The Byzantine Tarot
Wisdom from an Ancient Empire
John Matthew & Cilla Conway
I was sitting around one day thinking about what sort of tarot decks I would like to see be made. This was in reflection because I was thinking about creating my own deck, which I am. One of the ideas for a deck that came to mind was a Byzantine Tarot. As a Greek, a Byzantine Tarot is very appealing. Greeks today have more connection to the Byzantine Empire than anything from the classical period of late antiquity. So while decks like the Mythic tarot pull on the mythological strings, a Byzantine deck would appeal to history and religious ideas relevant to Greeks today.
I soon found out that that someone indeed has created one! John Matthews (The Wildwood Tarot) and Cilla Conway (The Intuitive Tarot) created The Byzantine Tarot, which was newly released.
The Byzantine Empire existed from the 5th century AD until its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Byzantine Empire was the name given by historians for the Eastern Roman Empire. People of that time saw themselves as Romans and the empire was still Roman, however the power had shifted from the Latin speaking west to the Greek speaking east. While the west fell to the hands of invading Germanic tribes to the North, the east flourished for centuries.
The Byzantine Tarot is designed to present us a tarot deck that someone from the time of the Byzantines would recognize. As John Matthews explains in the companion guidebook, friends of his wondered if it could be done since tarot was developed after the time of Byzantines during the end of the middle ages and into the Renaissance. John explains that in his research, he found recognizable tarot iconography in the Byzantine period. For example The Holy Fool, a Byzantine image similar to the fool in the traditional tarot.
The art in the deck follows the style of Byzantine art. Cilla designed the deck based on mosaics, frescos and manuscript illustrations. If you have ever been to an Orthodox church you can still see Byzantine style art, as this is form which religious art in Orthodoxy is done.
Orthodox art is stylized and abstract in contrast to the West, which utilized realism in their religious art. In the west, statues were also used in religious life, however you do not find this in the east, instead you will find icons. Flat images which in Orthodoxy are like portals to the divine realm. I have said before, the Major Arcana of the tarot for me is akin to orthodox icons, the Major’s are windows to the divine realm.
Looking through the Byzantine Tarot I felt much at home with the images, they were familiar to me via my experiences of church iconography. I can relate to this deck. The deck relies on Christian imagery so be warned if that is not your cup of tea. The art is remenicent of Robert Places work, if you like decks such as the Alchemical Tarot or the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, you will enjoy the Byzantine Tarot.
The deck is big, so small hands may have trouble holding and shuffling. It took me a moment to adjust to it. However the card stock is very nimble for its size. I was able to bridge shuffle without problem.
The High Priestess is renamed in this deck, now called Sophia. Sophia is Greek for Wisdom and in Orthodoxy, Holy Sophia is the hypostasis of God. Much like the Logos, the Word is a hypostasis. The replacement of Sophia for the High Priestess is seamless, it works perfectly.
The Devil is renamed Diabolos, the Greek word for Devil. The Byzantines did not have the same developed idea of a Devil like that which we are familiar with. That formulated Devil comes later in history. However, as Matthews and Cilla point out in the book, there is a lot of literature of demons in general.
The Tower is an image which has to be reimagined for a Byzantine context. For this image they drew on the tradition of monks known as stylites. They would live their lives on top of pillars. In the card a serpent wraps around the pillar, threatening to break it.
The Star depicts the star of Bethlehem, shining down on Mary and baby Jesus. This image is directly pulled from orthodox iconography.
The Judgment card is based on the Ladder of Divine Ascent. This is an image the Byzantines would recognize without a doubt.
Justice and Fortitude (Strength) are flipped in this deck, you will find Justice as card 8, and Fortitude as card 11.
The Minor Arcana associated the suits with different aspects of life in the Empire. Swords of Power, the military might. Staffs of Office, represent the implements of courtly life and the daily life of the peasantry. Cups of State, represent the Church and the everyday family life. Coins of Empire, demonstrates the wealth and mercantile importance. It is important to note that in this deck Swords are associated with Fire and Staffs are associated with Air.
The court cards are also different, there are Pages, Knight, Countess and Counts. Since there are no Kings or Queens, just the Emperor and Empress, this changes reflect that reality.
The companion book is 160 pages in length and gives you insight into the creator’s goals and background for the decks purpose. Each card is given plenty of written text to give you context for the artistic decisions made. It is fun to read the companion book because you learn a lot about Byzantine culture and life. This historical context is labeled as “Traditions”. For example. In the 7 of Swords, it depicts a battle at sea, with the Byzantines using Greek Fire to attack the invading enemy. The 10 of Swords shows the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans.
The Byzantine Tarot is not simply a Waite-Smith clone. Yes, it follows the structure of the Waite-Smith but this is a deck which take the tarot it reinterprets it so that if you gave this deck to a person in the Byzantine Empire they could recognize it a part of their culture, not a foreign thing. Overall, I enjoy this deck very much and I think the creators greatly succeeded in their goals.