Review by Steve Winick
This is the first Tarot deck that I bought, soon after it was published in 1990. As a longtime student of Celtic art, archaeology, and especially folklore, I was as taken with the Celtic mythological aspects as I was with Tarot. Indeed, I did not pick up Tarot studies for another ten years. This review is thus from the perspective of a folklore scholar with a longstanding interest in Celtic studies who is also, more recently, a Tarot seeker and enthusiast.
This is a sturdy, solid deck of cards that will serve Tarot readers for many years. It is a standard 78-card deck with 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana, divided into suits called cups, coins, swords, and wands. It’s a beautiful deck that I think will be of interest to collectors and lovers of Celtic art. It presents some challenges to readers, however, and will therefore be most useful to advanced practitioners. The book that comes with the deck, furthermore, contains a fair bit of nonsense about the Celts and about Tarot, along with its relatively good descriptions of individual cards and their meanings.
Let’s begin with the art. Courtney Davis paints beautiful pictures in a style influenced primarily by early medieval Hiberno-Saxon Christian manuscript illumination. If that sounds like a mouthful, think of bearded saints, whimsical animal heads, and coiled and interlaced abstract patterns of the type found in the Book of Kells, the Codex Aureus, and the Lindisfarne gospels. Some of Davis’s images, such as The World, could come directly from such manuscripts, but for most he employs this general look, and adds bright colors (primarily jewel tones), an unusual speckled finish, and touches of other artistic styles. These can range from modern comic-book drawing, which seems to have influenced the face of The Empress, to classical painting, from which the figure of Cupid on the Lovers card derives. In particular, he incorporates other Celtic art styles, and those who have studied Celtic art and archaeology in any depth will be delighted with some of his references. The Desborough and Holcombe mirrors, Celtic artifacts from Davis’s own neighborhood in England, are the points of reference for the circular field behind The Emperor, while statues of goddesses like Covetina (who appears by a stream, holding two vessels, and draped in an open robe that reveals her naked form) have clearly influenced The Star. Even the vessels held by the goddess in The Star reference other Celtic art; they are a matching pair of La Tene-style bronze flagons, much like a well-known pair from a grave in the Moselle region of France.
Davis’s Major Arcana cards bear figures of Celtic mythology and some of the major Arthurian figures, while his court cards show other characters from Arthurian romance. Thus, the Lovers are Tristan and Iseult, the Emperor is Arthur, and the Hermit Merlin; Justice is the Irish Goddess Danu, The Moon the Welsh goddess Arianrhod, and The Chariot the Irish warrior Cuchulain; The Knight of Wands is Percival, the Queen of Swords Morgane le Fay, and the King of Coins Lot of Orkney. Of course, since the time Davis created this deck, a wealth of Arthurian decks have flourished, including the Arthurian, Legend, Avalon and Merlin decks; this makes me wish he had stuck to more obscure corners of Celtic mythology, where there are many scenes and characters he could have drawn upon. Nevertheless, the art on the Major Arcana and court cards remains a primary reason to seek out this deck.
The difficulties presented to readers stem primarily from the fact that the numbered cards of the Minor Arcana are pip cards, containing geometric arrangements of wands, swords, cups and coins. Some of these cards, including the entire suit of coins, are identical whether reversed or upright, so using reversed cards is impossible. Furthermore, the book by Helena Paterson instructs us to read the cards using the system of dignified and ill-dignified cards, without ever describing how to judge well-dignified from ill. The result is a deck that is rather confusing to use for readings, and one that requires further research to use effectively. In particular, those accustomed to Rider-Waite decks and their derivatives will need to keep on their toes, while those accustomed to Crowley decks or Marseilles style decks might feel more at home.
In its favor, I find it an excellent deck for meditation on card meanings. Looking at cards from a Celtic perspective can shed new light on their meanings. Sometimes this requires taking Paterson’s book with a grain of salt. For example, Paterson writes:
The Chariot is a card of action, but the charioteer has perfect control of all the elements and energies of the universe. The mightiest hero and charioteer of the Celtic race, Cuchulain, was born with a druid’s prophecy. The prophecy contained the message of the card, and went thus: ‘His praise will be in the mouths of all men; charioteers and warriors, kings and sages will recount his deeds; he will win the love of many. This Child will avenge all your wrongs; he will give combat at your fords, he will decide your quarrels.’
Cuchulain, Paterson says, is a “hero and charioteer.” But the prophecy, which she quotes from T.W. Rolleston’s version of the legend, tells us that “warrior” and “charioteer” are two different job descriptions. As readers of the Ulster cycle of myths will know, in the style of warfare described in the Ulster cycle, warriors battle each other from chariots that are driven by charioteers. The charioteer serves the warrior as a combination of driver and squire, offering advice on tactics, the selection of weapons, and the approach to an enemy. A good charioteer is an essential helper to a good warrior. Cuchulain’s charioteer, Láeg, is an important supporting character in the Ulster cycle, and one of the secrets of Cuchulain’s success. When Cuchulain is discouraged, Láeg acts as a sort of coach, giving him a pep talk; when Cuchulain needs a more serious boost, Láeg insults him, sending him into a berserker rage; when Cuchulain is wounded, Láeg summons healers to help him. Cuchulain was not alone in his reliance on a good charioteer; Julius Caesar, on encountering war chariots in Britain, remarked on the uncanny skill and poise of the charioteers more than on the skill of the fighters.
