his Tarot set, wonderfully illustrated by Linda and Roger Garland, was first published in 2005 and reissued with a new cover in 2008. A third edition is due in February 2018.
With the published cards comes a 64 page booklet explaining briefly why we chose dragons as the theme of our Tarot. It would have been good to say much more but there were practical limitations. However, on a website the only limit is the interest of your audience, so here you can read a fuller background to this pack. Feel free to
email in with any queries or suggestions.
he dragon in the West usually appears in a negative light as the jealous guardian of treasure hoards demanding regular tributes of juicy young virgins as the price for not devastating their neighbouring countryside. But that is far from being the whole story. Even in these tales the beast is usually credited with intelligence and the power of speech. It is not just some brutal monster like the Minotaur, a freak driven by wild animal lusts. If so, the dragon would hardly have come to be adopted, amongst many other examples, as an emblem of the Welsh people, surviving to this day on their national flag.
Behind the unfriendly tales in which the dragon serves largely as a test of valour for passing knights-errant lies an esoteric tradition of the beast embodying forces of nature that we barely understand. Though occasionally hostile, as when an Earth Dragon stirs and our cities crumble, or when Water Dragons release torrents from the sky, river or ocean there is no personal malice. Dragons simply operate by different laws that do not automatically have human interests at their heart. Understanding and bending to their laws is one path to wisdom.
That is the spirit in which we adopted dragons as the patrons of our Tarot because Tarot also operates by laws which lie slightly beyond our conscious grasp, lifting the veil on the hidden undercurrents of the world we inhabit.
Once chosen, dragons settled very comfortably into the Tarot, welcomed by their cousin who is to be found in most classic Tarot packs on the Wheel of Fortune card – the Cockatrice or Basilisk, also sometimes shown as an Egyptian Sphinx.
With its cockerel head and feet, dragon body and tail, and wings which could belong to either or both species, the cockatrice was anciently called King of the Serpents because it was the only creature all of them feared equally, from the lowliest grass snake to the mightiest Wyvern. Basilisks are supposed in Greek mythology to have been born from the eggs of poultry hatched by toads or serpents, and their direct gaze turned all other creatures to stone. All save its nemesis, the weasel, which was immune and eager to fight it to the death. So as King of the Serpents, the Cockatrice presides over the dragons of this Tarot in the Wheel of Fortune, ensuring they do not overstep their limits.
The next place a dragon surfaced in our Tarot was on the Tower card where you can see one destroying the tower on Glastonbury Tor, finishing off the work of its mediaeval forbear. In the 12th century a church dedicated to St Michael, the Biblical dragon-slayer, was built on top of the Tor, probably with stones from an earlier temple to the Earth Mother there. Such a dedication was common at holy sites across Britain connected with dragons and most of the churches still stand, but at Glastonbury the dragon fought back and on 11th September 1275 the earth shook and the church collapsed. It was rebuilt but the walls simply wouldn’t stay up and all that remains now is the tower built in 1360, after which Christianity settled for a truce and no further attempt at church-building was made on the sacred mound.
This story by association suggested the legend of the red and white dragons Merlin uncovered fighting in a subterranean pool below a tower that similarly kept collapsing in North Wales. Known as Dinas Emrys to this day in Merlin’s honour (Emrys being one of Merlin’s other names), the tower would not stay up until the dragons had been driven away by human sacrifice . . .
And these suggested the two bickering dragons on the Chariot card, which represent, like yin and yang, polar opposites such as male and female, light and dark, summer and winter, hot and cold (but not good and evil, which are quite different polar opposites). If they pull together the chariot flies to its destination but if their arguments get out of hand the chariot crashes. According to A.E Waite (Pictorial Key to the Tarot, 1911) these are sometimes shown on some early cards as two sphinxes, a device he adopted for his own famous pack.
Then on the World card there naturally surfaced the Worm Ouroboros, the Norse Midgard Serpent, encircling the globe and forever feeding off its own tail. It represents, among other things, the eternal self-renewal of nature. In the corners of the card are the dragons of the four philosophical Elements, each representing one of the suits of the Lesser Arcana.
Dragons are perfectly suited as guides to the Tarot. Because of the general hostility towards them in Christianity, it was left to alchemists and other fringe philosophers to record more positive and helpful attitudes. In the alchemists’ colourful speculations we meet the dragons of the four Elements, two male and two female, whose characteristics perfectly match those traditionally assigned to the four Tarot suits, which in turn correspond to the four primary Elements in astrology and most other ancient mystical philosophies.
The picture is not as clear as in China where dragons through most of history have been highly regarded and so beliefs about them have freely circulated and been built into popular everyday philosophies. But even outside alchemy dragons of the four elements have survived in legend and folklore here in the west.
Most famous and longest-lasting in the sense that many people still believe in them today are water-dragons in the form of sea serpents and lake monsters. Even believers no longer credit them with supernatural powers or human-friendly intelligence, but their persistence shows just how strong was the ancient belief in the reality of these creatures. In ancient legend they appear in their greater guises as, for example, Leviathan in the Bible, Typhon in ancient Egypt and Tiamat in Babylon. In lesser guises they appeared as a host of ‘worms’ or lindworms believed in Europe to dwell in almost every lake, river and stream, including the still famous Lambton Worm of Northumbria. In Germany Siegfried battled one in the Niebelungenlied near the town of Worms, and there are many other local legends of them causing rivers to flood and requiring some hero to come along and kill the creature before calm is restored.
Fire dragons or drakes range from the humble and very real salamander which baffled alchemists by its apparent birth in flames (a phenomenon resulting from their fondness for damp logs which, when thrown onto a fire causes them to exit as rapidly as possible), to the multi-headed dragon Typhon that Zeus overcame to seize the throne of heaven on Mt Olympus. He imprisoned it under Mt Etna where Hephaestos or Vulcan, god of fire and blacksmiths, set up his forge so he could learn of its secrets. To this day the dragon’s struggles to break free cause eruptions and devastation. In our Tarot the Fire Dragon appears in benevolent guise as the dragon of the sun, which of course is in its own fiery way as much the source of all life as the moistness of the earth and moon.
Earth dragons are the most common in Medieval tales, living in caves where they guard their treasure; but they have been greatly misunderstood because what they represent is simply the dormant abundance of the earth. It may not surrender its gold and jewels easily but there is no malice or greed involved, simply laws of nature.
Air dragons govern the weather and somehow are often blamed more for the bad weather than they are credited with the good. So in Romania bad storms are traditionally believed to be caused by evil wizards flying dragons (ismeju), and hurricanes are so-called after the Central American weather god Huracan who is often shown as a dragon.
Overall the dragons in this Tarot pack represent unconscious forces trying to break through into consciousness and the real world, which they attempt first of all through dreams, inspirations and fortune-telling media such as Tarot – until, if ignored they burst onto the stage of the real world in often devastating ways. These forces are not innately hostile at all, quite the opposite in fact. But the theory behind the ancient philosophies upon which Tarot is based is that any of them can become dangerous if not kept in balance with the rest.
The thing to remember about Tarot is that the cards do not in themselves either attract or fend off bad fortune. Like all true forms of divination they simply aim to uncover the hidden pattern of events that are most likely going to happen anyway; armed with which foresight the enquirer can hope to steer the outcome in the most positive possible direction.
Very rarely is any prediction completely inevitable. Occasionally, as when observing a large boulder rolling down an Alp, certain results of a situation are all too likely. Yet still, given warning, it is possible to minimise a disaster, or at least put oneself in the best possible position to survive it and cope with the aftermath. Free will is in no way diminished.