Introduction: The Bohemian Gothic Tarot
When one creates phantoms for oneself, one puts vampires into the world, and one must nourish these children of a voluntary nightmare with one’s blood, one’s life, one’s intelligence, and one’s reason, without ever satisfying them”
—Eliphas Levi, Histoire de le Magie.
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, so it’s best to get to know the cards over time. When you first use The Bohemian Gothic Tarot, I think you’ll find it richly evocative, fun, surprising and, in places, unsettling. As you work further with the deck, the images will begin to offer deeper insights and perceptions about the darker, hidden workings of the subconscious, and the power that horror has to both frighten and attract us.
The Bohemian Gothic Tarot is the first dark deck that we’ve ever designed and it was almost five years in the planning. While we were working on our first deck, The Tarot of Prague, we came across events, stories and pictures—of graveyards, devils, demons, magicians and Doctor Faust himself—that didn’t seem to fit well with the rather cheerful overall feel of that deck but which, nevertheless, we felt were strong, transformational images that we would love to work with at some point. So the idea of The Bohemian Gothic Tarot was born.
Two of our other decks influenced the idea and kept it alive for us. First, The Fairytale Tarot—there is a strong link between the more macabre fairytales such as Godfather Death, Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast and many classic themes of the Gothic genre. Then came The Victorian Romantic Tarot, during the making of which we constantly found stunning engravings and photographs that were too dark and Gothic to be included. In fact, as we completed the Victorian Romantic we began jokingly to refer to the potential new deck as its “Dark Sister”. In parts of the tarot community the name stuck and you might still hear the Bohemian Gothic referred to in this way. It’s a good name in a sense, as the deck largely does have a Victorian Gothic feel and in many ways acts as a dark companion to the much more softly lyrical Victorian Romantic.
However, while The Bohemian Gothic Tarot emerged from experiences with the earlier decks, it evolved, during the many months we worked on it, into something very distinct and with a style and character quite different from anything we’ve done before. The cards are based on late 19th century photographs taken from “cabinet” (photographic studio) portraits and from the lyrical, romantic photographic postcards that were fashionable in Germany at this time. This gives the deck a strong period feeling, even though it’s made with modern digital composition and painting techniques. The result is a series of cards that insinuate horror subtly rather than displaying any blood or gore.
The imagery aims to be engrossing and to have psychological impact, which may sometimes be disturbing. The stories and scenes shown here work by implication, stimulating the viewer’s imagination rather than provoking terror in a more visceral, crude way. You may find, as you work with this deck, that some of the images remain in your mind and reappear in dreams and nightmares, working on a subconscious level. If so, then please allow this to happen, and see where the deck leads you. Enter the shadowy world of The Bohemian Gothic Tarot of your own free will... and find pleasure, vision and wisdom within.
Some Typical Gothic Elements
- Stormy weather, especially strong winds, endless rain, thunder and lightning.
- Howling wolves, hooting owls, other cries from “creatures of the night.”
- Ruined castles, huge echoing mansions with gloomy corridors.
- Mad members of a family—crazed relatives, both living and dead.
- Women as victims, under threat from men or monsters.
- Corruption, degradation, forbidden sexuality.
- Men tempted into contracts with the devil, involvement in evil deeds, taking potions that madden or alter the mind.
- Unexplained footsteps, shadows and knocking sounds.
- Doors and door handles that move with no obvious reason.
- Foreigners, exotic and unfamiliar beliefs and magical practices.
- Cruel aristocrats from ancient families.
- Men who dabble in magic and the occult with disastrous consequences.
- Hidden objects, which prove to be hazardous when brought to light.
A Short History of the Gothic
Gothic literature is generally agreed to have begun about two hundred and fifty years ago with Horace Walpole’s 18th century novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764). Walpole was born in 1717 which was, coincidentally, the year of the last witchcraft trial in England. It was a time in which logic and enlightenment were believed to be triumphing, finally, over medieval superstitions and irrational beliefs. However, the fact that this era also produced the birth of Gothic literature suggests that many people still desired the illicit excitement of dark and ghostly tales.
