Madhouse Tarot by the tarot powerhouse duo Eugene Vinitski and Elsa Khapatnukovski is a gripping storybook that captures the human experience of unreason. This is a deck that delves into that part within every one of us, the unreason that is the reason we feel alienated, exposing the piece of our soul that’s been fragmented from turmoil.
These illustrations explore the supernatural. From portraits of horror and torment to unsettling visions, with the aesthetic of a Victorian asylum meets the Roaring Twenties (you’re going to see quite a few references, including well-known figures from that time period), the premise of this deck is in a class all its own.
I love the companion guidebook. I’ve now read several tarot guidebooks authored by Elsa Khapatnukovski and she does a wonderful job each time. For the Majors, you’ll get a description of the illustration on the card, then how to interpret the card in a reading about money matters, about emotions or relationships, then how the tarot archetype connects to mental conditions, though not in the sense of illness. For example, eccentricity, ignorance, etc.; The Magician to mind expansion.
That being said, some of the contents in the guidebook can get triggering for more sensitive readers. A few of the passages fall into the gray area of mental health diagnosis, though nowhere in the book is there a disclaimer printed. However, the deck creators are not based in the UK, Canada, or US, and cultural sensitivities vary across the world. So I just chalk it up to a difference in cultural sensitivities.
Something I found really intriguing– the passages describing the Major Arcana cards are written in first person, almost like diary entries. For example, the Death card: “Time leaks away relentlessly, like water running through my fingers.” Or for The Chariot card: “The throbbing of fresh blood is exciting and uplifting! My bed is ready for galloping into battle. Improvised tools will serve me well in close combat. And then I could also capture some more serious trophies on the way over.”
As the Introduction explains about the premise of Madhouse, the deck’s point of view was inspired by the diary of a man who spent several years behind the walls of a madhouse in the early 20th century. They worked from his notes and drawings to create this deck.
You’ll have noticed that the Majors feature the paths between the Sephiroth on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life to illuminate the paths for returning back to the Light. Later in the Minors, you’ll see Goetic seals connecting to demonology, echoing the expression of anxieties and fears that each Minor Arcanum card conveys. “These demons of the soul are hidden parts of our personality,” the guidebook explains.
The court cards feature well-known individuals from history, particularly figures who tend to be of interest in the art and occult worlds. The Knight of Wands features the renowned Mexican painter Diego Rivera and need I even say who the Queen of Wands is? =) I’m going to love any deck with a Frida Kahlo reference, so there’s my disclosure of bias. =)
There’s a Salvador Dali quality to the style that Vinitski has gone with for Madhouse. Each and every card is rich with details that push the boundaries between fiction and reality. The stories are surreal, and yet they feel like personal memory– very real, and very palpable. See the way Vinitski has painted the ways the bare feet in the 10 of Wands catches the light and shadow. Yet compare it to the two-toned flat cartoonish coloring of the demon making a cameo from behind the stack of chairs.
The Madhouse, which is the universe that this deck depicts, is “both purgatory and hell,” writes Khapatnukovski. It is where we have locked up the most fragile and also most aggressive aspects of ourselves. This deck gives voice to those inner aspects.
To underscore how much thought has gone into the details and the symbolism in this deck, let’s look at the King of Wands. I’m loving the background for the portrait of Antoin Court de Gebelin, with the Hanged Man reversed plus an excerpt from a tomb painting (I believe that is, at least) of Anubis, I think I also see Shai in the birth brick form, and the scales of Ma’at. Court de Gebelin made some speculative hullabaloo about the reversed Hanged Man card. So it’s a nice touch to see here.
Oh, and Andy Warhol as the Knight of Cups! I love it! The Queen of Cups features Moina Mathers, an occultist in her own right, married to MacGregor Mathers. The genres covered in the art go from modernistic collage to realistic scenic depictions, though what unites these illustrations into a cohesive deck is an anti-rationalist voice– kind of perfect for today’s social climate, isn’t it? =) Madhouse Tarot is spectacularly prescient.
