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The Tarot Garden Library

About the Authors

Robert M. Place is a visionary artist and illustrator, whose works have been displayed in galleries and museums in America, Europe, and Japan. His art can be seen on and in the covers and pages of numerous books and publications. He has illustrated and authored or co-authored several popular tarot deck/book sets, including the recenlty-released Buddha Tarot. For more information on Robert's life and work, visit his webpages at The Alchemical Egg.

Dan Pelletier is the co-owner of The Tarot Garden. An accomplished tarot reader with over thirty years of experience, Dan has also contributed to such publications as Aeclectic Tarot and Body Mind Spirit magazine.


Tarot, Alchemy, Buddhism:
A Tarot Garden Interview with Robert Place

Dan: To begin with, tell me about Robert M. Place -- I'd like to know about the Robert M. Place that exists behind the tarot. What kind of things do you do? Who are you?

Robert: The first thing that I would like to say about myself is that I am an artist. I have known this since I could first draw. l kids draw, but, as soon as I picked up a crayon, I knew that I was an artist. I started drawing realistically by the second grade and all through grammar school and high school I was known as the school artist. By my last year in high school, I had won ever art award the school offered and several national scholastic art awards.

I went to college in the second half of the sixties. Although I wanted to go to art school in New York, my parents and my guidance councilor steered me toward a teacher's college. This was a mistake.

After graduation, I taught art in a grammar school in New Jersey for five years and I hated it. The teaching job did not pay enough for me to make it through the summer without other work but this was a blessing in disguise. To earn money in the summer, I started selling my paintings at outdoor art shows. It was at these shows that I realized that I could earn a living making jewelry and selling it at art and craft shows. This was my ticket out of teaching. I taught myself to make jewelry and built up my business. When the business was strong enough, I quit teaching and have been working for myself ever since.

For years my wife, Rose Ann, and I made jewelry and sold it both wholesale and retail in some of the best craft shows in the country. My jewelry and metal sculptures have won awards and been exhibited in museums and even the White House. After The Alchemical Tarot was published, I began to move away from the jewelry and now I am mostly doing illustration, writing, and conducting lectures and workshops. Rose Ann and I live in the Woodstock area in New York with two rescued greyhounds, and two Siamese cats. Our cats and dogs have been finding their way into my illustrations lately.

Dan: So there you were, creating jewelry, traveling a bit... what was it that began your interest in Tarot? Did it begin as art or practice?

Robert: It started with a dream and a series of synchronistic events. The magical quality of these events is startling and it seems that there is nothing arbitrary about my involvement in the Tarot. I did not actually choose to become involved in a conscious way. It was an unconscious decision.

Recently, I was telling the story on the radio, on the Woodstock Roundtable, and Doug, the host, asked me if Rod Serling showed up while these events were unfolding. It is that kind of story; it belongs in the Twilight Zone.

I have been interested in the Tarot and other esoteric subjects since I was studying art in College in the late 1960's. My girlfriend at that time read the cards. She used the Waite-Smith Deck. I even began to create my own hand-drawn deck based on the Tarot of Marseilles, the traditional French deck. I only finished four cards before I lost interest in the project, and although as an artist I have always been involved in symbolism in my work, I was not directly involved with the Tarot for many years after that.

My true involvement with the Tarot started with a dream in the summer of 1982, a dream that startled me with its clarity and intensity. I was dreaming that I was following someone through a red brick building.

Then, I dreamed that a phone rang, interrupting the events of the first dream in the same way that a phone call can interrupt ones thoughts during the day. The sound of the phone startled me into lucidity and intensified the events in the dream in a way that made them impossible to forget. I remember thinking, "how can someone call you in a dream? I didn't know that that could happen. Even in the dream, it was clear that this was a message coming form a place distant from my normal consciousness. The phone was the perfect symbol for this. I picked up the dream phone and an international dream operator, informed me that she had a person-to-person call for me from a law firm in England. I accepted the call, and a secretary from the firm came on the line. She told me that she was sending me my ancestral inheritance. She could not tell me what it was, but only that it would come from England, it is kept in a box, and that it is sometimes called the key. She added that I would know it when I saw it. Then, she ended the conversation with some precautions. She said that this was a gift that contained a hidden power and, that with this power, came responsibility. Before I could receive this gift, I had to accept the responsibility that came with it.

