Tarot Decks - Part One
Article by Debbie Lake
Okay, I've been promising this review/article to Diane for months. And she has graciously and patiently nagged me into submission. So in honor of Samhain, the New Year/Feast of the Ancestors of the ancient Celts, I have finally buckled down and written it.
In this article I review decks that identify themselves as Celtic, or incorporate specifically Celtic themes. These include the Celtic Tarot by Helena Paterson & Courtney Davis, Celtic Tarots by Giacento Gaudenzi & Severio Tenuta, Celtic Wisdom Tarot by Cailtin Matthews & Olivia Raynor, Celtic Tarot by Julian de Burgh & Mary Guinan, and Il Tarocchi Celtici by Laura Tuan, Faery Wicca Tarot by Kisma Stepanich & Renee Yates and Tarot of the Northern Shadows by Sylvia Gainsford & Howard Rodway.
These decks incorporate Celtic themes and myths into their meaning and into their artwork. I could have included additional decks such as Sacred Circle, Glastonbury, Legend, and Hallowquest. But I have decided to discuss these decks in a separate article because they are more tangentially Celtic. Their Celticness is only part of the mix, a flavor or side dish, rather than the main course, at least in my opinion.
I am not reviewing these decks as Tarot decks, per se. My goal is to address their "Celticness". I want to look at the themes and myths they incorporate. Are they authentic? Are they accurate? When many of these decks were released, all things Celtic were the flavor of the day. As a result, many things calling themselves Celtic (books, music, and Tarot decks) were released that may have had no true connection to the Celts or their practices. I also think it is helpful to remember that the Celts were not only a Pagan people. Celtic Christianity was quite a life-affirming path and gave Roman Catholicism a run for the money until the Synod of Whitby decided that Celtic Christianity verged on heresy.
First, a brief history on the Celts. As a people, they seem to have initially appeared along the Danube river. They are part of the Indo-European peoples which connects them with the Romans, Indians, and Germanic tribes, amongst others. Many historians feel the Gaels are the Galatians written to by Saint Paul. And there are many places still bearing names which connect them to the Celts - Gaul, Gallicia & Galatia immediately come to mind. The Celts became infamous for sacking Rome in 390 B.C. and for sacking the temple at Delphi in 279 B.C. These are the peoples that Caesar fought in the Gallic wars, noting their predilection to decorating their bodies with woad and stiffening their hair with lime. They were a tribal, pastoral, war-like people who were known for fighting nude and allowing their women to fight beside the men. In fact, several famous Irish warriors were believed to be trained by some of these warrior women.
However, there are some myths about the Celts that are probably just that - myth. Despite the claims of many in the neo-Pagan movement, there is no historical evidence that the Celts believed in the concept of the Goddess as Maiden-Mother-Crone. They had a multitude of triple goddesses, but they did not fit the Maiden-Mother-Crone mold. To be accurate, the Celts were not a "nation", but were more of a linguistic group who shared art, social structure, and physical makeup. For more accurate, practical information about the Celts I strongly suggest visiting the following two sites: Digital Medievalist and Imbas.
Well, now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's look at the decks, starting with the Celtic Tarot by Helena Paterson and Courtney Davis. This is one of the first decks I can remember being marketed as Celtic. The artwork is beautiful. Courtney Davis was able to capture the feel of Celtic knotwork art and incorporate it with Tarot themes. I am not sure that I agree with some of the deities and myths associated with the cards, but to each his or her own. Specifically, I do not see the Morrigan as equivalent to the Dark Moon and The Hag, and thus not such a great fit for the Wheel of Fortune. Of course this is because I have not seen any evidence suggesting the Celts viewed the moon as female. And I'm also not sure I view Arianrhod as connected with The Moon, she seems more stellar in her associations. However I do love the court card associations. Morgan le Fay seems an wonderful choice for Queen of Swords. And Boudicca as the Queen of Wands. Galahad is a good choice for the Knight of Cups. I can see Gawain as the Page of Swords but the description is fairly negative. The minors are pips which can make this deck somewhat challenging to use for readings if you are not comfortable working with pip cards. Overall I think Helena Paterson did her homework in creating this deck and while I might disagree with certain associations (and I certainly disagree with her references to a Druid Zodiac), I think this deck deserves the appellation "Celtic".
