Vampires? Oh My! - Interview With Robert M. Place
by Bonnie Cehovet
His personal landscape includes Buddha, Saints, Angels ... and now Vampires! Who might this very eclectic person be? None other than internationally known Tarot author, artist, and lecturer Robert M. Place! His body of work includes The Alchemical Tarot, Tarot of the Saints, The Angels Tarot, The Buddha Tarot and the highly regarded book The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination.
On April 27, in conjunction with the Rhinebeckian Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, Place will be presenting a a two-hour lecture on vampires and the Tarot. The following day, April 28, Place will be presenting a one-day workshop on Alchemy and the Tarot.
I have always held a sense of wonder about the work that Robert Place does. Many years ago I did a project where I contacted Tarot artists and asked them to work with me on a survey. I was amazed - to a person, each artist freely shared their thoughts with me. Robert Place was a part of that amazing group. Every contact that I have had with him has been the same - he is respectful of himself, his work, and those that he works with.
I am very pleased that he agreed to talk about his upcoming presentations, and turn the podium over to him!
BC: Bob, first of all I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. How on earth did Vampires come into the radar screen of the Tarot world?
RP: Thanks Bonnie.
I actually developed the idea for the "Vampire Tarot" right after I finished "The Alchemical Tarot", in 1995. My partner on the book for "The Alchemical Tarot", Rosemary Ellen Guiley, had written a book on vampires and people who believed that they are turning into vampires, called "Vampires Among Us". At that time, she was working on another book, an encyclopedia about vampires, and she asked me to do an illustration for it. That illustration eventually became the Lovers card for my deck.
I had always been a fan of vampire films since I was a kid but when I saw the television movie version of Dracula that aired in 1974, produced by Dan Curtis, and staring Jack Palance as the Count, I became fascinated with the story in a new way. This film added more of the historic background about Dracula that had been dug up at that time by historians McNally and Florescu, who wrote "In Search of Dracula". And, instead of Dracula being presented as just a monster, the film introduced the theme of reincarnation and had Dracula looking for the reincarnation of his lost love. After that, I read Stoker’s "Dracula" for the first time. I also read "In Search of Dracula" and I went to New York to the revival of the play with Frank Langella in 1978. Once I had a VCR, I began to collect vampire movies.
After, I read Rosemary’s books and her source material that she lent me, I began to appreciate the fascination people, particularly women had with the vampire. I started to see the mythological connections to ancient moon gods and thanks to some of my wife’s dreams I began to see the vampire as an Animus figure. This is when I saw that the vampire could be a theme that would harmonize with the Tarot.
Many people try to pigeonhole me as a creator of religious Tarots but that is only one aspect of my work. I see my work as an exploration of the archetypal structure and symbolism in the Tarot. And, I see it as a door into the Western Mystical traditions. I am not interested in religion but in spirituality and mysticism. When I did the "Tarot of the Saints", many people assumed that I was Catholic and when I did the "Buddha Tarot" many people assumed that I was a Buddhist. Now with the "Vampire Tarot" many of those people will wonder what I am. But all of these themes are related to me in that they all speak of the mystical quest.
BC: Can you talk a little bit about the mythological background of the Vampire, and how the Vampire relates to the Tarot trumps?
RP: First of all, the vampires we find in legends and folk tradition may be the initial inspiration for the vampires that first appeared in literature in the 1700s but they have little in common. The literary vampire is an esthetic creation of the romantic poets and has little to do with his country cousin. The romantic vampire is more influenced by the gods of mythology and metaphors for sex and power. In fact. many of the characteristics that Stoker gave to Dracula, such as the lack of a reflection or the ability to turn into a bat, are based on legends of the Devil instead of Vampires. It is interesting that in the Tarot’s Devil card we can see that the Devil has bat wings but there are no folk connections between vampires and bats except for one minor Romanian belief that a bat flying over a grave, among other animals, can cause the deceased to become a vampire.
My deck is based on the literary vampire, particular Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker’s biographer, Barbara Belford, definitely believes that Stoker was familiar with the Tarot and based many of the characters in Dracula on Tarot trumps. Besides this I feel that one of the main inspirations for his story came from the Grail Legend and as I have pointed out in my books the Grail influenced the Tarot as well. The Tarot trumps contain an allegory about the search for immortality and the purification of the soul and these are the same themes we find in Dracula.
BC: What connection does the Vampire myth have to the alchemical search for what we know as the philosopher's stone?
RP: Well, having become involved with vampires right after I was working on "The Alchemical Tarot", I saw that the vampire’s quest for red blood that would bring him eternal life was similar to the alchemists quest for the philosopher’s stone, which was described as a red liquid that could prolong life indefinitely. I also saw that the alchemical quest which leads through a death and a rebirth is similar to the experience Mina has in Dracula. Mina becomes one with Dracula when he forces her to drink his blood but in the end his death becomes her rebirth.
BC: Get ready for this one, folks! What connection might there between "Dracula" author Bram Stoker, Tarot artist Pamela Coleman Smith, and the Golden Dawn?
