The Origins of Musterberg: Unique Tarot Cards with a Delightful History!

When the legendary Tarot of Musterberg was recently rediscovered, it opened up a lot of questions! From its roots in 18th century Europe to its famous star turn at the Pennyland Amusement Park, the rare tarot deck and its extra Major Arcana has a long and storied past.

 

“Congratulations and welcome to the team at the Fortune Teller Tent here at Pennyland. We are a fun-loving and easy-going group, despite what the folks at the Tunnel of Love may say, and you’re sure to like it here.” – from “The Pennyland Handbook of Cartomancy”

While a lot of kids dream of running away to the circus, we at Curio and Co. firmly believe the main allure has always specifically been the midway! Sure, lion taming is thrilling and tightrope walking is bouncy, but those tents along the way to the main event were always full of such mystery, beckoning the curious (often literally) to step inside and uncover the secrets. And if we were somehow able to step back in time (oh, say, 100 years ago) to a very particular place (perhaps, the world famous Pennyland Amusement Park), there’s one tent that would stand out above the rest – the one with the fortune tellers!

A regular job in this part of Pennyland was rigorous, to be sure – Madam Prognostica ran a tight ship, and tardiness was not tolerated – but it was quite rewarding, as well. It has a special place in our hearts because the Tarot of Musterberg has its origins here, and the more we dig up on its history, the more it takes over our runaway daydreams.

A BÜRGERMEISTER’S BIG IDEA

Italy from the Alps Landscape with Mountain Village (1877)

Any dive into the history of the Musterberg Tarot begins further back than that, all the way to the early 1700s. The game, originally known as “tarocchi” where it was born in Northern Italy, was significantly evolved by this point. Over the centuries, the game of trumps and pips and points had spread around Europe, picking up quite a large fanbase and changing its name a few times. By the time the craze had reached the tiny alpine town of Musterberg, its beleaguered Bürgermeister was desperate for a creative idea to gin up tourism. Aside from well-shod adventurers and the odd goat, not too many folks liked to scale its rickety inclined roadways to stay a spell at Musterberg’s world class inns or have a home-cooked meal in its honestly very cozy beer hall.

But that all changed when a travelling toy salesman set up a card game over several nights at one of the hall’s corner tables, where it soon attracted a moderate sized mob, all of whom, it must be noted, also ordered an army’s worth of sausages. The Bürgermeister saw that there was something special about this deck of cards. It wasn’t just that it included a card other decks didn’t have: A 79th card with beautiful Siren that always seemed to beckon more players to the game. But whether they won or lost, just holding these cards in their hands always left the players a little lighter, with smiles a little bigger and worries a little smaller.

The Bürgermeister saw a golden goose in that Siren and renamed the local beer hall after her – complete with a painted mural that everyone agreed was a worthy tribute to the ginger-haired beauty. However in a feat of true shrewdness, he also bought the rights to the cards, setting to work on manufacturing a large print run that would hopefully sing its irresistible call of commerce to passersby closer to sea level. Soon, Musterberg was back on the map! Gamers and curiosity-seekers of all ages and backgrounds flocked to the mountains to play this elite version of the game, and true hipsters could return home from that severely out-of-the-way place and say, “You just had to be there!”

THE MYSTICAL EVOLUTION

Tarocchi from circa 1500 an uncut printed sheet Museum of Fine Art Budapest

The game of tarot was mystified when, a few decades later, Antoine Court de Gébelin wrote The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World. In its pages he claimed the imagery found in tarot’s major arcana was derived from Egyptian mythology, and soon the game took on the added allure of occult power. While this was a work of complete fiction, it was pretty fun fiction! Different tarot decks really caught on around the world then, and the fame of the Musterberg deck became a bit diluted. Except, of course, among a certain type of fan, who knew that the Siren card was something special.

Around the turn of the 20th century, tarot’s current iteration materialized in what’s known today as the Rider-Waite, or Waite-Smith deck. This was created by occultist and poet Arthur Edward Waite with iconic illustrations by Pamela Colman Smith, and published by the Rider Company. Perhaps not-so coincidentally, this is when our Musterberg Tarot returns to the story!

A FORTUNE IN FORTUNE-TELLING

Pennyland Madam Prognostica Seated three-quarter view facing Tarot of Musterberg cards (fortune teller)

As the art of Waite and Smith was catching fire in the occult community, the Pennyland midway was positively bustling with excited guests, all looking for a pleasant day’s distraction. The park had a few notable entrepreneurs but none savvier or more show-stopping than Madam Prognostica! Having already introduced levitation, astral projection, and telekinesis to the midway, she was looking for a topper. And, as someone in the know, she had an original Musterberg deck locked away in her Museum of Oddities (open only to those who could afford an extra two coppers on rainy Sundays). When she returned to work from a sabbatical in Edinburgh where she attended a tarot game hosted by Arthur Waite himself, she was inspired and dusted off the antique tarot cards. After restoring the tarot artwork, the Tarot of Musterberg was reborn, and the Pennyland Fortune Teller Tent was officially in business.


THE RETURN OF A LEGEND

Sideshow Alley Advertising Exhibition Ground ca. 1940

Now, it must be said that a fortune provided by Prognostica’s well-trained staff was, charitably, for entertainment purposes only! The folks at Pennyland were very good at their jobs, and their job was to make you feel great about your future and maybe spare an extra-large tip in celebration. But the vintage tarot they left us can still be played, with the added path to victory via The Siren’s extra points. The deck contains some of the most beautiful tarot cards for sale today, and you are getting an exact replica of the cards that passed through every Pennyland fortune teller’s hands, charged with centuries of delight you can still feel with every shuffle.

 

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Want to dive further into the history of tarot decks? Check out the other articles in our history series here:

Card Sharks, Nobles, and Mystics: A Revealing History of Tarot!

Why Are Tarot Decks So Different? A Historical Peek into the Details

The Magician’s Tools: An Inspirational Look at the History of Tarot’s Wise Old Wizard

 

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