I accepted without hesitation.

When I awoke that morning, I naively expected to see the box at the foot of my bed. As the week progressed, I eagerly anticipated receiving my inheritance. In a few days, my friend Scott came over with his new deck of Tarot cards. It was the deck designed, in England in 1909 by Pamela Colman Smith and it came with a book authored by A. E. Waite entitled The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. As he walked through the door, I felt my head turn in his direction as if of its own accord. My eyes also seemed to working on their own. As they focused on what he was holding, I knew that this was my inheritance. Although this was not the first time that I had seen this deck, I now saw it in a new light.

In a few more days my friend Ed gave me the Tarot of Marseilles. He said that he just had a feeling that I needed a Tarot deck and he had an old copy of the Marseilles deck hanging around. That was my first deck, but soon I made a trip from the New Jersey suburbs, where I lived, into Manhattan to buy the Waite-Smith cards. Now that Tarot decks can be purchased in any general book store, one's local new-age shop, or on-line, it may seem odd that I had to make a trip to a major U.S. City just to buy a Tarot, but at that time, although Tarot decks were available, they were not as prevalent as they are now.

Over the next month I began experimenting with the cards. At first I resolved not to read any books on the Tarot. Most books that were available then on the Tarot passed on spurious histories and misinformation that stemmed from the occult fantasies of the 19th century. I wanted to communicate directly with the images unhindered by these preconceptions. My girlfriend had shown me the Celtic cross spread in college. So I decided to begin with that combined with Jungian techniques of dream interpretation.

"The Tower" from The Alchemical TarotDan: Discuss with me your own evolution in the art styles you have worked within tarot. What was it that had you begin, with the Alchemical Tarot, then the Angels Tarot, and Tarot of the Saints; I want to see inside your head...the evolution that has brought about The Buddha Tarot.

Robert: The Buddha Tarot was released this past March (2004). I am currently creating The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery. I have also started a Vampire Tarot and a Celtic Tarot but there is very little work done on either of those. I have also written a book on the Tarot, called The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination. It is being published by Tarcher, a division of Penguin Putnam, and it will be out in October.

At the beginning of each project, each deck was heralded by a dream, but the events that lead to the creation of The Alchemical Tarot were as startling and synchronistic as was my first introduction to this mystical inheritance. I have written about these events in my introduction for The Alchemical Tarot.

It started in the late 1980's, when I began to develop a voracious appetite for knowledge. I read everything that I could find on the Tarot, mysticism, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, alchemy, and related subjects. Every table in my studio was soon covered with stacks of books reaching toward the ceiling, and I filled a large hardbound note book with charts, lists, and notes - at that time, this seemed odd because I was not a writer, and had no plan to become a writer.

By 1987, my reading had become noticeably excessive to my wife and friends. I intuitively knew that I was onto something, but I was unable to explain what it was. It was only when I heard a commentator on the radio talking about the Harmonic Convergence that I began to understand what was happening to me. I had been hearing about the Convergence for a few weeks, but thought of it as just another New-Age curiosity. However, this commentator mentioned that during this period of spiritual transformation sensitive individuals all over the Earth would be experiencing a flood of information on spiritual subjects. I intuitively realized that this is what was happening to me, and being able to explain this to Rose Ann, gave her some peace of mind also.

One day in August of that year, I was reading the Picture Museum of Sorcery, Magic, & Alchemy, by Emile Grillot de Givry, when I became fascinated by a 17th century symbolic alchemical engraving representing the philosopher's stone.

"The World" from The Alchemical TarotThe design depicted a heart in the center of a cross with images of the four elements assigned to each corner, an arrangement called a quincunx. The heart, which was surrounded by a wreath of thorns, of course, was related to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was unusual to find the sacred heart depicted in the center of a cross and, in Christian art, the quincunx arrangement is usually reserved for the icon called "Christ in majesty," which depicts Christ seated on a throne in the center of the symbols of the Four Evangelists, the lion, the bull, the eagle, and the man.

