This week I welcome Russell Sturgess to share his incredibly rich knowledge and research on the history of Tarot and its direct links with Christianity.
I first met Russell at the 2013 TarotCon in Sydney and was blown away by his engaging and informative presentation. Light bulbs were switching off for me, left, right and centre and I now have an entirely new perspective on the Major Arcana as a result.
I wanted to share this with you, but instead of trying to awkwardly regurgitate what he conveyed, I asked Russell to share his research and knowledge in a guest post. I think you will find it very profound, not just from the perspective of understanding the Major Arcana better but also from the perspective of understanding the clear linkages between the history of the Tarot and Christianity itself.
Over to you, Russell…
The Marseille Tarot images are the earliest known image-style of the major arcana. It is generally accepted that they emerged in the region of Milan, somewhere between the 13th and 14th century. It was during this time that the Visconti family took control of the region and due to the radical actions of the family patriarch, Otto Visconti, the region and family were excommunicated from the church.
During this time, the Visconti’s extended safe harbour to the Cathars from Southern France, Northern Spain and Italy, radical Catholics systematically ‘exterminated’ by the Catholic Church for their heretical beliefs. This was most evident with the Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition. By 1215, Milan had become the central heretical stronghold, where the suspension of the sacraments by the Catholic Church lasted for well over a century. The ecclesiastical vacuum created by the excommunication was strategically filled by the Cathars. Remnants of this medieval non-traditional approach to Christianity is still evident today throughout that region. The Cathedral in Sienna, largely expanded during the 13th and 14th centuries, includes pre and early Christian iconography.
The Cathars were Catholics who believed in a form of Christianity that existed up until the 4th century. It was primarily a form of Christianity based on a temple culture, which is understandable given that Christianity arose out of the Jewish culture. According to historian Will Durant in The Age of Faith, the Cathars saw themselves as the ‘true Christians’. They saw the Catholic Mass as a wicked and foolish perversion of the genuine Divine Service. Durant goes onto to explain that the Cathars made the Sermon on the Mount the foundation to their doctrine.
A Hidden Code
There is substantial evidence to suggest that the Cathars were the original authors of the Marseille major arcana images. By the late 14th century the last of the ‘perfects’ (the name given to the Cathar priests), was ‘given up to the church’ by a friendly, which marked the end of the faith. In an attempt to preserve what had been fundamentally a verbal tradition, the sacred symbolism was captured in unbound books, a concept used in the East by various religious orders, which found its way into Europe with the returning Crusaders.
Cathars were familiar with sacred symbols and paper. Paper making was an art introduced into Europe, in the same way as the unbound books. This art was fostered by the pre-Reformation Christian sects, which included the Cathars. Because of their persecution, they developed the art of secretly communicating through sacred symbols, which appeared as paper-marks or watermarks. With the impending extinction of the sect, the sacred symbols that began as cloistered marks on paper ‘came out’, so as to speak, and were boldly depicted on picture cards, like the ones from the East.
Following this line of thought, it could be determined that the major arcana is a form of pictorial scripture, or stain-glassed windows of a temple made without hands. This is significant in terms of the Cathars, as they chose not to worship in buildings. The temple was to be found in the soul and the sacred symbols were to be ‘thought fossils’. That being the case, it would be right to deduce that the major arcana may have a lot to do with the Sermon on the Mount. A key doctrine of the Cathars was the belief in dual worlds. This was supported by the scripture from The Sermon that read, “No man can serve two masters…you cannot serve God and mammon.”
Mammon is an Aramaic term meaning riches or wealth. It is possible that the 22 cards of the major arcana depict two worlds, a world of mammon and a world belonging to God. The Cathars believed that the Sermon on the Mount was a template for making the transition from the world of mammon to the kingdom of God. The world of mammon included society, or culture as it was then, with all of its trappings. The kingdom of God was an inner journey of awareness and enlightenment. To find enlightenment, one had to replace culturally determined values with sustainable spiritual values, and it was this transformation of values that was depicted by the cards.
This meant that the cards of the major arcana had to be somehow split into two, representing the two worlds. Given that the Fool dressed as a pilgrim, and was without a number, it could be assumed he had no fixed position, symbolic of Everyman on a pilgrimage. The lemniscate shape of the hats worn by The Magician and Strength were similar. The two characters both wearing hats with two loops were perfect symbols for these two worlds. Being numbered I and XI could justify splitting the cards into two groups of 10 (excluding the World Card), each to the ten representing one of the two worlds.
Unlocking the Symbols
Using the shape of the hats as a key for unlocking the layout of the cards, it was possible that the template for transformation could be laid out in the following fashion.
The World card is the alpha and the omega, the place where the Fool’s journey begins. This is the sacred yoni from where the spirit of the Fool takes on consciousness, as depicted by the Bull, the Lion, the Eagle/Phoenix and the Angel. At first, being in the spirit world the other side of the veil from mortality (the veil shown behind the head of the Popess), the Fool is being prepared to enter the world of mammon, where he takes on a physical body.
The world of mammon is depicted by the left half of the lemniscate, with the kingdom of God symbolised by the right. In fact, all of the cards from the Empress to the Wheel of Fortune can be linked to a historically significant occurrence that occurred in the geographical region governed by the Visconti family. Since the Magician heads up the world of mammon, he is warning that his world is an illusion, a trick of sorts. Holding a wand and pentacle, he reminds the Fool that the world of illusion was a culture based on wealth and power, and that love and hate (the cups and sword/knife on the table) are also part of the magic. This was in contrast to the Magician’s counterpart, Strength. Being at the portal of the ‘other world’, the kingdom of God, she preempts a world requiring courage and strength that arise from will and determination. Traditionally lions stood at the portal to check that those who entered had a ‘soft heart’. This half of the majors depict the journey into the heart, the place where one finds the kingdom of God.
The Cathars understood that the eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount were the primitive Christian formula for finding enlightenment (the cards of light – the Star, the Moon, the Sun and Judgement). They used the images and symbols of the second half of the lemniscate to depict the eight Beatitudes. By adopting the sustainable values of mercy (the Star), charity (the Moon) and peace (the Sun), the Fool would be able to pass the final test (the Judgement), which would enable him to enter the Bridal Chamber – as explained in Solomon’s Song of Songs in the Old Testament.
Having transformed his consciousness, the Fool who has become ‘the Christ’ will be privy to the full understanding of the mysteries of God. Only then will the “fullness open up to us with the hidden truths, even the holy of holies and the bridal chamber.” The temple mysteries of transformation were prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount. Lost to the dogmas of Christianity, they resurfaced over a 1000 years later in a set of sacred images referred to in the 16th century as the Marseille Tarot. By unlocking the secrets contained within these images, the Fool has access to a formula or map of transformation that not only promises healing and sustainable wellness, but also wealth and wisdom.
Learn More About Russell
Russell Sturgess is an Australian. Russell self-published Metanoia, Renovating the House of your Spirit in 2009. This book more fully describes the ‘Christian’ message depicted by the majors. He has studied symbolism as tools for transformation for over 25 years and has developed an awareness coaching program based on his research.