Celtic Tarot Deck Review Part II by Debbie Lake

In this part of the article, I am going to look at a second collection of decks.  Each deck may not be directly Celtic but they have a Celtic influence or inspiration.  I'm going to review Sacred Circle Tarot by Anna Franklin & Paul Mason, The Merlin Tarot by R.J. Stewart, Legend Tarot by Anne Marie Ferguson, Arthurian Tarot by Caitlin & John Matthews, Avalon Tarot by Joseph Viglioglia, and Glastonbury Tarot by Lisa Tenzin-Dolman.  

Let's start off with the Sacred Circle Tarot by Anna Franklin & Paul Mason.  The artwork on this deck is beautiful, consisting of photos of items or people overlaid on breathtaking landscapes from various parts of Britain.  The deck identifies itself as "a Celtic Pagan journey" but, in reality, it is more of a British Wiccan journey.  What I mean is that, despite the author's assertion that this deck draws on the ancient Pagan traditions of Britain's past, this deck is flawed with some of the same problems that other "Celtic" decks possess.  Let's start off with the first glaring issue - at various points throughout the book the author refers to the 8 fold wheel of Celtic Tradition.  Well, folks, the Celts didn't have a cycle of eight seasonal celebrations.  As far as most scholarship has been able to determine, the Celts celebrated four major festivals each year - Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa and Samhain.  The solstices and equinoxes, which complete the 8-fold cycle of a modern Wiccan/Pagan celebration cycle, were not part of traditional Celtic celebrations.  As far as I can tell, the solstices and equinoxes arrived in Britain with the Anglo-Saxons or Vikings.  Another issue I have with this deck is that, at various points throughout the book, the author refers to "the Lady" and "the Lord", shown as the Empress and Emperor, as though ancient Celts subscribed to the modern neo-Pagan belief that all goddesses are one.  Once again, there isn't any evidence to support this statement.  And that old pet peeve of mine, the Maiden-Mother-Crone concept, rears its ubiquitous head in this deck, too.    I also do not understand where Ms. Franklin came up with the concept of a Weaver Goddess as depicted on The Web card.  I have come across this concept in works by R.J. Stewart, but not in Celtic myth and legend.  And Franklin's claim that Cerridwen is an aspect of the Crone (even if I accepted the M-M-C concept) doesn't make sense to me, either.  Cerridwen's myths seem to align her with, if any, the mother archetype, albeit a devouring mother.  The images on the Druid and the Priest card seem to have been reversed.  I think the image on the Druid would be better suited to the meaning (and traditional imagery) of the Priest or Magician, and vice versa.  And The Shaman being substituted for The Hermit is a bit of a stretch, too.  While it is likely that ancient Celts utilized shamanic practices (most indigenous people probably did), there is no evidence that the Celts had "shamans".  So the bottom line is that this deck might be wonderful for someone who wishes to learn more about a modern Britain Pagan tradition or who appreciates the artwork. But if you're looking for a Tarot deck based on ancient Celtic beliefs and legends, this ain't it.

The Merlin Tarot by R.J. Stewart - This deck has some of the most beautiful cards I've ever seen and some of the most boring. Some of the Majors are lovely. My favorites include the High Priestess and Death (The Apple Woman). The minors are unillustrated pips with Celtic knotwork designs and keywords.  The suits are Birds, Serpents, Fish and Beasts.  R.J. Stewart taps into the Merlin legends rather than Arthurian.  According to Stewart, Merlin's myths and legends predate Arthurian to some extent and, rather than simply being a wizard and counselor, Merlin is a king who undergoes a variety of trials and tribulations which transform him.  Stewart's views and cosmology are fairly unique to him.  They are interesting and he raises some interesting points, but I can't say that they are based on any ancient Celtic practices or beliefs.  He completely revamps the order of the Majors and has created a complex (and somewhat convoluted) system with which to use this deck.  He separates the majors into three worlds: Lunar, Solar and Stellar, and aligns them with the Qabalistic Tree of Life.  I don't find this deck especially useful for readings; the unillustrated pips makes that aspect somewhat challenging.  But the Majors could be useful for meditational purposes or pathworking.  However, there is no denying that Stewart relied on Celtic myths and legends in the creation of this deck.  He also blends in some Roman flavor (such as mentioning Minerva in The Chariot and Sol and Mars in Strength) but overall, his focus is on the Celtic versions of Merlin's mythos.  I'd have to say that while I can appreciate Stewart's ideas and concepts, they seem based on his unique interpretations and studies into the life of Merlin.  While not a deck for everyone, I'd rate this a seven on the Celt-o-meter. 

