Madame de Thebes read cards at Prague Castle but fell afoul of the Gestapo
One of the big attractions of Prague Castle is the Golden Lane. Legends claim it was home to alchemists long ago, but that is unlikely. Instead, it was home to castle guards and archers, and later to artists and goldsmiths.
Later, into the early 20th century, the Golden Lane (Zlatá ulička) became relatively cheap housing, as the buildings were small and lacked modern conveniences. A struggling Franz Kafka is one of its more famous occupants.
Another was Madame de Thebes, the professional name of fortuneteller Matylda Průšová. She lived at Zlatá ulička 14 from 1914 until her death at the hands of the Gestapo in World War II.
There is quite a bit of confusion about her, as there was a more famous Madame de Thebes who worked in France until her death in 1916, and who was even the subject of a full page article in the New York Times, with predictions about the course of World War I, among other international publications. Her death made international headlines.
She was also the subject of a 1915 silent film about an unwanted Roma child who is adopted by a countess and who grows up to be a fortune teller.
The photos of the French clairvoyant are almost always used by mistake for the Bohemian one. No photos of the latter seem to exist.
But the Bohemian Madame de Thebes really did exist, despite the lack of photographic evidence. When the Golden Lane was renovated in 2011 and her former fortunetelling shop was re-opened as a tourist attraction, an elderly woman who once had her cards read there recounted what it was like. The 91-year-old lady said she was “scared stiff” and that Madame de Thebes was in a corner with a cat on her shoulder. It was back in 1938, and the woman had wanted to know if she would pass her exams.
Matylda Průšová was the widow of a pharmacist. Faced with having to make a living and lacking the background to run a pharmacy, she changed her name to Madame de Thebes, likely having seen the name in a newspaper column, and took up fortunetelling at the Golden Lane.
Her son went to fight in the war, and she waited for him to return. He never did. She didn’t want to move, as she was worried her son would not be able to find her. Allegedly, she set an extra place at the table for him for many years.
Her fame spread far, likely due to people not realizing that there were two Madames de Thebes. She received letters from all across Europe and as far away as South Africa seeking her clairvoyant advice.
Madame de Thebes was known for her eccentricities, which helped her to keep an air of not being of this world. She wore a big black hat with ostrich feathers, which was not the fashion of the time. She also dressed all in black, and filled her small room with curiosities.
Like her namesake, this Madame de Thebes also made predictions about the outcomes of wars. And this is where she got into trouble. She kept predicting a bad outcome for the German side, and refused to stop spreading the idea that the Third Reich would end in disaster, and sooner rather than later.
German forces were occupying Bohemia at the time, and the country was known as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The Gestapo took the fortuneteller in for questioning at the Prague headquarters at Petschek Palace on Politických vězňů Street. She did not survive.
Her house has undergone several renovations, and not many, if any, of the original items are left. The rooms are now behind glass, so you can no longer walk around the interior. But visitors can see three piles of cards on a round table.
The cards seem to be of the Lemormand type, rather than Tarot. This type of deck was popular in the 19th and early 20th century in France and places where French culture spread. They are likely not originals, though. The exact type of cards she used isn’t mentioned anywhere.
Before the 2010 renovations, three cards were on a tablecloth and the walls were covered in yellowed photographs. All the furnishings and decor were changed during the renovation.
The walls now have some framed prints, and there is a large statue of an angel on a pedestal. A plaster skull sits atop a writing desk with some open books. In the corner is a small partly burned candle in the shape of a man. On the other end of the desk is something resembling an armillary sphere.
A small settee is upholstered in what looks like an oriental rug. The exterior wall of the small house has a faded mural of an owl, a cat and a crystal ball.
It evokes the mood of earlier descriptions of the fortunetelling shop, but also has the look of odds and ends from a second-hand store bought to create a set for a low-budget film.
But Madame de Thebes’ presence at Prague Castle shows a continuation of the esoteric and occult traditions dating from Charles IV and Rudolf II straight into the middle of the 20th century.
The Golden Lane used to be the area of the Castle rubbish dump. Small houses were built there in the 15th century for archers so that they could be close to the fortifications along the walls. The buildings are indeed tiny, about 20 square meters. There were originally 24 buildings, lining both sides of the street meaning that the passage would have been very narrow. Emperor Rudolf II oversaw the construction and forbade windows looking out onto the Stag Moat, which he used for his personal recreation.
The Golden Lane can be seen in the background of the Hermit card in The Tarot of Prague.
Fire had destroyed 10 of the buildings by 1657. By that time, the archers had moved out and the buildings began to be used as workshops by goldsmiths and artisans. The presence of goldsmiths there is what gave the street its name. A legend says alchemists lived there under Rudolf II, trying to turn lead into gold, but that seems to be untrue.
Currently just 10 buildings remain. Some were rebuilt over the years but efforts have been made to restore them to their original look as much as possible. The most recent restoration was in 2010–11, as the buildings were in danger due to poor drainage along the wall of the castle. During this time, eight interiors were redecorated by historians using period pieces when possible, and re-creations in other cases. The goldsmith’s work table is an authentic one, but from another location, for example. New armor at the house of a castle guard was painted and treated with acid to make it look old.
Franz Kafka did indeed live at one of the houses, No. 22, in 1916 and 1917, at the same time as Madame de Thebes. During that time he wrote the story A Country Doctor. Kafka wasn’t the only writer. Poet Jaroslav Seifert, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1984, lived there in 1929.
The street also features in literature. Gustav Meyrink wrote about the “House at the Last Lantern,” which only becomes visible under certain circumstances. It is next to the house of Madame de Thebes, where there is an odd wall without any doors or windows.
There are other legends about the street including one of a nobleman who vanished from home without a trace. He changed his name and moved to the Golden Lane to work on alchemical experiments, even though the age of alchemy was long over.
When he died, authorities found his original name among his papers and notified his family. His last notes said that he finally turned lead into gold, but the formula was not written down. No gold was found either. But, the legend says, the street finally had an alchemist.