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Interview with Robert Swiryn

by Bonnie Cehovet

Robert Swiryn is the author of a stunning new book - “The Secret of the Tarot – How the Story of the Cathars Was Concealed in the Tarot of Marseilles”. His background includes a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religion from the University of Hawaii, and an avid personal interest in the imagery of the Tarot as a spiritual art form, and in medieval history.

In “The Secret of the Tarot”, Swiryn suggests that is entirely possible that the story of the heretical religious group, the Cathars, was concealed hundreds of years after their time in the imagery of the Marseilles Tarot.

I found the book to be very eye opening. While not agreeing with his hypothesis, I do feel that he has something to offer. While not proven, it is possible that Cathar sympathizers were involved in the printing of the Marseilles Tarot, and that they might have embedded Cathar history there.

Now I am going to turn the floor over to Robert.

BC: Robert, how did you become interested in the Tarot?

RS: I believe my interest began with the psychic fairs I attended as a child. I was always fascinated by the tarot readers. I wondered what the balance was between the psychic abilities of the reader and the inherent meaning of the cards. Did the tarot readers just use the cards as a medium, like a crystal ball, or did the cards have some sort of inherent message which the reader was trying to uncover? Later, I purchased a copy of the Marseilles deck by Conver, probably because it seems to have an “authentic” look to it. If there were specific meanings behind the symbols, then the cards to look at would be the older decks rather than the modern, new-age variations.

BC: How did you come to put medieval history and the imagery of the Tarot together?

RS: It happened by chance (if that's possible). As I was reading some books on the Crusades, the Templars and the Church (chiefly inspired by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code), a particular piece of history caught my interest. This concerned the persecution of the Cathars of Languedoc (now a part of Southern France), who were accused of heresy by the pope. Along with help from the French king, a crusade was launched against these people – The Albigensian Crusade – which lasted for 20 years, followed by more than a century of further persecution by the Inquisition. As I read about the events and characters, the images of the Marseilles tarot started to come into mind. Many of the cards seemed to reveal the story, just as it was recorded in history. In addition, some of the cards also appeared to contain a description of Cathar spiritual teachings.

BC: What is your aim with “The Secret of the Tarot”?

RS: What I'd like to do is to open up the discussion further about the possible connection of heresy, and more specifically, the Cathars, within the tarot. This theory has been proposed in the past. However, no one has gone to the point of actually describing the images of the cards in this context. I don't pretend to offer proof in the form of a smoking gun, but I hope to present enough pieces of the puzzle so that people can perhaps get a sense of what the picture may look like - and perhaps give people a different way of looking at the cards. Part of putting this theory out there again is to be able to answer some of the objections and concerns which have been brought up by others.

Robert O'Neill, for example, has published an essay on Catharism and the tarot in which he presents several arguments against the idea that Cathars would have been involved in the tarot. I have tried to address most of these in my book.

Other tarot scholars question the fact that we don't seem to see a clear expression of “heretical” imagery in the cards. In fact, many of the cards seem to reflect traditional images of orthodox Christianity. I think it's important to keep in mind that the Cathars were not some pagan cult, but rather considered themselves true Christians, while referring to Rome as the false Church. They were not trying to practice a new religion with their own set of imagery, but rather believed they were following a more accurate form of Christianity as it was handed down to them over the centuries. Therefore, it would appear to me that there would be no inconsistency in their use of “traditional” Christian symbolism and images as they appear in the tarot.

BC: Can you tell us a bit about the importance of the Cathars in medieval history?

RS: The Cathars were a group of Christians who adopted an Eastern form of Christianity from the Bogomil tradition. In the 12th century, bishop Nicetas traveled from Bulgaria through Italy, and brought the tradition to Languedoc, where the Cathars flourished. One of their basic beliefs was in dualism, a theology which says that there are actually two gods: one good God, who created the spiritual world, and one bad god, the Devil, who created the material world, which is evil. This answered the question of why an all powerful God could have allowed evil to exist. The Cathar thus saw the dual nature of man as a spirit which was imprisoned in a material body. Only after death would he be able to reunite with his maker. This, along with other differences in how rituals were to be conducted and the need for a church or the priesthood, labeled them as heretics.

