely on people with ghostly skin tones and variously disturbing facial expressions, inhabiting scenes with stormy skies, shadowy corners, bats, gargoyles, and ruined castles, to give a gothic atmosphere.
There are few dark decks that fully embrace the shadow side – most just have dark or gothic imagery overlaid over the usual Rider-Waite style scenes - but the Bohemian Gothic explores more than just the traditional images and meanings. The scenes express emotions and feelings normally only touched upon in more ‘positive’ decks: melancholy, cunning, evil genius, fear and apprehension, submission, dark longing, sadness, devilish merriment, and of course, horror.
Some cards just have a small twist from the traditional (aside from the darkish colour hue). The Sun is normally a simple and uncomplicated card of happiness, and now shows a rather too knowing and sardonic child on the back of the horse (in stark contrast to his blond locks and cute red coat). The Two of Swords is outwardly simple but oddly creepy: two tall tiled towers stand rigidly behind a blindfolded woman standing in the moonlight. Others are pretty or innocuous on first glance – until you look again. In the Four of Wands, three women stand outside a castle, dim light showing through the windows. The women are apparently pretty and well-dressed, but have a slightly glazed look and an unholy enthusiasm as though they’re waiting eagerly for their next victim to walk down the street.
Some are more overtly disturbing. The Devil card is not gory, but an evil-looking blue-skinned, red-haired woman holds a hypodermic needle (this isn’t anachronistic; hypodermics were actually in use in the nineteenth century) to the arm of a swooning woman. The Seven of Wands is the most stereotypically horror-like, and depicts a ram-horned, gargoyle-like created with sharp fangs leaning from a castle window.
The cards are printed on the usual strong but thin card stock used by Magic Realist Press decks. The backs have a reversible, black and white, geometric skull and bones pattern, with ‘momentomori’ repeated in the inner bone hexagon. On the face, the cards are borderless. The are two editions of the Bohemian Gothic: the Silver, a limited edition of 500 copies has an extra card, Danse Macabre, which has no Rider-Waite counterpart but is intended to be a reminder of mortality and death. The standard edition has the companion book.
The 232-page book is aimed at readers of all levels. For beginners it gives somewhere to start if it’s a first deck: there is a quick history of tarot and info on how to learn the tarot, reading styles, spreads and sample spreads. For those who have a good familiarity with the traditional meanings, there are shadow meanings provided as well as the traditional card meaning. And, interspersed between the card meanings are deeper explanations on Gothic settings and themes, like the Vampire after the Lovers cards, the Haunted House or Castle after the 8 of Cups, and Madness and Delusion after the 10 of Cups.
There are several ways to read with the Bohemian Gothic deck, too: use the standard positive meanings when the cards are upright, and the shadow meanings for the reversed; use all the shadow meanings for a look at your subconscious motivations, the less palatable aspects of life; or do a normal reading with another deck like the Victorian Romantic and select a card from the Bohemian Gothic for a hidden influence or shadow position.
The Bohemian Gothic Tarot has a character totally different to Karen and Alex’s previous decks, but was created with the same skilled graphic manipulation and digital artistry. The ‘dark sister’ of the Victorian Romantic Tarot is best used at midnight in a room with velvet curtains, lit by a few flickering candles.
This edition of the "Bohemian Gothic Tarot" is a limited edition (500 copies) that is signed and numbered. It is a very special edition not only because of the stunning nature of the imagery, but because of the use of silver ink overlay. It is a full 78 card deck with one extra card … the "Danse Macabre", which shows a female figure, arms uplifted, dancing with skeleton figures. There is no meaning given for the extra card … but it is such a wonderful card that it could easily be used however the reader chose to define it … including being used as a card representing the Seeker. (The reading is, after all, the "dance" of the Seeker's life!)
There is no book that comes with the deck (there is, however, a book that can be purchased separately that can be used with both the regular edition and the Silver Edition of this deck), but there is a 32 page LWB (Little White Book). There is a very well done pure silk-satin Tarot bag, with scarlet lining and black glass fringe beading, that comes with the cards. As an added bonus, there is a discount coupon, for use with selected Bohemian Gothic designs and products through the on-line shop.
The LWB starts out with two spreads that were developed specifically for the Bohemian Gothic Tarot: a six card spread entitled "The Secret Fears Spread", and a five card spread entitled "The Vampire Spread". As the deck was designed to explore the shadow sides of life, the spreads were designed to help the reader explore darker questions, as well as helping them to deepen their relationship with the deck. The definitions for the questions for both of these spreads were quite interesting. I am going to share the ones from the "Vampire Spread":
1. Who or what is draining my energy? 2. Why am I vulnerable to this? 3. What is the main effect this is having on me? 4. What should I do in order to avoid this happening? 5. One further piece of advice about the situation.
The cards are presented as text only … no scans. Upright meanings are listed, but in place of listing reversed meanings, the heading is "Darker, shadow, or more hidden meanings". To me, this covers the nature of a card that is drawn in a reversed position far better than working with it as the opposite of the upright meaning.
