A City Within A Deck

Inside the Byzantine Tarot

by John Matthews, author of RedFeather’s newest release, The Byzantine Tarot: Wisdom From An Ancient Empire (illustrated by Cilla Conway) and also The Grail Tarot: A Templar Vision (illustrated by Giovanni Caselli).

When Cilla Conway and I announced that we were working on a Byzantine tarot a number of friends asked us if this was possible, since the period in which tarot received its formulation was much later, toward the end of the Middle Ages and into the early days of the Renaissance. In fact, our studies had already indicated that a number of recognizable tarot archetypes existed within the iconography of the Byzantine world, and as we continued to research the vast and wonderful resources on the subject, we found more and more links.

One of the most significant of these was the 8th Century Byzantine Empress Irene (780-90 AD), who was responsible for the restoration of the adoration of the Christian God and the saints through icons, after a long period in which the use of imagery in worship was considered heretical — known as iconoclasm. This was important since one of the oldest methods for using tarot was via images, and while such imagery was never banned in Europe, it may not be going too far to suggest that Irene’s actions in restoring iconography can be linked directly to the origins of tarot.

Curiously, one of the most significant discoveries in tarot history of recent years was the finding of an incomplete 15th-century card deck widely known as the Mamluk Tarot. It was discovered in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul (formerly Byzantium) in 1927 by L. A. Mayer, who proposed that it was the earliest tarot deck. In fact, it is almost certainly a set of playing cards, and in line with the prohibition against images within the Muslim religion, it consists only of abstract images. However, there do appear to be four distinct suites: cups, coins, swords and staffs (or Polo sticks), and four court cards. The overall design of the cards is similar to those of the earliest tarots we still have, which date from the same century and was found in Italy, even to the point of the swords being represented, in both Eastern and Western decks, as scimitars – not normally part of Western weaponry! It’s possible that the Mamluk Cards influenced the design of the Western tarot decks, and it is an amazing point of continuity that these are from almost exactly the time when the Byzantine Empire fell.

While we cannot go so far as to say that the existence of the Mamluk cards implies that there could have been a Byzantine tarot, it does give a sense of symmetry to the ideas presented here. Also, given the discovery of the Mamluk Tarot in the very city over which the Empress Irene ruled following the fall of Byzantium to the Turks in 1453, we may wonder how a continuing ban on the creation and use of icons might have influenced the future development of the tarot.

Whatever else it may be, the tarot is based firmly on imagery. How this came to coalesce into what we now understand as tarot is a long story, but first and foremost tarot derives from the archetypal figures and symbols, which were in turn drawn from a huge array of sources that have only slowly been revealed, and which became the basis for modern Tarot.

Having both had a long-time love affair with the history and art of the Byzantines, we found ourselves, independently at the beginning, but soon sharing what we saw as clearly identifiable tarot imagery in the history, iconography, and magical activities of the Empire. How perfectly, for example, the imagery and traditions of chariot racing fitted in with the idea of the Chariot itself — a representation of progress and the struggle to succeed.

There, among the Holy Fools, the mystics who chose to live out of society, but whose wisdom was accessible to all, we found countless images of the Fool of the tarot. These wild and wondering figures were just as ready to step off the cliff of ignorance and to trust themselves to the wisdom of the inner life, as was the traditional picture of the Fool stepping off a cliff onto the rainbow bridge.

Everywhere we looked, we began to see images that resonated with Tarot. The Emperor and Empress looked back at us from a hundred mosaics, while the Hierophant/High Priestess was influenced by the figure of the divine Sophia, the name given to the powerful archetype of Wisdom in the ancient world. We also found that the four suits of the deck echoed precisely the divisions of the state that enabled the vast Empire to function. The army, the church, the artistic and mercantile aspects of the ancient world resonated with the swords, cups, wands, and coins of the later medieval pack.

From the strange, exotic courts of the emperors, we have discovered layers of meaning, some little known or understood today, that form the core of The Byzantine Tarot. In particular, we discovered a legion of courtly characters that fit so well into the archetypal world of tarot they seem destined to belong there. From this beginning, we went on to create a full-scale tarot that not only draws upon the iconography of this forgotten world but also extends the range of the tarot itself.

Myth, legend and the hierarchical complexity of life in Byzantium make this a unique exploration of a period of time in which the last echoes of the Pagan world were being enfolded into the burgeoning world of early Christianity. Today, in the west, the Byzantine Empire is largely misrepresented; we see it as rigid, corrupt, and moribund. However, we discovered long forgotten and misunderstood aspects of the Empire which enrich the cards and accompanying book. The deck features emperors, empresses, court officials, saints and sinners, to create a dazzling array of images bound to thrill every user of the Tarot.

But it is the city itself, Byzantium, which lies at the heart of our vision. One early viewer of the cards described it as ‘a city within a deck’. Somehow, the magical world of the Byzantine Empire has transferred itself into the cards we created, showing that its timeless imagery and vision still resonates in our own journey today.

© John Matthews, Oxford 2020.

Enjoy this brief flip through of The Byzantine Tarot:

About the Author:

John Matthews

John Matthews has produced a number of successful divinatory systems based on early spiritual beliefs, including The Arthurian Tarot (with Caitlín Matthews and Miranda Gray), the best-selling Wildwood Tarot (with Mark Ryan and Will Worthington), the Grail Tarot (with Giovanni Caselli), and the more recent Lost Tarot of Nostradamus and Steampunk Tarot (both with Caitlín Matthews and Wil Kinghan). He is widely known as the author of numerous books on the Grail and Arthurian legends and volumes of Celtic literature, myth, and belief. His book Pirates was a number one New York Times best-seller for twenty-two weeks in 2007. He has acted as an advisor on several motion pictures, including Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthur, and is currently engaged in a number of movie projects of his own. Visit hallowquest.org.uk.