The Secret of the Tarot

In The Secret of the Tarot, Robert Swiryn shows how the Marseilles Tarot may have come to carry the story of the Cathars, a thirteenth century sect of religious heretics.

By Robert Swiryn · Book - 274 pages · Published by Pau Hana Publishing

Review by Bonnie Cehovet

The history of the Tarot is quite an interesting one, and one that is often traced by the imagery in the cards. In “The Secret of the Tarot”, Swiryn attempts to show that somewhere along the line the Marseilles Tarot (a specific style of Tarot that has its roots in early Italian decks) may have come to carry the story of the Cathars, a thirteenth century sect of religious heretics.

In his preface, Swiryn notes that in his opinion, the Marseilles Tarot carries what he terms a classical look, as opposed to more modern decks, which he feels have drifted away from historical authenticity. In his personal studies on medieval history, Swiryn began to recognize connections between historical characters and events of this time period and the images in the Tarot cards. He goes on to say that he feels that both the story of the Cathars, and their spiritual message, seemed to have found a place in the cards. The thesis he formed was that a person, or group of people, found a way to use the Tarot of Marseilles as an instructional vehicle to preserve the story of the Cathar persecution by the Roman Catholic Church and the King of France.

What Swiryn presents here is the story of the Cathars (a look at the Albigensian Crusade, the subsequent Inquisition and the fate of the Cathars), and the supposition that this story is concealed within the Marseilles Tarot imagery. The book is in two parts: the first part covers the history of the Cathars through the lens of the Roman Catholic church, the medieval Languedoc and the Counts of Toulouse, the Cathars themselves, the Albigensian Crusade and the development of the Tarot. The second part covers the twenty-two Major Arcana of the Tarot, and attempts to look at what the creators of the Marseilles Tarot had in mind when they designed their cards. Through the lens of historical context, Swiryn attempts to show the connection between the spiritual beliefs of the Cathars and the imagery in the deck.

A great deal of research has gone into this book. People familiar with the Tarot world will recognize names like Robert O’Neill, Stuart Kaplan, Michael Dummett, Paul Huson, and Alfred Douglas. The specific Marseilles Tarot that is used throughout this book is the Nicholas Conver deck. Other illustrations are used to show the symbols and imagery used during this time period, such as a stained glass of the Virgin Mary in Majesty from Notre Dame de Chartres, the bell tower at St. Sernin, and the martyrdom of St. Sernin. These are all reflective of the times that the Cathars lived in.

Would it have been possible for the story of the Cathars to be imbedded in the Marseilles Tarot? On the surface, yes. Cathars could have worked amongst the artisans that cut the wood blocks for the Tarot cards. Probable – no. And if the story of the Cathars was embedded in the cards, it may have been done after their time, by someone else, to simply keep their story alive.

In Part 2, where the cards are presented, the connections that Swiryn makes between the Cathars and the Marseilles Tarot images are, in my opinion, tenuous at best. Tenuous, but worth considering. In the Lovers he attempts to make the case that the imagery was significantly altered from older decks to give it new meaning.

For example, Swiryn surmises that just as the two figures Lovers card in the Visconti-Sforza Tarot are generally accepted to represent the two families, the three figures in the Lovers card of the Marseilles Tarot may point to historical figures within the Albigensian story. He posits that the third figure may represent the French Regent (Blanche of Castille), intervening between Raymond VII (the middle figure) and Beatrice (the younger woman on the right). Another theory presented here is that the Marseilles version of the Lovers was sometimes referred to as the Two Paths, with the figure on the left representing the institutional church, and the figure on the right representing Love.

There are many other instances of information that is offered from a slightly different viewpoint than is generally considered. At the least it is interesting, including the thought that if Cathar history has been encoded in the Marseilles Tarot, that it was done hundreds of years after the demise of the Cathars, perhaps by Cathar sympathizers that were involved in the printing of the decks.

“The Secret of the Tarot” is written on a level that makes it readily understood by all levels of Tarot student. Between the footnotes and the bibliography, it is easy to see where Swiryn is referencing his material, so that anyone interested in following up with studies of their own may do so. There is one minor glitch, in that Robert O’Neil’s e-book “Catharisn and the Tarot” was inadvertently left out of the bibliography, but it is acknowledged in Swiryn’s footnotes. For anyone interested in the history of the Cathars, in the Marseilles Tarot, or in Tarot history, this is a book that I would recommend. The ideas presented here may not be universally accepted, but they do offer food for thought.

© 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.

Review by gregory

The title of this book is nothing if not ambitious. The book itself is well written, barring a very few typos and index omissions, and one or two actual errors of fact (Kaplan, for instance, is in four volumes rather than three.) It makes for a “good read” in parts, at least. And the author certainly writes with passion – perhaps too much of it.

After a timeline of Cathar history, which is useful for reference while reading, we have a preface outlining how the author had become interested in the pictures in the Tarot of Marseilles and at the same time in the history of the Cathars. Already, in spite of occasional disclaimers, Swiryn is beginning to suggest that his theory is fact. He does point out that some authors have suggested a link – but fails to mention that none has seen that link as either incontrovertible or even probable. For instance, he quotes Alfred Douglas: “It has been suggested that the Tarot decks might have been produced by Cathars as a means of representing their doctrines pictorially to those who were illiterate” – but should perhaps have continued with the quotation: Douglas then adds “but the Tarot images do not reflect Catharist beliefs in detail. However, if the twenty-two cards of the Greater Arcana, the major trumps, are viewed in sequence – commencing with the unnumbered card the Fool and finishing with card XXI The World – they reveal the theme of Classical Gnosticism remarkably well.” Sadly this kind of carefully selective quotation does nothing to help Swiryn’s case.

