The Spiritual Roots of the Tarot: The Cathar Code Hidden in the Cards

The Spiritual Roots of the Tarot: The Cathar Code Hidden in the Cards

Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2020. 368 pp., paper, $24.95.

“I have never given a tarot reading” is an unusual way to begin a study of the Tarot, but this is an unusual book. It is not one where you will learn about divination and how to do card readings. Instead it reveals a personal journey taken with the traditional Marseille Tarot, embedded in a complex study of its philosophy and history, with guidance on using the sequence of cards as a spiritual journey.

After a Christian upbringing, the author avoided all contact with Tarot until he tentatively began to study its imagery in the context of C.G. Jung’s symbolism. Then, in 1995, while shopping for Christmas presents for his children, he happened upon a set of traditional Marseille Tarot cards in a game store. “Unexpectedly,” he writes, “I felt a strong impression to buy them.” He tried to fight the urge as a transgression of his religious beliefs, but could not resist the purchase. From there, his interest escalated, culminating in his spending nearly a year in the Latina region of Italy, a country strongly associated with the origins of the Tarot. Here he experienced an awakening of the heart and “heard an inner voice that was more like a knowing than a hearing . . . ‘Welcome back. You have chosen to return to complete a work you began but never finished.’”

I would take seriously the findings of anyone who has experienced such a deep inner calling and crossed continents to study his subject with utter commitment. There is a ring of authenticity about the journey Sturgess has taken. His allegiance is with the core of Tarot, the traditional twenty-two “Triumphs” or trumps, which have wound their beguiling way through five or six hundred years of history into the highest and lowest levels of society. As they have for Sturgess, these Marseille images have fueled my own Tarot quest over a lifetime.

The author’s approach there differs from my own, as he relates the sequence of Tarot cards to Cathar philosophy, which he calls the “Cathar Code” and connects specifically with the Beatitudes: the words of Jesus spoken in the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” His interpretations of individual cards are also backed up by copious historical allusions and psychological reflections. For example, the Hanged Man is specifically related to becoming “poor in spirit,” on being “emptied out” like the Norse god Odin, a process that can be related both to the mystical Dark Night of the Soul and perhaps to modern depression as offering a gateway to a new state of being. The diverse associations gathered in to illustrate this card include the medieval theory of the four humours and the Festival of Fools, convincingly woven together to illuminate this image.

But to embed all this into a schema based on Cathar teachings is a challenge, given the wide range of interpretation of Cathar philosophies and the uncertainty about their place in Christianity as heretics or illuminati (depending on your viewpoint). For those readers not convinced by the idea of the Cathars as a source of wisdom, it may not matter here: Sturgess pays tribute to a higher vision, shows us a mystical path, and links his interpretations to some of the most profound teachings of Christianity. A system which can be a path to knowledge needs to be self-consistent, but it can draw on symbolism and myth without having to be historically accurate.

Another schema running within the Cathar Code is a definition of the Tarot sequence as a “pilgrimage of the soul,” where the Fool has to learn lessons according to progressive subsets of the cards. For instance, the first three cards in the deck—the Magician, High Priestess, and Empress—are said to represent the domain of childhood, whether physical or spiritual. Extricating the author’s intended number symbolism can be tricky on a straight read-through, however, and I think the book would have benefited from a clearer outline of his schema and a fuller explanation of the Cathar Code. It would also be handy to have a complete citation of the Beatitudes and to have quotations from the Bible in a recognized version. (Biblical passages seem to be paraphrased in the author’s own renderings.)

This is a book to come back to again and again. It has a richness to it and is a cornucopia of valuable insights. Whatever your take on the Tarot, your preferred deck, or your philosophical outlook, this book can enrich your understanding of these wonderfully vivid and enigmatic cards. Sturgess shares his insights and discoveries with great generosity, and his book will have a permanent place on my shelves.

Cherry Gilchrist

Cherry Gilchrist’s most recent article for Quest was “Channeling the Waters of Wisdom” in the fall 2020 issue.