The next four decks are all based on Arthurian/Grail myth and legend to some degree.  Arthurian legend is an enduring hybrid of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Christian lore and legend.  The sacred cauldron of Celtic lore morphs into the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend.  King Arthur's birth and upbringing combine familiar themes seen in many "hidden King/solar hero" myths.  Arthur is raised in obscurity and unaware of his ancestry (in fact, Harry Potter is a recent example of this theme).  Morgan, Vivienne, Nimue and the Sisterhood of Avalon hearken back to the female initiators and guides that appear in Celtic and Teutonic legend.  The Grail legends add a layer of Christian mysticism to the picture.  I actually enjoy reading the varying tales which weave the Cup of Christ and early Christianity, Imperial Rome, the invading horde of Saxons and the enduring, mystical legends of ancient Britain.  Arthurian and Grail legends take this foundation and create something completely new and timeless.  Even today we are enthralled by these stories.  Harrison Ford searched for the Grail in the movies.  Mists of Avalon provided a gateway for people in search a new spiritual path.  And many Americans still view the Kennedy presidency as a return to Camelot and mourn the passing of John Jr. as the loss of our last hope for a return to that magical time.

Legend Arthurian Tarot by Anna-Marie Ferguson  Let me start this review off by saying that I absolutely love the artwork in this deck.  I only wish the images were larger and had less of a purple tinge to them.  Maybe it's my eyes, but all the cards in this deck seem to consist of varying shades of gray, blue and purple, giving an odd cast to the people in the cards.  I do not notice this tinge in Ms. Ferguson's art online, so perhaps this is a result of the printing process.  That aside, I have to say I think Ms. Ferguson did a great job of combining Arthurian legend and Tarot.  I might quibble with some of her pairings.  I'd probably prefer Morgan le Fay as the High Priestess rather than the Moon.  But those are minor issues.  Using Vortigern's Fortress as The Tower is a marvelous fit.  I like the idea of Mordred representing the King of Swords, especially because in some modern reinterpretations of the legends he is portrayed in a much more sympathetic light, although his actions remain the same.  Elaine and Lancelot certainly fit the Five of Cups. Elaine mourns the fact that Lancelot never truly cuts Guinevere from his heart.  And Lancelot never truly stops mourning the loss of Guinevere.  They are both unable to let go of the past and move towards the future together.  The Court cards in this deck represent actual characters from Arthurian legend such as Mordred, Gawain and Dindraine.  Overall, I think Anna-Marie Ferguson put a lot of time and effort into pairing Tarot and Arthurian legend.  Andm to top it all off, this deck is fairly easy to use for readings.  Is it Celtic?  Well, it certainly incorporates quite a lot of the more Celtic aspects of Arthurian legend.  On a scale of 1 - 10, I'd say this is a seven on the Celtic meter.    

The Arthurian (Hallowquest) Tarot by Caitlin and John Matthews - The artwork on this deck is absolutely gorgeous.  It is rich and detailed and draws you into the image.  Having said that, I have a few problems with this deck.  The large black borders, which gives the cards the impression of being viewed through a window or gate, takes space away from the image.  And the lack of humans in the minor pips gives the impression of a wasteland already abandoned by humans.  It gives a sense of desolation and loneliness.  In this deck, as in almost all of the Arthurian-themed decks, Guinevere and Arthur represent the Empress and the Emperor.  And the High Priestess is The Lady of the Lake (who may or may not be Morgan le Fay).  In this deck, Strength is represented by Gawain, symbolizing his connection to the Sun and his position as a Knight of the Goddess.  In early (more Celtic-based) versions of the Arthurian myths, Gawain, not Lancelot, is seen as representing the ideal knight.  He is Arthur's sister's son, which in matrilineal cultures makes him closer to Arthur than a son and makes him Arthur's heir apparent.  In some versions of Arthurian legend, Gawain's strength increases as the sun rises higher in the sky and wanes with the setting of the Sun.  The Green Knight, who comes to Camelot to challenge Arthur's knights to a beheading competition, represents The Devil.  This is an interesting connection because The Green Knight does put Gawain through a series of challenges. Gawain's inability to completely let go of his fears leads to him holding on to a green garter that will allow him to emerge from the beheading game unscathed.  He gets nicked on the neck and later learns that this is because he didn't release this garter to Sir Bertilak.  Had he given the garter to Sir Bertilak, he would have received no wounds.  So he causes his own pain.  How appropriate for the Devil.  