Celtic Tarot by Julian de Burgh and Mary Guinan - The illustrations in this deck are lovely watercolors and it is quite easy to read with. The book is interesting and I think the Celtic myths selected to illustrate each card are very appropriate (at least for the most part). What I don't like about this deck is that it has a Celtic-lite feel to it. I love that The Morrigan was selected to represent the High Priestess but none of her traditional trappings (ravens, horses, etc) appear anywhere on the card. The image is of a pleasant looking woman wearing a blue gown. Now I perceive the Morrigan as many things - but pleasant probably isn't one of them. There are knotwork designs throughout the deck and a white bearded druid appears, but something about this deck just didn't click for me. It seems that, without the knotwork borders, there is almost nothing else from a visual perspective that feels Celtic about this deck. However, that is strictly my taste - for someone else seeking a Celtic-themed deck, this one might be perfect. Look at the images and judge for yourself. I also think that this deck could be used by someone with no real familiarity with Celtic myths.
Celtic Wisdom Tarot by Caitlin Matthews - I have to admit I absolutely adore this deck. I think the artwork is beautiful and has a rough edged quality that seems to fit with ancient Celtic life. I think most of the associations with Celtic myth and legends are wonderful. Caitlin Matthews' scholarship is often challenged by some of the more traditional Celtic scholars, but in this instance I think she combines her knowledge of Celtic lore and legend with her knowledge of the Tarot for a magnificent result. And I love the affirmations and Soul Wisdom questions given in the accompanying book. My issues with this deck are because some of the images don't seem to fit the meaning of the card. The Combat of Art (Five of Cups) looks more like a scene from the X-Files than a representation of The Battle of the Trees. Four of the court card selections don't make sense to me. Brigid, best known for her sacred fire at Kildare, and Lugh are listed as the Queen and King of Art (Cups) but both are more often listed as fiery, solar type deities and their cards have fire and sun imagery on them. While Rhiannon and Manawyddan are the Queen and King of Skill (Fire), both these deities have more watery type associations and have watery imagery on their cards. I think these pairing should be switched (so that's exactly what I do when I use this deck). The illustration of The Dagda on The Decider card (The Magician) shows a young slim beardless man. Almost every description I've ever read of The Dagda describes him are rather gross and unkempt in appearance with a large stomach. However I love her choice of The Morrigan to represent the Queen of Blades. The Mingler (Temperance) is one of the most mystical, lyrical and beautiful cards I've ever seen. Using the tale of Deirdriu and Naoisi to symbolize the Revelation of Battle (Nine of Swords) is almost inspired. The end of their tale is nothing if not a nightmare come to life. The other drawback is that it is a large deck, so it can be challenging to shuffle. And the order is non-traditional
Celtic Tarots by Guadenzi & Tenuta - this Lo Scarabeo deck has been called rather gory and dark by some. But I love it. It does resemble a somewhat gory graphic novel but somehow that seems appropriate to a deck on Iron Age Celts. The Majors are predominantly associated with Celtic deities. In this deck the Morrigan appears as the Empress. My one complaint in this area is that the image used makes her look like a drunken milkmaid (to paraphrase Michele Jackson). There is an image of a full-figured red-haired woman lounging around nude on the box cover which I think would've made a better image. Each of the minors is drawn from a different people in Celtic (predominantly Irish) myth - the Fomors, the Fiana, the Tuatha de Danaan and the Ulaid. Some of the deities used for the Majors are ones with which I'm not even familiar. I'd never heard of Miluchradh before seeing her image on The Star. But once I looked up her legend the connection makes some sense. And Orlam doesn't fit as Death until you realize that Orlam is the head being held by the charioteer. The artwork is wonderful, although some consider it dark, and I love some of the images (Ogma with people attached to his tongue by golden chains and the sensuality of the lounging Queen of Wands). But it might not be to everyone's taste. However this deck could be used with no or a minimal knowledge of Celtic myth.
I Tarocchi Celtici by Laura Tuan is a wonderfully sensual deck to touch. The texture of the cards gives them a sense of richness and depth. The artwork is beautifully detailed and eye-catching. Now having said that let me explain what some of my issues are with the deck (you'd knew there would be some didn't you). I think the artist has a tendency to use a cutesy vision of "the little people" to illustrate this deck. Lug, on The Magician card, look more like a gnome or a leprechaun than a god of crafts, skill and light. I think the connection makes sense because one of Lug appellations was "many-skilled". But the image doesn't seem to portray him as god-like. I would make the same note about The Morrigan, connected with the High Priestess. The artwork shows a woman riding a stag and holding a cornucopia. While this imagery would be a wonderful fit for the Empress, it doesn't click with the High Priestess. At the same time I think The Morrigan makes a great match to The High Priestess. Arduinna makes an interesting and appropriate choice for Strength but in this case is connected with Justice. Then again I'm sure other people can and do have entirely different opinions about each of these points. The most challenging aspect of working with this deck is that the cards and the accompanying book are in Italian. Which can make it very difficult to figure out what the author mean if you are monolingual like me. In the minors, Tuan uses the Ogham alphabet to identify each card and the suits are differentiated by color - green is connected with Imbolc; yellow is connected with Beltane; peach is Lughnasad and blue is Samhain. Tuan also connects the elements and elementals (gnomes, sylphs, ondines & salamanders) to each color but I'm not sure which element goe with which color. Overall, this is a lovely deck, wonderful to look at and touch. I'm not sure how useful it will prove to be.
