I’ll be honest. I’ve never entirely understood the Celtic craze in the Tarot world. Tarot is not Celtic; there is nothing about its structure, symbolism, or history that lends itself readily to Celtic mythology. Some of my least favorite among the decks in my collection are Celtic-themed. Much like fairy decks and cat decks, my reaction to Celtic Tarot decks has always been an unenthusiastic shrug and a gentle “But why?”.
So I am astonished by how much I love Kristoffer Hughes’s Celtic Tarot. This is a lovely, thoughtful Tarot deck, and one that I expect to use frequently in the future.
First things first, some technical details. The deck comes in a large, sturdy box. The cards themselves are a little on the thin side, but seem durable overall. The deck comes with a massive 328-page companion book, which includes a full-color replication of (and two-page analysis of) each card, along with short chapters on Tarot history, the Celtic worldview, and some basic Tarot spreads. Of the theme for the deck, Hughes writes:
The tarot lends itself beautifully to the incorporation of wisdoms; it is not a static tool, as its history demonstrates … Without end, it seems, the ability of the tarot to accommodate other wisdoms is wondrous. The body of Celtic lore that this deck explores lends itself perfectly to the wisdom of the tarot.
While I don’t necessarily agree with that vision (“Tarot is not Celtic” is up there on my list of maxims right next to “Tarot is not Wiccan”), I can respect it. Hughes as a deck creator clearly has a great deal of understanding when it comes to the Tarot, and he applies that understanding skillfully to create a deck manages to be creative while holding true to Tarot tradition.
However, all of that said… This deck doesn’t actually seem all that Celtic to me. Perhaps that’s why I like it so much. Going through the imagery in the cards, it really seems much more like a RWS variant with occasional sprinklings of dragons, triskele, and British plants and animals. There are a couple of notable ways in which Hughes has endeavored to make the deck explicitly Celtic, but for the most part he has a very light touch in doing so.
The biggest Celticization is in renaming cards from the Major Arcana. The Empress and Emperor become the Mother and Father; the Hierophant becomes the Druid; the Emperor becomes the Merlin;* Temperance becomes Equilibrium; the Devil becomes the Shadow; and Judgment becomes Rebirth. In this respect, the most explicitly Christian symbolism has been stripped from the deck and replaces with names and images that, though still true to the RWS, feel more Pagan or Celtic in nature. A second, more minor, Celtic overhaul is in renaming the Suits of Cups and Pentacles to Cauldrons and Shields. I’m never a huge fan of renaming things in Tarot, but it’s done with purpose here, and I think it works.
The other big Celtic move is not apparent just from looking at the cards, but requires a flip through the guidebook. Hughes writes that “The Minor Arcana court cards–the king, the queen, the knight, and the page–all represent the deific houses of the four major pantheons of Celtic gods”. I don’t know enough about Celtic mythology to be able to say whether this division into four pantheons is accurate (it looks a little forced to my untrained eye), but for anyone who’s wondering: Wands are connected to the House of Annwfn, Cauldrons to the House of Llŷr, Shields to the House of Dôn, and Swords to the House of Beli. Some of the cards are identified by the guidebook as explicit deities (the King of Cauldrons is Llŷr, the Page of Cauldrons is Branwen), while others (the entire Court of Wands) are left nameless.
While we’re on the subject of the Court Cards: The King of Cauldrons is naked (and prominently phallic), and I do question that creative choice. This deck doesn’t shy away from nudity, and generally it uses nude figures well, but the full monty didn’t make sense to me here. I’ll be the first to say that nudity in Tarot is not necessarily sexual, but with this particular card, it does seem jarringly erotic. To have the King of Cauldrons sexualized in that way and the King of Wands chastely wrapped up and facing to the side** was, I think, an odd choice. That decision may be rooted in some aspect of Celtic mythology I’m not familiar with, but there was no explanation for it in the LWB.
My favorite thing about this deck is its use of detail. I have already mentioned the subtle smattering of Celtic symbols through what is otherwise a straightforward RWS deck (check out the chalk hill on the Sun), but there’s more, as well. Small visual cues connect the cards to each other in interesting and meaningful ways. The Mother is holding a corn dolly that reappears in the Star. The same flame appears above the heads of the Fool, Death, and the Sun. All four Sevens feature an array of spectral figures in the background, who also appear on the Rebirth card. Discoveries like this are what make the Celtic Tarot a special deck, and show just how much thought and care went into its creation.
Finally, I would like to say a bit about the more esoteric aspects of the deck. The imagery of the cards is so clear (and so faithful to the RWS) that no esoteric background whatsoever is needed to read with this deck, but Hughes has also done a surprisingly good job of incorporating traditional esoteric symbolism and structure into the deck. The guidebook divides the Major Arcana into the septenaries, labelling them “Roots”, “Trunk”, and “Branches”. Each of the Majors is marked with the number of its corresponding path on the Tree of Life, and Hughes’s LWB nods to Kabbalistic tradition. The discs on the Ten of Shields are arranged in the shape of the Tree of Life. For someone who wants to use Kabbalah in their Tarot practice, this deck will provide them with what they need. It is perhaps especially well suited to people who are already familiar with exoteric Tarot and are just starting to delve into the Kabbalah.
I love this deck. I wasn’t expecting to, but I do. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s a lovely deck that perfectly dances the line between tradition and innovation, and I’m delighted to have added it to my collection.
*I’m a little confused as to why it’s the Merlin and not just Merlin.
**Although it is worth mentioning the distinctly phallic shape of the King of Wands’ throne, and of most other thrones we see in the deck. A nice touch, that.