Saturday, 23 November 2013

Grail Tarot: A Templar Vision

This week we will examine a deck that might annoy purists -- tarot purists in this case (coincidentally, Chloe at Inner Whispers is looking at an unconventional Lenormand). It's the Grail Tarot: A Templar Vision by John Matthews. Combining Grail and Knights Templar legend, it requires commitment to learn to use. I suppose you could read it based solely on pictures straight out of the box, but then you would miss the point of the deck entirely, and that would be a shame, as quite a bit of thought has gone into it, and using the complete system properly gives considerable insight into Grail lore, Templar history, and a light introduction to the tenets of the Gnostic heresies. (I have read some people say that this deck is a 'very Christian' deck. This could only be said by someone who knows nothing about orthodox Christianity, because the Grail legend and the Gnostic thought behind it are rejected by the orthodox church as complete heresies -- ie, not Christian. So take heart, those of you who say you find 'Christian things' distasteful -- you won't find much Christianity in the Grail Tarot. Lots of Bible imagery, but that in no way makes something Christian. Just look at Mr Crowley's work, if you need examples.)

Let's look at the way the deck is structured. First, the majors are all renamed, and when laid out in a long row, the art becomes a single frieze. That's a fun gimmick, but unfortunately, my cards are printed crooked and the images don't line up very well. (I can live with it, though, because when I complained of this to the seller, my money was refunded and I was told I didn't have to return the item, so I got it free. Faulty is so much more tolerable when an item is free, don't you think?) The majors do, mostly, bear some resemblance to the traditional, though a few require a stretch of the imagination, which could annoy purists. I know I am annoyed by a couple of them.

 The minors are divided into four suits, called Hallows:

The Green Stone - Pentacles or Coins - based on 13th century poet Wolfram von Eschenbach's retelling of the Grail legend as an alchemical mystery. The Green Stone represents an aspect of the Grail, and is called lapsit exillis, the stone that fell from Lucifer's crown when he was cast out of heaven.

The Sword of John the Baptist - Swords - This is the sword that was used to cut off John the Baptist's head.

The Lance of Longinus - Lances, Batons, or Wands - This the lance that was used to pierce the side of Jesus as he hung on the cross.

The Holy Grail - Cups (called 'Vessel' here)

Now here's the really interesting thing, to me, about the structure of the minors. Each suit tells the story of a cycle of questing for a single Templar Knight character, referred throughout the book as the Seeker. We are to identify ourselves, as user of the pack, with the Seeker. In each quest, the Seeker journeys out, gets his butt kicked and handed back to him, goes back to home base having learned important things, and then sets out again for another go. Each card in the suit illustrates a scene from the quest.

In the Stone suit, the Seeker is a neophyte and must spend some time studying before he sets out. He goes out with a bit of cockiness (like many newbies with no experience but a lot of qualifications), all dressed up for his big adventure, and is immediately mugged and all his possessions stolen. He wanders, clad in rags, through a murky wood, where a hermit looks after him. He is sent on his way, refreshed, and returns to home base having learned lessons in humility, having faced realities of earthly life and the body.

In the Sword suit, the Seeker has been made a Knight. As soon as he sets out, he is attacked on the road by mysterious black-clad knights. He is not defeated by them, but sees that a black knight has abducted a woman. While in pursuit, he also sees that a fellow knight is being brutally attacked. He must choose -- pursue to save the woman, or stay to help his kinsman. He chooses to free the woman, then returns to help his brother knight, who, rather unbrotherly, beats the crap out of the Seeker for not helping him in the first place. (This pretty uncharitable behaviour, but knights were not nice guys -- in many ways! And their sense of chivalry is a bit unfathomable to the modern mind). The beaten Seeker retires to a blacksmith shop to have his battered armor and sword repaired, and is then immediately waylaid by a black knight, who steals his sword and throws him in a cart like a common criminal. He escapes by stealing his sword back when the black knight is sleeping. He meets a group of fellow Templars on the road, and joins up with them. But their fellowship is attacked by a band of black knights, and the Seeker alone survives the battle. He takes up the swords of his fallen brothers and makes his bloody, tear-blurred way back to home base. He has learned so much about pain, betrayal, loyalty, choices, consequences...