But, this was not an orthodox Christian symbol. It was created by an alchemist to represent what he considered the most sacred thing in the world, the Philosopher's Stone. The creation of the Stone is the goal of the alchemical Great Work and it is a substance made of pure spirit, "the Soul of the World," as the alchemists called it. Once created, it was said to be able to heal any illness, to prolong life indefinitely, to turn lead into gold, and to turn an ordinary man or woman into an enlightened sage.

Images like this are more than symbolic works of art; they capture archetypal realities that have power over one's psyche and, on this occasion I accidentally unleashed that power. As I looked at the design, I realized that the heart in the center was symbolically interchangeable with the woman dancing in the center of the World card in the Tarot and that the symbols of the Four Evangelists in the Four corners of her card are interchangeable with the four elements that were depicted on this design. I reasoned that if the image on the World card, which is the culminating image in the series of trumps in the Tarot, symbolizes the same spiritual substance that the alchemists sought as the end and goal of their Great Work, than it is likely that the Tarot trumps are telling the same story.

This thought was like a key that unlocked a secret door in my brain. I sat mesmerized as a flood of alchemical images flowed out of this door and aligned themselves with the Tarot trumps. In an instant, I saw that all of the Tarot cards were interchangeable with alchemical symbols and, that when this interchange was complete, the trumps told of the same journey or process, the alchemical Great Work.

Although this insight happened in seconds, it took me seven years of research, writing, and drawing to illustrate that vision and the result was the Alchemical Tarot.

Once I had decided to create the Alchemical Tarot, it triggered a series of synchronistic events. Because of these events I had an article on my deck published in Gnosis magazine, I met the well-known writer, Rosemary Ellen Guiley, and I teamed up with her on the project. Because of Rosemary, we got HarperCollins to give us a contract and an advance. I illustrated the deck and Rosemary and I wrote the book. I actually did most of the writing but it was good to have an experienced writer to help me out and without Rosemary we would not have attracted such a big publishing company. The Alchemical Tarot, book and deck, came out in 1995.

Many occultists had also found alchemical symbolism in the Tarot but what I had discovered was more complete. Also, occultists tend to look for some secret code in the Tarot.

In the 1800's, Levi almost single-handedly revived the occult tradition. Levi was enamored with the Kabbalah and tried to synthesize all occult teachings into one Kabalistic system. He considered the Tarot an important part of occult tradition and it was imperative for him to demonstrate that it was also Kabalistic. He picked up on an idea that was mentioned before him by Court de Gebelin, namely, that the 22 trump cards are related to the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The Hebrew letters in the Kabalistic system are also each related to a sign of the zodiac, a planet, or an element. So, once the cards are assigned to the letters, they also are connected to the astrological system. Many people still find this a satisfying way to think about the Tarot. But I find it a symbolic dead end.

This system of correspondences leads one away from symbolism that is actually presented in the pictures on the cards. It denies the story that is there. Kabalah really has nothing to do with this system and the amalgam of the two is artificial. At it worst, this type of thinking reduces the symbols in the Tarot to mere signs.

The Tarot was created in Renaissance Italy in the early 1400's. It was a popular deck used to play a card game and the images in the cards come out of that culture. They are related to the iconography of the period and depict a type of parade.

Renaissance culture was essentially Christian but it had synthesized this with aspects of pre-Christian or pagan Classical religion as well. Some of these aspects were kept alive through the Middle Ages and some were being rediscovered in an attempt to reclaim the ancient artistic heritage.

Renaissance culture was also mystical. Their view of reality was strongly influenced by the Neoplatonism of the late Middle Ages and in the mid 1400's they rediscovered much of the ancient Neoplatonic literature.

Neoplatonism is just a term made up by scholars in the 1800's to label something that I think is very exciting and pertinent. Namely, that in the ancient world many people looked at Plato and his philosophy as a mystical religion. In many ways, this Western mysticism parallels Buddhism in its philosophy and practice.

In the 1960s, I, like a lot of people at that time, starting looking to Asian religions to find the type of personal religious experience that I felt was missing in Western culture.

When I discovered Neoplatonism, I found that what I had been searching for in Hinduism and Buddhism was in our culture also. It is just that we had forgotten about it. In the Renaissance, they had not forgotten and that message is what they captured in the pictures in the Tarot.

The story told by the alchemists, when they describe the process of making or discovering the Philosopher's Stone, is the same mystical journey that we find in all myths and religions. It is what Joseph Campbell called the "Hero's Journey."

