Book Review: “The Secret of The Tarot”

The Secret of the Tarot: How The Story of The Cathars Was Concealed in The Tarot of Marseilles
By Robert Swiryn
256 pp.; Pau Hana Publishing, 2010

9k=Students of Medieval history—and more relevantly here, students of esoteric or occult studies who have read such literary works as Holy Blood Holy Grail and The DaVinci Code—are well aware of the Cathars (sometimes known as the Albigenses), a hermetic Christian society centered in the south of France that preached a dualistic faith reminiscent of Zoroastrianism or early Christian gnosticism, and who were branded as heretics by the Vatican in the early 13th Century.

According to Cathar cosmology, as was the case with many gnostic sects, two Gods of creation existed—one of pure spirit and light, the other of pure flesh and darkness—and one of the missions of the true believer in Christ was the renunciation of the latter God and all his works. Because of this, they rejected the physical resurrection of Jesus, and they preached and practiced abstinence. While discouraging marriage, they welcomed women into positions of church leadership, and (not surprisingly) were actively persecuted for heresy by the newly-formed Dominican order. Holding out for 20 years against repeated assaults in and around their safe harbor of Toulouse, they were finally conquered in the year 1229, when nearly all of their written works were destroyed and their acolytes put to the torch.

As we are mostly reliant on the written works of their persecutors to define them and their works, the Cathars have teased Medieval historians and students of Christian hermeticism for centuries, and this fascination in turn has midwifed many volumes of speculative history (and outright fiction) about them. To the canon we can now add The Secret of The Tarot, a relatively new addition to the Tarot library, in which author Robert Swiryn argues that the images on the 22 Trumps Major of the Marseilles Tarot were inspired by the history of the Cathars, with the added implication that the cards themselves may possibly have been the handiwork of some Cathar fugitives who survived the extermination of 1229 and who used the symbolic images of the cards as theosophical “teaching tools” to pass on to future generations. Other Tarot scholars—Alfred Douglas and Arthur Waite among them—have posited a possible connection between the Cathars and the cards, but Sirwyn’s is the first book-length work to explore the subject in detail.

Being that his thesis is entirely speculative, with no known historical precedent, Sirwyn is on somewhat shaky ground when he attempts to draw analogies between certain of the cards (The Magician, The Hierophant) and actual historic figures who played prominent roles in the Cathar-Vatican conflict. Sirwyn’s text rings much truer when he discusses the theosophical significances of the cards as they may have related to the Cathar’s gnostic worldview, and anyone who is familiar with the basic tenets of kabbalistic Tarot will find themselves in familiar territory here. To his credit, Sirwyn has done his homework on the history, which is thoroughly footnoted and cross-referenced, so regardless of whether you buy into the premise of Cathar authorship of the cards, The Secret of The Tarot is an informative, if abbreviated, look at a turbulent time in the history of Christendom, and at a small sect of mystics whose teachings of individual salvation and renunciation of all wealth spawned the Inquisition that would plague the church for centuries and hasten the birth of Protestantism. At three-and-a-half stars out of five, it’s worth a weekend read.

Dante DiMatteo

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