From the LWB:
IX The Hermit
A time of isolation - physical or psychological - and contemplation. A quest for knowledge. Showing great patience, realizing that it takes time to find spiritual understanding. Looking inside yourself to find inner truth.
Darker, shadow, or more hidden meanings
Being rejected and isolated by society. Occult practice undertaken alone. Turning your back on mankind. Calling someone to the dark side. Being too isolated from others, this could affect your psychological well being.
The suit associations are Wands/Fire, Cups/Water, Swords/Air and Pentacles/Earth. The Court Cards are Page, Knight, Queen and King. An interesting note here is that the suits themselves have been defined from a Gothic point of view. From the LWB: Wands from a Gothic perspective: Demons and devils. Conflagrations. Alchemical experiments. The burning of witches. Impulsive and hot-tempered action. Flaming torches, braziers, bonfires. Stakes. Rampant and threatening plant growth. Artificial and man-made life.
Cups from a Gothic Perspective: The sea at its most wild. Rushing torrents of water. Whirlpools and maelstroms. Blood. Potions and philters. Goblets. Boxes. Secret drawers. Hidden vaults and tunnels. Vulnerability. The victim. Over-sensitivity. Love affairs, especially doomed ones.
Swords from a Gothic Perspective: Wizards and magicians. Plots and dark strategies. Clever or cunning murders and tortures. Doctors of medicine and philosophy. Students. Grimoires (magicians spell books). Maps and books of arcane secrets. Ancient documents and wills. Knives, swords and blades of all kinds. Birds, especially hawks, ravens, owls and crows.
Pentacles from a Gothic perspective: Meanness and obsession with money. Inheritance. Graves and graveyards. Coffins. Skeletons. Burial, including premature burial. A tie to land or place. Stones and buildings made of stone. Being walled or bricked in. Certain plants, especially gnarled trees, overgrown climbers and vines. Certain animals: spiders, mice, rats. Rot, decay.
The cards and Tarot bag come in a sleeve-style box. On the front of the box is a depiction of the Moon, with information concerning this edition of the deck on the back of the box. On the front of t he box the cards come is a depiction of Strength, while on the back there is a depiction of the Queen of Swords.
The cards themselves are 3" by 5", of sturdy card stock. The reversible backs show a black background, with a stylized image in shadowed silver-gray, with the central "figure" showing two skills, facing each other. The is a six-sided figure, with the words "Memento Mori" written on the inside edges. The card faces have no border … the imagery goes right to the edge, and is in dark blues, silver and black, with brighter colors (red and orange) used judiciously.
The titles for the Major Arcana are in silver/gray text against a black background centered on the bottom of the card. No numbers are given for the Major Arcana on the cards (they do appear in the LWB). The Minor Arcana Pips (numbered cards) show the card number and suit, centered on the bottom of the card, with the Court Cards listed by title and suit, centered on the bottom of the card.
This is not a deck that one needs to fear. For those of us that were around then, I equate the atmosphere of this deck with the 1960's soap opera "Dark Shadows". We took it seriously, but didn't run for cover! There are many cards that really drew me into this deck. The Fool was one of them. We see a dark figure standing on what appears to be a gargoyle jutting out from a building. The figure is standing on one leg, with the other knee raised and their hands out in front of them. Very much a yoga-like pose!
The High Priestess interested me in that she is not holding a book of any kind. She is shown standing between two statue-like columns, wearing a light blue head covering, a dark red dress and a darker blue cloak. In her left hand she is holding an object that appears to be a candle. In her right hand she appears to be holding a cell phone up to her ear. Her face looks like a gray/silver mask.
The Empress looks so innocent … a woman in a green gown, seated, with a blond child in a blue dress standing next to her. Behind the heads of both the woman and the child we see flowers. So what is not so innocent? In the large mirror behind the woman we see the back of her head … and a skeleton looking into the mirror!
The Hermit (the first card that I look at in any deck) shows a dark, hooded figure against a night sky, holding up a lit lantern in his right hand. Oh, yes … his eyes are glowing!
The Wheel of Fortune is a totally thought provoking card, showing an older woman reading the cards for a younger woman, who sits with her head on her hand. There is a lit candle on the table between t hem, throwing light on the Tarot cards.
The Hanged Man hangs from a lifeless tree, with water in the background. A moon shows behind him in the night sky, and an owl perches on a tree to his left.
The Devil shows two female figures embracing … one of them holds a syringe in her hand, about to inject something into her partners arm. A dark sky shows behind them.
The Five of Wands shows a courtyard scene, with a purple robed figure facing the courtyard, which is inhabited by phantom figures.
The Nine of Cups shows the figure of a gentleman, seated in his study with a glass containing a dark green liquid in his right hand. On his desk we see a lit candelabra.
The King of Swords shows a figure in armor, with an upright sword in his right hand, and a gold crown on his head.
We all, in some manner, need to address the shadow issues in our lives. I find this deck fascinating, all to real, and know that I will be working many times with it. I feel that it could be used by any level of Tarot reader … I would not advise that it be used as a learning deck, simply because the imagery is not traditional. The "Danse Macabre" is, after all, danced by each of us at some time!
