The Cathar Tarot: The Secret Wisdom of the Perfecti by John Matthews and illustrated by Wil Kinghan was published back in 2016, designed to be a living “Book of Images” premised on Cathar and Gnostic principles. From there, the Keys of this remarkable tarot deck follow the Journey of the Grail.
The golden-toned card back design features the Cathar seal, also called the Cathar Cross, and an iconic symbol throughout the Languedoc region of France.
The Cathars were first recognized around the 11th century in northern Italy and western Germany, then later concentrated around southern France. After remaining active through the 12th century, they were pretty much wiped out of existence during the Albigensian Crusades of 1209 to 1229, as they were considered heretical.
Cathar, from the Greek katharoi, means “the pure,” though Cathars would have referred to themselves as Bonshommes, the Good Men, distinguishing themselves from the Roman Catholic Church.
Hence Key 0: The Fool card is renamed The Bonhomme– only one of pure intentions will prosper on this journey ahead. Key 1: The Magician, then, is The Parfait, or the Perfect. The Perfecti held the secret keys of wisdom and the mysteries of their faith. Sophia, or Lady Wisdom, is the High Priestess while The Empress and The Emperor are based on historical figures, Escalarmonde de Foix (1151 – 1215), meaning Light of the World in the Occitan language for The Empress and Raymond de Trencavel (1185 – 1209) for The Emperor.
The Hierophant card is, most intriguingly, Lucifer. Per Cathar belief, the God of the Old Testament was the God of Darkness while the God of the New Testament was the God of Light, and Jesus Christ was the first angel sovereign in the Paradise, with Paradise being the final destiny of all Good Men. Between the God of Darkness and the God of Light is Lucifer, an angel of heaven tricked by Satan (i.e., the Cathars distinguished Lucifer from Satan) to fall from heaven and to thus land on earth.
In the Cathar manuscripts, Lucifer is described as a way-shower, one who opens the gates of the four elements, an angel who is both good and evil, both of the Light and of the Darkness. The Devil card in this deck, Key 15, is The Demiurge. Cathars don’t believe that the world was created by God, but rather, by the Demiurge, a reflection of the Creator.
The familiar “fortune-telling” card meanings here are transformed into more exalted spiritual states of meaning, such as in The Chariot card, now Ascension. We typically think of The Chariot card in tarot as indicating movement laterally or progressively, but here, it’s upward movement, from the mere Credent to the Parfait. The imagery here in Key 7 shows a persecuted Cathar being released from the toils of human suffering and taken up to Paradise by the Dove of Heaven.
Key 8 in this deck is Justice, embodied by The Meloramentum, a ritual where one of the Perfecti prays over a Credent. The Hermit is the Grail Knight, and we’ve kept the Rota Fortunae of medieval philosophy in Key 10. The Strength card, Key 11, is the Cathar rite of The Convenenza, a ritual preparing a warrior for combat.
Like The Chariot card’s reinterpretation of mundane meanings into more exalted spiritual states, Key 12: The Hanged Man, here The Endura, signifies a suspension between life and death, a static point in your journey between heaven and earth.
I always see The Star, The Moon, and The Sun cards in the Majors as three connected panels, a triptych, and how a deck artist interprets these three cards is of particular fascination to me. Here, Key 17 is The World of Truth, Key 18 is The World of Shadows, and Key 19 is The World of Light. In Cathar tradition, the sun is known as the Weaver of Light.
And finally, The World card is the rite of The Consolamentum, a form of spiritual baptism. In the guidebook, the Majors are each given a full page spread, with a reproduction of the card image in full color.
Kinghan’s artwork in this deck feel like reenactments of medieval illuminated manuscripts. Stylistically I’m reminded of Kat Black’s Golden Tarot and Touchstone Tarot, though Black’s style is digital collage, while here I think the artwork in the Cathar Tarot is done via digital illustration. If you recall my walk-through of The Oracle of John Dee, that deck was also done by John Matthews and Wil Kinghan.
