Bohemian Gothic Tarot – 2nd Edition
by Karen Mahoney and Alex Ukolov
Whether or not you’re a fan of the original Bohemian Gothic, I think the second edition has a lot to recommend it. The first edition was voted best deck of 2007 on Aeclectic, and much of that brilliance carries over into this second edition. All of the cards have been altered, though in some the changes are almost imperceptible. Nevertheless, examining them closely I feel there is always a reason for the changes that have been made. And it is, without a doubt, a very readable deck.
Let’s start with the basics. The cards are standard “Magic Realist Press” size (approximately 13 cms by 8 cms), which is larger than most U.S. Games, Lo Scarabeo or Llewellyn decks, but not ridiculously big to shuffle. The card backs are reversible, showing a flattened-out boveda-type ceiling with skulls and the words Memento Mori (on which more later). While in the first edition this pattern was in stark black and white contrast, in this second edition it is a muted version in black and grey. The card titles are shown in a small border at the bottom of each card, with the other three sides being borderless. Those who bought direct from Magic Realist Press have pewter-edging on the cards, but the normal version will just be good-quality card stock; fairly sturdy, flexible and thin.
The packaging for the second edition is lovely – a sturdy box with a hinge at the side which opens easily. Not so easily that you lose your cards, but easily enough that you can get the cards out repeatedly without the box taking on a battered appearance. Also, for bag fans, Baba Studios (the “fabric” side of Magic Realist Press) sell a number of bags with images from both editions. The bags specific to the second edition are of cards which have been dramatically changed from the first edition, so as not to confuse things.
The theme of the deck, as the name implies, is gothic. There are 78 cards true to RWS content, but not always imagery, and all with a subtle, spooky edge and dark, muted colours. A 79th card can be shuffled in, used as a bookmark, or framed (according to the authors). The extra card is titled Memento Mori, which is generally translated as “Remember, you will die”. It’s claimed that this was a phrase which a Roman General’s slave would say to him while he made a triumphal ride into Rome, to remind him that his success wouldn’t last forever. Personally, I think there are lots of interesting ways to interpret this card. The image is an ambiguous figure, which can be seen either as a beautiful woman in front of a dressing table and mirror, or else as a skull! So, in a face-to-face reading, it would be revealing to ask what the client sees. As for other interpretations, I wrote a blog on the subject, if anyone wants some other ideas.
In terms of the 78 regular cards and their relationship to the RWS, the Five of Cups, for example, shows a woman with a bunch of flowers in a cemetery. The idea of sorrowing for something no longer attainable is there, but without the spilled cups and black cloak of the Rider Waite Smith deck. Likewise, the Three of Swords shows a woman standing in shadow before a pillar with a sunny glade behind her, while at her side there are two doves, one of which is dead. Thus, the idea of romantic heartache comes more from the love-birds, yet the tragic sorrow is also to be found in the posture and expression of the woman.
In comparison with the first edition, the images tend to be slightly less sharp. However, the contrast has been evened out a little, making the deck a touch more uniform and generally a bit lighter and easier to make out. In the first edition, there were some cards in which I couldn’t see details and only realised certain aspects through reading the book. In this second edition, these cards have been lightened so that colours and details show up more clearly. Also, the people have often been made a little larger relative to the background, making the deck feel a bit more human and less overwhelming.
For those who have both decks, perhaps some will hate that changes have been made, while others will prefer the old or new version of any given card. However, if you don’t have the first edition with which to compare, I think the deck will delight as much as the first edition did.
Some of the cards are very obviously spooky or other-worldly, for example the Seven of Wands presents a horned demon fighting off six wands, while the Five of Wands has a hooded figure being approached by zombie-like ghosts. In terms of craftsmanship, the Three of Pentacles is illustrated by an image of Frankenstein and his monster! Meanwhile, the Six of Wands proffers an armoured man on a horse with an entourage of soldiers, but his “men” are skeletons.
Other images are more subtle in their eeriness: in the Nine of Cups a man sits comfortably sipping from a cup, but the liquid it holds is green; the Ten of Cups shows a family – husband, wife and two children – and it is only their positions and expressions which leave the viewer with a sense of unease; in the Two of Cups a man and woman sit in a garden on a moonlit night, while overhead bats fly, and the woman looks nervous; in The Moon a beautiful woman with a crescent-moon headdress is seen in an ornate garden, a howling wolf at her side, but looking closely there is a trace of blood around his uplifted muzzle.
This deck, which sells for the very reasonable price of 21 Euros, is beautiful and charming in a creepy, uncanny way! While it might not be the first choice for a complete novice, it is very readable within the RWS tradition, and is not excessively frightening or gory.