The Tarot and The Holy Grail

by John Matthews, author of The Grail Tarot: A Templar Vision, illustrated by Giovanni Caselli.

The Grail Tarot: A Templar Vision
by John Matthews
Illustrated by Giovanni Caselli

The Grail Tarot comes out of almost 40 years of study focusing on two of the most enduring and enigmatic mysteries of the Middle Ages. The mystery of the Holy Grail — once described as the holiest relic in Christendom — and the equally fascinating mystery of the enigmatic Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, better known as the Knights Templar.

Ever since their foundation by nine ‘poor knights’ in 1119, debate has raged over the true purpose of the Templars, along with their beliefs, and the nature of certain documents or objects which they may, or may not, have possessed – one of which is said to have been the Grail itself.

The story of the Grail is one of the crowning glories of the Western imagination. No one can say precisely from where, or even when, it emerged. It seems to have always been present, hidden in the deepest recesses of the human soul, continuing to cast a powerful fascination over all who come in contact with it

The history of the Templars and the story for the Grail have long been associated in both history and tradition. The great mediaeval poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, in his poem Parzival (c1220), called those chosen to guard the Grail Templiesen (Templars), and in their own time the Order was believed to be the guardian of either an object or information of great power and importance — something which, whatever it may actually have been, almost certainly contributed to their sudden and disastrous eclipse.

The Templars constituted one of the most respected and powerful organizations in the world – rich, influential, powerful. Then, without warning, they became the focus of a highly orchestrated attack that presented them as heretics, sodomites, devil worshipers, and murderers. In a series of dramatic trials their leaders, together with a large number of their members, were forced under torture to confess to the most unspeakable acts.

To find reasons for this, many researchers have turned to the vast literature of the Grail, indissolubly interwoven with the myths of King Arthur and his court – links that seem to have been recognized during the middle ages. Thus the Templar Rule, the code by which the knights lived their lives, was devised for them by the great theologian St Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian monastic order. The same St Bernard who commissioned the largest and most comprehensive Grail text ever written — known today as ‘The Lancelot-Grail.’ This tells the whole story of the Grail from the time of Christ to the end of the reign of King Arthur — all of it written down by Cistercian monks.

Bernard’s sponsorship alone was sufficient to swell the ranks of the Templars at a rapid rate. The Order built a network of castles, called “commanderies,” across the Holy Land, as well as in Europe. Their power and strength increased, and their wealth grew accordingly. Though each individual forswore personal possessions, they gave freely of their goods to the order and began also to win much treasure in their battles with the Moors. In time they became so wealthy and of such good standing that they virtually became the bankers to the crowned heads of Europe, lending huge sums to help finance the Crusades. But as their political power grew, so their enemies increased. Finally, the miserly and avaricious King of France, Philip IV, who had once petitioned to join the order and had been refused, plotted to bring about their downfall – citing the most astonishing and unlikely of reasons.

Philip charged the Templars with heresy, and on the night of Friday, October 13th, 1307, the majority of the order in France were seized and imprisoned. Subjected to horrific torture, many admitted to every kind of crime, from sodomy to spitting on the Cross. The Trial of the Templars continued for another seven years before the last Grand Master, the saintly Jacques de Molay, was executed on the May 19th, 1314, bringing the order to an end 196 years after its foundation. They left behind a memory and a myth that has remained constant ever since — that they had become the guardians of a relic of huge importance to the Western world and dangerous to the Church of Rome. For many, that relic was the Grail.

How much Bernard’s knowledge of the Grail myths influenced the Templar Rule, how much the story was written to his direction, is impossible to say. But there are clear parallels between the saintly knights of the Grail and the aspirations of the fledgling Order of Poor Knights of the Temple. It is still a bewildering fact that, less than 200 years later, the men whom Bernard said would be a “company of perfect men” were to be reviled, their order discredited and destroyed.

The reasons for this may well be laid simply at the door of avarice and jealously; fear among the rulers of Europe and the Pope in Rome that the Templars were becoming too powerful and too rich. Or it may, as recent researchers have suggested, have been because they were the guardians of a secret that could have placed the continuing hold of the Christian church over the Western world in jeopardy. That this ‘great secret’ might have been to do with the Grail, or at the very least the ideas it represented, is as good an explanation as any, and may well have more in its favor than many wilder fancies.

Connections between the Tarot and the Grail myths have long been recognized. Dr. Jessie L. Weston, as long ago as the 1920s, drew attention to the fact that the four Suits of the Tarot — the Minor Arcana — formed a close parallel to four sacred objects — known as the Hallows — mentioned in the Grail texts. As to Templar connections with Tarot, archetypes associated with the order — King Solomon, the Magdalene, Melchizadek — can be found embedded within the traditions from which the Major Arcana of the Tarot emerged.

The Vision of the Hallows

The Grail Tarot draws upon these traditions to reveal a deeper significance within them. Uniquely, it tells a story, following the path of the Templar initiate from Neophyte to Master.

Marrying the imagery of the Grail search with that of the Templar’s own inner search for perfection brings us in contact with a new divinatory system, a powerful inner journey based on ancient traditions and archetypal reality. This in turn opens a new window on both the mystery of the Grail and the extraordinary vision of the Knights Templar, enabling us to discover deeper truths in our own lives.

© John Matthews, 2020

The Grail Tarot: A Templar Vision

About the Author…

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.

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