The Castle of Otranto was published under the pretext of being a translation of a text originally printed in 1529, found “in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England”, probably as a ploy to make it both more mysterious and also to make its author seem less responsible for the scandalous story. The text was supposed to have recounted events that happened in the 11th century—historically this was the beginning of the High Middle Ages or “Gothic” era. In fact, the book was written by Walpole himself in a highly romantic, emotive style—heavily influenced by the German horror style— which thrilled his readers. Parts of it read quite comically to a modern reader and it would probably be dismissed as “kitsch” or “campy” by many. Yet it sparked a craze for horror and the supernatural that has lasted right up to present times.
Walpole was also, incidentally, deeply influential when it came to architecture; his house “Strawberry Hill” in London was built in the “Gothic Revival” style that was to become hugely popular in the 19th century. Of course the two—architectural style and literary style—were inextricably linked as Gothic stories demanded suitably Gothic settings of ruined castles, haunted mansions, desolate cliffs and overgrown gardens and graveyards. In both, there was a desire for a dark romanticism, and a yearning (mixed with dread) of earlier, more lyrical—though also more dangerous—times.
The craze for Gothic reached its height around 1795, when nearly 40% of all novels published were in this horror genre. It was during this decade that Ann Radcliffe published a series of Gothic romances including The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and The Italian (1796). These were wildly popular, especially among women readers; the plots mostly involved an innocent young woman encountering an older man with a dark past, all in suitably romantic castle settings. Jane Austen memorably parodied Radcliffe’s readership in Northanger Abbey, in which Catherine, one of the main characters, has her imagination inflamed by reading The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Over the next years, the popularity of the genre gradually died down, in part because the market became saturated with poorly written work. By 1810, there was a distinct decline in the number of Gothic novels and plays produced as the rather mannered style and plots became less fashionable.
However, rather than fading away completely, Gothic literature seemed only to go into a temporary lull, and soon it came back to life with renewed vigour— appropriately rising from its premature burial (if you’ll excuse the pun) with an enthusiastic revival in horror tales by writers such as Edgar Allan Poe (1809- 1849). During this phase, the genre noticeably moved away from copying “the German style” and became less immersed in historicism and more culturally and contemporarily relevant and realistic. Poe himself said that “terror is not of Germany, but of the soul”.
Notable works of this period, besides Poe’s incomparably disturbing stories, include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818 though revived and republished in 1831), J.W. Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and, in the USA, Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.
Although the popularity of Gothic stories never again quite hit the levels of the craze of the late 18th century, remarkable and well-received work continued throughout the Victorian era. Writers who were particularly influential on the genre include Sheridan Le Fanu, Henry James, Bram Stoker and the aforementioned Edgar Allan Poe who is arguably the writer who did the most to establish what we now think of as classic horror style. Indeed to English-speaking cultures it’s this Victorian period of the genre’s revival that typifies our ideas of classic Gothic much more than earlier 18th century works.
Throughout the 20th century, Gothic continued to be popular, though it was regarded by many as a lesser art form and not worthy of being taken seriously. As was the case in the previous century, however, several remarkable and shocking works came out of Central Europe, particularly Germany. German Expressionist films such as Friedrich Murnau’s Nosferatu and Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari exerted a profound stylistic influence on the horror genre for decades.
In the 1960s there was a faithful but rather niche following for the series of, on the whole, rather cheap and schlocky horror films made by Hammer in the UK. These films reworked classic Victorian characters such as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy and established a house style that became very successful, defining what a horror film looked like for a whole generation of British film- goers. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Gothic came to enjoy what’s now seen as its third period of mass popularity and blossoming creativity. Writers like Stephen King and James Herbert wrote horror that felt modern and relevant to a contemporary readership while films like The Shining, Carrie and The Hunger presented viewers with a much more sophisticated and interesting approach to horror than those of the B movies of the sixties and seventies.
The Gothic and horror genre has continued to blossom and when you look at recent book best-seller charts or popular film listings it tends to feature heavily. There have been hugely successful series such as Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles”, reputed to have sold 100 million copies and Tim laHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ “Left Behind” novels, while writers like Stephen King and Peter Straub continue to have a huge following.
