This is the first tarot deck inspired by the Byzantine Empire. This sumptuous and evocative package will appeal to all those with an interest in history, ancient kingdoms, iconography and history of art.
Six of Swords
Knight of Staffs
Ace of Cups
Countess of Coins
Take a good look at Cilla Conway’s artwork on the Byzantine Tarot cards, timed so that you can see what John and Steve are talkng about.
Download to listen on the go.
Subscribe so you never miss an episode!
We publish a new podcast every 2 weeks on interesting Mind, Body, Soul and Health topics
For those who prefer to read, here is the interview transcript:
Steve: Hello and welcome. My name’s Steve Nobel. Today I’m speaking with John Matthews and Cilla Conway on The Byzantine Tarot: Wisdom from an Ancient Empire.
Now John has been a full time writer since 1980, has produced over a hundred books on myth, faery, Arthurian legends, and Grail studies, as well as books of short stories, poetry, and books for children. He lives in Oxford, England with his wife Caitlín who’s also a writer, and a white cat named Willow, and his website is hallowquest.org.uk. There will be a link going out with this podcast.
So hi John.
John: Hello Steve.
Steve: So John, how did this all come about?
John: Well it was interesting, because actually it was because I was doing a launch party for an earlier book at Watkins bookstore in London, and Cilla was there and we got chatting. We’d run into each other a couple of times before, but we didn’t really know each other well. And we just got talking and I happened to say, “One thing I’ve really always wanted to do was a Byzantine Tarot,” and she looked at me and she said, “But that’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
So after a few moments awkward silence we just kind of went, “Well, why don’t we just do it together?” And it worked very well. Because Cilla is a fantastic artist and has a really deep understanding of the style of the period and the place. And I have quite a good knowledge of the history of Byzantine. So you know, we put it together and hey presto.
Steve: Well, I did actually read about the Byzantine history several months ago. Amazing empire wasn’t it? The power of Rome combined with the opulence and splendour of the orient. Now, can you just say something about why is the Byzantine world so important?
John: Well it’s a kind of matrix point really, as you said it has elements if the Roman world, it has elements of the oriental world, and particularly of the belief systems of both places. Because of course by this time the Roman empire is nominally Christian, and so you have a very strong Christian focus in the great cathedrals like Hagia Sophia and so forth. And it brings those two streams together in a very powerful way. And also the literature, the literature of the east and the literature of the west really combine here into something wonderfully elaborate and picturesque.
Steve: Now I’ve read in the Tarot book that you say the Byzantine world became synonymous with the idea of complexity and chicanery, from its early days. Can you say something about that?
John: Yeah, well I mean the Byzantine court is very famous for being immensely complex. You had categories for everything, you had people in charge of who put what on the table, who cooked it, how it was cooked, who dressed in what, who could speak to the other person. Very hierarchical. And there was a great deal of evidence of backstabbing and climbing, people trying to climb the ladder through the court to be part of the emperor and empress’s entourage.
The whole complexity of the thing has become in a way synonymous with very complex political manoeuvring. To this day you still get people talking of political situations as being very Byzantine, implying that they’re complex and sometimes devious. So that’s the kind of energy that comes out of the place.
Steve: Yeah. Now, I know John that we chatted before about this deck and you said it’s very good for complex issues. What I’ve noticed with Tarot as I’ve used them over the years is different decks have different flavours and are good for different things. What kind of issues have you used this deck for?
John: I think I said that, I said that it was good for complex issues, because of the very thing that I just described. The whole complexity of life at court and the Byzantine world in general. So I find that this is particularly good for those kind of everyday issues that we come up with, like problems in the workplace, sometimes problems at home, but more often to do with exterior forces if you like. So if you’re having a particularly hard time at work, if you are running into problems with your neighbours or your landlord, that kind of … very good for legal problems for instance. I did a reading for someone who was having horrendous legal problems, and it was really very pointed and clear. So that kind of thing.
Steve: Right. Now, the Rider-Waite deck kind of set the associations of the Minor suits in stone didn’t it? The swords or air and the ones of fire and so on. But you’ve kind of got different associations. Could you say something about your suits?
John: Well we do still have swords. Staffs instead of staves. Cup is still a cup. And the coins are still coins. So basically, they’re still the same sort of courtly associations that you have in the standard right away to other well known decks of that kind. But what we did do was to make them reflect the particular emphasis within the empire itself. So there’s a very strong emphasis on money, there’s a very strong emphasis on power. There’s a very strong emphasis on warfare. There’s a very strong emphasis on love.
So you’ve got all of the … so the traditional meanings are there, but we applied them to the world of the Byzantine Empire, which as I said, was very complex and there were lots of interactions between people. So we’ve got each of the suits reflects those specific meanings. So anyone who is familiar with Tarot finds this deck very easy to work with. Because although we have applied it, if you like, to the world of Byzantine court, people still recognise the imagery and the meanings that would come from a standard Rider-Waite style deck.
