Few legends have captured our collective imagination as much as the tale of King Arthur and his Knights’ Quest for the Holy Grail. The Grail legend is one of the most famous mysteries the world has ever known. Red Feather’s newly-released The Grail Tarot written by John Matthews and illustrated by Giovanni Caselli is a traditionally structured 78-card Tarot deck with spectacular Medieval-style art that relates to the quest for this sacred Christian relic and connects it to our desire to understand the puzzles within our own lives. Discover the symbolism and stories of the Grail as a universal and potent representation of the search for truth, exploring how to connect them with your own spiritual quest.
John Matthews, the author and creator of The Grail Tarot, has been a practicing shaman for over thirty years and is a leading authority on the Grail and Arthurian legends and the Tarot. The author of a number of successful divinatory systems based on early spiritual beliefs, he has also acted as advisor on several motion pictures, including Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthur.
“The Grail Tarot brings together two of the most enduring and enigmatic mysteries of the Middle Ages: That of the Holy Grail, once described as the holiest relic in Christendom, and the Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, better known as the Knights Templar.”–opening pages of The Grail Tarot by John Matthews
According to John Matthews, the Grail can be the—
- Stone fallen from the crown of the Angel of Light during the war in Heaven.
- Cauldron of Celtic antiquity sought after by heroes.
- Cup used by Christ to celebrate the Last Supper and first Eucharist.
- Bloodline stretching back to Biblical times.
“…the Grail is really an idea representing the presence of a numinous, mystical link between the sacred and the secular. It remains, to this day, a focus for search and a provider of wonder to the world in which we live—and it gives us a tool for a personal quest, from which may come personal growth and restoration of spirit.”—John Matthews
But who are the Templars, and why are they so central to The Grail Tarot?
According to John Matthews, the Knights Templar are “…the most famed military organization of the Middle Ages. The Templars became the permanent ‘police’ of the tiny war-torn kingdom of Jerusalem, they fought with utter dedication and became feared by Moslem and Christian alike….In time they grew 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…King Philip of France charged the Templars with heresy, and, on Friday October 13, 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 Grande Master…was executed on May 19, 1314, bringing the order to an end 195 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.”
But why intertwine the Grail Myth and the Knights Templar with Tarot?
“Connections between the Tarot and the Grail myths have long been recognized. As long ago as the 1920s, Dr. Jessie L. Weston 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 the Tarot, it may or may not be significant that archetypes associated with the order—King Solomon, The Magdalene, Melchizedek—can be found within the origins of the Major Arcana; that there were twenty-two Grand Masters of the order, the same number as the major trumps in the Tarot; and that certain significant dates in the history of the Templars add up to some very appropriate cards within the sequence. To give an example, the date when the Templars were attacked—October 13, 1307—adds up to the number sixteen (1+3+1+0+1+3+0+7). In the traditional sequence of the Major Arcana, this is the card known as the “Lightning-struck Tower”( or, as here, “The Fall of the Temple”), and it is traditionally associated with sudden and brutal change, endings, the breaking down of old orders, the dissolution of patterns!”—John Matthews, The Grail Tarot
With all this in mind, let us delve a bit more deeply into this ground-breaking deck, beginning with The Major Arcana.
The Seeker’s Quest
“The sequence of the Major Arcana has often been seen as a journey. In the myths of the Grail and the Templars this is particularly appropriate, since the story of the grail and the progress of the Templar novice from Brother to Grand Master are both about journeys. Each charts the spiritual development of a central protagonist—in the case of the Grail, the Seeker, in the case of the Templars, the Neophyte—from the first moment of spiritual awakening to the attainment of the goals they set out to reach.”—John Matthews
Each set of cards—the Major Arcana and each of the four Suits—form a continuous frieze when laid side by side, creating a landscape in which events follow each other, echoing some of the greatest works of art and architecture of the Middle Ages. These five friezes show a character (the Seeker in the Major Arcana, the progression of the Templar Neophyte to Grand Master in the Suits) within the context of the greater mythological journey each is enacting.
A frieze is a broad horizontal band of sculpted or painted decoration, especially on a wall near the ceiling, that tells the continuous story of a character throughout multiple joined vignettes and settings.