Attempts to bring these people back into the orthodox flock through preaching failed. Finally, in 1209, after the murder of one of the pope's delegates, Innocent III convinced the King of France to send an army of crusaders, along with the usual blessings of the Church, to wipe out these heretics. What followed was 20 years of brutal warfare, followed by over a century of persecution by the Inquisition. Some historians figured over one million casualties on both sides. In some cases, there was indiscriminate slaughter of both heretics and Christians, in which every man, woman and child was put to death. It is generally accepted that the Cathars were wiped out. However, there is evidence of many fugitives making their way to areas like northern Italy, where they would have been sheltered by other heretical sects such as the Spiritual Franciscans and the Umiliati, and perhaps by anti-papal families like the Visconti of Milan.

BC: Why do you feel that the Court Cards may represent actual figures from the Albigensian campaign?

RS: The important point to maintain here is that something of this magnitude, which affected the lives of so many people, could not have easily perished from memory, any easier than the holocaust in Germany will soon fade from the consciousness of the Jewish culture. What was necessary was to find a way to preserve the story in a covert, underground means of communication, as any appearance of sympathizing with heretics or their ideas could prove to be fatal.

I believe that the “spirit” of the Cathars could have served as an inspiration to others who followed in the rebellion against the Church, culminating in the Protestant movement in the 16th century. By that time, after the French invasion of Milan at the end of the 15th century, the tarot had been introduced to France. As would be expected, it probably changed to adapt to the new culture and its historical mythology. No longer were the symbols of the Visconti-Sforza court necessary or important. There would be a new “localized” theme to the cards in order to make them acceptable to the French public. It would seem only reasonable to me that such a significant event as the Albigensian Crusade would enter into the picture.

BC: It is through the imagery in the deck that you build a connection to history. Talk for a moment about the imagery in the Popess.

RS: Some people have made a connection between the Popess and sister Manfreda Visconti, who was burned as a heretic in 1300. This may have been one of the first attempts to introduce a heretical image to the deck. If this was the case, then why would the creators of the tarot have used such a reference in an otherwise “orthodox” set of symbols? This leads me to believe that the other seemingly orthodox images can actually be seen from the point of view of the Cathars as easily as they could be taken in their traditional sense.

Of course, if we don't accept the idea of the Popess representing Manfreda, then we must still ask ourselves why one would want to place a female pope in the deck in the first place. To me, it has a clearly anti-papal message.

BC: How would you describe the imagery in the Death card?

RS: When I look at the Death card, I see images of some of the horrors of the battles during the Albigensian Crusade. In one instance, the Count of Toulouse, in retaliation for earlier abuses, cut off the hands and feet of his prisoners. It may not be coincidental that we see these same body parts strewn about on the card. And in the town of Minerve, the locals had their eyes put out and their ears, noses and upper lips cut off – gruesomely similar in appearance to the strange way that the figure of Death has been portrayed.

BC: How would you describe the placing of Temperance (a cardinal virtue) in the Marseilles Tarot?

RS: Temperance is found between Death and The Devil. Perhaps at this point, after the horrors of the Albigensian Crusade, a card is needed to “temper” the hostilities of the people of Languedoc. It also serves as a connection of sorts to the next card, The Devil, who, in the philosophical understanding of the Cathars, is the god of the material world. In Temperance, we see an angel pouring some mystical substance (notice it is not pouring straight down as it would be if held by gravity) from one vessel to another. This could be representative of the concept of the spirit being transferred from one body to another, a part of the Cathar belief in reincarnation or transmigration of souls. In a way, it is saying that, although there is much evil in the world and the body can be killed, the spirit survives.

BC: What would you like people to take away from “The Secret of the Tarot”?

RS: Maybe, that they were able to see something in the cards which they hadn't seen before – to look at them in a different way. Maybe, that they were able to learn something about the Cathars and this particular period of history. And that this story could be told in the images of the tarot.

I would like to thank Robert for being willing to present his ideas in this book, and for taking the time to discuss them with us.

© Bonnie Cehovet

Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.

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