I’m always looking for RWS-based tarot decks that I can recommend for beginners who aren’t visually ready for the original RWS, and I’ve found one: the Llewellyn Tarot by Anna-Marie Ferguson and published by Llewellyn Worldwide. This deck has climbed up to my top five recommended beginner tarot decks or, heck, anyone interested in the Wales and Welsh culture of the Middle Ages.
The deck comes with a really comprehensive 5″ x 8″ guidebook that does a good job introducing tarot to the beginner but also has so much traditional Welsh folklore and mythology that I found it to be an incredible read, and should be equally enlightening to any seasoned tarotist. The cards themselves are 3.125″ x 4.5″, with thick borders all around. I’ve seen many tarot readers trim their copy of this deck and I’ve got to say, it looks a lot better trimmed.
The soft watercolor paintings by Ferguson (of the Arthurian Tarot fame) transport the Rider-Waite-Smith imagery to medieval Wales, bringing to life Celtic legends, deities, and mythic figures. Although it is a distinctly different style from Kris Waldherr‘s art, something about Ferguson’s work here reminded me of the Goddess Tarot.
While the backs are not reversible, it’s a subtle difference that the tarot practitioner won’t notice unless you try to notice. So I’ll be reading with reversals for this deck. Yet in the companion book, Ferguson writes about reversals:
“Though fewer readers employ reversed interpretations of the cards, they appear in this book out of respect for the reader’s right to choose. I do not, however, advocate the use of reversed interpretations, believing the tarot to be a balanced system of positive and negative influences without turning cards upside down. Reversed cards are by their nature abhorrations, lacking the full-bodied message of the upright position and generally making for an unnecessarily vague, gloomy, disjointed reading.”
Thus, some of you may choose to not read with reversals when using the Llewellyn Tarot. In fact, a beginner just learning tarot who decides to go with the Llewellyn because that’s the deck she or he has connected with, I’d advise to not read with reversals, and honor the energy of the deck creator, Ferguson.
The card back design is beautiful. It’s an earthy, woody brown watercolor wash and a golden medallion at the center, inlaid with Celtic-inspired detailing and a red dragon. The red dragon is significant, as Wales is referred to as the “Land of the Red Dragon” (something I learned in the accompanying guidebook), and the red dragon is the national emblem of Wales.
The Major Arcana introduces a figure from Welsh culture to embody each of the 22 trumps. There’s Peredur for The Fool, also known as Percivale (meaning “pure fool”), a knight of the Round Table in Arthurian legend. Key II: The High Priestess is Ceridwen, “goddess of the witches” and giver of inspiration and knowledge. Ceridwen gives birth to two children who represent the polarities of light and dark, a daughter who exemplifies light and a son who exemplifies dark. Key III: The Empress is Rhiannon. (Of course.)
Key VIII: Strength is the heroic Twrch Trwyth. Key IX: The Hermit is Myrddin, said to be the pagan inspiration behind Merlin. Key XI: Justice is the Lady of the Fountain. And so on. You’ll also note here in the Strength card, the figure is battling a wild boar, not a lion. The depiction was to provide a Welsh substitute for the original imagery.
Also, thankfully, the accompanying guidebook with The Llewellyn Tarot has a pronunciation key. Based on how I read the pronunciation key, “Twrch Trwyth,” for instance, would be pronounced twerk trith.
The imagery from the Majors are drawn largely from the Visconti-Sforza trump cards, though you’ll note that here in the Llewellyn Tarot, Key 8 is Strength like the RWS and Key 11 is Justice.
Key 20 Judgement is associated with the legend of the sleepers. According to legend, King Arthur and his knights were brought to a cave and to this day remain asleep on their shields until the day when their country is need of them again. Thus, the card’s meaning is to hear the call of a new life, and resurrection.
Now here every RWS reader is going to nod at the familiarity of the imagery in the Llewellyn minors. Notes Ferguson, “The minor arcana of this deck follow the well-known scenes of the Rider-Waite cards and yet contain some of my imaginative details and are not a slave to the designs.” You’ll see her own imaginative details in many of the cards, and I’ll point out my favorites as we go along.
I love the added detail of the full moon in both the Four of Cups and Eight of Cups, reinforcing the sense of power, empowerment, manifestation, fertility, and harvest. I also like the stream between the figure in the Four of Cups and the three chalices. Sad that the figure with his back turned and walking stick disappeared from the Six of Cups. I really liked that symbolism in the RWS Six of Cups.
