Robert O"Neill: Catharism and the Trumps

Catharism and the Trumps

How do the trump cards tie into Catharism?

By Robert ONeill

Part III: Catharism and Tarot

Okay, after a couple of dry historical sections--let's get down to the nitty-gritty! Is the Tarot actually Gnostic in origin? The answer is--it's hard to see Catharism as the sole or fundamental source of the Tarot symbols. It is possible that the dualist heresy was A source but essentially we have to reject the idea that the dualist heresy was THE source (or primary or fundamental, etc.). After analyzing what the Cathari believed, it just isn't consistent to think of the Tarot as a Cathar symbolic system.

Let's just focus on the big pieces. The concept that the Cathars would have used a material (and therefore evil) means, such as a set of images, to express their beliefs is inconsistent with their belief system. They rejected every material expression of spirituality as a tool of Satan--a means to keep the spirit entrapped in matter. The Perfecti weren't concerned with instructing the Credentes--so there is no justification for the idea of a catechism or instructional aid or memory device. The Cathari rejected relics as evil--they were remains of the evil matter that the saintly spirit had rejected and therefore escaped. They rejected icons and any attempt to capture spirituality in a material manifestation (Leff, 1967). The Cathars had no churches of wood or stone (Wakefield and Evans, 1991). By a logical extension, nothing material, of paper and ink, would have had a part either.

The most important reason that the dualist Cathars have been suggested as a source for the Tarot is the prevalence of dualist symbolism in the trumps. But this internal evidence becomes inconsistent when examined in detail. Take, for example, the dualist symbol of the two pillars. The presence of two pillars on a card is taken as a reference to Boaz and Jachin, the twin temples at the entrance to the Temple of Solomon. But the Cathars saw the Old Testament as a tool of Satan. The radical dualists rejected all of the Old Testament, the moderate dualists only included the Prophets and Sapiential books (Leff, 1967). The descriptions of the Temple in Kings and Chronicles were not part of their belief system. The very concept of erecting a material (material=evil=Satanic) Temple was anathema. So the idea of using two material objects (i.e., pillars) to symbolize the material/non-material duality of the Cathars doesn't make sense.

A similar judgment must be made about the male-female dualities in the Tarot Trumps: Lovers, Empress/Emperor, Papess/Pope. For the Cathari, sexual differences were not a fundamental duality; gender was an alien and evil imposition (Lansing, 1998). For them, the fundamental reality was the duality of divine spirit trapped in satanic matter. Sexual difference was just a component of the entrapment--deluding the unenlightened spirit into continued focus on the material--luring the spirit into sexual attraction, intercourse and procreation which served to continue the entrapment of spirits in bodies. Sex was not sacred to the Cathars; it was an abomination and intrinsically deceptive and evil (Davison, 1927).

This rejection of the male-female duality was carried to the extreme of vegetarianism and chastity. Nothing that was a product of procreation, such as meat or eggs, was permitted. Complete abstinence from sexual contract was required of the Perfecti (Runciman, 1947). Marriage was deplored even among the Credentes (Davison, 1927). Indeed, the equal status given to women among the Cathari resulted from the premise that all humans were asexual spirits, equally entrapped in matter.

So the many symbols of duality in the Tarot trumps (pillars, vases, sex, etc.) might have a source in the dualism of Neoplatonism or the duality intrinsic to the Judeo-Christian tradition. But for the Cathars, any pair of material objects was simply part of Satan's illusion--it was a false dichotomy designed to distract the attention of the entrapped spirit away from the truth.

Turning to the smaller details, a characteristic that the Cathari shared with many heretical groups of that period was the total rejection of the corrupt Church. So there shouldn't be any Pope card. Since the Pope was the Anti-Christ, the incarnation of Satan, there shouldn't be both a Pope and Devil card. The Cathari rejected the whole of Catholic dogma, so there shouldn't be Moral Virtues. Believing themselves specially chosen of the Holy Spirit, they mostly rejected external authority and practiced passive resistance, so there shouldn't be an Empress or Emperor card. Simply stated, if one were to express the belief system of the Cathari in a set of images, it wouldn't look like the Tarot trumps. Conversely, many of the Tarot symbols seem in direct conflict with Cathar beliefs.

Perhaps, the most serious problem with seeing the Tarot as a Cathar product is the Angel (later called Judgment) card. This card shows the orthodox Catholic dogma of the resurrection of the body. At the end of time, the souls of the blessed will be reunited with their bodies which will rise, miraculously uncorrupted, from their graves. Obviously, the idea of reuniting the freed spirits with their evil bodies would be totally anathema to the Cathari (Bynum, 1995). The Cathari totally rejected the doctrine of the resurrection of the body (Lansing, 1998). They had a concept of a final Judgment, but that was a judgment of spirits--separating those who had freed themselves from matter from those who remained entrapped. There is nothing in their concept that corresponds to bodies rising from graves as shown on the Tarot image.

So the hypothesis that the Cathari were THE designers of the trumps must be rejected. The hypothesis that the Cathari were the inheritors of a great occult secret tradition is also difficult to swallow. The classic text of Runciman (1947) concludes: "The careful questioning of the Inquisitors, well trained to unearth any secret, reveal no trace of any occult lore imparted to the Cathar initiates" (p. 177). The last sentence of the book (p. 187) states "It is perhaps safer to admit of no connection between the Dualist and the Occultist Traditions." Simply stated--there isn't a shred of evidence for a Cathar/Tarot or a Cathar/Occult connection--not from converted Cathari and not from spies who were inserted into the system by the Inquisition.

But does that mean that the Cathari made no contributions to the concepts of the trumps? NO! That contribution remains feasible, perhaps even probable. The circumstantial evidence remains strong. There are dualist symbols in the Tarot, even if they aren't the symbols that the Cathari themselves would have used. The Elects of the Bogomils dressed like monks (Runciman, 1947) and might be represented as the Hermit--carrying the enlightenment over the mountains. In Provence, the Credentes were craftspersons. Lambert (1998) specifically mentions shoemakers (147)-- possibly hinted at in the Bateleur card. The Church was viewed as evil and was referred to as the whore of Babylon. So the Tower card, seen as the Tower of Babylon or the crumbling House of God, is also suggestive of heretical inputs. However, the route from the Cathari in the 12th/13th century to the Tarot designers in the 15th is circuitous--it's a great historical detective story.


Bynum, C. W. 1995. The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336. Columbia University Press, N.Y.

Davison, E. S. 1927. Forerunners of Saint Francis. Houghton Mifflin, NY.

Lambert, M. 1998. The Cathars. Blackwell, Oxford. 

Lansing, C. 1998. Power and Purity: Cathar Heresy in Medieval Italy. Oxford University Press, NY.

Leff, G. 1967. Heresy in the Later Middle Ages: The Relation of Heterodoxy to Dissent c. 1250-1450. Manchester Univ Press, Manchester.

Moore, R. I. 1975. The Birth of Popular Heresy. Edward Arnold Ltd. (reprinted 1995, Medieval Academy of America).

Runciman, S. 1947. The Medieval Manichee. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. (reprinted 1996).

Wakefield, W. L. and A. P. Evans. 1969. Heresies of the High Middle Ages. Columbia University Press, NY. (Reprinted 1991).

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