Introduction D.N. Frost
It is a great pleasure to reintroduce D.N. Frost who has graciously agreed to provide another guest post about the rich symbolism of nature used in Celtic tarot cards. She is a talented fantasy author, cartographer, and world builder with a passion for Celtic mythology and traditions. I’ve had the privilege of working with her to create a map and world for my current project on Apollo’s Raven.
Welcome D. N. Frost! I encourage everyone to learn more about her ongoing projects on mapping and world-building and her epic saga Tales of the Known World which you can download electronically from her site.
Guest Post: D.N. Frost |Celtic Tarot Card Meaning | Apollo’s Raven
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Hello there! My name is D.N.Frost, and I’m the fantasy author, cartographer, and world-builder behind the epic saga Tales of the Known World. I love delving into the mythology and traditions of different cultures, and this guest post for Linnea Tanner was inspired by my love of Celtic mysticism. Enjoy!
The world of the ancient Celts is teemed with layers of meaning and symbols drawn from nature. Many of these assorted myths and traditions were amassed in detail by Anna Franklin, a well-known Celtic Pagan authority in the British Isles. One of her books accompanied a Celtic-themed tarot deck, and though tarot only dates back to the 15th century, the book and cards are steeped in ancient Celtic heritage.
This Celtic Tarot card depicts a Celtic shaman, alone in the forest with his familiar, the wolf.
Wearing deerskin, this shaman sits at his cauldron, beating his bodhran drum to call to the spirits. He brews a potion that helps him engage the spirit world, and a few of the potion’s ingredients surround him, notably the sacred herb vervain.
The path of the Celtic shaman was strongly tied to the land and the cycle of the seasons. By honoring the spirits of nature and learning their wisdom, a shaman sought to transform himself and expand his awareness. Conscious of the subtle connection between all things, Celtic shamans recognized the sacredness within everything, allowing them to form a bridge between the spirit world and the human world.
This shaman is shown brewing a sacred potion called the Cauldron of Ceridwen, which was believed to inspire eloquence and prophesy in those who drank it. This magic potion contained a number of ingredients, including rowan berries, sea foam, “Taliesin’s cresses, Gwion’s silver, flixweed, and vervain” picked on moonless nights (Franklin, 83). This potion was also used to create the Gwin or Bragwod drink used in sacred initiations, though the initiates drank it mixed with wine and barley meal.
The Celtic goddess Ceridwen is said to have captured the wisdom of the Three Realms in her potion. She charged the youth Gwion to keep the fire going beneath her cauldron, and one day he splashed three drops onto his finger. When he put his finger into his mouth to soothe the burn, Gwion instantly became one with the past, present, and future of all things. The knowledge frightened him, and Ceridwen decided to test his worthiness by appearing as a terrifying beast. Gwion fled, taking on the forms of different animal familiars, and these animal spirits helped him integrate his new knowledge. The goddess continued chasing him until Gwion took the form of a grain of wheat, and Ceridwen ate him. Nine months later, she gave birth to him as Taliesin, meaning “radiant brow.”
This legend of consumption and rebirth symbolized how shamanic initiates had to be absorbed into the womb of the goddess before emerging wiser and forever changed. The harvest festival of Samhain celebrated the two aspects of this divine womb, both the dormant seed that lies within, and the wisdom shared from the spirit world. This celebration used the herb vervain, an ingredient in Ceridwen’s potion and one of the most sacred herbs for the Celtic druids. Vervain was only gathered on moonless nights when the “dog star” Sirius was rising, and Celtic lore associates the wisdom of this herb with the wisdom of the wolf.
Ancient Celts viewed the wolf with awe and respect. Considered very wise, the wolf only chose to share its wisdom with certain people, and many shamans sought the wolf as their familiar. The wizard Merlin was said to have an old wolf companion during his years as a forest hermit. The white wolf Emhain Abhlac once met the druid Bobaran, who threw three rowan berries at the wolf, three into the air, and three into his own mouth to receive the wolf’s wisdom. The Gundestrup cauldron shows a wolf beside the horned god Cernunnos, and the goddess Brighid is often shown with a wolf nearby. The wolf was a totem guardian of Britain, and one of Brighid’s four sacred animals.
