In the 'immrama' have been preserved the tattered remnants of an oral Celtic 'book of the dead, which proclaimed that the mysteries of the world beyond death had been at least partially explored and the stations of the soul's pilgrimage charted.

— Alwyn & Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage, quoted by Caitlin Matthews


Caitlin Matthews has once again presented us with a well-researched, deeply inspiring and beautifully designed book to aid us on our spiritual path. I dove deeply into this book and divination system a month ago, and haven't surfaced yet. For those of us who are drawn to Celtic imagery and mythology, and who resonate to the image of the sea-voyage as a metaphor for a spiritual journey, this book is a treasure trove.


Like other Celtic scholars, Matthews believes the Celts had a rich tradition of death and dying similar to the Egyptians and Tibetans who produced Books of the Dead. These books were traditionally used to aid the dying in their process of readying themselves for death and the next plane of existence. Unfor­tunately the Celtic tradition was oral and no book was handed down to us. This didn't stop Matthews. She looked into ancient Celtic manuscripts for clues to their vision of the afterlife, particularly the collection of spiritual stories called immrama ("mystical voyages"). Drawing from the bardic tradition and using an immram called "The Voyage of Maelduin", she created a Celtic Book of the Dead.


The central image of this work is the sea-voyage. This can be the last voyage of a dying person, or it can be any of many journeys that we each make during our lives. "The voyage enacts the passing into the Other world, the testing of the soul,  the passage into and beyond death, and the empowerment of the spiritual quest. In Celtic tradition two factors are constant: the Otherworld lies across water; and the direction taken by the voyage is generally to the West." Matthews has prepared the Book of the Dead to act as a guide through the "perilous realms of otherworldly islands." Upon each island — de­picted on a card—challenges must be met, and strange beings and guardians encountered.


The book opens with the text of the immram "The Voyage of Maelduin," presented in prose and poetry with commen­tary. Then Matthews presents the meditative and divinatory meanings of each card, and instructions on reading the cards. The book closes with detailed chapters on meditating with the cards, shamanic journeying, and "soul-leading," or counsel­ing the dying, using these cards as a guide.


I have been using these cards daily now for over a month, choosing a card each morning in order to learn their meanings, and laying out a reading at least once a week. As an inveterate Tarot reader, I usually am not attracted to new systems of divination — it's too much trouble to learn a new language. But this one is different for me. The metaphor of the sea-voyage and the visits to different islandsa re just too seductive. The imagery of the cards leaps out at me, and as I read the meanings, the wisdom is always appropriate (o the occasion. Using these cards is like a combination of Tarot and I Ching; the imagery speaks to the right brain, and reading the com­mentary in the accompanying book speaks to the left brain.


Today I am alone in a house in the woods, on retreat for a week from my daily life and its challenges and stresses. This morning l pulled this card: "Island of Plenteous Salmon." The commentary reads: "The sustenance of the Otherworld nour­ishes Maelduin's company when they most need it. When we are in deepest need, the remedy often lies close to hand. Meaning: Rest. Respite. Recovery from struggle. A period of reflection. Challenge: Are you unable to relax? Allow yourself a respite when the going gets tough." Bam! The words went straight to the heart. I spent the day basking in the sun, listening to the rustle of leaves in the breeze, and looking into my heart. Rest. Respite. And recovery from struggle.


~review by Joanna Colbert

Author: Caitlin Matthews

St. Martin's Press 1992