The work of many fantasy writers such as Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling and Susanna Clarke shows strong Gothic influence and we can now see the genre spawning niche forms such as “Steampunk” and “EGA” (Elegant Gothic Aristocrat). Meanwhile, in cinema, films like Hideo Nakata’s Ring (Ringu) and Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others draw knowingly, and with a wicked irony, on many of the classic themes and tropes of Victorian Gothic, while in a very different style spectacles such as Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm and Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing bring CGI and slapstick humour into the mix for a thoroughly modern twist. Gothic truly is alive and kicking!
Detail of our Two of Pentacles card.
A note about the structure of this companion book
I’ve designed this book to be practical, engaging and, I hope, thought- provoking whether you are an experienced tarot reader or a complete beginner. For each card, I’ve begun with keywords and phrases based on the conventional interpretations of the widely-used Rider Waite Smith (RWS) deck. These will be helpful if you want to see the broadly-accepted meanings before considering the more Gothic interpretations.
Next, there are keyword and phrase suggestions for darker, more shadowed meanings that apply more specifically to the images in The Bohemian Gothic Tarot. These should be treated as suggestions rather than as definitive “correct” meanings. When you work with the cards it’s likely that you will soon begin to add your own personal interpretations and doing so is entirely valid and a natural part of the process of working with a new deck.
I’ve followed the keywords with a more expansive discussion and then—in a departure from the structure of my previous tarot companion books—I’ve added a section headed “Some further ways to consider this card” which is intended to help you think about the imagery on the card in a broader, more imaginative way. This is because “dark” decks seem to me to work best when we use them to explore a challenging and, at times, uncomfortable range of possible interpretations. These cards invite us to step beyond the meanings and associations that we usually apply and delve deeper to, perhaps, uncover events and emotions that we find harder to confront. The questions are intended to stimulate us to take those first steps out of our usual comfort zone and to open up some new ways of considering each card. Sometimes I’ve suggested considering aspects of the individual card, other times it seems to me that the most useful exercise is making comparisons across the deck (the cards of The Bohemian Gothic Tarot tend to have many visual and thematic links between one another). There is no right answer to these questions, they are simply a means of extending the way in which you look at and interpret the images.
It’s important to add, at this point, that the cards are not intended as individual illustrations to specific Gothic tales. Although you will see many potential references and associations in them, they are open to reading in a variety of ways. For example, cards such as the Ten of Wands, the Seven of Swords and the Eight of Pentacles are powerfully narrative but are not attached to any one story, instead they are intended to pick up on a myriad of themes and it’s up to you to decide which of these you want to emphasise in a reading.
After some thought I decided not to include reversed meanings for this deck. These cards set out to explore the shadow side of traditional interpretations and so adding reversed meanings seems to me superfluous and overly complex. Nowadays we tend to think that “positive” cards become more negative when reversed, and “negative” cards soften their warnings (although some readers will see almost every reversal as an indication of a shadow or darker meaning for a card). But in reality, reversals aren’t so simple and they might also indicate blocked, resisted, less obvious, more subtle, or quirky interpretations for a card.
As The Bohemian Gothic Tarot is a deck which explores the darker sides of our imagination, it seems to me inappropriate to try to lay down firm meanings for the reversed cards. But I leave it to you to decide if you want to use reversals with this deck and if so, how you will approach them.
Painting by German symbolist artist, Franz Stassen.
A Short History of Tarot
A secret magical system based on ancient Egyptian practice, a way to hide the Templar’s arcane knowledge in the form of a pack of cards, or old, mysterious imagery brought to Europe by the gypsies centuries ago? All these have been proposed as the origins of tarot but there isn’t any evidence to support any of them. The rather mundane truth is probably that the tarot, as far as we can tell from the available historical facts, only began to be a popular device for cartomancy (reading with cards) in the late 18th century. Before that, it was mainly used simply for playing a game involving trump cards, a little like modern-day Bridge, although with some morality messages built in (Temperance, for example, trumps the temptations and indulgences offered by The Devil). The origin of the word “tarot” is itself obscure but it might well be derived from the Italian verb “taroccare” which means “to reply with a stronger card”, as the game was essentially designed around the twenty-two trumps.