Dan: So how did this realization influence your work on the Alchemical Tarot and subsequent decks?

"The Emperor" from The Angels TarotRobert: Once I discovered that the Tarot contained the alchemical Great Work I could see that the Tarot trumps could be related to any heroic myth in any culture. However, there were lots of decks coming out that were relating the tarot to various cultures. It seemed that people wanted to connect the Tarot to almost anything except the northern Italian culture of the 1400s that actually created the deck.

Alchemical symbolism was part of that culture and the symbolism was directly related to the original cards but it was not the primary influence. The images on the cards were part of the popular iconography connected with a Renaissance parade called a triumph and with symbolic mystical art that made use of the parade as a metaphor for the mystical journey.

The symbolism that artists made use of for the popular poems, the works of visual art, and for the symbolic carts actually created to be displayed in the parades came out of a cultural synthesis that combined Christian iconography with alchemy, romanticism, and Classical deities.

Angels and saints were an important part of this synthesis and it is not surprising that in the earliest decks, from the first Tarots created in the 1400's to the Marseilles deck created in the 1700's, we find depictions of angels, such as on the Judgment card, and references to saints, such as the Hermit card.

In fact, the earliest printers who carved woodblocks and printed the first playing the cards were the same printers who created the first saint cards, which they sold to pilgrims at cathedrals and shrines. These printers were experts in Christian iconography and they would draw on this tradition when designing playing cards.

For my next two decks, The Angels Tarot and The Tarot of the Saints, I explored both of these paths.

HarperCollins commissioned Rosemary and me to create The Angels Tarot. It actually came out in the same year that the Alchemical Tarot did, 1995. This is because angels were extremely popular at that time and the publisher knew that the deck would have a ready audience of angel collectors. But, because of the rush to get the product out while the craze was hot, they gave us very little time to complete the project.

Rosemary had already written books on angels and we had her research to draw on. She recommended Gustav Davidson's Dictionary of Angels to me and I read it cover to cover, making notes in the margins as to which angel fit to which Tarot card. I felt that I made good choices connecting the trumps with historically accurate angels that personified the same archetype.

"The Hanged Man" from The Angels TarotI did not neglect the bizarre or demonic angels that were being ignored by most of the works on angels that came out at that time. According to the Christian mythology, a third of the host of angels rebelled and became fallen angels or demons. This fits in well with the Devil card and with the Hanged Man, which traditionally depicted a traitor hung by his foot. Although I felt that I made the right choices when collating angels to cards, the end result was a collection of images that made sense but did not have one consistent story that illustrated the mystical message in the trumps the same way that the alchemical images did.

For my next deck, I chose the theme of saints. Again, the publisher, this time Llewellyn, was looking for a deck on saints. I had been toying with the idea three years before and when I met a representative from Llewellyn at the World Tarot Congress in Chicago and they asked me if I could put together a proposal for a saints deck. I replied that I already had a proposal to show them.

The Tarot of the Saints came out in 2001 and I had a year to work on it before I handed it in. This was four times the amount of time that I had for the Angels. I basically applied the same approach. I read books on the lives of saints and made notes about which saints embodied the same ideals or theme found on each trump and on each royal card in the minor suits.

The correlations lead to some surprising insights about the Tarot images.

For example, the tower being struck by lightning that we find on the Tower card in the Tarot would have been easily recognized in the Renaissance as the symbol of St. Barbara, whose legend involves both a tower and a bolt of lightning. In the icons of St. Barbara she is depicted holding a tower with three windows, on it, representing the Trinity.

"The Tower" from Tarot of the SaintsAlthough the original Tower cards were more likely to be illustrating a scene from Revelation, as the deck evolved into the Tarot of Marseilles, the Tower came to be called the House of God. In these French decks, St. Barbara's three windows find their way into the tower.

Another saint who gives us new insight into the Tarot is St. Mary Magdalen, whom I put on the Papesse card. To many Gnostic sects she is the principal transmitter of Christ's teaching and therefore a perfect counterpart to the more orthodox Pope, for which I chose St. Peter, the first Pope.