The coloring and hues in the suit of Swords is lovely. I love the purple tones here and the depiction of my signifier, the Queen of Swords. Interesting change to the Ten of Swords, where the swords are around her (a bit like the Eight of Swords) rather than stabbed into the figure as it is in the classic RWS Ten of Swords. Overall, there are also more feminine or female figures in the Llewellyn Tarot than in the traditional RWS, which I much appreciate.
I like that the juggling figure in the Two of Pentacles is a whole lot closer to the edge of the water in this deck than in the traditional imagery. The fruition in the Seven of Pentacles is now up, growing on a tree with apples, the fruit of knowledge, than in the bushes. Now there’s a figure companion alongside the original female figure in the Nine of Pentacles. Interesting addition.
The subtle detailing that Ferguson added into the RWS deck are beautiful. For example, the bee in the foreground of the Nine of Cups, which brings an additional dimension to the card, symbolic of productivity and pollination. The Ten of Cups shows the home and family at the end of the rainbow, rather than directly beneath it, which to me expresses the meaning of the Ten of Cups through a more pagan perspective than the “under the rainbow, promise from God” Abrahamic expression. Ferguson changed the Three of Pentacles a bit from traditional RWS imagery, but I like it. It adds to the pastoral essence of this deck.
The set comes with two instructional cards with spreads that pay homage to Wales and the founder of Llewellyn Worldwide. The accompanying guidebook instructs yet a third spread, the classic Celtic Cross.
So how well does the Llewellyn Tarot read? Very well, actually.
I’ll demonstrate with my typical go-to style of reading, which typically takes me 15-20 minutes when I’m being cognizant of time (because other people are in line waiting for readings or something) and up to 40 minutes when I’m taking my time with a client (or when the card counting part of this operation yields an exorbitant number of cards for the narrative, which happens from time to time).
I start by selecting the significator (signifier), which I’ve identified as the Queen of Swords. After shuffling (in a way that observes card reversals), I cut the deck into four piles per the First Operation and go fishing for the signifier.
Here she appears right away, in the first pile. Sometimes I’ll count how many cards in from the top-most card the signifier appears in that pile, and note that numerological significance. Here, I skipped that in the interest of time. That right-most pile corresponds with our physical plane, with Fire, and so here we’re focusing on issues relating to work/career, or maybe issues relating to body and health. We shall see. Either way, it’s in the seeker’s physical plane and is going to be evocative of Fire.
Also, sometimes I’ll note the top-most card of every pile that’s been turned over (while searching for the signifier’s pile) and read that to the seeker as expressing what he or she most needs to know about that corresponding quadrant of life. Here we have The Hermit reversed. For me, when I see The Hermit, a voice in me says, “Study yourself to gain knowledge. Then be the light that others follow.” When The Hermit appears in reverse, though, it means the seeker is not yet ready to take the helm, and greater self study is needed before the seeker proceeds on the matter.
Also, when the signifier itself appears in reverse, I see that as the seeker veering more toward an unproductive or negative path than toward one that is more in line with the seeker’s greater life purpose, so the double reversal here of both signifier and The Hermit is validating that a very strong, clear message is coming through. The signifier appearing in reverse is read by me as a warning signal, a red flag. When the signifier appears upright in this First Operation, it’s a positive validation.
I then set down the signifier and begin card counting, a technique I talk about in Holistic Tarot. With the Queen of Swords, who faces right, I would normally begin counting right-ward, and set the cards down clockwise, but here remember that the QoS appeared in reverse, so now in effect she faces left. Thus, I count left-ward, counter-clockwise, in the direction the reversed QoS faces. Since I’ve explained card counting elsewhere, I won’t go into detail on the process here.
The selected cards are pulled out of the circle and I simply draw them in the order that they appear starting with the signifier. Five cards were drawn from the card counting. I read these cards as a narrative, and not necessarily as a chronological narrative.
First, I note how the King of Pentacles, reversed and Key II: The High Priestess, reversed both hint at themes of duplicity, corruption, or deceit. More specifically, though, I see the King of Pentacles, reversed as indicative of short-sightedness and going for the immediate gratification, which echoes what the Two of Swords, reversed is saying, a message of hasty decision-making. Recall that the signifier appeared in the I pile, so all this relates to work in some way. [Yes, yes indeed. I’m nodding. I totally know what’s going on here.] Plus, I see maybe a family business, or a family dynasty of some sort, a family legacy that is coming into play– the Ten of Pentacles. The non-Earth cards in this string of cards are all in reverse, meaning their energies are weakened. Plus, even so, Earth cards dominate. So I’d tell me to pay attention to money, assets, finances, property.
