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My past few posts have dug into Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. In this (fairly brief post) I’m going to discuss the Tarot cards Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) uses periodically. In the second season, it’s revealed that she got the cards from her witch mentor Joan Clayton (Patti Lupone), a witch who lived from at least the 17th century down to the 1880s. Exactly where and when Joan acquired the deck is never explained, but it seems like it should be fairly old, given that everything else in her house seems to be. So perhaps it’s something she acquired in the 17th or 18th century.


Vanessa’s Tarot deck is purple with white line drawings, and rather pretty, albeit rather sparse on details.


Vanessa’s Tarot Deck

But historically, Tarot cards looked nothing like this, and to judge from the art style, it’s obviously a deck that originated no earlier than the 1990s.In fact, they were designed for the show by Irish graphic artist Anais Chareyre. So while the deck is aesthetically quite nice, it’s wildly anachronistic. They might as well have given Vanessa a Lexus to drive around Victorian London in.

So What Did Tarot Cards Look Like? 

Playing cards arrived in Europe from Mamluk Egypt (probably) in the late 14th century. The earliest surviving decks were created in the 1430s and 40s for the dukes of Milan, and are consequently known as the Visconti-Sforza decks. These decks are thought to be the first to use the non-suit ‘trump’ cards, now usually called the Major Arcana, which feature allegorical images of various sorts. They featured the symbols of the minor suits arranged in geometric patterns and the court and trump cards as figures against dark backgrounds. But no complete set of these cards exist today–the deck as it is currently known is cobbled together from more than a dozen partially-surviving decks.These cards were all hand-painted, because the printing press had not yet been invented.


Visconti-Sforza Tarot cards

The first great age of Tarot cards, however, was the 18th century. The so-called Tarot of Marseilles was probably the most widely-used deck in the period, and its structure closely resembles the modern Tarot deck: 4 suits of Wands, Swords, Cups, and Coins; 4 court cards for each suit, with cards for King, Queen, Knight, and Valet; 21 numbered trump cards that close to the modern ones (some of the names are different, and Death has no name); and an unnumbered Fool. The trumps are individual figures against a blank background.


The show doesn’t give us much to go on, but my guess is that this is the Tarot deck that Joan Clayton would have used. It appears to have originated in the late 1400s, and is documented in France in 1499. The use of playing cards for divinatory purposes goes back to the mid-16th century, but the idea that specific cards had set meanings seems to be an 18th century notion.

There were a wide range of Tarot decks in circulation in the 19th century, but generally speaking, they looked a lot like the Tarot of Marseilles artistically. Some decks began leaving out the non-suit trump cards, because they were an awkward fit for use in card games.

By the late 19th century, Tarot decks were gravitating more toward the style of modern playing cards (and are often called ‘playing tarot’ cards). The Tarot Nouveau was popular in the period of the show, although Vanessa wouldn’t have used that deck, because the Major Arcana (the unique cards like the Moon or the Devil) were stripped out since they weren’t used in tarot games of the period.


Tarot Nouveau

However, Tarot cards didn’t really circulate in England prior to the 1870s. That’s when English occultists took note of the French tradition of Tarot cards for divinatory purposes. So in realty, a 17th century English witch like Joan Clayton probably wouldn’t have had a Tarot deck at all, unless she had spent time in France. Nor were Tarot cards part of English folk magic. The people who were responsible for the rising interest in Tarot cards in England were occultists like Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and Eliphas Levi, all of whom were interested in a loftier notion of educated magic that they claimed stretched back to ancient Egypt.

The deck most people are familiar with today, in which each card has a specific scene on it, is called the Rider-Waite Deck or the Rider-Waite-Smith Deck, because it was designed by English occultist Alfred Waite, drawn to his instructions by Pamela Colman Smith, and published William Rider & Sons. It first appeared in 1910, so Vanessa couldn’t have used that deck. And once this deck had been issued, other occultists began producing their own deck in the 1920s and 30, and the genre has proliferated ever since.


Rider-Waite cards


Want to Know More?

The Penny Dreadful Tarot is available on Amazon. To judge from the comments, the card-stock is poor, and the imagery on the cards bears no relationship to the traditional readings of the cards, so this is probably a deck better appreciated for its artistry than given serious use. If you want to get a deck of Tarot cards for doing readings, I would suggest the traditional Rider-Waite deck. There’s a reason it’s became the classic deck; its rich symbolism allows for a lot of different readings.