Let us consider the story of The Major Arcana:
The Fool is The Grail Seeker
“The oldest surviving account from this period, The Story of the Grail by Chretien de Troyes, describes the Seeker as a simple-minded youth, whose innocence and lack of experiences are seen as beneficial to his quest.”–John Matthews
The Magician is The Gnostic Christ
“Jesus was thus regarded as a prophetic figure, sometimes almost a magician, whose miracles were the outward sign of his power.”–John Matthews
The High Priestess is The Magdalene
“In an era that feared to acknowledge the power in women, the Gnostic Magdalene shows the independence of a virgin and the spiritual wisdom of a priestess.”–John Matthews
The Empress is Sheba
“In the Grail myths it is Sheba who receives a vision of the Grail and with it the information that a descendant of the royal line will become the most successful Grail Seeker in a distant time.”–John Matthews
The Emperor is Solomon
“In Grail tradition he is the ancestor of the saintly Sir Galahad the destined winner of the Grail and the inheritor of Solomon’s crown.”–John Matthews
The Hierophant is Melchizedek
“…he is said to have blessed the patriarch Abraham and come forth from the temple to offer bread and wine. This has been taken to prefigure the later Eucharistic offering and makes Melchizedek one of the most important Biblical precursors of Christ. This in turn links him with the deeper Christian mysteries of the Grail, which is described as containing the blood of Jesus and being used to celebrate the first Eucharist.”–John Matthews
The Lovers are The Two Knights of the Temple
“The image on this card is based on the Great Seal of the Templar Order, which emphasizes the loving relationship between the brothers of the Order.”–John Matthews
The Chariot is The Ship of Solomon
“This would sail through time and become a means of conveying the three successful Grail knights on a crucial part of their journey.”–John Matthews
Strength is The Commanderie
“One of the greatest assets of the Templars was the chain of massive fortresses, called commanderies, which they built within crusader states of the Holy Land and throughout Europe.”–John Matthews
The Hermit is Prester John
“Tradition describes Prester John as the guardian of the Grail for our own age, and as such may be encountered by those engaged in the quest today.”–John Matthews
The Wheel of Fortune is Fortune’s Wheel
“The image of Fortune’s Wheel is one of the most widely used and powerful themes of medieval literature and philosophy.”–John Matthews
Justice is The Shekinah
“The quest for the Grail represents a yearning for union with the divine. Medieval tradition represented the compassionate presence of God through the figure of the Shekinah.”–John Matthews
The Hanged Man is The Wounded King
“From the lineage of Joseph sprang a line of Grail Kings entrusted with its safe-keeping. Most were devoted to their divinely appointed task, but one betrayed his duties and was inflicted with a wound that could only be healed by the destined Grail winner.”–John Matthews
Death is The Holy Sepulchre
“During the Middle Ages, Jerusalem—and in particular the Holy Seplulchre—was considered the center of the Christian world.” Both the place of the crucifixion as well as the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.–John Matthews
Temperance is Sarras
“The final part of the journey undertaken by the three surviving quest-knights in the Ship of Solomon took them to Sarras…Here the Grail is kept in a great basilica created for it by angels, and from here it is withdrawn to heaven by a disembodied hand after the final mysteries have been celebrated.”–John Matthews
The Devil is Lucifer
“…the Grail is described as a green stone fallen from the crown of Lucifer during the war in Heaven.”–John Matthews
The Tower is The Fall of the Temple
“This brings together the two streams of Grail and Templar traditions in a single image. In Grail lore it represents what happens when [Balin] delivers a wound to the Grail King [causing]…the Chapel of the Grail to fall in ruins and the lands around the castle to become dead—the Waste Lands…In Templar tradition this is both a reference to the dissolution of the original Temple of Solomon…and to the fall of the Order itself.”–John Matthews
The Star, Moon, Sun, and Judgment cards are, respectively, the four Grail knights, considered to be “the successful grail winners–as opposed to those who fell by the wayside….”
The Star is Perceval
“Perceval is…a simple youth who sets out on the quest for the Grail more or less by accident and whose steps are led to a final revelation of the mystery only after many painful adventures.”–John Matthews
The Moon is Dindrane
Perceval’s sister, of whom John Matthews writes, “At a time when the role of women was marginalized, Dindrane clearly represents the feminine mysteries of the grail.”–John Matthews
The Sun is Bors
“Bors is the third of the trio of successful Grail knights. Often referred to as an ‘ordinary man,’ he is the only one of the knights who is married.”–John Matthews
The Judgment is The Restoration
“…Galahad, the saintly son of Sir Lancelot…sails in the Ship of Solomon accompanied by Perceval, Dindrane and Bors…Galahad heals the Wounded King, touching his unhealing wound with the tip of the sacred lance.”–John Matthews
The World is the Procession of the Grail
“Here we see at last the great procession of the Grail, where it and the rest of the Hallows—lance, stone, and sword—are carried in triumph through the halls of the Grail Temple.–John Matthews
Now let us consider the Minor Arcana, or as John Matthews entitles them: “The Vision of the Hallows”.
The four Minor Arcana Suits of The Grail Tarot tell a story: “It follows the journey of the Seeker of the Major Arcana from neophyte to Knight, to Master, and finally to Guardian of the Grail…each suit is based on one of the four sacred objects—called Hallows—that form a quaternary, representing different aspects of the Grail, stages of the quest, and the four elements.”—John Matthews
- The Queen becomes the Lady, representing the four aspects of the Virgin Mary, to whom the Templars were particularly devoted.
- The King becomes Master, each a different famous Grand Master of the Templar Order.
- The Knight becomes Preceptor, representing the initiatory aspects of the Templar Order.
- The Page becomes Brother, representing the Seeker or Neophyte of the Templar Order.
Pentacles become the Suit of Stones for the Green Stone that fell from Lucifer’s crown and the long sought Philosopher’s Stone of the Alchemists, telling the story of the initial journey of the Seeker or Neophyte as he studies and must face his own failings.
Swords become the Sword of John the Baptist, telling the story of the next stage of the Seeker’s tale as he becomes an official Templar Knight. He fights alongside his comrades against the black knight, and ultimately is defeated, as the final 10 of Swords depicts this solemn image: “The young knight staggers on foot along a road leading toward a Templar commanderie, clasping ten swords in his arms—the weapons of his dead companions. Tears stream down his face.”
Wands become the Lance of Longinus (the Roman centurion’s lance fabled to have pierced Jesus’ side as he hung upon the cross), telling the story of the defeated Seeker Knight who chooses to give up his armor and weapons to walk the path of a solitary pilgrim as he pursues his own healing journey.
At last, the Cups become the Suit of Vessels, the Holy Grail itself wherein the “primary function is transformation” according to John Matthews. “The Grail above all represents completion; it brings empowerment to the mature spiritual Seeker who has undergone many tests and trials to reach this point on their continuing quest.” Our Seeker is now the new Master of the Order, and the Suit of Vessels tells the story of the Seeker’s attempts to share the salvation of the Grail with the world.