Link to this Article: http://www.llewellyn.com/journal/article/1199

The Llewellyn Journal

The Welsh Roots of The Llewellyn Tarot

This article was written by Anna-Marie Ferguson
posted under Tarot

Even in the bright light of our modern age, the country of Wales retains its air of mystery. It is a land of green faery valleys, mist, mountain grandeur and standing stones. It has a turbulent history that has daring heroes, poignant art and many seers and saints. This is the home of the historical figure of Myrddin (whose life inspired the character Merlin), and Taliesin (the great bard of the Heroic Age whose poetry has survived over a thousand years).

Wales is also the birthplace of Llewellyn George, the founder of Llewellyn publishing. He was a brave soul who in his youth left south Wales for America, and in the early 1900s established Llewellyn Publications. With a century passed, the modern house of Llewellyn chose to commission a special project to serve as a flagship title and bear the name of Llewellyn. After careful consideration it was decided a tarot would be an appropriate “ship,” given its noble nature, broad appeal, and beauty in art. Furthermore, the tarot, whilst being a traditional deck, could draw upon the rich (but lesser known) Celtic mythology of Wales to illustrate its major arcana, and thus celebrate the Welsh roots of the publishing house. The archetypes and stories from the Welsh tradition bring further depth and detail by reinforcing the interpretation of the cards with vivid symbolic tales and characters. Wales lies on the western border of England, and yet it is a distinct country with an artistic heritage that has long been recognized (and raided) as a treasure of Celtic lore. From Tolkien’s animated trees that take to the battlefield to Harry Potter’s chessboard that comes to life, the Welsh tradition has supplied some rare gems of imagination to writers. Countless artists have also had a long love for the wild and remote landscape, and silky tales of water faeries, sunken cities, otherworldly encounters and lively individualistic heroes. Much of the Welsh medieval tradition has been lost in the breakdown of oral tradition over the ages, and the tailoring of a tarot was at times challenging in developing something concrete from the delicate remnants of a tale or shadowy figure of a god. Yet these remnants have a rare beauty—exquisite in evoking pagan mystery and the forest setting of a medieval world.

In my early 20s, I created Legend: the Arthurian Tarot, which drew upon the legend of King Arthur (a tradition that owes much to the Welsh). It is my deepest wish that in some small way my art may help preserve the lesser-known tales as “living legends.” As the success of Legend has taught me, the tarot deck is a most effective vehicle to this end. Given the interactive nature of the deck, the reader identifies and becomes intimate with the tales, and is rewarded in turn by the wisdom, example and framework of mythology that dramatizes our personal experience of life. When done with care and good faith, the marriage of the tarot and mythology can benefit both traditions. I had not anticipated creating a second tarot deck; in fact, I had declined many invitations. But with the opportunity to serve the Welsh legacy, and an unfailing delight in the imagery of the traditional tarot, I chose to board Llewellyn’s flagship!

The art of the major arcana alone took nearly three years to complete, preceded by research, musing, and walking Wales. The time to paint the cards of the major arcana as full paintings was a factor in the negotiation, and Llewellyn has been patient. The minor arcana are loosely based on the popular Rider-Waite imagery, thus having a simpler charm and making the deck suitable for beginners. The search for the compatible Welsh character or drama needed to illustrate the figures of the major arcana led me through differing branches of Welsh heritage. History is presented in the druidic and bardic figures of Myrddin (The Hermit), and Taliesin (The Hierophant). The Tower card draws on folklore with its story of the drowned town beneath the waters of Bala Lake, where the chimes of church bells are still said to be heard rising from its depths.

The source material can range from an epic myth to a single medieval poem as in the case of the young priestess seen as The Keeper of the Well, which illustrates the Temperance card. However, most of the legends and romances come from the famous collection of medieval tales known as the Mabinogion. Here we find great cycling myths known as The Four Branches. The Mabinogion also contains a selection of romances, an example of which would be “The Dream of Macen Wledig,” whose story is based on historical characters and serves for The Lovers card. Macen is the handsome and content emperor of Rome until he falls asleep beside a river and has a powerful dream, which enchants him with the vision of a woman and her clan in an unknown land. Once dangerously sickened with longing, he tries to find her—not knowing if she is even real flesh and blood. Years later his faith is rewarded, when, after following the signs of his dream, he arrives at her hall in Wales. He learns that her name is Elen (sometimes known as Helen of the Hosts). She later becomes his wife and a much-loved ruler in Britain.

To live within reach of the supernatural was natural instinct to the medieval Welsh. This mystic realism is, I feel, one of early Celtic literature’s most appealing qualities. It is not fantasy, but organic reality, seen on occasion through an imaginative, poetic lens—the same way we experience the tarot.


Please note that the use of Llewellyn Journal articles
is subject to certain Terms and Conditions