I also love the Death card - The Washer by the Ford.  Many ancient Celtic legends tell of a knight before a battle seeing an old woman washing bloody clothing in a river.  This often portends the knight's death.  What an interesting change from the usual (Gwyn ap Nudd in Legend and Glastonbury).  It is a very powerful image - the Crone who guides us to the Otherworld.  The Court cards represent characters from Arthurian legend such as Dindraine, Bedwyr and Linnet.  Overall, I find this deck is my favorite.  However, I will admit that this deck is not easy to read with and has a pretty steep learning curve.  But from a Celtic perspective,  I'd rate it an eight and a half.  It definitely taps into the older, Celtic versions of Arthurian Legend.

The Avalon Tarot by Joseph Viglioglia - As previous reviewers have pointed out, the artwork in this deck is reminiscent of graphic novels designed to appeal to adolescent males, with lots of nude females with big busts and muscular males wielding swords. This is Arthurian legend interpreted through a Sci-Fi/Fantasy magazine. Having said that, I love the artwork. This deck relies more on Continental sources of Arthurian legend, with which I am fairly unfamiliar.  Lancelot is much more present in this deck than he is in the Hallowquest or Legend decks.  One of the reasons may be that Lancelot is a later, French, addition to the tales.  Many of our favorite familiar characters are here:  Morgan le Fay is the High Priestess, Merlin is the Magician, Guinevere and Arthur as the Empress and Emperor and Gawain is Strength.  But the imagery is much more medieval in conception.  The knights wear armor and the ladies are garbed in elaborate gowns.  It is much more likely that if Arthur lived he probably lived like an ancient Celtic war chief, not in a castle with knights in shining armor.  This deck also includes scenes from some of the lesser known tales - the false Guinevere, the Lady who Never Lied, and Gundebald, brother of Bors and Ban.  The Court cards represent characters from Arthurian legend such as Elaine, Ygraine and Pelles.  This deck is not especially intuitive.  Some of the cards conform to traditionally Waite-Smith imagery and meanings, some don't.  Someone interested in Arthurian legend might find this deck a great addition to their collection.  But from Celtic perspective this deck rates a two.  It relies much more on Continental and Christian versions of the Arthurian/Grail legends.

The Glastonbury Tarot by Lisa Tenzin-Dolma  - This deck, with its bright, almost primary color scheme, is wonderfully appealing. It incorporates some elements of Arthurian legend, but its primary focus is the Glastonbury/Grail mythos, which some believe predates Arthurian legend and some New Age symbology.  We see some of the familiar characters - Merlin is the Magician, Morgana, the High Priestess; Arthur and Guinevere are the Emperor and Empress.  But this deck also incorporates some aspects of ancient Celtic, especially Welsh, myths into the imagery.  On the Strength card we see Gog & Magog - two ancient oak trees which still leaf every summer.  The minors do not draw from any specific Grail/Glastonbury legends.  They are fairly Waite-Smith in imagery and meaning.  And the Court cards are character descriptions rather than actual characters.  This deck is lovely and fairly easy to read with if you are familiar with RWS interpretations and images.  From a Celtic perspective I'd give it a four.

Okay, so to wrap this up I'd have to say that the majority of these decks may have some Celtic influences but none of them are truly Celtic.  Sacred Circle could be described as based on British Pagan tradition, which has some Celtic roots but is not Celtic.  Certainly the Matthews' Arthurian deck has the most Celtic influences, possibly because they prefer to work with the more ancient versions of Arthurian legend.  The Avalon Tarot has the least amount of Celtic influences because it is based on more Continental & Christian version of the Arthurian legends.  Overall, there is a deck to suit any taste but it can help to be sure of what you're getting yourself into.

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 Llewellyn, Aquarian, Lo Scarabeo, and Weiser
Page 2002 Diane Wilkes