RP: Pamela Coleman Smith was one of Stoker’s closest friends from the time she was 10 years old, and went to live with the actress Ellen Terry, until Stokers death in 1912 . When she was 10 her mother died and she went to live with Ellen Terry, who was one of the most famous actresses in England. Ellen worked at the Lyceum Theater in London and Stoker was the manager. Pamela began working on sets and acting in bit parts. So, she came to be a good friend of Stoker’s. She actually illustrated his last novel, "The Lair of the White Worm". But, it wasn't Pamela who introduced Stoker to the Golden Dawn. He had other friends who were founding members such as Florence Farr and John W. Brodie-Innes.
BC: Changing gears, and moving into the world of alchemy, in what manner is the esoteric symbolism of alchemy interchangeable with the symbols contained within the Tarot trumps?
RP: The alchemical quest for the philosophers stone is one in which the alchemists starts with a piece of ordinary matter, “the stone rejected by the builder,” something valuable that is underappreciated, like the Fool or the Magician, and puts it through a series of processes that can be related to the symbolism of the series of trumps. In this quest, the material is killed and revived in a more spiritual form and the gross substances attached to it, symbolized by the Devil, are washed away and purified like the actions of the nude on the Star card. The outcome is one where the spirit that is normally trapped in matter, known as the Anima Mundi or Soul of the World, is set free. This is what is symbolized by the World card, which is remarkably similar to alchemical illustrations of the philosopher’s stone.
BC: Is Tarot then actually a part of this spiritual quest?
RP: All of my work is based on that belief. I feel that the Tarot with its four minor suits that relate to the fourfold world and the mystical journey illustrated on the fifth suit contains an archetypal mystical structure. It is a mandala broken into separate parts but still evident because of the symbolic relationships between the cards. Further, the archetypal journey illustrated in the fifth suit is the hero’s journey, the quest for enlightenment.
BC: How does this relate to the creation of the "Alchemical Tarot"?
RP: "The Alchemical Tarot" was something that developed out of a flash of insight that happened in seconds but took seven years to put into physical form. I was looking at a picture of an alchemical engraving of the philosopher’s stone and I realized that the symbolism of the image was interchangeable with symbols on the Tarot World and it opened my mind up to a flood of intuitive insight. It gave me a great respect for the power of these images but being a realistic person I took the time to do the research to verify what I had seen and to illustrate it in detail. The result was "The Alchemical Tarot". At the time, it felt like "The Alchemical Tarot" wanted to be created and it just chose me.
BC: How does the symbolism of numbers act as a vehicle to access alchemical concepts?
RP: Many of the alchemical concepts that became a standard part of alchemy right up to the present either originated or were codified by the Pythagoreans. For example the Pythagorean philosopher Empedocles is credited with the origin of the theory of the four elements. As many people know, the Pythagoreans were also concerned with the symbolism of numbers and this is reflected in alchemy as well. One approach I uses to explain alchemical concepts is to relate them to the series of numbers. One is for the Prima Materia, two is for the dualities, red and white, masculine and feminine, sun and moon, fixed and volatile, etc.
BC: Bob, what final words do you have for our readers?
RP: I feel that the history and the spiritual symbolism of the Tarot are not just curiosities that are extra or unnecessary when doing a reading. Having a real understanding of the history and symbolism in the Tarot helps one to connect with the images on a deeper level beyond projection or wish fulfilment. It allows one to actually converse with one’s inner guide, who we may call the Higher Self. The Higher Self is archetypal and speaks through symbols. The Higher Self has been communicating with our ancestors for thousands of years and we can benefit from their insights.
I drool when I see work like this being talked about! Hopefully at some point in time Bob will place this in written form so that we all have access to it. I will definitely be first in line to buy it!
Bio: Robert M. Place
Robert M. Place is an internationally known visionary artist and illustrator, whose award winning works, in painting, sculpture, and jewelry, have been displayed in galleries and museums in America, Europe, and Japan and graced the covers and pages of numerous books and publications. He is the designer, illustrator, and co-author, with Rosemary Ellen Guiley, of: "The Alchemical Tarot" and "The Angels Tarot", which are both published by HarperCollins and have received international acclaim particularly for their skillful and illuminating graphics. He is the designer, illustrator, and author of "The Tarot of the Saints" and "The Buddha Tarot". And, he is the author of "The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination", which Booklist has said, “may be the best book ever written on that deck of cards decorated with mysterious images called the tarot.” He is currently working on the "Vampire Tarot", which will be published by St. Martins Press in 2007.
Robert is recognized as an expert on Western Mysticism, the history of the Tarot, and as a gifted teacher of divination. He has taught and lectured at the New York Open Center, Omega Institute, The New York Tarot School, and the World Tarot Congress. He and his work have appeared on Discovery, The Learning Channel, and A&E. He has been a guest on numerous radio shows including The Woodstock Roundtable on WDST-FM, People are Talking on WKZE-FM , and Mystic Musings on KKUP FM.
For more information, visit http://thealchemicalegg.com.
© 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.