Caitlin Matthews
Destiny Books, Rochester, VT, 1999

So many new tarot decks are unveiled each year that it makes one wish for publishers to be more discriminating, and only to publish new deck designs or concepts that add something truly unique or artful to the vast selection already in existence. Even with the vast number of deck designs available, some of them are still the tried-and-true best sellers: most beginners start with the Rider-Waite or Thoth (Crowley) decks. Beautiful artwork is popular for those moving beyond their first deck, and here the Robin Wood Tarot, the Renaissance Tarot, the Haindl deck by Rachel Pollack, or the Art Nouveau tarot are big sellers. Some people like offbeat design concepts which play with the traditional suits of Cups, Swords, Wands and Coins/Pentacles, the Tarot of the Cat people with its "people" of four different gemstone planets; or the playful Hallowe'en Tarot, with its suits of Imps, Ghosts, Bats and Pumpkins; or the erudite William Blake Tarot, with the ethereal artwork of its namesake illustrating suits of Music, Painting and Poetry. The round Motherpeace deck has its ardent followers, as do decks in black-and-white woodcut designs, or decks in which the images are painstakingly staged and photographed (The Healing Tarot of Jennifer Moore being a good example). There are also divination cards which do not follow the traditional 78-card structure of major and minor arcana, preferring instead to be known as medicine cards, oracles, or some other system.

I must admit, I am not a fan of these "alterna-tarot" decks, many of which I have reviewed over the years. Neither am I overly excited by the Rider-Waite, with its staid primary colors. I still use my first deck, bought at Enchantments in New York's East Village, still in its same water-logged box: Renaissance, with its warm watercolors and tiny Greco-Roman mythological figures adorning each upper and lower corner. I briefly tried using Cat People, because a friend was so into it, but it was just too weird for me. I am excited to report, though, that for the first time in years, I have found an unusual deck which is so gorgeous to look at, so brilliantly realized in its conception, and so effective in its utilization of divinatory imagery, that I may actually start using it. Caitlin Matthews, she of the wonderful books on Celtic mythology, many co-written with her husband John, has created a stunning new deck called the Celtic Wisdom Tarot, unlike anything I have ever seen.

This great new set from Destiny Books, which includes the deck and a full-color hardcover book of descriptions and instructions, features artwork by Olivia Rayner, and is a comprehensive divination system integrating many elements of Celtic legend and archeological images. Matthews has a large following among readers interested in things Celtic; her books have covered topics like Arthurian myths, Celtic shamanic traditions, and integrating Celtic spiritual traditions into everyday life. Although not an academic or scholar of languages or literature, still Ms. Matthews has an impressive body of work to her credit, eminently readable by the student of Celtic studies whose interest extends into spiritual matters. Her work is also far more respectable than the usual "Celtic bunny magic" books full of the uncredited, recycled research of writers other than their vaunted "authors" that keep appearing in the stores.

The deck has two main sections: the Wisdom Cards, which correspond to the 22-card major arcana in a conventional tarot deck; and the Story Cards, which comprise suits of Battle, Skill, Art and Knowledge; four disciplines highly valued by the ancient Celts. The Wisdom cards feature imagery drawn from some of the most famous and significant archeological artifacts and sacred sites of Celtic Europe, including the White Horse of Uffington and the Gundestrup Cauldron, as well as images of the Sheila-na-gig, Cernunnos, and triskeles and spirals. These cards also seem to be more grounded in the world of archetypal Celtic gods and goddesses than the minor arcana, which are based in the legends and tales wherein humans and gods intermingle. The Wisdom cards follow a sequence which corresponds to the self-actualization-journey structure of the major arcana as explained by Jung, beginning with The Soul (The Fool), moving to The Decider (The Magician), The Guardian (the High Priestess), etc., with other Wisdom cards representing The Challenger, The Counselor, The Dreamer, and The Renewer. Each Wisdom card also corresponds with a tree and a letter from the Ogham tree alphabet system, loosely based on a supposedly ancient mode of script used by the Druids, but which many scholars now believe was fabricated for the most part by the poet and folklorist Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess. The book which accompanies the deck offers detailed explanations for interpreting each image, with "Background" offering the mythological and historical significance of the image, and "Soul-Wisdom" offering the questions that must be asked when this image appears in a reading.

The Story Cards employ examples from many tales and stories involving figures such as the god Lugh, Myrddin (Merlin), Rhiannon, the Dagda, and Cerridwen. The suits are divided into the agricultural festival seasons of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasa, and their four symbols are the familiar Sword, Spear, Cauldron and Stone. Each Story card follows a progression within each suit similar to that of the minor arcana; as an example, the Suit of Knowledge, which corresponds to Pentacles in the conventional tarot, begins with the Augury of Knowledge for the Ace, on through Dialogue of Knowledge, Courtship, Judgment, Combat, Foundation, Adventure, Elopement, Revelation, Quest, Woman (for Page), Warrior (for Knight), Queen and King of Knowledge. The accompanying explanations for each Story card, although steeped in the lore of Celtic myth, actually equate themselves well with the standard tarot imagery. Therefore, a reader need not learn an entirely new system to be able to utilize these cards for divination.

Matthews has also provided helpful advice at the end of the book in the form of succinct questions that may be asked when a card's appearance in a reading is not easily interpreted. She also offers several different "spreads" and interpretation structures that can be employed with this unique deck, some of which lend themselves to the particular imagery of the Celtic world, including the "Seven Candles of Life" (Will, Truth, Growth, Harmony, Lore, Devotion and Energy) in the Wisdom cards, and the bardic triads that represent these sevenfold qualities. For example, The Candle of Will is represented by The Decider, The Empowerer, and The Challenger, and in readings where will is a component of the questioner's concerns, this triad's appearance will illuminate matters very effectively.

While at first glance this deck may seem rather complex and intimidating for those not already familiar with Celtic mythology, I think Matthews has created a very cohesive divination system which will be a fascinating tool for experienced tarot readers. Likewise, those already familiar with Celtic spiritual traditions but with little or no mastery of the tarot may find they are well-equipped to delve into the world of divination with this deck. This deck is a stunning achievement of beauty, mythic lore and archetypal teachings, and sure to become a well-loved classic.

Reviewed by Peg Aloi

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