The stories of the saints follow the same mystical journey that is illustrated in the Tarot. Each is an example of someone who has embraced virtue to overcome life's difficulties and progressed toward the mystical vision illustrated on the World card. But, by using different saints for each trump, I didn't get the satisfaction of one continual story that coincides with the Tarot story the way that I did with The Alchemical Tarot.

Dan: So if given another opportunity, would you have done things differently?

Robert: Before I began to work on the deck I began to fantasize about illustrating the trumps with images from the life of just one saint. St. Francis would be the best fit but even he would not fit perfectly.

When I woke up on Christmas morning in 1996 I was surprised by the realization that the perfect fit was not a one of the saints that I had been contemplating, but the Buddha.

Rose Ann and I were staying at her parent's house in New Jersey. On Christmas Eve, I had been reading The Illustrated World's Religions by Huston Smith and went to bed after reading the section on Buddhism.

"The Fool" from Tarot of the SaintsWhen I woke on Christmas morning, a correlation between the life of Buddha and the Tarot was all worked out in my mind. I could clearly see how the details of the story of Buddha's life fit together flawlessly with the Tarot trumps, illustrating that they are essentially the same stories. I had worked on it in my sleep but I could not remember the process -- only the result.

I started explaining my revelation to Rose Ann, and amazed myself with how the elements of Buddha's life fit the images in the Tarot.

There were the four sights that convinced Siddhartha to leave his life of pleasure and his lover and embrace asceticism (or Strength): an old man (the original Hermit card which depicted a hunched old man with an hour glass), a suffering man (The Hanged Man), a corpse (Death), and a hermit (again The Hermit card). There was even the chariot that he used to ride to town to see the sights. Before this, his father had ruled his life like a Pope and had been guiding him toward the role of Emperor. This effort culminated with his marriage to the beautiful Yasodhara, the future Empress.

Once he realized that the ascetic life was also a dead end, he embraced the virtue temperance and had to deal with the temptations of Mara, the Devil. Buddha remained undefeated after Mara's fiery attack (The Tower) and rose through various levels of enlightenment just as the Tarot depicted a hierarchy of celestial images leading to the mystical vision on the highest trump.

The story even fit the three-part pattern that I have found in the Tarot: the first dealing with hope, the second with fear, and the third the middle path, beyond hope and fear that leads to mastery or enlightenment. This was the start of The Buddha Tarot.

Dan: It sounds to me as though the Buddha Tarot is the next logical progression -- that in essence, it contains everything that has gone before: the Alchemical, Angels, and Saints -- and then continues from there?

Robert: Yes. The Buddha Tarot is probably the most important deck that I have completed since I finished the Alchemical Tarot. I started with the similarity between the Tarot trumps and the story of Siddhartha -- the quest that led him to become the Buddha. But as I began to do research for the deck, I found that the connections between Buddha and the Tarot were more profound than I had realized at first.

"The World" from The Buddha TarotThe illustration that we find on the Tarot's World card (in the Tarot of Marseilles and the occult decks based on that model) is a quincunx, as I said before. It is a sacred pattern that depicts the symbols of the four evangelists, each assigned to one corner, and in the center we find a nude representing the spirit, the Soul of the World or "Anima Mundi," as the alchemists would call her. In the original Christian version of the icon, the evangelists, represented by their angelic symbols, are spreading the message of Christ to each corner of the fourfold physical world. Through their association with the fixed signs of the zodiac they are also equated to the four seasons, the four elements, and every aspect of the physical world.

In the Tarot, the figure in the center is a goddess, the feminine spirit. She is what the alchemists would call the "Quinta Essentia" -- the origin of the word quintessence. The Quinta Essentia is the essential fifth element, the spirit, or life force that permeates all matter and makes the world of form and time possible. The design is essentially a Western mandala.

Mandalas are maps of sacred or psychic reality that make use of a fourfold pattern to depict the world and thereby illustrate the center of the world -- the sacred space where one connects with the spirit, the gods, or Buddha consciousness. In the hero's journey, the destination of the hero is always the sacred center. This is where the hero will find the magic healing elixir that is needed to complete his quest and cure what ails the world. The World card is a mandala but the entire Tarot deck also follows the same sacred structure. It has four minor suits representing the four directions, elements, seasons, social classes, and other fourfold divisions. The trumps stand in the central position. They illustrate the hero's journey and they culminate with the World representing the sacred center and the goddess representing the elixir.