Steve: Now I’ve picked five cards just to get a kind of understanding myself of the deck, so I’m just going to ask you to comment on the meanings of these cards. Now, the first one is from the Major and it’s the Tower card. And this is beautiful image of looks like some kind of mage dressed in blue, standing on a tower with a great serpent weaving up towards him, and there’s a kind of sun radiating down overhead.
John: Yes. Anyone who’d familiar with the standard meanings of Tarot, will know that it’s usually the lightning struck tower or sometimes the falling tower. It always represents a break in life, a change, sudden and unexpected and sometimes shocking. We wanted to find something different because there wasn’t an exact parallel anywhere that we could find in Byzantine iconography. So Cilla came up with this one. The character standing on the top of the pillar is an old saint called Saint Simeon Stylites and he spent the last 40 years of his life sitting on top of a pillar, and people would send food up to him and everything else would be sent up or taken down. And so we liked this idea of the solitary figure who is sort of holding out against the world on top of this pillar. And then the serpent represents the sudden and unexpected break, the change, and stress if you like, of an unexpected turn of events.
Steve: Powerful card, yeah.
John: It’s a very powerful card isn’t it? Yeah, I love it.
Steve: So the next card John is the Six of Swords, and here’s, looks like a kind of traveller or pilgrim on the road, an old … I’m not saying he’s an old man, but a guy with a staff. There’s these six swords buried in the ground, and behind him there’s a town with these kind of purple mountains. Lovely image actually.
John: It is a lovely image. Well he actually is not a pilgrim, he’s a soldier returning from the wars. All of the swords feature people who are involved in the army in some way or other, in being soldiers. So here he’s coming home, presumably after long years of service or after an intense battle. And he’s heading for home. And somewhere in the distance there, in the little village or town, is someone waving to him, waiting to welcome him home. Presumably his wife.
But the swords are there because whatever he does, he can’t quite forget the fact that he was once a soldier, or still is a soldier, and that reminds him of the world that he comes from.
Steve: Yeah. I can just now see a little figure kind of waving.
John: There’s a woman waving from the walls I think. So soldier coming home from war, you could say if you wanted a short version.
Steve: So next one I have is the Knight of Staffs, and here’s a man sitting on what looks like a rock, playing a kind of flute, and beside him is another mini harp type of thing.
John: Yes, it’s a lyre.
John: Yes again, well in this case the staffs as I said, has to do mostly with the courtiers who attended upon the emperor and empress in the court. We do know that there were a number of wandering musicians who would go from place to place, rather in the same way that the bards did in the Celtic world. And they were musicians, they could tell stories, they would write and read poems, sing songs. And they were entertainers in fact. So this one, the Knight of Staffs is a performer, an entertainer, someone with the subtle qualities that such people have.
Steve: Next card is the Ace of Cups. Now this looks a really beautiful Byzantine chalice. Is this an image from a real chalice?
John: Yes it is. It’s one of my own favourites actually. It’s one of the number of such objects, cups, vessels, cauldrons and so on, round the world that have been at one time or another associated with the Holy Grail. So it is rather important, because there is a strong association of Grail mythology with Byzantine. There’s even a story that the Grail was taken there at one point and kept within the city, but it vanished after the city was sacked by the Turks in the sixth century.
We wanted something that would suggest that Grail imagery, the sense of the peace, there’s a dove of peace flying down into it you’ll see. And there are fish underneath it. It’s kind of floating over the water. And we’ve got the fish of peace, [inaudible 00:10:12], and the dove of peace descending into the cup. So yeah, it is a very powerful image.
Steve: And the final card is the Countess of Coins. Beautiful woman sitting in what looks like some kind of courtyard, dressed in kind of gold and peach coloured clothing, and holding a large coin in her left hand.
John: Absolutely, yes. I mean this is another … you’ll notice that as you go through it, that there are so many rather wonderful characters here that were mostly taken from actual Byzantine iconography. Cilla will talk about this I know. She really represents the, I would say the ladies of the court if you like. Even although in the Byzantine Empire as in the rest of the ancient world, women were not equal to men, they did have a very powerful role. And married women control their own diaries, and often came with their own households. So they were in positions of quite considerable power. And the Countess of Coins is really, she guards the power and the bounty within the Guild to operate it within the court. So she’s a very powerful courtly figure.
Steve: Beautiful. Well John, it’s an amazing deck, beautiful book and fantastic cards. So thanks for talking and I wish you all the best with the project.
John: You’re very welcome. Thanks a lot.
The Byzantine Tarot
John Matthews & Cilla Conway
The first tarot deck inspired by the Byzantine Empire, this sumptuous and evocative package will appeal to all those with an interest in history, ancient kingdoms, iconography and history of art.
The Byzantine world, which lasted from 330 to 1453 CE, combined the elegance and power of Rome with the opulence and splendor of the Orient. This combination brought about richness in the world of art, literature, and spirituality that has seldom been equaled. Yet it also has a mysterious resonance, and it is to this world of emperors and empresses, saints and sinners, faith and miracles that the creators of this dazzling new tarot have turned, capturing the Byzantine vision, magic, and enchantment.