According to the ancient Celts, the winter quarter of the year was ruled by the wolf. Winter was a dead time, a time of purification while the earth rested in darkness and grew ready for the rebirth of spring. This period stretched from Samhain in October to the Imbolc festival in February, which celebrated the goddess Brighid with a giant feast. In ancient Gaelic, the month of February was known as Faoilleach, which can translate to “the wolf month,” “the storm month,” or “the month of bleak death.” For the Celtic shaman, the wolf taught about instincts and psychic intuition, as well as the cyclical powers of the moon. The wolf’s wisdom guided shamans to trust their inner voice and to seek their answers within.
This Celtic Tarot card depicts the warrior queen Boudicca of the equestrian Iceni people.
Boudicca led the Iceni tribe to fight the ancient Romans as they sought to conquer Britain. With woad spirals on her face, she cracks a whip from atop her chariot, drawn by one black horse and one white horse.
Horses were known as the chosen mounts of the gods, particularly the sun and moon deities. They symbolized the virility of the land itself, as well as strength and swiftness. The Iceni tribe derived their name from the word for horse, and Britain’s horse cults predate the arrival of the ancient Celts. Horses were shown on the earliest Celtic coins, and they were common god or totem creatures through the Iron Age and into the Bronze Age. For ancient Celts, horses represented the instinctive aspects of humanity, which often needed to be tamed and controlled. The horse’s master used the bit and bridle to control his horse, and this symbolized the intellect that tempered destructive impulses. While horses symbolized raw life-force, the reigns betokened the willpower and intelligence needed to harness this life-force effectively.
Fal, the Celtic god of horses and hounds, symbolized light within the darkness. In the cycle of the year, the northern quarter was called the Plain of Fal, associated with wisdom and truth. The Stone of Fal was the station of the yearly cycle connected with the winter solstice, when the midwinter sun was reborn. Ancient Celts believed this was when the horse goddess Rhiannon gave birth to her son. White horses represented the sun and were affiliated with the light of spring and summer. Like other white animals, white horses symbolized sky deities to the ancient Celts, while black animals were correlated with Underworld deities. Black horses, generally considered unlucky, were connected with the darkness of autumn and winter, as well as with the Underworld. They were an omen of death, symbolic of funerals and of chaos. A black horse was said to rule the twelve days of midwinter chaos between the old and new year.
Modern Celtic folklore still honors horses, and the horsing ceremonies of midwinter depict a play of death and resurrection. Also, May’s Beltane festival features the Hobby Horses of Padstow and Minehead. A black horse winds through town in a musical parade, and it falls to the ground whenever the music stops. Each time, the horse rises again when the music resumes, until the parade dies down at midnight. Then the sinister horse is considered truly dead, until it is born again in the fall.
This Celtic Tarot card depicts the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, England.
The hillsides of Britain are carved with many chalk horses, but this is the oldest carving, dating to around 1400 BCE. Sacred to both the ancient Celts and the earlier peoples of Britain, horses fostered the spread of Celtic civilization with their swiftness and strength.
Though ancient Celts carved the Uffington horse, the site was important to Britain’s Neolithic people. Well before the carving, the hill was part of a ley network said to harness dragon power. In fact, there is some dispute that the Uffington horse is really a dragon, since it looks down on Dragon Hill, where St. George allegedly slew a mighty dragon. It is said that nothing will grow where the dragon’s spilled blood poisoned the ground, and to this day there is a bare patch atop the hill. Near the head of the Uffington horse is a Bronze Age burial mound, and less than a mile away is a Neolithic burial chamber known as Wayland’s Smithy. There, legend has it, a magical blacksmith forged the shoes for the giant Uffington horse.
Ancient Celts believed that dead souls rode to the Underworld on horseback, and that horses carried living souls to and from the spirit world. Gods and shamans traveled through the axis mundi, or World Tree, and they tethered their horses to this tree before making the journey. Famously, the hero Conan traveled to the Otherworld on Aonbharr, the steed of the sea god Manannan. Aonbharr was said to make her rider invulnerable to any attack. According to Celtic lore, the white horse of the elf queen took Thomas the Rhymer to the land of the fairies, and Tam Lin stole a white horse to escape that fairy realm.
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- Anna Franklin, The Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
- Paul Mason, The Shaman; Mixed media illustration. Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
- Paul Mason, The Chariot; Mixed media illustration. Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
- Paul Mason, Diplomacy: The Seven of Swords; Mixed media illustration. Sacred Circle Tarot: A Celtic Pagan Journey; Llewellyn Publications, 2000.