When Siddhartha became the Buddha, he ceased to be a man in the normal sense. He woke up from the state of delusion that is normal consciousness and realized that he was one with all of reality. He realized that he was actually the entire world. To demonstrate this, Buddhists say that when Siddhartha became the Buddha he became not just one Buddha but, to represent the divisions of the world into the four directions and the center, at least five Buddhas. These Buddhas are called the five Jinas. There is one for the center, Vairocana, who is colored white, and one for each of the four cardinal directions, Amoghasiddhi, the green Jina to the north; Aksobhya, the blue Jina to the east; Ratnasambhava, the yellow Jina to the south; and Amitabha, the red Jina to the west.

"Strength" from The Buddha TarotEach Jina has a female counterpart called a Sakti. Together they are like the King and Queen of their division of the world. They rule over a direction, an element, certain qualities, and each cures one of the five poisons. In the Buddha Tarot, each couple rules one of the suits. Each Jina has an animal protector, which is like the Knight, and a servant called a Dakini, which is like the Page. Each also has a particular magical tool, which is their symbol, like a jewel or a red lotus. In the Buddha Tarot, these become the suit symbols.

In traditional Tibetan culture, artists create hand painted cards called tsakli. Unlike a mandala with its multiple imagery organized in a unified geometric pattern, each tsakli depicts just one sacred object, or deity. The tsakli are used in ritual and meditation to focus on the single element, but the same archetypal unity runs through the set of cards. They are a mandala broken into its separate parts, a mandala of cards. This is how I see the Tarot. The Tarot is a set of individual images that are derived from the synthesis that is Renaissance culture, but in the entire deck there is an archetypal pattern that is sacred and enlightening. When Siddhartha became the Buddha, his spiritual body took the form of the entire mandala. Buddha and the mandala are one and, in a sense, because the Tarot shares that sacred pattern, Buddha became the Tarot. The Buddha Tarot simply sheds light on what was always there.

Dan: So, what's next? Having discovered such an entirely satisfactory match for Tarot's symbolism in the Buddha Tarot, have you finished exploring the archetypes for now?

Robert: It would seem that the Buddha Tarot is the culmination of everything that I wanted to express through the Tarot. It is the perfect tool for divination, which literally means to communicate with the divine.

Yet, there is still more that I wanted to express. Although I have turned away from some of the systems that the occultists tried to graft onto the Tarot, there is much of the occult tradition that is valuable. And, it is vital for the continued life of the Tarot that each generation communicates with its symbols on a personal level and uncovers new shades of meaning. By fantasizing about the Tarot's icons, the occultists at times added to the symbolism in a way that harmonized with the historical image and gave it greater depth.

When studying the Waite-Smith cards, people often look into the traditions and teachings of the Golden Dawn, the famous English occult society to which both Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith belonged. But, Smith was also influenced by the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, the mystical brotherhood of artists who dominated the art world in England in the last half of the 19th century, and by the Symbolists, the international art movement that was in part a child of the Pre-Raphaelites.

"The High Priestess" from Tarot of Sevenfold MysteryOne of the most prominent artists in the Pre-Raphaelite movement was Edward Burne-Jones. He was the one with the biggest international reputation and who had the biggest influence on the Symbolists in France and Germany. Although Burne-Jones' name may not be familiar to many readers, they are likely to recognize his art when they see it. His fairytale like paintings, peopled by tall, pale stunningly beautiful women and equally memorable heroic men, have a melancholy, otherworldly quality that was rediscovered and admired in the latter part of the 20th century.

The Pre-Raphaelites chose their name because they wanted to create art that had a mystic sincerity like the works of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance before the time of Raphael. They believed that art could be a mystical religious expression, a type of magic, and, for their model, they looked to the artists of the 1400s, the century that gave us a revival of Neoplatonism and that gave us the Tarot. The Pre-Raphaelites created a cultural environment in which magic and mysticism were once again prevalent and this is the environment in which the Golden Dawn took root.

