Celtic Myth Playing Cards
It has been our great pleasure to develop a custom Bicycle® playing card deck celebrating the rich Celtic pantheon of mythological Gods, Goddesses, and heroes. Below you will find information explaining who these characters are and how they found themselves a part of the deck.
The suit of spades is based on the Sword of Nuadha, sometimes conflated with the Chaidheamh Soluis (Sword of Light). In at least one source it is also referred to as a 'candle' or fire-brand. This sword was brought from the Otherwordly city of Finnias where the poet-sage Uiscias presided. Like Lugh's spear, it was unstoppable in battle and is probably connected somehow with Caledfwlch, the legionary Welsh sword that would eventually become Excalibur, the gift of the Lady of the Lake. Since the name Uiscias seems to be related to 'uisce' (water) there could be a dim parallel with that more familiar sword. There is also a vast array of mythological associations with water as paralleling mantic knowledge, brewed in otherworldly cauldrons and flowing in streams through tradition-bearers.
Nuadha and Breass are the two proto-typical kings of Gaelic tradition, but while Nuadha represents good kingship, Breass represents the bad. Their weapons reflect this, Nuadha with his sword and Breass with his spears. This contrast of weapons could be considered iconic of the difference between inherent discernment, represented by the sword, and learned skill, represented by the spears. Skill is important, even central, but without inherent discernment is ultimately destructive. This card thus contrasts the two through the colours of their respective cloaks. Green and red, now associated with the Yuletide and its iconic holly tree, were associated with the world of the Sídh in the Gaelic Middle Ages, emblematic of the relationship between the two worlds and eternal opposites like life and death.
Tailtiu and Earnmbás are two shadowy figures from Gaelic myth. Both are only known from passages in the Gaelic mythological compendium Lebor Gabála hÉrenn (the Book of the Invasions of Ireland). 'Earnmbás' means 'Death-by-Iron' and her marriage to Dealbháeth, meaning 'Well-Taken-Oath' results in many of the gods and goddesses that are more wellknown, most notably the sovereignty goddesses, Fodla, Eriú and Banbha. Tailtiu, as a goddess associated with the harvest festival of Lughnasadh, had more cultic than mythic significance, but she was said to have been the foster-mother of Lugh, High King of the Tuatha Dé. Thus both goddesses were closely associated with kingship through the action of cutting: Earnmbás through battle and Tailtiu through the harvest.
This card shows two great but little-known characters from early Irish tradition: Niall Noígeallach and Cú Roí mac Dáire. These two represent reflections of how personal heroism manifests in society. Cú Roí was a strange, sorcerer-like figure who lived in a rotating fortress, while Niall Noígeallach was the namesake of all who have the surname O'Neill. A legendary king, Niall Noígiallach secured the high kingship of Ireland for his descendants while Cú Roí judged a mythical competition between Ireland's three greatest warriors: Cú Chulainn, Loegaire Buadhach and Conall Cearnach. Each manifests a very Gaelic conception of heroism that privileges insight, courage, and the necessity of living in right relationship with the Wild.
There is no more iconic or pervasive symbol of Celtic culture than the cauldron. In Gaelic mythology, the cauldron of the Dagdae was a cauldron of plenty from which no host or company went unsatisfied. It was brought from the city of Muirias, a name most likely derived from the word muir meaning the sea, where the poet-sage Seimias presided. His name seems related to the word seimh, meaning something riveted as cauldrons were riveted and the bronze-smith of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Creidne Ceard, was said to have worked in seimheann, riveted goods. In the wider mythology, the cauldron of plenty was also a cauldron of testing that could give supernatural knowledge, as in the stories of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and Taliesin. It is mentioned in the Welsh poem Peiddeu Annwfyn as the goal of a raid led by King Arthur himself, and an echo of it survives in the cauldron in Llassar Llaes in the Mabinogion, the basis for Lloyd Alexander’s eponymous Black Cauldron.