There is some evidence that tarot was also used for parlour games of fate and fortune, such as describing people’s characters, (these were called tarocchi appropriati). It is thought too that playing cards were used for divination as early as 1487, so it’s likely that tarot cards—as one form of playing cards— were also used to some extent. But the tarot deck was not seen as especially or uniquely tied to divination until Etteilla (Jean-Baptiste Alliette) and Antoine Court de Gébelin, both late eighteenth-century French occultists, assigned divinatory meanings to the cards, and gave them a romantic occult history for which there was probably no factual basis.
It was Court de Gébelin who was largely responsible for the idea that tarot was Egyptian in origin and incorporated Egyptian occult symbols and ideas. But even more significant to the history of the esoteric tarot was Etteilla, who first published astrological correspondences for the cards, assigned links to the four elements, and made the first tarot deck designed (in fact significantly redesigned) especially for cartomantic use. This opened the way for a popularisation of the use of cards— both tarot and oracle decks—for divination and fortune-telling, in 19th century Europe.
In the 19th century the use of cards for divination became relatively well- known as a part of the great “occult revival” that took place at this time— possibly partly as a reaction to the Enlightenment period that preceded it. James Webb, a twentieth-century historian who specialised in the history of the occult, has lamented that, “after the Age of Reason came the Age of the Irrational.” (The Occult Underground). Maybe we could more kindly say that after the Age of Reason came the Age of Intuition and Magic—it all depends on your point of view. What’s certain is that there was an explosion of interest in many aspects of Hermeticism, magic, alchemy and all things occult and esoteric during this time, and cards, including tarot cards with their wonderfully evocative imagery, became a fairly popular device for divination in some parts of Europe.
In the early 20th century, this growing interest resulted in the publication of an enormously influential set of cards now known as the Rider Waite Smith (RWS). This was developed by Pamela Colman Smith (who did the paintings) and Arthur Waite, a prolific writer on the occult and esotericism, and published by Rider in 1909. Waite and Smith were members of the Golden Dawn esoteric society (the poet W. B. Yeats was another well-known member who probably advised on the design of this tarot).
Like most traditional tarots the RWS deck consists of twenty-two trump cards (the twenty-two cards used in the game of tarot to trump other cards) and fifty-six others divided into four suits: Wands, Swords, Cups and Pentacles (originally known as Coins or Discs), each with four Court Cards (Page, Knight, Queen and King). But the RWS cards differ fundamentally from nearly all of the earlier tarot decks because every card is fully illustrated with a picture that depicts an evocative scene or story. This was the first 78-card occult tarot deck to put pictures on the lesser cards in this way and this made it relatively easy for a beginner to understand and memorise their meanings. It also opened out the deck to a much more narrative and complex interpretation—a process that is still continuing today with the steady trend to intuitive, story-telling and imaginative styles of reading.
Waite and Smith also changed the names of some of the trumps and reordered them slightly, changing the original placements of Justice and Strength. Because this was a deck designed for cartomancy and not for game playing, the ordinary suit cards were termed the “Minor Arcana”, and the “trumps” were called the “Major Arcana”—Arcanum means “secret” in Latin.
The appearance of the Rider Waite Smith deck further popularised tarot. Arguably this popularisation meant that “divination”, which originally signified contact and discourse with the divine, became generally regarded as meaning merely fortune-telling. If so, this was not the intention of Waite, who regarded fortune-telling as a somewhat vulgar and lowly use for the cards. In fact, by 1920, Jessie Weston was writing, “Today the Tarot has fallen somewhat into disrepute, being principally used for purposes of divination.” It wasn’t really until the 1970s that tarot began to be explored and discovered in much more psychological and therapeutic terms, as a means for self-analysis and exploration.
Even more recently, since the opening of this century, some serious tarot scholars and readers have begun to revive and reform the idea of tarot used for divination—looking at what a “conversation with the divine” might mean, and questioning the idea that we must necessarily focus on psychology and reject any notions of contact with spiritual mysteries when using the cards. It looks as though this next chapter in the history of the tarot will be an interesting one indeed.
To return to more mundane matters however, I should add that the RWS has become the most popular model for modern tarots—probably mostly because its use of illustrations for every card opens the possibility for evocative and imaginative card design and highly intuitive image-based card readings (more of this in the section on “Reading with the Cards”). The Bohemian Gothic Tarot broadly follows this system, although with significant variations intended to allow the deck to be first and foremost faithful to the Gothic tradition.
From our Wheel of Fortune card.