Author John Matthews writes a brief introduction to The Cathar Tarot, a new tarot deck that brings you to a personal journey of discovery the world of the Cathars.
The Cathar Tarot brings together two systems that at first seem far apart, but which in reality share a common ancestry and draw upon similar traditions.
The Cathars are one of the most enigmatic and fascinating spiritual groups to emerge from the Middle Ages. Branded heretics by the Church, their unorthodox beliefs can be seen today as forward-looking far beyond their time. Their gentle way of life and religious tolerance reflected an understanding of the links between Christianity and religions of the East, as well as of the true nature of humanity. Though their ultimate origins remain obscure, they are known to have inherited doctrines and beliefs from an ancient sect known as the Manicheans, who originated in Persia and were in turn based on the even older religion of Mazdanism. From these source sprang the later Classical belief system known as Gnosticism, which created symbolic references that are incorporated into The Cathar Tarot.
The Cathars rejected many of the beliefs of the Roman Church, stating instead their belief that the world has been created not by God but by a being known as the Demiurge, a reflection of the real Creator, who had made the world as a poor copy of humanity’s true home – an earthly paradise in which there was no fall, no expulsion from Eden, and no sin. This lead to a way of life radically different from the rest of the medieval world, a world where kindness, self-possession, and generosity of spirit ruled, while the greed, jealousy and violence of the orthodox western belief system was ignored.
The Cathars were mercilessly obliterated in a crusade launched against them in 1179 at the instigation of Pope Alexander III. Yet despite their eradication the ideas expressed by the sect remained embedded in Western consciousness and continue to fascinate us to this day.
Despite their eradication, the ideas expressed by the sect have remained embedded in Western consciousness and continue to fascinate us to this day. Their connection with the enigmatic archetype of the Holy Grail is as well established today as it was in the minds of their oppressors – to the extent that, during the siege of Montségur, their last stronghold, when one of their leaders put on silver armour and stood forth on the battlements, the crusading armies withdrew in the belief that ‘the Grail Knight’ had come to aid the beleaguered citadel.
Even today rumors continue to circulate of a treasure, far richer than mere gold or jewels, smuggled out of Montségur the night before the castle fell, and which was then taken across the mountains into Italy where it vanished from sight. Some have suggested that this was the Grail, or perhaps documents relating to Cathar beliefs. The truth may never be known – though there is still an active esoteric Order based in what was once Cathar country, which practices the same beliefs and bases much of its teaching around the mysteries of the Grail.
Tarot had not really begun to develop when the Cathars flourished, but we can see that many of the ideas they expressed flowed into the minds of the originators of the earliest decks, creating a parallel line of development that we can still see. The Cathar Tarot takes its starting point from the beliefs of these remarkable people and applies them to the ideas expressed in the system of tarot. In both are to be found similar ideas, and these are presented though the imagery of the cards, which draw upon medieval art from the time of the Cathars and the mysterious archetypes which lie behind both traditions.