The knowledge that the Celtic chariot is driven by a separate person, who acts as guide, squire, and friend, is potentially useful in interpreting The Chariot, which is so often seen as a card of individual achievement and solitary struggle; in Thirteen’s words on the Aeclectic website, “a charioteer fights alone.” In the Celtic world, and in most ancient chariot-fighting cultures, the charioteer did not fight alone; the charioteer was a helper figure, sharing the risk and the reward with a warrior. This can remind us that all of our seemingly individual achievements are really accomplished with the help of others. Without the support of healers, advisors, and friends, we would never taste the victory symbolized by this card.
Similarly, Davis’s three of swords card suggests a different interpretation than the usual. It shows two crossed swords, surmounted by a third, larger sword. Paterson gives this a sinister interpretation, no doubt influenced by the card’s usual meaning. She writes: “The two crossed swords are surmounted by a third sword and has split (sic) a previous alliance. […] The intruding sword is pointed toward the heart of the querent when drawn. It signifies tears and sorrow.” Looking at the picture, however, the third sword does not seem to have split up an alliance; it is not between the two other swords, but rather lying over them. Moreover, Davis’s art on the sword pips generally represents discord with flashing energy bolts, but this card has none. Indeed, this card looks to me much more like a ceremonial arrangement of swords, such as one would find at an oath-swearing, rather than a battle. In the Celtic context, it is most reminiscent of the practice of choosing a high-king, or high chieftain, to eliminate internecine struggles and unite warring tribes against larger enemies—the historical Vercingetorix and the legendary Arthur were both leaders of this type. Significantly, both Arthur and Vercingetorix were on the losing side of history. In the Celtic context, then, an arrangement like this of three swords may connote useful and noble cooperation, and valiant effort, that nonetheless are doomed ultimately to fail. This would make the card’s meaning different from Paterson’s, but give it some of the general flavor found in typical interpretations of the three of swords.
Finally, a few words on Paterson’s book itself: it gives a worthwhile introduction to the cards for beginners, but has omissions and errors that will annoy people who have pursued Celtic studies, or Tarot studies, to any degree. Influenced primarily by Robert Graves, whose fertile imagination was the source he consulted most frequently, she tells us earnestly what gestures were made by the druids, that the druids predicted the birth of Christ, how Tarot cards correspond with the Druids’ tree zodiac, and other similar tales. All of this is guesswork at best, willfully misleading at worst. Practically all of Paterson’s references to the beliefs and practices of the Druids are questionable; little was ever recorded of druidic belief and practice, and most of what was written down was from outsiders who knew only rumors.
Paterson expounds particularly frequently on one aspect of Graves’s work: the notion of a 13-month, tree-based lunar zodiac. The book is filled with references to this zodiac, which almost certainly never existed until Graves invented it in 1948. In fact, on page 165 of The White Goddess, Graves admits that the tree Zodiac came into being when he himself simply “noticed” apparent seasonal significances to the trees after which the letters of the ancient Ogham alphabet were named. Sadly, his inspiration depended on an erroneous description of this alphabet contained in Roderick O’Flaherty’s fanciful history Ogygia, published in Latin in 1685. O’Flaherty’s source was an Irish bard who claimed knowledge from an unbroken oral tradition going back over 1600 years. No scholar has ever taken either O’Flaherty or Graves seriously as far as these claims are concerned, and most do not even believe that all the Ogham letters are named for trees, which was the essential premise on which Graves’s leap of faith was based. Readers seeking astrological correspondences would do better to stick with the classical Zodiac, which the Celts adopted sometime around the 7th Century CE, or to explore Vedic astrology, the system closest to what experts believe the Celts’ earlier beliefs to have been. (For more on this, from an expert in Celtic Languages, see the articles by Peter Berresford Ellis: Early Irish Astrology: An Historical Argument and The Fabrication of Celtic Astrology).
As for Tarot, Paterson begins by suggesting that Tarot’s origins are shrouded in mystery and likely to be found in ancient Egypt—a proposition few experts would have supported when she wrote the book. She also says that the deck is intended to “re-establish a lost legacy of Celtic art and mythology within the ancient wisdom of the Tarot,” suggesting that Tarot cards historically had a Celtic component that has since been lost or suppressed. Needless to say, there is little evidence for this, if any.
On the positive side, the book gives good descriptions of the standard meanings for most cards (even when these meanings seem to be at odds with Davis’s artwork, as in the three of Swords). Paterson also describes the Celtic Cross layout, the Alchemist’s spread, and a new, useful spread, called the Druid’s Star—essentially, an eight-pointed star based on the familiar four elements of earth, air, fire and water. Sadly, her failure to include a coherent explanation of dignified and ill-dignified cards decreases the usefulness of these sections of the book.
To sum up this deck and book set, buy it first and foremost for the artwork, secondly if you want a new and interesting perspective on Tarot card meanings. If you are an experienced reader with Thoth or Marseille style decks, you may enjoy doing readings with it. And finally, take the book with a grain of salt, especially where the Druids are concerned.
Steve Winick studied medieval literature and comparative mythology, before earning his Ph.D. in Folklore. A professional writer and editor for over fifteen years, he has written hundreds of music reviews and feature articles, as well as academic articles on such topics as Chaucer and Robin Hood.