Arthur Rackham Playing Cards

Peering Goblin. "Young Beckie" from "Some British Ballads." (1918)

If asked “what is the tarot deck which you wish existed”, I would unhesitatingly say (and have unhesitatingly said) an Arthur Rackham Tarot. He was the English illustrator (1867-1939) who, with his infinite, intricate whimsy, illustrated a great many Edwardian and 1920/30s fairy tale books as well as various other literary works. His imagery has a dense, sepia, slightly phantasmagorical element, and crooked, twisted tree roots are frequently not far away. His figures – squat dwarves with gnarled toes and languid princesses with attenuated limbs  – blend into caves, mountains and brambles and a peculiarly English landscape. Baba Studios have paid homage to some of his work in their tarot bags, but there was never a Rackham deck to go in them. However, I recently came across an edition of standard playing cards published by Prospero Art  decks using his illustrations from Wagner’s Ring cycle, Der Ring das Nibelungen (which won him a 1st class medal in the 1911 Barcelona International Exhibition, a city at that time steeped in decorative Art Nouveau flourishes and they knew menacing fairytale sinuousness when they saw it) .

Arthur Rackham Playing Cards; box and card backs

This 19th Century masterwork by Wagner is made up of four operas and in the deck each suit is attributed to an opera:  Diamonds is the first part, Das Rhinegold, Spades are part two, Die Walküre, while hearts is the opera Siegfried (definite love theme going on in this suit) and clubs is the final opera Die Götterdamerung, “Twilight of the Gods”, a kind of apotheosis. It’s a while since I listened to these operas but when I recently received the deck and started going through the cards, the familiar strains of the Rhinegold overture, like dawn breaking as mermaids cavort, came back to me. There was a time when I used to listen to this opera series a lot and the deck is a joy to behold as it depicts so many of the familiar episodes. However, interestingly, once I started looking closely at the cards (I have no idea who selected what scenes went with what cards), they seemed to fit remarkably well for cartomantic readings.

To start with, all the Aces seemed to show single, bold actions, like Aces should: the Ace of Diamonds shows the God of Weather bursting forth with his mallet, about to strike.  The Ace of Hearts shows Siegfried, our hero, the great lover, bare-chested with arms wide open, head thrown back in ecstacy. The Ace of Spades shows the King of the Gods armed on his steed, rearing on a bolt of lightning. The Court cards feature all the familiar Dramatis Personae of the myth (the Queen of Hearts is Brünhilde) and all the other court cards seem to fit the role attributed to them: for example, the Jack of Hearts shows Mime, brother of Alberich (the gnome who at the beginning steals the ring from the Rhine maidens) at his anvil so we get the Jack as apprentice, learning, not quite authoritative, and which seems to foot the bill.

I was absentmindedly shuffling the deck after receiving it, my mind wandering and I found myself thinking – no idea why – of a work colleague who had recently left, and I was thinking what a shame it was that people we like drift in and out of our lives, sometimes all too briefly, and I got one of those cards that flip out and fall out onto the floor. I picked it up and looked at it and saw that it was the 3 of clubs, showing an episode, “the rope suddenly breaks”. Now I ought to stress that it isn’t necessary to know Wagner’s libretto inside out in order to understand these cards and the episodes depicted. I personally  – though I rack my brains – cannot remember what this relates to off the top of my head, but the idea of a rope snapping in the context of what I was thinking seemed to me quite amazing synchronicity and so I sat up and really started to take note of the cards and ponder the imagery a bit more. I really would like to stress again that it isn’t necessary to know the complete story (though a quick internet search will enable anyone to familiarise themselves with it) and the images alongside short titles at the sides of the cards give more than enough pointers for the development of suitable cartomantic meanings.

I include some favourites below and how I think they lend themselves for divination. Just to start with, it is interesting how the even numbers tend to show harmony and exchange, while the odd numbers invariably show conflict. It’s a pleasing sensation seeing how, with a random pack of playing cards, one can see meaning building up, concepts represented. These are gorgeously scenic playing cards without being the more traditional transformational type and the fact that they all contain images from the same illustrator narrating key scenes from the same storyline makes the deck feel coherent from a card-reading point of view. Some examples of the titles written on cards:

2 of hearts; Siegfried listens to Mime tell his story (dialogue, exchange of ideas). 4 of hearts; Siegfried sees his reflection in the pool (reflection, introspection). 7 of hearts; Alberich quarrels with Mime over the possession of the hoard (quarrels, conflict). 8 of hearts; Siegfried crosses the fire and reaches Brünhilde (successful, smooth transition). 9 of hearts; Brünhilde awakened, salutes the sun (awakening, realisation, ephiphany).

2 of Spades; Sieglind offers aid to Siegmund (helping hand, resolution) 3 of Spades; Fricka enraged (fury, stress). 10 of Spades;  Brünhilde surrounded by flames (feeling enclosed, hemmed in).

2 of diamonds; Alberich falls in love with the alluring Rhinemaidens (infactuation, appearances). 9 of diamonds; fight over the treasure ( squabbles, pettiness), 10 of diamonds; the Rhinemaidens lament over the lost gold, (end of a cycle, closure)

2 of clubs; Fates pass a golden rope (unexpected solution). 3 of clubs; the rope suddenly breaks (unexpected severence). 4 of clubs; Brünhilde gives Siegfried her horse (offering, “gift” horse). 7 of clubs; Rhinemaidens tease Siegfried (provocation, deceit). 8 of clubs; Rhinemaidens bid Siegfried farewell (letting go). 10 of clubs; Rhinemaidens recover their gold (triumph).

These are merely examples, but once you start looking at the imagery, it really does slot into place and makes sense in a numerological and suit-based way. Plus the images are so romantic and deal with such age-old, timeless myths of loss, love and searching that I think this deck lends itself perfectly to divination. Unfortunately, the production values are hardly the best. I have seen worse, far worse, but the cards are quite glossy and you feel it is a glossiness which tries too hard to mask cheap cardboard. However, despite this, (and despite the enclosed scans) the images are generally good quality, though as Rackham’s illustrations are so full of detail, some is invariably lost. If anyone wanted to try reading with playing cards but was uninspired (understandably) by stark, modern suit symbols, these cards have much to fire the imagination.

About Le Fanu

Tarot collector in a far off land; loves ghost stories, magick, tarot, wistfulness, spookiness, Victorian spiritism, ectoplasm...
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2 Responses to Arthur Rackham Playing Cards

  1. 78mirrors says:

    Those are beautiful! I love Rackham’s illustrations and the Ring cycle is one of my favourite mythic stories. Thank you for showing these cards.

  2. bodhiseed says:

    These are lovely! I particularly like the Two of Hearts and the Eight of Clubs.🙂

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