There have been some criticisms from the tarot community that the Madhouse Tarot exploits mental illness. From my study of the deck and reading its guidebook cover to cover, diving deeper than just the deck name, that was not the impression it left me with. That said, it does explore the unsettling connection between the experience of unreason and the occult. Highlighting occult voices, the Page of Swords features Count Saint-Germain, an alchemist and philosopher who molded the trajectory of Theosophy and the New Age movement. And speaking of surrealism, there’s Salvador Dali in the Knight of Swords.
Oh and that Queen of Swords– Mata Hari– plus the King of Swords featuring Aleister Crowley. I love it! I think I read somewhere once that Crowley and Mata Hari had met before. So this is a neat touch.
The merging of the art and occult worlds from history further conveys to me the intended meaning for “Madhouse.” This isn’t about mental conditions from a medical health perspective, but rather, it’s about the mental conditions necessary for genius, creativity, and psychic connections.
The “Madhouse” reference, as I’ve interpreted it, and this is after having actually worked with the deck, is that of the “mad scientist,” meaning a prodigy that the lay world doesn’t understand. This is a glimpse into the sorcerous mind of a brilliant artist. The “madhouse” is not a physical place for certain people, but rather, it’s a chamber that exists in every one of our minds. The Madhouse Tarot is the deck of cards that takes us to that inner chamber.
There’s a trickster energy to the readings I did with Madhouse. The answers these cards would provide would often come across to me as riddles, or not before the divinatory voice gets in a couple of jabs to my ribs first. For example, that 2 of Swords imagery asks the question: What is the difference between an apple at dawn and an apple at sunset? Also, while many passages for the Majors in the guidebook were in first person, in the Minors, it’s mainly in second person, addressing you, the reader, directly with these riddles.
The imagery exaggerates inner madness and imbalance. You’re looking at conditions of imbalance in the spiritual, physical, and mental worlds. The 2 of Swords in this deck portrays the troubled soul, while the 3 of Swords is the injured soul.
In a three-card reading, say, where you’ve got the chance to focus on just a few of the cards, you start to notice the spooky details, underscoring that inner madness and spiritual imbalance. There are images of demons on chests to express sleep paralysis. In the above, there’s a shadowy male figure stalking the Queen of Coins. The heads are missing in all of the portraits hanging on the walls.
And the surrealist way that multiple images are translucently superimposed over one another– altogether there is a genius to this deck that teeters into madness. Here, by the way, if the playing cards fluttering around her doesn’t give it away, the Queen of C0ins features the Great Sibylla Maria Anna Adelaide Lenormand.
Or here in the 10 of Coins. Upon first look, I thought the cat was looking out the window at the figure climbing up the ladder. But then upon second look, it appears that the cat is in fact looking inside the madhouse at the demonic figures perched on the globe.
Closing out the court cards, the Page of Coins features Johann Faustus, a Renaissance magician who, according to legend, made a pact with the Devil and sold his soul. And who is that magnificently depicted in the King of Coins? Well, none other than Arthur Edward Waite.
Madhouse Tarot is not for the faint of heart. Whether intentional or incidental, this deck has a great deal of magic woven through it, magic that will be a magnet attracting and pulling out inner madness, though another word for that is intrinsic genius.
If you enjoyed Vinitski’s Kabbalistic Tarot or Tarot of Magical Correspondences, then this deck is right up your alley. If things that go bump in the night thrill you and you are not scared off by the demonic realm, real or imagined, physical or psychic, then you may have just stumbled upon the perfect deck for you.
By the way, you can read all of my past reviews of Vinitski’s works by clicking here.
FTC Disclosure: In accordance with Title 16 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Part 255, “Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising,” I received this deck and guidebook from its publisher for prospective review. Everything I’ve said here is sincere and accurately reflects my opinion of the deck.