Celtic Dragon Tarot by D.J. Conway and Lisa Hunt
Review by Lee A. Bursten
If you are interested in purchasing this book/deck set, click
When I opened the cardboard box and looked through the cards, I was surprised and delighted. Surprised, because the deck was not what I had expected from the outer package; and delighted, because it’s a wonderful deck.
I had been expecting a deck which would be mostly focused on Celtic mythology and with establishing a spiritual discipline based on it, much like the Celtic Wisdom Tarot. However, what we get instead, fortunately, is a marvelously-drawn fantasy-based storytelling deck.
I simply can’t praise Lisa Hunt’s artwork enough. What sets her apart from other illustrators is that she truly believes in what she’s drawing and takes it seriously on its own terms. She doesn’t have any ideological agendas to push; she simply loves stories about dragons. If you wonder how I can tell all that just from looking at her pictures, all I can say is, if you get the deck and look through it, you’ll see what I mean!
I avoided this deck for a long time because I feared that creatures as large and intrusive as dragons would simply overwhelm the Tarot archetypes. But not in Hunt’s hands. These dragons are certainly impressive, yet Hunt has drawn them in such a way that they express in their faces and postures the proper mood in each card. For example, one could imagine cutting the dragon out of the Empress card, but the interaction between the two is what really makes the card. In other cards, like the Knight of Swords, the dragon actually expresses the mood of the card more vividly than does the Knight herself.
I love the way the dragons play different roles in different cards. In some cards, they seem to exist on a different plane than the people, who are not aware of them, such as the Four of Cups. In others, such as the Eight of Pentacles, the dragon takes center stage. This card is an excellent example at Hunt’s skill at drawing the dragons in such a way as to express volumes. Here the dragon is learning to read, and you can actually feel the concentration and effort that’s being expended by its posture and facial expression. (This is my interpretation of the card, which differs from Conway’s.) In yet other cards, humans and dragons interact, like the Nine of Cups, where the woman claims her final cup from the dragon.
Sometimes the dragon simply reinforces what is already present in the card, like the Queen of Wands, whose character is wonderfully illustrated not only by the way she is drawn but by the more-easily-seen expression of her dragon companion.
Hunt really has a sense of how animals move, behave, and think. In the Hanged Man, one is struck by a sense of realism, oddly enough for such a fantastic scene. A man has been exploring caves, and has slipped and is hanging by his foot over a chasm. The cave’s resident dragons gather around to watch with avid curiosity. (Again, this is my interpretation, not Conway’s.) The vividness and immediacy of this scene are rare in Tarot decks.
D.J. Conway must of course be given credit for conceiving the project and deciding what each card would show, which she has accomplished with an uncommonly graceful imagination. However, I do disagree with some of her choices. In the Six of Wands, a woman is shown standing at a writing table with pen and ink. She certainly looks happy, but there is really nothing to suggest victory as such, and the accompanying book by Conway does not enlighten us as to why this picture was chosen for this card.
Sometimes I received a far different impression of a card when I looked at it than what Conway intended. For example, the King of Swords approaches a fiery dragon with his sword half-drawn. The book tells us that he "makes contact with universal, manifesting power, from which he will mold his desires into actuality." But to me it looks like he is deciding the dragon’s fate; otherwise why would he be in the act of unsheathing his sword?
Likewise, in The Fool, the book tells us that he has followed the baby dragons, and the larger dragons and animals are watching to see which path he will take. But I took an entirely different, and simpler, approach to this card. To me, the Fool was foolishly hunting dragons, and has followed the three baby ones deep into the forest, unwittingly trespassing on the larger dragons’ lair, who now look down on him, deciding whether he is lunch. As you can see, this would be a great deck to use for storytelling; simply draw some cards and make up a story. Or go through the whole deck, one my one; and then this happened, and then this happened… Of course, this storytelling aspect also makes it a great deck to read with, for either oneself or for others.