The Minor Arcana represent four aspects of Cathar beliefs, which were the foundation they built their lives and faith upon: Faith, Truth, Eros, and Sophia, or Gnosis. The above shows you a page spread from the companion guidebook of the Minor Arcana card meaning entries. The Minors consolidate the cards to fit four to each spread.
The Book of Shields (Suit of Wands) represents the strength of Faith. By the way, while the box is a beautiful matte finish, the cards are high-gloss, so you may see a bit of a glare in some of these photographs.
As for the actual graphic design layout of the card, it’s okay but not great. I don’t think the font type chosen for the key titles matches the style of the deck, there’s just a smidge too much space along the top margin, and the pixelation for a few of the illustrations is a bit blurry. These are all details that should have been tweaked during production, though, and isn’t the fault of the deck creators.
The Book of Swords (Suit of Swords) represents the sharp edge of Truth. In these close-up views of the cards, you can see how symbols for each of the suits appear in the corners of the card. In the Swords and Love suits, they’re at all four corners; for the Shields and Wisdom suits, only two corners. I don’t think I mind how these symbols for the suits appear in the corners, but I also don’t think I love it, especially since the key title is already written across the bottoms.
The Book of Love (Suit of Cups) represents both human and divine Eros. Eros is a form of passionate love, a Passion. Compare that to, say, agape love, philia love (a form of affinity and kinship and the opposite of phobia), or familial love.
There are also seasonal correspondences to the Four Books. The guidebook notes that the Book of Shields is associated with spring, the Book of Swords with summer, Book of Love with autumn, and Book of Wisdom with winter.
With the feature of the Grail on the Ace of Love, I’m just going to guess that the Book of Love corresponds with the suit of Cups. Book of Swords is suit of Swords.
The Book of Wisdom (Suit of Pentacles) represents the dedication to Sophia (Lady Wisdom) and the gnosis of the Cathars. From my impressions of the card meanings in the guidebook and the imagery, I need to get outside the RWS dogma and instead, understand the creator’s intentions for the four suits, or four Books, and then the key number follows its numerological associations. Three of Wisdom is manifestation of power by way of deepening inner awareness. Four of Wisdom brings security and success through the virtue of moderation and through generosity of spirit.
The pip cards in The Cathar Tarot are scenic, illustrating medieval-inspired art depicting the everyday lives of the historical Cathars. The four court titles are the Squire, Knight, Lady, and Lord. Divinatory interpretation with this deck are based firmly on traditional tarot symbolism, merged with the history and iconography of the Cathars.
The Cathars were vegetarian, pacifists, and held much healthier, balanced view of sexuality compared to their Catholic counterparts, i.e., they did not see sex outside of marriage to be sinful. So, for instance, you’ll see that in The Lovers card, or The Love Feast. We also see this in one of the four suits– the Book of Love and Eros or Passion as a value.
There is also much overlap between the views held by the Cathars and that of the Manichaeans, a religion from Persia that blended Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. It’s from the Cathars that later Gnosticism sprang. (Psst… there’s a chapter all on Manichaeism in the Revelation Edition Book of Maps.)
In the guidebook, Matthews teaches a way to interpret card readings, which I find immensely helpful: each card has its mood, quality or feel, and reflects an inner reality that you already know, so you can reach inward to retrieve that knowledge. As you sit in front of a card reading, seek contact with Nature by trying to fully understand and empathize with the quality of the imagery in front of you.
My copy of The Cathar Tarot is a treasured gift from John and Caitlin Matthews, who I had the great honor of meeting in London back in 2018.
If you’re wondering whether this deck and book set is a good investment, all the info in this post are sourced directly from the guidebook. So if you’re interested in learning more about the Cathars, their beliefs, rites and rituals, get The Cathar Tarot. Readings with this deck sing like liturgical music, and I’ve found it best suited for prayer-like readings and inner reflection.