Alchemy and the Tarot
Alchemy and the Tarot: An Examination of the Historical Connection with a Guide to the Alchemical Tarot is a dense reference book from tarot scholar, Robert Place. Rich in historical references, legends, stories, mystical and esoteric ideas on tarot symbolism and its alchemical links, it's an essential book for the tarot student.
By Robert M. Place
Book - 250 pages - Published by Hermes Publication
Review by Bonnie Cehovet
This is a long awaited book for many of us in the Tarot field. Acting as an updated companion to all editions of the Alchemical Tarot, it also addresses the historic connection between Alchemy and the Tarot. As in all of his work, Place’s personal story is woven into the process. (I believe that for all of us, our personal story is the foundation for the work we do, and that it is what drives us, not the work itself.) Part of Place’s story is that he is an internationally recognized artist, author, and scholar of the western mystical tradition. His work includes the “Alchemical Tarot”, the “Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery”, the “Angels Tarot”, the “Tarot of the Saints”, the “Buddha Tarot”, and the “Vampire Tarot”, as well as “The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination”, “Astrology and Divination”, “Shamanism”, and “Magic and Alchemy”.
It is interesting to check out Place’s website – the name is not a fluke. Here is what he says:
“The "Ovum Philosophicum," which can be translated as the Philosophical or Alchemical Egg, is the principal vessel used in alchemical operations. During the alchemical process, the material, Hermetically sealed in the Egg, is put through a symbolic death and rebirth. When the Egg was cracked, a new mystical substance emerged which was an elixir that prolonged life and acted as a catalyst capable of improving any substance that it came in contact with. This substance, called the Philosopher's Stone, could change lead into gold and change an ordinary person into an enlightened master.” A significant “Aha!” experience happened to Place in the summer os 1987 – as he was studying an illustration of the Philosopher’s Stone in an alchemical book that he was reading. He came to the realization that the symbolism of the design for the Philosopher’s Stone was entirely interchangeable with that of the World card in the Tarot. He came to realize that the Tarot Trumps represent the alchemical Great Work.
In this book Place does indeed discuss the alchemical symbolism of each of the cards in the Alchemical Tarot. He prefaces this with investigation into the history of alchemy, and the history of the Tarot. We will need to look at both histories to see why there is a connection between the two, and how we can gain deeper insight into the Tarot’s mystical secrets.
In his introduction, Place describes a dream that he had, a dream with great portent. He was told that he was receiving an inheritance from an ancestor, and that it was a powerful tool that needed to be used wisely. That inheritance turned out to be a Tarot deck – the Tarot of Marseille, to be precise. This lead to his purchasing the Waite-Smith Tarot, a deck that one of his friends had shown to him. Place saw these decks in an interesting way – as tools for creating a message in pictures that could be interpreted as a dream – a waking dream. He quickly realized that he needed to gather all of the information that he could related to the themes he saw in the illustrations.
He approached Gnosticism, alchemy, Neoplatonism, and related subjects. In time, he heard a radio commentator discussing the Harmonic Conversion, and how during this period of spiritual transformation sensitive individuals all over the world would be experiencing a flood of information on spiritual subjects. He recognized himself, and what he was experiencing!
Place notes that the work he was doing was guided by spontaneous magical coincidences. It lead him to his writing partner (Rosemary Ellen Guiley), his first publisher (Harper Collins), and has kept his deck (the “Alchemical Tarot”) in the public eye since its inception. He credits the Anima Mundi with his flow of success, as it is speaking through the cards, and not him.
Place is known for his ability to research, and this shows up well in his chapters on the history of alchemy and the history of Tarot. In the history of alchemy, he covers things like the same symbol meaning different things in different texts, alchemy’s Egyptian origins, the myth of Osiris, Greek alchemy. Hermes Trismegistus, the Seven Hermetic Concepts, the Emerald Tablet, Arabic alchemists, European alchemists, Renaissance alchemy, the Rosicrucians, Jung and Psychological alchemy, and much more. All of which is accompanied by beautiful illustrations from ancient texts.
In Chapter Two we move on to the basic concepts of alchemy, including the numerical symbolism, the ,the Zodiac, and an Alchemical Mandala. As with the previous chapter, beautiful illustrations from ancient text are included. These two chapters alone give the reader an amazing schooling in the alchemical world!
Chapter Three presents the history of Tarot, from it introduction into Europe, the suit symbols as they varied from country to country, the early Italian decks, the creation of the occult deck, the Waite-Smith deck,
Chapter Four covers interpreting the allegory – the memory arts, the Trionfi, the three-fold allegory of the trumps (the three by seven theory), and the alchemical trumps.
Chapter Five covers the Minor Arcana. Place brings up something very interesting – that there are three ways of interpreting the Minor Arcana: (1) the four suit symbols and their associations, (2) symbolism stemming from the teachings of Pythagoras that are associated with the first ten numbers, and (3) the code of chivalry expressed in the hierarchy of the royal cards. There is quite a bit of interesting thought in this chapter, including a graph that correlates the suits with Jung’s four functions of consciousness.