There are two cards where I really disagree with Conway’s interpretations. The Seven of Pentacles is a wonderful picture showing a large blue dragon curled up, asleep, with seven baby dragons likewise sleeping. There is nothing particularly negative about the picture, but Conway’s interpretation is all doom and gloom; "bad investments," "anxiety about finances, "effort is spent on the wrong things." And I really don’t care for what she’s done with the Chariot. Traditional meanings for this card do include a balancing between two forces, but it seems to me the whole point is that the forces are being balanced by someone or something. But in Conway’s card, two dragons are gripping a ball of energy between them, and there is no balancing entity. It would be as if one took the traditional Chariot images and cut out the chariot and the driver, leaving the two horses to fend for themselves.
Conway’s accompanying book, A Guide to the Celtic Dragon Tarot, presents me with some difficulties. I’ve read some very positive comments about this book, and some very negative ones too. I decided I would try especially hard to be open-minded about it and see if it was really as bad as some people said.
Unfortunately, I don’t find it to be an especially distinguished effort. I did enjoy the material by both authors about how the deck came to be; this was a nice touch that I wish all deck authors would employ. And it’s valuable to read the card descriptions to see what Conway had in mind for certain cards, although, as you may have guessed, I am one of those who advocates making up your own meanings for the cards and not taking a deck author’s opinions too seriously. However, I think this book would be useless as a guide to doing divination with this deck. The divinatory meanings are narrow and tend toward the negative. For example, the meanings for Justice all relate to legal matters. Is that all this card can mean? Not to me, it doesn’t. Also, and this is a big problem for me, not once in the entire book does Conway recommend laying the cards out and letting one’s intuition and imagination play over the cards and start to weave a story out of them, which to me is what the Tarot is all about. A beginner reading this book would think it is simply a matter of laying out the cards and looking up the simplistic divinatory meanings given. Is this really the way Conway herself reads Tarot?
I do think that the "spiritual discipline" content of the book is overstated on the copy on the back of the book, according to which you can "Fire up your spiritual practice and infuse your magickal spellworking with the potent elemental energy of dragons." It states, "You’ll learn how to use dragon power to: find true love and new beginnings; receive protection with your personal dragon; gain creativity, prosperity, or change your luck; develop psychic abilities and guiding dreams; understand past-life influences on the present." Besides the card descriptions and meanings, all there is to the book is some candle spells and a few meditations, as well as a list of candle colors and a one-page list of magical qualities of stones.
The candle spells look fairly basic and might be a good introduction to this use of Tarot (I don’t use Tarot for that, so I’m not the best person to comment on it). Conway doesn’t say in the book whether there is actually a history of people doing dragon-working, to coin a phrase. If there isn’t and if she’s creating it anew, she really doesn’t give the reader much guidance on what such a spiritual practice would entail, besides a few candle spells and meditations. And if there is actually a spiritual discipline which people are practicing now, the book doesn’t offer any further resources. Since Conway has previously written a book about this called Dancing with Dragons, one might suppose she has more to say about the subject than what is revealed in this book. Overall, I would rate this book as somewhat skimpy and not terribly satisfying.
Finally, I find I must comment on the inclusion of the word "Celtic" in the title, which I don’t think is really warranted. The deck seems to be set in the same pseudo-Medieval fantasy-land as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. A few Celtic designs have been introduced here and there, almost as an afterthought, but Celtic mythology in particular is really not referenced at all. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the authors simply wanted to do a dragon deck, but it was felt it might sell better if it were a "Celtic" deck, which seems somewhat opportunistic. However, I applaud that decision if it was the only way this deck was going to be published, because I think it’s an excellent deck that absolutely deserves to be available.
If you are interested in purchasing this book/deck set, click here.
Celtic Dragon Tarot by D.J. Conway and Lisa Hunt
Published by Llewellyn Worldwide
ISBN #: 1-56718-182-1
Lee A. Bursten has been studying Tarot off and on for about 20 years. He enjoys reading about Tarot and searching for the "Perfect Deck," which is always just around the corner but out of reach. He is very grateful to Michele and Diane for posting his reviews, and especially to his significant other, Larry Katz, for his superhuman patience.