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Reflections on 'The Secret of the Tarot' by Robert Swiryn

Having received a copy of Robert’s book last week, I took it along whilst camping for a few days.

I have to admit that the subtitle had me a little concerned: ‘How the story of the Cathars was concealed in the Tarot of Marseilles’. This seems to be a claim that periodically raises its head, only to be deemed to be rather unfounded with closer examination. My personal concerns were further raised when, looking through the Bibliography, Robert O’Neill’s Catharism and the Tarot was not listed (though I might as well also note here that this proved to be an omission in the list, as the book is in fact referred to in footnote 82 – an easy enough oversight).

So… what’s my overall impression before getting into more nitty-gritty?

It’s a book that would better have been titled and sub-titled something like:

Catharism in the Tarot: how the story of the Cathars may be seen to be reflected in the Tarot of Marseilles

This would better give, in my personal view, greater weight to the content of the book.

part I

The book itself is divided into two parts, the first of which, about a third of the book, deals more with the story of late Catharism as a recounting of the horrid tales in such wonderful books as Zoe Oldenbourgh’s Massacre at Montségur and Rene Weiss’s The Yellow Cross (amongst others used by Robert Swiryn).

Having read these and other books on the destruction of the Cathars, it certainly leaves one with a bad taste as to the inexcusable activities of the Papacy of the times and, indeed, the horrendous establishment of the Dominicans (fortunately, they appear to have had a change of heart over the centuries since – but forgiveness for those acts, and the confiscation of those lands, remains, for many of us, an ongoing festering wound in the Roman Catholic Church).

Reading this first section also calls to my mind the Cathar tracks we walked (and those longer ones we had planned but never walked) in the Pyrénées; our climb to Montségur; our visit to Montailou on the plateaux high up in the mountains; the numerous small churches that, to my eyes at any rate, call to mind that here was possibly another building that perhaps once was a Cathar building, or at least predominantly frequented by crypto-Cathars (I’ll return to that concept in a little while). As I looked for an image or two to add in this post, it also reminded me that it was pre-digital photography when I last visited! (how times change quickly).

The story is definitely one that needs to be better known outside those of us with a specific interest and/or connection to the area and the spiritual tidings carried through the centuries.

part II

The second part of the book goes through the trumps from the Bateleur through to the Fou, seeking to find a Cathar story reflected therein.

Does Robert manage to do this?

In part, I personally consider that he does – but perhaps not in the full sense that he would like: what he reminds us is that following the progressive destruction of the heretical groups, many found refuge in various parts within regions, including, importantly, the Piedmontese area (not named as such in the book, but rather referred to – and fairly – as the northern Italian area). He also reminds us that this region was not only home to various heresies, but that Cathars therein existed, that connections to the Pyrénées Cathar also existed, and that there were political distances between, for example, the Viscontis and the Papacy.

All in all, it is highly probable that the artists who worked on either the hand-painted decks for the wealthy, or worked on the woodcarvings that eventually became what we now call the ‘Marseille’, may have had amongst their number those who were rather positive towards some of the heresies, or at least towards heretics, and also held rather negative views of the Church and especially its bureaucratic and administrative hierarchy. We should, of course, also recall that, irrespective of the Church’s view of the Cathars, these latter were principally and fundamentally Christian – albeit with dualistic notions.

In his book, Robert painting some characters therein as specific historical figures seems often far-fetched: reminiscent of trying to find instances that can support the model: for example, relating the lion on the Strength card (ie, XI – Force) to Montfort’ heraldic emblem (though I realise that Robert says far more than that when mentioning the card).

Looking through the cards and seeing how they can lead us into the historical period and region certainly provides a means to make this journey, as well as lead into insights into other ways of thinking. In that sense, the book is wonderful. I remain totally unconvinced, however, that the images were ‘altered’ by crypto-Cathars to remind them and maintain a historical record of the period.

a few errors

I would not do justice to this entry if I did not also note a few errors (which are of course inevitable in any book).

I’ve already mentioned the oversight of listing O’Neill’s on Catharism and the Tarot otherwise referred to in footnote 82. The only reason I mention this is to alert the otherwise critical reader that Robert is not only aware of the book, but has used it in the preparation of the manuscript.

On page 18 (and elsewhere), Robert mentions that images of Jesus are ‘clearly missing from the tarot’. I beg to differ. Certainly, in the version of the Marseille he chooses (ie, the Conver which is a TdM-type II deck), the World-card is feminine, seemingly precluding this being a representation of Christ in Majesty. TdM-type-I decks, however, (such as the Dodal), display the central figure as masculine, with a more than likely referent to the image as indeed that of Christ.