After much meditation and contemplation, the Knight decides to set out again on his Grail quest. This is the suit of lances. This time he sets out as a pilgrim, not a warrior. He has different ideas about himself and the world now. Dressed in a simple robe with a staff, he soon finds himself at a crossroad in a heavy rainstorm. It feels like the very heavens themselves conspire against him. He decides to travel by ship and eventually arrives at Corbenic, the home of the Grail family. In the great hall, he is served by a woman who in reality is the Shekinah (a spiritual emanation of God in its feminine aspect). Distracted by the opulence of the feast, the Seeker does not notice that the hall is crumbling and in ruin. The Shekinah brings the Seeker into the presence of the Wounded King. The Seeker could have healed the King using the Lance of Longinus, but he has not made that connection, as he still relies too much on intellectual knowledge rather than the spirit. There is trouble and a fight ensues, during which the Seeker is wounded and flees the castle. He wanders into a wood, disoriented by his wound, and is ministered to by a mysterious figure who, unknown to him, is Melchizadek, an ancient priest-king mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible. He is healed, and meets a radiantly beautiful woman on the side of the road, who is actually Mary Magdalene. She points him toward the Templar commandarie, where he is welcomed back. He is made Master of the Order because he has come so very close to achieving the Grail.

Finally, the suit of Vessels. The Seeker has become Master. He perceives that the Grail is essentially a means of communicating directly with God. It is oneness with the universal. He realises that ALL vessels are the Grail, because there is no real separation between us and God. He decides to renovate the Temple to reflect the glory of his vision. He watches as pilgrims flock to the new Temple. His success leads him into a bit of a funk. All the work has become a distraction and he feels he has lost sight of the Grail. He decides to dress as a simple pilgrim and venture out to refresh his spirit. In the marketplace, he attempts to teach, but no one will listen, no one recognizes him, and he is reviled as a crazy beggar. He is driven from town by armed men. The Seeker returns to the Temple, understanding that the message of the Grail is not meant for everyone. Not all can grasp it. Even he cannot grasp it. He decides to write down an account of his personal experiences, rather than a treatise on the nature of the Grail, in the hope that some readers will see through to the mystery that cannot be expressed outright. He send his book out into the world. And he is revered as a great teacher and Master, and is proclaimed Grand Master of the Order and Guardian of the Grail.

And this is the deck we will examine this week.


  1. I have this deck and really like it but then, I have always been intrigued by the Templars. What Major cards annoyed you, Carla? I am curious!

  2. Bors, in particular.

  3. This is still one of my all-time favourite decks (so much I find it hard to get rid of my extra copy of it, even though I hardly have a need for it). I love it, I love it's structure, it's weird art and honestly, I like even the cards that bother me, because it feels like a challenge to me. I am happy you are going to explore this deck in the coming week!

    1. I like the cards that bother me, too. It certainly does have weird art and also a very intense vibe, don't you think?

    2. It is a very intense deck, in my opinion. And I like that it portrays some of the violence of those times, and not simply the whole Camelot-like 'clean' medieval idealisation, like so many other decks on the subject...

  4. As always, a lively and down-to-earth review for a deck that much needs such a review. This seems to be one of your fortes; I can recall your similar much-needed treatments of decks others overlook or dismiss for various reasons.

    As a product of the Matthews as well as being related to the Arthurian mysteries, this deck should be a no-brainer for me, yet I've yet to acquire it.

    And how right you are about people throwing around the term "Christian" for decks (or art, or books) that blatantly fly in the face of much Christian doctrine!

    1. Thanks, Chiriku. You should certainly get yourself a copy of this deck. I think you'd really enjoy it.

  5. Anonymous18.4.15

    I love this deck as I am a Knight of the Temple and the quests are a great meditation whether daily, weekly or monthly.


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