I do like the card in the center, though, that seems to the fulcrum here. The Three of Pentacles is the card of the artist or craftsman. Long overdue recognition for my art or craft is coming. That is what balances out everything else that will be going on in my work/professional sector. At least that is what I get out of these cards.
Now, just to get a sense of how useful the companion guidebook is for a prospective tarot beginner, let’s look up each of the cards one by one in the companion guidebook.
I found much of what the guidebook has to say about card interpretation to align with my own approach. The card meaning sections are rather terse in the Minors, though it’s in the Majors that the guidebook shines. Will get to that later.
Here we get to one of the Majors, Key II: The High Priestess, or in the Llewellyn Tarot, The Priestess. Preceding each card entry is a quick yet comprehensive paragraph in italics describing the imagery on the tarot card.
The Priestess her corresponds with Ceridwen, an enchantress in medieval Welsh legend. Here the guidebook goes into a lengthy discussion about who Ceridwen is and how she relates to the Priestess card.
Now, continuing with my reading approach here, I then pair off the cards. Again, card pairing is explained in my book. Pairing off the cards explains cause and effect and further develops the “how” and “why” of the “what” that was given in the narrative. That’s why card pairing is important to me. We start diving deeper into what’s going on, and examining the elements here help.
Here the King of Pentacles and 10 of Pentacles are paired off, and in addition, offering another message to me. Short-sightedness or the need for immediate gratification is posing a threat to that family dynasty or legacy. Note the pairing off of the Earth cards, and the other remaining Earth card, the Three of Pentacles, is a loner. (We’ll get to that shortly.) The other pair is both 2s, Two of Swords and Key II, and both are reversed, showing ill-dignified energy. The hasty, irrational, or bias-based decision made relates to the Priestess in some way, and what she represents here. Maybe there’s lying, covering up, or deceit to mask the poor decision that was made. Someone is not utilizing her full intuitive and clairvoyant abilities here.
When there is an odd card out, as there is here in the 5-card narrative, I pay attention to that solo card. To me, it signifies the most important card in the narrative, the top note of the message here. That top note is positive. Creativity should be the focus. Craft should be the focus. Let everything else be moved to the periphery in the professional path.
For me, I found the Llewellyn Tarot delightfully easy to read with and when I get to a Major, I love looking it up in the guidebook to learn more about Welsh mythology.
I also love that the companion book comes with a glossary. It’s been so helpful.
The one thing I disliked about the deck–which has absolutely nothing to do with the deck at all–is the packaging. Llewellyn has done this for other decks, too, like the Mystical Cats Tarot, and I griped about this issue then as well. I don’t like the cardboard insert thingie that separates the deck and book. The deck never fits in that space, and so when I open up the box, the cards are all over the place.
So I ended up sewing my own drawstring tarot bag to go with the Llewellyn Tarot. The red cord even sort of matches the red dragon on the card backs.
There. Much better.
The deck copy I received of the Llewellyn Tarot is from its eighth printing, and I hope this deck will continue to stay in print. It’s a classic. Young tarot beginners will love learning the RWS system on this deck. As a seasoned tarot reader, I found the Llewellyn Tarot to be full of knowledge and the companion book an enlightening read. It’s a fantastic guidebook for introducing the tarot deck to beginners and yet is so rich with culture-specific content that everyone will learn something here. Ferguson truly is a gifted, talented scholar and the breadth and depth of her knowledge shows in this deck.
What a well done tarot deck. It’s ideal for beginners who find the original RWS or any of the esoteric decks a bit too jarring, and would make a great first tarot deck. It’s also a great collector’s item, given the themes here and the rich cultural imagery infused into the deck. I kind of wish this had been my first deck to learn on, and so now I’m thinking if in the future I find myself working with tarot students in their adolescence or young adult years who want to pick up tarot studies, this is the deck I’d choose for them.
FTC Disclosure: In accordance with Title 16 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Part 255, “Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising,” I received The Llewellyn Tarot from Llewellyn for prospective review. Everything I’ve said here is sincere and accurately reflects my opinion of the deck.