© Bonnie Cehovet
This deck is made up of 79 cards including the title card. The cards are standard size 5 X 3 inches and come in a light cardboard box. The cards have a soft matte finish and do not appear to be laminated. I found the cardstock to be a bit thin, not an issue for a collector but one for those who might want to use this deck to read with on a regular basis. The backs are black with silver tinted bones. Two skulls in the central position are arranged in a completely reversible design that includes the Latin phrase “Remember Death.” There are no borders on the cards. Both major and minor arcana are unnumbered with the titles of all cards written out on the bottom in capital letters. Availability was an issue when I first tried to purchase the deck. I was eventually able to order the standard version of the deck via the Internet from Alida.
The first of 32 pages that make up the LWB (little white book) states: “This is a deck with which to explore the shadow sides of life; the wisdom and truth that may lie in nightmare, dark imagination and the fear of the supernatural. It’s a deck with many levels, not all of which reveal themselves immediately.”
Gothic is the style of the architecture we see in the cards. It is the support of this framework that actually makes the deck work. It evokes mystery as an almost palpable energy. Every card is influenced by the curves, the ornate carvings, the tall ceilings, elegant windows and doors, and the heaviness of those old Gothic stone structures.
Next in importance for me as I thumbed through the deck was the line of sight, i.e. where my eyes were first drawn in each card. This was influenced of course by the type and the amount of light shown in the card. Some scenes are set in twilight but the majority are nocturnal. The Moon plays a major role in the Bohemian Gothic Deck. We visit rooms in gothic castles at night bathed in moonlight. We stand in gardens under the full moon, see the reflection of the moon upon water, through clouds, above in tree branches and below on stone steps, grave markers and cemetery walls.
Some of the central characters carry candles or sit near them which allows the viewer to see color, dried blood red velvets, dark floral brocades , tinted washes of greens and lavenders on satins, pearly gossamer laces and thin translucent shimmering silks are so vivid that we can almost hear the swishing of the fabrics.
We see only a few cards that contain the warm yellows of daylight. The Sun card shows the last few reflected yellow rays at sunset. We see yellow tinted light in the Knight of Wands and some warmth of day is held in the oddly “clear” twilight in Temperance. The Queen of Pentacles is “warmed” as she holds a candelabra, and the Knight of Pentacles is shown as a headless horseman standing near a blazing hearth fire. As most of the cards are dark, the mystery is in the degree, the subtle interplay of darkness and light, in what is seen being juxtapositioned with what is absent. The Tower shows us a bolt of lightning and the Star card is a night scene lit with moon and starlight.
Another quality of this deck is that of illusion. Can we extend our belief long enough to see the image on the card face as being “real”? Perhaps is it an echo of a past life, an early faded memory? Is it indeed a child we see or a ghost on the card face? Part of this atmosphere is accomplished by the use of period clothing, the varying intensity or muting of color and the dimmed lighting. The reflection of moonlight off of pale white skin creates a ghostly presence and persistent shadows, as well as inky dark spaces where eyes can’t distinguish any shape. What adds most to the eerie sense of unreality is not all the creatures depicted in this deck are human, thus we enter a mythic crossroad, the twilight region where subconcious and unconscious converse.
In looking over the Majors I found several to be quite magnetic such as The Fool posed as gargoyle in lunar silhouette; The Wheel of Fortune ‘s astute fortuneteller plying her trade by candlelight below stairs; and Justice as a witch hunting judge with book and candle. My least favorite cards were the Queen of Wands and The Hermit. I found the Queen to be ghoulish, the orange-red of her ball-gown only serving to make her skin much too chalky. The Hermit was a bit understated needing more than Svengali eyes filled with lamplight to pull us all the way into his space . Oddly enough, the Queen of Wands and the Hermit are two of my favorite cards and I cannot recall ever seeing them not done well before this.
To open the deck I queried as I always do, “What is the purpose of the deck in my life?” The answer given was the Ace of Cups, in this deck a grey stone urn decorated with skulls and filled to the brim with them, set back in a niche framed with pillars of skulls and bones. Only a bit of moonlight lights this card. To quote the LWB this card is “opening to a new beginning,” with a darker meaning added of “using others to further your own art or innovation.”
From my point of reference, the funeral urn shown in the Ace of Cups is a good representation of the libation cup filled with cool water dedicated to one’s ancestral dead that opens all ceremonies in my tradition. All of the dead are thirsty, all of the dead drink. I wouldn’t hesitate to implore the power of “other” dead Spirits, unrelated to my bloodline with “fire water.” Isn’t that what Magick is for?
In terms of art, style and theme I absolutely love this deck, and would recommend it for necromancers, dark artists, and deep psyche explorers. It would be an excellent reading deck for a Tarotist who has achieved some degree of comfort in the darker levels of their own psyche.
I give this deck four full and one half moons.
©2008. Djenra Windwalker.