The King of Hearts shows Eochu Ollathair opposite Manannán mac Lír. These two figures are perhaps the most mysterious of the Tuatha Dé Danann, despite the fact that they seem to be the most transparent. Known as the ‘Good God’ ( Dagdae ), Eochu was also called Ruadh Rofheassa, meaning 'the Ruddy one of Great Knowledge.' Both terms seem to indicate the benefits of his cauldron in terms of abundance and inspiration, so this card shows the animals associated with the Gaelic domestic landscape: the boar, hound, horse and bull, along with the swan and wren. The sea-going swan is particularly appropriate for Manannán, as is the cauldron which factors centrally in one of the many tales about the sea-god who enticed the king, Cormac Ua Cuinn, into the world of the Tuatha Dé to teach him a lesson in good kingship.
This card presents four of the most well-known figures in early Irish mythology. Brighid, who was translated into St. Brigit (Anglicized as St. Bride), enjoyed one of the most widespread cults of any ladies of the Tuatha Dé Danann and is presumed to be related to the British and Gaulish goddess Brigantia. Brighid is continually associated with fire and water, the two combining in the image of the cauldron as the otherworldly source of divine, poetic inspiration. This association with the cauldron also extends to the three sovereignty goddesses — Fodla, Banbha, and Ériu — who each represented the land itself and would offer the cup of kingship to the High King when he entered into a sacred marriage with them. The last of these gave her name to Ireland as the Land of Ériu (Ériu-land).
Cormac mac Airt and Fionn mac Cumhaill were two of the most beloved figures of early Gaelic mythology during the medieval period. Cormac, as the grandson of Conn Céadchathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles) was thus also the ancestor of Niall Noígeallach and many powerful Gaelic lords during the Middle Ages. Even the Lords of the Isles in Scotland traced their lineage to him. Fionn still survives in Scotland as a kind of Gaelic Arthur, sleeping under the earth to be awakened in its hour of need. Both represent idealized kingship as a heroic leadership inspired by the divine character of the Wild, fíadh in Old Irish, which in the Middle Ages also carried connotations of honour, abundance, and the guest-host relationship.
From the city of Goirias, presided over by the poet-sage, Esras, came the spear of Lugh which, like the sword of Nuadha, was irresistible in battle. The spear went further, however, because while the sword would win the combat, the spear would win the battle. It was thus the weapon of a skilled war-leader. Spears and swords together formed the core of the Gaelic warrior’s complement of weapons, his gaisceadh (mod. Ir. gaisce). There is also a suggestion that the spear took more skill to use as Lugh is the master of all skills. This is emphasized by the poetsage’s name, Esras, which seems taken from the word esraiss meaning an outlet, passage, or opportunity.
Lugh and Balor fought their iconic battle in the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, when the Tuatha Dé Danann won their freedom from the oppressive overlordship of the Fomorians. Called ildánach for his mastery of every skill, Lugh possessed an unstoppable spear, the pattern for the suit of clubs, but it was a stone from his sling that destroyed Balor's single poisonous eye. This eye was so monstrous that its lid required four men to lift it with a chain and pulley system. Understanding the Fomorians as symbolizing the chaotic powers of fertility and magic and the Tuatha Dé Danann as symbolic of the powers of social cohesion, the battle between Lugh and Balor becomes a moment of triumph by aesthetic intelligence over overwhelming darkness.
Often described as the war goddesses of the Tuatha Dé Danann, these four figures are as enigmatic as they are prevalent in the mythology. The Neamhain inspires madness and battle-fury, usually appearing as a horrific apparition above battles, while Macha lends her name to Emhain Macha, the royal seat of Ulster. At times, Bodhbh and Morríoghan seem to be more descriptive titles, the former referring to crows or women who could foresee the future and the latter referring to phantom women, the banshees. The image here suggests that each of these women represent manifestations of a common Celtic mythic reality tied to battle and mantic knowledge and resonant with the sovereignty goddesses found in the suit of hearts. The Neamhain's partial death's-head emphasizes her bridging of the boundary between this world and the next, her hair spiraling around her in trance-like whorls.