When on the same page (and a little later), Robert claims that ‘when the purpose required changes, some images were borrowed from other sources’, I personally find the evidence presented as rather weak (which, of course, could be argued to be precisely what those who made the changes would want!). For example, that there is a third person in the Lovers, or that there are two individuals in the Sun, or that animals (canines?) are on the Moon, can all be very easily accounted for in terms of other factors: if the Lovers depicts marriage, then one of the common images from the period includes the couple and the celebrant; the Sun above ‘Gemini’ is not that strange – especially if taken in the context of a walled paradisiacal garden; and canines below the Moon in the presentation of the overall image as Cancer is similarly acceptable. That there remains questions as to why the two towers in the Moon card, or indeed the two animals, does not really seem to be solved by Robert’s proposals.

Crypto-Cathars undoubtedly existed (after all, if crypto-Jews existed in those regions, it is very likely that other persecuted groups similarly continued). Again, they indeed may very well have had a small influence in the production, and hence design, of either individual or groups of cards. But I cannot see evidence for more than that – so on page 19, when Robert writes that ‘what is important to discover, is whether a preponderance of the evidence will provide enough support for us to reach a reasonable conclusion as to their content and voice’, I have to admit that we’ll have to disagree as to whether the evidence presented leads to the conclusion Robert assumes throughout the book (and of course, ‘assumes’ due to his being lead to that conclusion from the evidence he sees and deems of greater weight and import than I do – I do not in the least mean to imply that he came to his conclusion willy-nilly).

Let’s continue through the book a little and ‘pick’ a few more points.

On p 26-27, Robert claims that Constantine, following his conversion to Christianity, effectively forced ‘his subjects to adopt the new religion’. Perhaps my memory of history has diminished, but this is not something I recall. Not that, of course, this is central to his overall points in the book.

At the bottom of p 28, the implication was that there was no disagreement within the Catholic Church about wealth and the use of beauty. In fact, quite the opposite is the case, with Suger, for example, arguing very much in favour of using ‘excessive’ wealth to lead one to the contemplation of the divine – though his views were strongly opposed by other influential churchmen. Of course, this is a different point to the personal abuses and collections that private individuals (the ‘princes’ of the Church) accumulated.

p 42-43 makes the point, without any evidence to support it, that ‘it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that these four families [of Albi, Toulouse, Carcasonne, and Agen] were in fact [sic] those represented by the four suits of the tarot’. This is the kind of claim that is given way too much weight in all too many places. Would not something a little more humbly proposed be more apt, such as: ‘Could it be that the four families just mentioned were later seen to be reflected in the four suits of the tarot, given that naming court cards was a common-enough practice?’

On p 55, the claim that ‘a monument erected in their memory can still be seen today’ – this is in reference to the burning of over 200 Cathars near Montségur. The implication is that the monument is centuries old. It is not, but is rather a very recent marker. I cannot recall when it was constructed, but sometime within our lifetime is my recollection, and certainly not the long time implied.

Moving on to the final chapter in the first section, titled ‘The Development of the Tarot’, there are a number of points that especially need to be mentioned.

p 65 makes the all too common assumption that the deck created for Charles VI was a tarot (more likely than not, it wasn’t); and similarly makes the assumption that the French word ‘tarot’ derives from the Italian ‘tarocchi’ (very likely, the inverse is the case, with ‘tarocchi’ derived from the French ‘tarot’, itself, in my view, possibly derived from the Italian region by the same name).

On p 68, Swiryn quotes O’Neill who mistakenly says that ‘the totality of the symbolic’ images is ‘only found in 15th century Italy’: the extent decks from the period are not ‘total’, and hence, unless looking outside of tarot, and hence also outside of Italy, the statement is not supported. Of course, what is evident is that in the earliest of similar decks, ie, those painted for the Visconti-Sforza families, we have a near complete tarot-like set of images in which, to agree with Swiryn, the Marseille has its roots.

When in the last paragraph of p 69 Robert wonders why the Hanged Man was ‘left in’, the assumption is that the TdM is already that for which he argues (that the TdM bears Cathar influences). Instead of ‘left in’, the term ‘included’ would have avoided this anachronism.