Burne-Jones, in particular, based his tall "stunners" on the paintings of Botticelli and Michelangelo, the two artists whose works are considered primary examples of Renaissance Neoplatonism. His work expresses the Renaissance ideal that physical beauty and spiritual beauty are linked in one continuum that can lead to the mystical experience of beauty itself, as a timeless, underlying reality. It is this ideal that allowed the creators of the Tarot to place a nude on the World card as a symbol of the primary beauty.

It is not surprising that when we look at the works of Burne-Jones we find that he painted many of the same themes that we find in the Tarot. He has paintings of Temperance, the Wheel of Fortune, lovers, allegorical chariots, kings, and queens. It is like he was creating a Tarot but he never finished it. The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery started with my desire to finish Burne-Jones' Tarot for him. I wanted to see what a deck would look like if it was done in his style and with his sense of symbolism.

I started by interpreting his painting of Temperance as a colored ink drawing. Then I used his pencil sketch of Folly as the inspiration for the Fool, drawn in the same black line ink drawing style. Once I felt that I had absorbed the style, I began to create new characters that were not based on any of his pieces but that were consistent in their esthetic sense.

The proportions of Burne-Jones' figures are directly influenced by Botticelli. Their height is nine times the height of their heads. This is what gives them an otherworldly grace. I was careful to maintain these proportions while creating new figures.

As I was working, a theme began to emerge. I saw that in these cards I was creating a bridge between the original Tarot decks of the 15th century and the 19th and 20th century occultists. The cards have elements of both, the initial mystical allegory and some of the depth that was added later.

One of the underlying constants of the Western mystical tradition, from its origins at the beginning of the historical period to the present, is the importance of the number seven as a symbol for the mystical journey and how this symbolism is incorporated into the Tarot. The prominence of the number seven in the structure of the Tarot is one of the things that convinced the 18th century occultist Court de Gebelin that the Tarot was occult and this is what started the occult interest in the Tarot.

"Temperance" from Tarot of Sevenfold MysteryIn our culture, we are surrounded by groups of seven that have deep symbolic significance. There are seven days to the week, seven notes in our music scale, seven virtues and seven vices, seven sacraments, seven archangels, seven wonders, seven seas and seven continents, seven colors in the spectrum, and seven Chakras. In the Bible, it took seven days to create the world including the day of rest, there are seven pillars to Wisdom's temple, seven seals in Revelation, and Jesus removed seven devils from Mary Magdalen. All together, the Bible mentions the number 424 times. In popular culture, we find fairytales with seven dwarves, seven wives, or seven brothers. Even in modern popular culture, we have heroes like Double-O Seven or the Magnificent Seven. Our culture has ancient mystical roots and all of these sevens remind us of that past.

Did you ever look at a die and notice that the numbers are arranged so that the numbers on opposite sides always add up to seven? The number seven is important in the game of dice as well as the structure and there is evidence that the ancient practice of divination with dice influenced the structure and use of the Tarot. For example, there are 21 possible combinations that can be thrown with two dice. This is three times seven. In the practice of divination with dice, each of these throws has a separate character and meaning. When we realize that the Fool is an unnumbered wild card and not considered one of the trumps in the game of Tarot we find that there are 21 trumps, just as they are numbered.

Each of the minor cards in the Tarot has fourteen cards, which is two times seven. Together they number fifty-six, which is the number of possible throws that can come up when we use three dice. The entire Tarot deck had eleven times seven cards plus the unnumbered observer, the Fool.

It was this type of thinking that drew the attention of the first occultists to the Tarot. But, the deeper significance of sevenfold symbolism in the Tarot has to do with the seven steps of the mystical assent to the heavens where the mystic receives enlightenment. In the ancient Mithraic Mysteries, in the alchemical great work, and in the seven sacraments we can see this same symbolism. And, the Tarot is another mystical tool that incorporated this seven-stepped process.

I intend the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery to be the most beautiful deck that I have created. But, I also intend it to be the most open and creatively mystical by making use of this archetypal sevenfold pattern that is at the core of Western mysticism and at the core of the Tarot’s symbolism, from its creation to its occult revival.

Dan: It has been wonderful that you could take this time with us. I have enjoyed learning from you, and look forward to enjoying your future decks.

The Tarot Garden is proud to offer Robert Place's Buddha Tarot and Tarot of the Saints in our online catalog. Click here for more information.

© Robert M. Place and Dan Pelletier
19 April 2004


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