Tarot of Northern Shadows by Sylvia Gainsford & Howard Rodway combines elements of Norse and Celtic (predominantly Welsh) mythology and legend to create an interesting, although somewhat challenging deck. The artwork is interesting, very comic book-like, which I enjoy. I only wish there was more of it. These cards have large white spaces on them which could've been better used to enlarge the images. Some of the imagery on the cards doesn't quite make sense. For example the six-pointed star on The Star is somewhat confusing since the woman on the card is supposed to be Idunna, the guardian of the sacred apples which preserved the youth of the Norse gods. I like the fact that Thor is The Chariot and Mani is The Moon, at least they didn't try to force it to fit the "Moon is feminine" concept. But Balder as the Sun was a bit disappointing, why not use Sunna, the Norse Sun goddess. The tiger appearing on The Empress doesn't quite fit either. I can't remember ever reading about a connection between Frigg and tigers. Freya (seen on The High Priestess card) is connected with large cats, but not Frigg. Some of the characters I've never heard of before such as Kynon (7 & 9 of Cups), Var (Page of Rods) and Vintios (King of Swords) however I make no claims to be the best Celtic scholar in the world (or even on my block). And I don't get Manannan MacLir as King of Discs when he is usually connected with water. Overall I like this deck and would recommend it for anyone who likes Norse and Celtic deities but I can't say it's the best representation of either.
Faery Wicca Tarot by Kisma Stepanich & Renee Yates is based on Stepanich's Faery Wicca tradition. I don't have the book that accompanies this deck, so I can't say what that entails. However, as someone who used this deck without the book, I do feel qualified to comment on certain aspects. Let me start by saying that I had an initial prejudice against this deck. What I do know about the Faery Wicca tradition is everything that aggravates me about certain neo-Pagan traditions. But I won't get into that here. Suffice it to say that as far as I can tell it is a recently created tradition (which in no way impacts on its validity and usefulness to followers) that tries to claim ancient ancestry (which is what ticks me off). Anyway, despite this bias, I found the artwork lovely. I am familiar with Ms. Yates' artwork from various publications such as SageWoman, and have always liked it. The colors used are rich and deep jewel-tones. My one complaint about the images is that they are almost all too pretty. Even the Banshee Crone, with her lined face and haggish overtones, looks more like a young woman wearing crone makeup. The Devil card, depicting the Gundestrop Cauldron's horned figure in front of a Jesus figure, is somewhat confusing and certainly doesn't seem to bear any resemblance to a Celtic tradition. Manannan mac Lir, King of Water, just doesn't seem to portray a god who is responsible for guiding souls across the waters - although I'm very jealous of his long flowing white hair. I also find the pseudo-Gaelic words plastered all over the cards to be distracting, if not downright annoying. As much as I like the art, to me this deck doesn't really represent anything genuinely Celtic. However if someone doesn't have my traditionalist bent (a shocking thought, I'll concede), he or she might find this deck useful and enjoyable.
So, overall I would say that each deck has its positive side and its drawbacks. But there are certainly enough decks available to guarantee that there is something for everyone. Just because I dislike certain things about a deck doesn't mean anyone else will. So my best recommendation is to know what you're looking for and select a deck to meet your needs, not anyone else's recommendations.
Be sure to stay tuned for Part Two. I will be reviewing Sacred Circle, Glastonbury, Legend, Hallowquest, Avalon, and other decks within the context of Celtic authenticity.
Debbie Lake is a cranky, opinionated Tarotholic who was born and bred in Hell's Kitchen, NYC. She has been married for 15 years (which explains the crankiness) and just loves working with Tarot, reading and driving friends and family crazy with her know-it-all-ness. Visit her at her website.
Article © 2002 Debbie Lake
Images © Dal Negro, Aquarian, Inner Traditions, Lo Scarabeo and Llewellyn Worldwide
Page © 2002 Diane Wilkes