Chapter Six takes us into the Major Arcana, or the cards of the Opus. Each of the cards shows a black and white illustration, a relevant quote, and a discussion of the symbols of that card as rendered in the “Alchemical Tarot”.
Chapter Seven moves into the cards of the four elements (the four suits). Each of the cards again shows a black and white illustration, along with a discussion of the card, and the symbolism as seen in the “Alchemical Tarot”.
Chapter Eight takes us into the area of divination, broken down into three types: (1) intuitive (dreams and visions), (2) inductive (omens), and (3) interpretive (lots). Place uses three cards in each position, reading them as a statement, or story. He points to the three-fold structure as having archetypal significance – to the Pythagoreans, three defined the points necessary to make the first geometric form, and begin creation.
Place goes into depth on the seven patterns of a three card reading (linear, choice, meeting, central origin, central destination, central problem, and central teacher. He then presents a relationship reading, and a transmutation reading, using this method.
This is a working “bible” for the “Alchemical Tarot” decks, as well as a research quality book for both alchemy and the Tarot. The presentation of reading with three cards is a huge bonus, and not to be taken lightly! I highly recommend this book as an excellent addition to any Tarot (or esoteric) library.
© Bonnie Cehovet
Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.
Review by Kathleen Meadows
This book represents an erudite body of work. It is resplendent in its historical references, legends, stories, mystical and esoteric ideas. Spanning, in some cases, more than a 1000 years. This is a reference book everyone who is at all interested in the esoteric, particularly alchemy and tarot, should have on their bookshelf. At 250 pages, including an impressive bibliography, its a tightly wrapped, dense treatise. The book itself is a large sized paper back.
But alchemy and the tarot represent only a portion of what this text encompasses. Robert gallops through such a broad range of topics, it would be surprising if anyone reading this book was already familiar with even a fraction of whats in it. In the first 140 something pages Robert explains, describes and discusses a whole gamut of psychological and esoteric topics: numerology, the Emerald tablet, the Knights Templar, Rosicrucians, the Renaissance, the body humors, Jungian psychology and of course alchemy. Considering the number of volumes published on Jungs work alone, plus all the other topics he includes, this is nothing less than a heroic undertaking.
Even if you do not possess Robert's deck, also titled The Alchemical Tarot, you will find this book useful. As you might imagine, this book is hardly a toasty read that you could polish off in an afternoon. It is well written and illustrated; considering that Robert is addressing a broad range of, in many cases, fairly complex concepts, it is a book I am confident most tarots will comprehend. That is another reason why I think this book should be on your reading list this year.
Until reading this book, I honestly didn't realize how significant alchemy was to understanding the meaning of the tarot. For example, many notable early Tarots were also alchemists and their study of alchemy influenced the meaning they assigned to particularly the trump cards. It isn't at all difficult to connect to the why of an Alchemical Tarot in the first place. It's actually surprising no one had connected these two disciplines more intimately before.
According the Robert, however they had. He includes a brief discussion of Waites Tarot and the evident alchemical symbols present. I'm pleased however, that Robert was the one to assume the baton. His Alchemical Tarot deck was one of the most popular decks ever published and still is in demand. Sadly its no longer in print. If you want a copy be braced to pay an exorbitant amount of money for it!
In this paragraph Robert explains why alchemy and tarot are perfect mates:
"In this alchemical journey, the Fool acts as the alchemist, and proceeds through the trumps toward his goal. He begins with the Materia Prima, represented by the Magician, splits him into his four physical elements, the four cardinal rulers, the High Priestess to the Pope, and recombines the elements in the lesser conjunction, the Lovers. The product of this union, the Chariot, is subjected to a series of chemical processes, represented by the trumps in the second section. These processes culminate with his death, the Death trump. The soul of the product is also separated, in the Tower, purified, in the Star, and recombined in a greater conjunction, the Moon and the Sun. Now, the dead matter can be resurrected, in Judgement, and the elements can take their places at the four corners of the World trump, framing the beautiful nude in the centre, who is the Anima Mundi, the Quinta Essentia, and the essence of the Philosophers Stone."
This might all sound rather confusing and complicated but after reading the first 100 pages of the book, it makes perfect sense! That's how much the reader has learned about alchemy by this point.
The only negative criticism I have is why Robert felt so compelled to reinvent the wheel. In some cases the descriptions of a particular esoteric discipline (or Jungian psychology) only required an 'if you want to know more, read such and such'. It seems redundant to delve into many of the topics in the depth he does when other whole texts are dedicated to the topic. There could have been more focus on alchemy and tarot had he refrained in many cases from going into such detail. On the other hand, for the reader who really isn't familiar at all with these topics, his work will serve to familiarize the reader enough that further reading wouldn't be necessary.
I highly recommend this book. You will definitely feel as though you got your money's worth. It's a bargain at roughly $25 depending on where you purchase your copy. Its likely you'll keep it on your shelf and refer to it for years. You might even have to read it more than once!
Kathleen Meadows, M.A, is a Certified Tarot Grand Master with 20 years reading and teaching the Tarot from a feminist perspective.