Fergus and Cú Chulainn are as tragic as they are heroic. Fergus was tricked out of his kingship of the Ulstermen while Cú Chulainn mistakenly kills his only son. Bound through fosterage, Fergus raising Cú Chulainn to adulthood, they find themselves on opposing sides of the Táin Bó Cuailgne (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), Fergus warning Cú Chulainn that his own foster-brother, Fear Diaidh, was coming to the fight. In loneliness and despair after killing Fear Diaidh and wounded terribly by the hosts of Connacht, Cú Chulainn succumbs to his ríastarthae (warp-spasm). This card places the two figures at odds, underscoring the tragedy of war represented in the suit of clubs.
The Lia Fáil or 'Stone of Destiny' as it is sometimes styled, was said to have shouted beneath the true High King of Ireland. The same idea informed the Stone of Scone which was used in the crowning of the Scottish Kings. In Gaelic culture, kingship had an almost priest-like function in that the king was thought to marry the goddess of the land, securing abundance for his people through the fertility of their union. This abundance was understood in highly economic terms, and the basic requirements for being a member of the aristocracy was in being able to maintain a certain amount of wealth manifested in animals, primarily cattle, and dependents. Morfessa, the poet-sage whose name means 'great-knowledge', presided over the city of Falias where it originated, suggesting a connection between knowledge and the recognition of kingship by the learned classes.
Midhir and Dealbháeth represent those faculties and forces that make society possible: Midhir's purview being contractual agreements and Dealbháeth's being the well-taken and thus wellfulfilled oath. Far from suggesting the legalistic, almost bureaucratic functions of modern society, these two figures are deeply involved with deeply intimate emotions, as every contractual agreement carried with it the kind of emotional resonances that modern marriage does. The term for an agreement or contract in Classical Gaelic was cairdeas , the same word as friendship and which could be applied to the cohabitation of marriage as much to the mutually beneficial treaty held by two communities or friendship as the modern word implies. The knotwork of this suit, simple in its conception but intricate in execution, is meant to underscore the close bonds that cairdeas creates.
Among the Tuatha Dé Danann, Etaín and Danu are perhaps the most iconic of the less wellknown ladies. Etaín, as the wife of Midhir and representative of the moon, appears as the prototypical queen: beautiful, gracious, clever and with the power to heal. Like the moon, she is ever changing her form, and as a queen she manifests an unceasing fecundity. Danu, on the other hand, has almost no overt role in the mythology, but her name is preserved in the very name of the Sídh: the Tuatha Dé Danann, meaning ‘the People of the Goddess Danu.’ As such, she is often related to Áine just as her name is connected etymologically with those Celtic goddesses who gave their names to the Danube, Dniepr, and Don rivers. This card thus represents the feminine sovereignty of the Tuatha Dé themselves.
The Jack of Diamonds presents two figures intimately related to wealth as it is manifested in society. On one side is the Bodhbh Dearg. The word bodhbh when used on its own refers to a crow, the war goddess Bodhbh, or any scary old woman who can see the future, but the name Bodhbh Dearg (the Red Bodhbh) is the name of a beautiful young lord of the Tuatha Dé Danann who presides over their youthful warriors and offers gifts of gold to the worthy. Eochu Airemh, on the other hand, was a legendary king who entered into an agreement with Midhir, the most preeminent of the Tuatha Dé, and thereby secured abundance and wealth for his people by bringing them into right relationship with the forces of the divine in nature.
The Joker shows a monstrous boggart, related etymologically to the Welsh bwci and the Irish púca, wearing the traditional Gaelic clothing of sixteenth century warriors while juggling nine objects. In our asymmetrical deck these are nine swords, recalling the feats mentioned in many tales of warriors juggling their weapons. In our symmetrical deck, these include the four suits, the Ceathair Seoda na Tuatha Dé Danann: four treasures of the ancient Celtic gods. The word seoid meant more than just a precious item in the old language, though. It also meant a path or way of life. The Ceathair Seoda can thus stand as icons of the different kinds of activity or even profession: the cauldron of knowledge and inspiration, the sword of leadership, the spear of warriorhood, and the stone of abundant authority.