A rundown on Cathar history occupies the next 60-odd pages and makes for a good read – plenty of religious politicking and gruesome punishments, along with a good dose of human interest. I am no historian, but from what I do know of the Cathars, this part of the book seems accurate enough. The brief chapter on the history of the Tarot does suggest that Swiryn is aware of the general disbelief surrounding his theory among Tarot historians of his. So to state – as he does and without qualification: “in The Lovers, Card VI, the two figures from the Italian deck are replaced by three figures from the Albigensian story…” (my italics) – seems to beg the question already. This is being presented as fact, not as a theory.

Similarly, in the introduction to the discussion of the individual cards, he adds some fancies of his own – the use of the three colours – red, blue and gold (yellow!) may not have been by chance; it may have been because they were the colours of the noble banners of Languedoc. Well, yes, just possibly they may – but isn’t it far more likely that it was because they were the three primary colours and the inks were probably cheaper and more easily available?

In the section considering the cards individually, Swiryn decides to take the Fool at the end of the series – which, of course, fits his Cathar theory better than Douglas’ suggestion, linking the cards to Gnosticism. Throughout the book, the primary references are to the Conver deck, which is at times significant. It would be tedious to discuss what Swiryn has to say about each card in detail – but this section – the bulk of the book – forces the cards into the parameters of the theory to such an extent that the main thesis becomes steadily less credible than if the author had adopted a rather lighter touch. A few examples follow.

With every card where this is possible, he has tied the figures to someone in Cathar history; where no such historical figure fits, he simply fails to say why he hasn’t indicated one.

The High Priestess holds an open book – which is “probably one of the heretical books of the time” – where does this idea come from? What is to say that it isn’t a Book of Hours, a Bible or even the historical equivalent of the local phone directory?

There are some glaring inconsistencies, too. The Empress is described as representing the Virgin Mary, but instead of bearing the baby Jesus on her lap, she bears the emperor’s shield – a substitution which “may be seen as a shift in the significance of the image of the son of God to the values represented by the phoenix on the Empress’ shield.” And we continue to the Emperor – whose shield bears “the dominant appearance of the eagle” – which doesn’t fit the phoenix on “his” shield as borne by the Empress. Most people would see the bird on both shields as an eagle, in any event.

And as for the Chariot: the initials V.T. on the Conver deck – the one Swiryn chose to use as his example – are seen as referring to the Vicomte de Toulouse – the title of Simon de Montfort, the scourge of the Cathars. Well – even if that were to hold up for this one exemplar, other Marseilles decks bear completely different initials – and in all other cases, these initials match the name of the printer. Most historians seem to agree that the V.T. also falls into this category, and refers to Veuve Toulon, the widow of Jean Toulon, who took over and carried on his business. In the Noblet deck, the initials on the Chariot are I.N. – Jean Noblet), Burdel has C.B. for Claude Burdel and Marteau’s S.M. for Saul (or Paul) Marteau. If the V.T. were to refer to de Montfort – why would it appear on just the one exemplar? If the whole Tarot of Marseilles tradition is to be tied to the Cathars, surely this would carry through all examples of the decks.

There is a most peculiar statement about the Virtues, which “are commonly found in different positions within the order of the major arcana.” Swiryn states that in the Tarot of Marseilles “the order of the Virtues is presented as Temperance, Justice and Force. Coincidentally, this is also the three-stage process which the Church took in its campaign to subdue heresy.” Equally coincidentally, it does not appear to be the order in which these cards are actually presented in the deck, which does nothing to support the argument.

The World as described is also puzzling. She is referred to as bearing a wand and a conch shell – the symbols of man and woman. Except for the apparent absence of the conch shell, at least in the image as printed in the book – and it isn’t easy to see in the Héron or the Lo Scarabeo reproductions, if indeed it is there at all. The deck that most clearly shows a shell is the Camoin reconstruction!. Other Marseilles decks – notably Burdel and Convos, show wands in both hands. Not a huge issue in terms of Catharism or otherwise, perhaps - but this does suggest, again the approach that seems to pervade this book – of seeing only what fits the author’s theory. It is all very forced, and loses much of its impact as a result. Are we to assume that only some Marseilles decks are supposed to be Cathar in origin ? Or is it that the author chooses to use the Conver as his example because it is the only one that can, even possibly be forced into the mould.

In his book Alfred Douglas quotes Pietro da San Chirico: “We have but little certainty who was the inventor, or who, in the first instance, developed the game, nor is that little confirmed by authority to be relied on. … were I asked, I should say that they ever were, and ever will be: and I am of the opinion that none of these found the cards, but that the cards found them.” The Cathars are fascinating to study, and it would be great fun to find out that they were indeed responsible for the creating of the Tarot of Marseilles. The idea that Death is unnumbered because it did not exist for the Cathars is a very pretty one. But so many cards bear images that are anathema to Cathar beliefs – Judgment, for instance: the Cathars were totally opposed to the doctrine of resurrection; it cannot be reconciled with their belief that Death did not exist. Yet the Judgment card is there, and shows the traditional view. The author’s constant determination to force the theory on to the cards makes even this Cathar fan feel – no, this isn’t right. There is no proof, anywhere, exactly where these cards came from. Most tarot historians agree that the Cathar connection is highly improbable. That isn’t to say it’s impossible – but nowhere in this book is there anything which will actually convince the reader otherwise.

What is perhaps most questionable here is that apart from a few “this is my theory” disclaimers, even the book’s title begs the question, and the section dealing with the individual cards reads very much as a stating of facts. Whatever else, there are no facts, and no theory – however appealing – should be presented as fact. In its failure to convince, the book was in a way peculiarly disappointing to one who would have liked to believe the theory. This book is a good read – but it cannot possibly be considered a significant contribution to tarot history, even in raising valid questions – primarily because of the way the material in it is presented. That’s a shame.

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