I was looking forward to seeing these cards, having an interest in anything by John Matthews, and also being very curious about the Cathars – a spiritual group from the Middle Ages/11th Century Europe. Based around Provence and the Languedoc, the Cathars were active through the 12th and 13th centuries before being almost completely wiped out in the early part of the 13th century. Anyone familiar with either Dan Brown (Da Vinci Code) novels or those of Kate Mosse (Labyrinth) will no doubt have an interest in the Cathars, too.
Well – straight out of the box these beautiful cards feel substantial and significant. I actually felt as if I was holding pieces of history in my hands.
The box itself is beautiful, strong and sturdy, with a hard shell and a ribbon pull to draw out the contents which slide out to reveal a 112 page luxuriously printed guidebook sitting atop the cards themselves. There is nothing ‘lightweight’ or flimsy about this deck. The cardstock is good and strong and will withstand plenty of regular shuffling and use. As I say – it’s a substantial deck in many ways. The cards move and shuffle easily with no sticking at all. Definitely a deck that I believe will stand the test of time and use. The thickness of the card stock may offer an additional challenge for those with very small hands, but it will be worth it! Most should manage well.
The card backs drew me in straight away, with the framed golden Cathar Cross with a ‘crackled/cracked’ effect which reminded me of old walls and paintings. It even feels historic. The addition of stars within the framed cross is an attractive feature too.
The outline of the cross shows a lighter side (top left diagonal) and a shaded side (bottom right diagonal) which makes it appear illuminated, glowing with a soft life. So, not reversible to the eagle-eyed, but most may not even notice it depending on the quality of the light you are reading under.
Each card features gold borders with the image contained within a frame – again light gold at the top, becoming darker and a deeper gold at the bottom – echoing the light/dark motif of the card backs. A lovely subtle touch.
Card names and numbers are printed in a clear, easy to read typeface at the bottom of each card. Several names have been changed from the traditional Rider-Waite-Smith based titles to Cathar-inspired names. I found the substitutions to be clear and meaningful and they worked well for me, drawing me deeper into the deck and the Cathar world. (Note: Photos added at end summarising changes.)
The guidebook is a slim, luxuriously presented volume. The cover is glorious and compelling (and so is the back – pictured below), I couldn’t wait to look inside and devour the 112 pages of this enigmatic guide.
Wil Kinghan’s artwork has a rich, classic feel to it. Deep rich blue skies with golden stars, teamed with earthy browns and greens for the sweeping landscapes – as well as a hint of mystery (what lies beyond our view?).
The book drew me in to exploring its contents which are divided into 3 distinct parts:
Intro: The good men; Who were the Cathars?; The Cathars & Tarot (pages 4–9)
6 pages giving us a good introduction to the history, drawing on Gnosticism and the grail myth. This section is beautifully illustrated, with a selection of full colour cards from the deck. You’ll also gain insights into the aspects of dark and light and the blending of the two, along with the politics and persecution of this group.
This section was fascinating and had me looking at several cards differently – especially 0 – The Fool/The Bonhomme; 21 – The World/The Consolamentum; 12 – The Hanged Man/The Endura; 8 – Justice/The Meloramentum and 15 – the Hierophant/Lucifer! Great write ups offering different Cathar-based perspectives.
The book is well worth a read – I read it through twice through straight away, it was so engaging and informative. I return to it regularly to help deepen my understanding and appreciation of each card.
Part 1 – The Majors: The Books of Life (pages 11–92)
Each card is given 2 pages to a view. On the left we have the ‘historical breakdown of the image, placing the card within the Cathar tradition’; key sentences explaining the card and the card’s traditional name where it has been changed to reflect the Cathar world (where appropriate). On the right there is a large (slightly larger than actual card size), full page, full colour image with light (upright) and dark (reversed) meanings.
I love that this is presented as a two-page spread for each card and that the card itself is presented to us as a piece of art.
The Minors are presented in column format – 2 to a page (so our 2 page spread of left and right pages contains 4 images above the descriptions). Again we have a description as well as keywords for light and dark (upright and reversed) meanings.
Suits have been renamed – Wands become The Book of Shields; Swords are unchanged as The Book of Swords; Cups become The Book of Love and Pentacles become The Book of Wisdom. Again, changes reflecting the Cathar life and world. They all made sense to me and were easy to work with.
Part 2 – Working with the Cards (pages 93–107)
This section contained useful sections on Getting to Know the Deck; Activating the Cards; Spreads for the Cathar Tarot; Encountering the Cathars.
Three new spreads have been created especially for the Cathar Tarot.
– The Cathar Cross (9 card) spread
– The Court of Wisdom (9 card) spread.
– The Grail Knight (5 card) spread.
All three have notes on purpose and layout (with illustrations), and sample readings to help.
I found the section on Encountering the Cathars to be very interesting with a 4 page selection of excerpts from actual Cathar writings included – with translations by Caitlin Matthews. I can see these working well for diving deeper into the deck.
At the back of the guide were useful and helpful additions including:
Further Reading & Resources (including books and websites)
Appendix: Traditional Tarot (with a table for the Major Arcana names – traditional and Cathar – and another for the Minor Arcana).
A beautiful deck that is gorgeous to look at, to hold and to work with. It’s like a touchstone to a special place in time and space. I look forward to many happy hours with it and would recommend it for anyone who wants to deepen their Tarot practice, and get a valuable and different perspective on some of the cards we believe we know so well. Also, for anyone who appreciates the deep and meaningful work of John and Caitlin Matthews. Everything they do adds value to those of us involved in Tarot, Cartomancy and mythology/philosophy.
Author: John Matthews Artist: Wil Kingham Publisher: Watkins (2016)