On p 71, both the view that there are three persons in the Lovers and the inclusion of Queens in the courts as somehow suggestive of ‘the Albigensian story’ seems far fetched. Certainly the role of women in Provence and in Cathar worldview was far higher than in most other parts of Europe of the times, but this need not be a specifically Cathar influence.

p 72 makes the major error of presuming that the Waite-Smith deck pips arise without the influence of the Sola-Busca deck; and further makes the ‘mistake’ that places Pamela Coleman Smith as a member of the GD, rather than as a member of Waite’s own derived order (though this last ‘error’ can be acceptable if read as a more general statement). This kind of error in terms of development of decks into the 20th century is also reflected in the statement that Crowley ‘introduced’ Egyptian symbolism in his ‘Thoth’ deck – which of course he did, but was not the first to so do (far from it!).

I’ll just add a few more minor points from the second part of the book (skipping many other notes of far lesser importance).

In introducing the second section, Robert mentions that ‘the lack of images of Christ or the crucifixion raise questions of a heretical theme’. I have already mentioned a point with regards to whether XXI is, in earlier TdMs, a representation of Christ. Irrespective of this, however, I do not see why omitting such imagery would suggest heresy (in the context of the book, were such included, I could easily see Robert suggest that its inclusion would suggest the same!).

Discussing the Bateleur/Magician, Robert makes the same elemental attributions to the four suits as the Golden Dawn (why do that?) and further claims that these are on the table (or in his hand). I can see how one can make of the implements of the Bateleur the four implements (as was effectively transformed by especially Wirth), but this is interpreting that image, rather than carefully looking at what is there.

On p 121, talking of the ‘removal’ of the Pope card in decks in the 1700s, I suspect Robert meant the Besançon decks, rather than the very early Minchiate mentioned (though that one too had no Pope).

On p 136-137, Robert makes an error I cannot reconcile with the rest of his writing: where did he get the ordering of the virtues (and claiming them to be so ordered in the Marseille!) as first Temperance, then Justice and Strength?

p 147 misrepresents Boethius’s lowering of man-to-animal as presumed transmigration of soul. Yet the context is clear, and no such wheel is implied (even though the depiction of the Wheel itself derives from Boethius). On the next page (and many other places), Robert makes the mistake of confusing the symbol for Christ as chi-rho (a ‘P’ inside an ‘X’) with the initials of Jesus Christos as ‘I’ and ‘X’. Though the point he makes remains, it should not be called ‘chi-rho‘.

On Death, p 167, the point raised about the ‘naming’ of Death on the card as avoided so as to not ‘invoke’ it can certainly be considered, but not in relation to the opening of the Gospel of John. In English it certainly is ‘In the beginning was the Word’, but this is a translation which implies ‘noun’ or ‘name’, whilst the Greek uses ‘Logos’ (a very different concept), and importantly, both the Latin and French use ‘Verb’ (‘Verbum’/’Verbe’) instead of ‘nome’ or ‘name’/’word’. So the point and link suggested is both anachronous and linguistically irrelevant. Better, I would suggest, to have used Genesis and the naming performed by Adam. Except that, of course, this weakens the connection to the Cathars.

On p 195, to talk of the Moon card as though a representation of an eclipse in unjustified, in my view. There is nothing in the imagery that suggests this. Of course, the image can be seen in that light, but that is a forced interpretation, and even contradicts evidence internal to the image. I of course realise that a number of individuals now prefer to view it in this fashion – but that’s a modern view.

I do not understand why Robert uses the Hindo-Arabic number system to justify a point on p 202. ‘XVIII’ is not the same, in reflective stance, as ’18’.

On p 207, the millennial concerns are long past by the time of tarot’s development. And in fact also in terms of the Albigensian crusade.

p 215 should read, with regards to the four fixed signs of the zodiac, as referencing the solstices and equinoxes – not just the latter. And of course, the four evangelists are connected to the four elements via the elemental qualities of the signs to which they are connected – and a further note should be made that to which the four evangelists are connected the signs/living creatures was not as fixed as it has become: it is St Jerome’s version that has become dominant, but not as clearly so at the time.

The chapter on the Fou really should not have the number ‘0’ zero therein mentioned, as it is totally irrelevant to the points made, as well as actually suggesting that its position as 22nd is incorrect! I’m also unsure why Robert remarks that the term ‘Le Fol’ is feminine: it is, instead, masculine (‘la folle’ would be feminine). An on p 222, when Robert mentions that ‘in medieval art the left side is the spiritual side’, I have to disagree.


Despite these and all too many times that I annotated the book with ‘this is going a little far’ or ‘beyond evidence’ or ‘interpretation far-fetched’, the book has quite a number of treasures and insights.

For this alone it is, in my view, well worth reading!

…and I do NOT consider this a review proper, but rather notes to myself, albeit publicly visible.

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