The Celtic Wisdom Tarot - Review by Lee A. Burstencw8.jpg (28997 bytes)

If you would like to purchase this book/deck set, click here.

For me this deck was an exercise in frustration. The artwork by Olivia Rayner is of such high quality that I would rank it as one of the top three or four decks ever in terms of art. The author, Caitlin Matthews, has obviously expended much effort in creating a complex and self-consistent system that is faithful to her theme. This deck is so attractive that as I looked through the cards I felt that this would immediately become my favorite deck. However, after studying the deck and book carefully, I must regretfully report that what I see as missteps have occurred in various phases of production. Some are minor irritants, but some are so grave that they endanger the usability of the deck.

To begin with the merely irritating, the package states on the front, "The Celtic Wisdom Tarot," and underneath that is the author’s name, Caitlin Matthews. That’s it. One is certainly led by this to infer that Ms. Matthews has not only written the book but painted the cards as well. However, if you turn the package over and go to the bottom, there on the left hand side we find, in little itty-bitty letters, "Illustrations by Olivia Rayner." And this is below a line reading "Cover design by Peri Champine"! Readers of my other reviews will know that this is a pet peeve of mine, but this is by far the worst offender. This must be the smallest credit a Tarot artist has ever received in the history of mankind, except perhaps Pamela Colman Smith on the original edition of the Waite-Smith deck. I cannot imagine what the reason is for this Scrooge-like behavior on the part of the publishers, especially given the beauty of the art. In fact, for me the quality of the artwork provides the greatest incentive for buying this set.

The next frustrating thing also concerns the art. Many of the pictures on the cards have been cropped, which is evident from comparing the cards themselves to the pictures of the cards in the book. The worst offender is The Mingler (Temperance). This card is used on the front of the package, and deservedly so. It shows a woman sitting in an archway, holding a vessel. Beside her is a giant pocket-watch shaped object, above which is pictured two alder leaves. However, the card itself has about a quarter of the image lopped off on the left side. Only half of the pocket-watch shaped thingy is now visible, and the alder leaves are almost entirely gone, which is rather strange, since each Major card has been assigned a particular tree which is important to the card’s symbolism. Also missing from the card is the rushing water on the bottom. The entire image can be seen in book at the corresponding page for that card.

Another minor irritant is what I found to be a slightly cavalier attitude on the part of the author toward violence. For example, in the text for The Empowerer (Strength) Matthews writes, "The taking of heads in battle was not out of love of slaughter, but because the Celts venerated the head as the seat of the soul and as the link with ancestral wisdom." This seems to me a rather superficial justification of the bloody side of Celtic history. I’m sure all peoples have had their bloodthirsty moments, but I don’t think it serves any purpose to idealize war and violence or to pretend that the taking of heads in battle indicated a search for ancestral wisdom rather than simply a desire to do the utmost damage to the enemy. Also, as someone who likes animals, I was taken aback by the Judgment of Battle (4 of Swords) card, which shows a smiling young man calmly bringing a sort of hockey-stick down upon the head of a dog who obviously expires. The text talks of a hero wrestling with a fierce hound, but the pooch pictured on the card doesn’t look very fierce. I don’t know what this picture could really symbolize other than careless cruelty. It certainly does not look like "rest or respite," which is the divinatory meaning given in the book.

This brings up the next and most serious frustration, which concerns all the numbered Minor cards. I’m not sure where the fault lies, but the end result is that the pictures on the cards simply do not match the divinatory meanings given. Matthews has assigned to each card a different myth out of Celtic mythology, and the cards do illustrate those myths, but there are two problems. One is that although the pictures are wonderful illustrations, they are not very intuitive, because they often illustrate complicated scenes or focus in on particular details, which makes it difficult to make out what is going on in the picture without reading the book. I think the ideal for illustrated Minor cards is that one should be able to get something from looking at the pictures even before one has studied the accompanying text.

