The Victorian Romantic Tarot – Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov
“When Alex and I first decided to do this deck, we were driven, quite simply, by finding a remarkable old edition of a book of art engravings published in Germany in the late nineteenth century. Looking through the very dusty pages, we were excited by the pictures that we found there. So much of the work we saw had been largely overlooked or even denigrated by formal art history. Neither Pre-Raphaelite or Impressionist, it mostly fell into the categories of Victorian genre painting, or Victorian Classicism, which nowadays quite unfashionable. Yet it was often done with extreme technical skill and, it weemed to us, with narrative flair too. These were paintings that, first and foremost, told stories.” – From the companion book

Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov—the creative pair from baba studio that birthed the Tarot of Prague, Baroque Bohemian Cats’ Tarot and The Fairytale Tarot—have turned their attention on little-known 19th century art.

The result? The Victorian Romantic Tarot.

As with The Fairytale Tarot, one of my favorite elements of this box set is Karen’s insightful prose. I have read every word of the 216-page companion book, and as always, I’ve come away with new insights about the Tarot. The Victorian Romantic Tarot serves up juxtaposition between two worlds, which multiplies possible meanings for the cards. For example, the unabashed female Devil card could indicate that “wickedness can bring both independence and liberation” just as much as pointing to materialistic indulgence!

And while most associate steely determination with The Chariot, the authors’ choice of image could just as readily point to “enjoying the ride”, as indicated by two of four the female riders. So is the destination—perhaps ruthless pursued—the goal…or is the joy in the journey?

Despite the images culled from a “bygone” era, The Victorian Romantic Tarot expands the meanings and applications of many—if not all—the cards, as Karen’s insights actually updates the Tarot for modern sensibilities. (No easy feat!)

Admittedly, I’m no fan of history, but the historical and social tidbits found in the companion book are downright fascinating. For example, Karen mentions how most of us take for granted that childhood is a special time and that children need to be treated differently from adults. Yet, in the mid-1800’s, children were regarded as “little adults”—and could even be tried and sentenced to death for petty crime. In the description of the 6 of Cups card, we find out that one such child—only 8 years old—was hung in London!

When elaborating on the 4 of Swords card, the author mentions the tomb-effigy of the RWS card—and mentions how tombs are often inscribed with epitaphs. Summing up a life in a few words, the idea of epitaphs as related to the 4 of Swords card does indeed lead us to another profound way of thinking: perhaps the time of “retreat” indicated by this card points to consider our life purpose? (Or, in my case, during a personal reading I realized—thanks to Karen’s insights—that a reversed 4 of Swords indicated that it would be best if I STOPPED ruminating about “the purpose of my life”!)

I loved how the author compared and contrasted The Hermit and The Hanged Man on page 62, as well as her correlation with the 4 of Wands to rock concerts—a place where one is “permitted” to be a bit outrageous, much like the costumed show-women illustrated on the Victorian Romantic Tarot version of this card. I found it interesting that Karen mentions that the buttoned-up crowd may well envy the outrageousness and spontaneity of these women, but to the performers, it’s “just another day’s work”. Recently, I read some portions of a memoir by the drummer of my favorite rock band. I was surprised—and, admittedly, disappointed—that he viewed his performance as “work”…and that he considered fans a nuisance. Much like the perspectives shared by Ms. Mahony, it goes to show that the grass may NOT be greener on “the stage”—and that even our personal idols or those we envy have their own issues and demons (and perhaps see their fame, talent, and fortune far different than their fans!).

Two other cards of note from the Victorian Romantic Tarot are Temperance—which shows a woman steering a boat, reminding us the value of navigating a “middle path”, and The Tower, which shows two men clinging to a capsized boat reminiscent of the Christian cross—perhaps reminding us of the value of faith during hard times. (In fact, those familiar and comfortable with Christian iconography will find this deck especially accessible, in my opinion.)

Karen’s explanation of the Court cards is especially adept—rescuing them from the annals of rote memory and thrusting them into living, breathing states of being. What a treasure, especially since the Courts are often the most problematic cards for Tarot readers!

The images of The Victorian Romantic Tarot are expressive enough to be read on their own, but I feel the companion book adds much depth and breadth to this deck. When I first saw the images of these cards, I admit to being less than thrilled. I just didn’t resonate with the imagery, despite the illustrations conveying all-too-human emotions and scenarios. However, after reading the companion book, the cards seemed to “open up” for me.

While I did perform several readings with this deck—including the “Looking Back, Looking Forward” spread created expressly for The Victorian Romantic Tarot—I feel that, for me, it’s probably a deck best for journaling and self reflection. (Then again, I rarely read for myself for divinatory purposes—maybe only a few times a year.) I haven’t yet read for clients, but did read for my husband. The reading I performed for him was actually quite amusing and literal, as well as accurate: he asked me what he needed to do to feel better, and I drew The Hanged Man, the 10 of Wands, and the 3 of Pentacles. He quickly pointed out that he needed to suspend/stop (Hanged Man) working 10 hour shifts (!) and focus on having fun with me and my son (the 3 of Pentacles, which, incidentally, shows a man carving a toy from the branch of a Christmas tree. Christmas happens to be our favorite holiday, and my 8 year old already has his tree up!) So we got quite a laugh about the literalness of this deck, especially since my husband is growing tired of the mandatory 10-hour days he’s been having to work for the last few weeks!

Well, on to a bit of pesky housekeeping for those who require certain specifications with a Tarot deck:

The Majors are unnumbered, so you can use Justice and Strength any way you darn well please
The suits are Cups/Water, Swords/Air, Wands/Fire, and Pentacles/Earth
Court Cards are Page, Knight, Queen and King
Card backings are fully reversible, with an intricate gilt filigree framed by lovely burgundy lines and tiny heart accents
In addition to upright meanings, reversals are also given consideration in the companion book
There are two Lovers cards, but you can only get the extra card if you buy the Gold edition from the creators
Six spreads are provided, including two designed for use with The Victorian Romantic Tarot. Sample readings of both are explained—with illustrations

The Victorian Romantic Tarot would make a fine first deck for those new to Tarot, especially if the images resonate. Tarot enthusiasts and seasoned users will find something new in this box set, thanks to Karen’s sparkling, insightful prose. Granted, there are some typos and errors in this book (e.g. page 146 says “the 8 of Wands” instead of the correct “8 of Swords” and “sale off” is mistakenly used instead of “sail off”), but they become rather “so what?” in light of this fresh offering to the Tarot world.

Kudos to Karen and Alex for another great Tarot deck!

Below are 10 images from the deck:

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