As an example, for the Revelation of Skill (9 of Wands) card we are told a story about a man who falls in love with a woman made of flowers. To rid herself of him she asked how he was fated to die. He replied that he could be killed "only when he stood with one foot on the edge of the riverside, and with the other on the back of a goat." She conspired to reproduce these circumstances, but the man changed into an eagle at the crucial moment to escape.

But when one looks at the card, one sees a smiling, pretty woman with flowers in her hair, facing a man with his back to us as he raises his feathered arms. That’s all. If one had not read the text one would have no idea that the man is in danger or that the woman has betrayed him.

A worse problem is the fact that although the myths chosen, as well as the pictures themselves, are quite far removed from the Waite-Smith deck, the divinatory meanings listed in the book are quite traditional, which leads to a rather severe disconnect between the meanings and the pictures. In many cases there is a connection, but one must expend a certain mental effort to grasp the connection, and in some cases the divinatory meaning is completely contradicted by the picture. For example, the meaning given for the Elopement of Art (8 of Cups) card is "Abandonment of plans. Disenchantment with the run of your life. Emotional ambivalence. Turning away from a relationship." But the picture illustrates a story of a couple who have found a beautiful golden bowl hanging in a castle, and touching it, they become stuck to the bowl. So while the divinatory meaning talks of abandonment and turning away, the picture shows people stuck in a situation.

Another example is the Adventure of Skill (7 of Wands) card. The book tells the story of a man who uses a clever strategy to outwit an army of mice which is eating his grain. But the card shows a very attractive picture of a smiling mouse sitting on a stalk of wheat. I suppose there are several possible meanings that a picture of a happy, solitary mouse could suggest, but "overcoming obstacles" isn’t one of them, especially when in the story the mouse represents the obstacle. The picture seems to suggest the mouse triumphs.

On the positive side, many of the Majors are extremely evocative, with some being almost visionary. They are certainly not the standard Tarot images, but they illustrate the themes in new and fascinating ways. The Dreamer (The Star) shows a tree at night, at the top of which sits a two-headed Janus figure. The roots reach into the earth, and a hole in the tree leads to a faint, mysterious spiral. Likewise, The Imaginer (The Moon) shows an empty boat under the moon, while a human figure rides a headless fish in the water. The Soul (The Fool) shows a man sleeping at night in a field, while his dreaming self walks away from his sleeping self. Stars and spirals blow through a moon carved on a tombstone. These pictures are absolutely lovely.

I also like the way Matthews has assigned a title to each numbered Minor card; that is, Augury for Aces, Dialogue for Twos, Courtship for Threes, etc. The full title of the Knowledge (Pentacles) cards thus becomes Augury of Knowledge, Dialogue of Knowledge, Courtship of Knowledge, etc. However, I found some of the titles obscure, such as Elopement, described in the text as "the realization of what is yet lacking, of the need for wholeness."

The book is very well produced, with all the cards illustrated in beautiful color (as are the cards themselves), and, unusual for deck/book sets, the book is hardbound.

I am stymied as to what use one could make of this deck once having bought it. The pictures are too gorgeous to simply put it away, and yet the dichotomy between picture and meaning make the Minors a real challenge to work with. Perhaps the deck would be best used by putting aside the numbered cards and just working with the beautiful Majors, the Courts, and the Auguries (Aces). Or perhaps one could look at the numbered cards and come up with one’s own interpretations for them, ignoring the traditional meanings given in the text. However, one would also have to frequently ignore even the stories that the cards illustrate.

I would certainly recommend buying this deck for the art, but be prepared to be challenged if you intend to read with it.

If you would like to purchase this book/deck set, click here.

 Copyright 1999 Lee A. Bursten

  Images Copyright 1999 Godsfield Press Limited

The Celtic Wisdom Tarot by Caitlin Matthews (Art by Olivia Rayner)
Destiny Books
One Park Street
Rochester, Vermont 05767
ISBN 0-89281-720-8

Page Copyright 2000 by Diane Wilkes