Tarot was originally published
in 1995. After the deck went out-of-print, demand remained high, and
prices for used copies skyrocketed on the collectors' market. The deck
was recently republished by The Tarot Connection, under the title Alchemical
Tarot: Renewed. Tarot Garden's
Dan Pelletier spoke with Robert Place about the history and
significance of this popular tarot mainstay.
Interview with deck creator Robert Place, by Dan Pelletier
Dan: Just to get this out of
the way, I love the deck. And there’s so much going on, I really am not
sure where to begin.
First off, it’s
called ‘Renewed’. I was wondering if you’d be willing to discuss the
road to republishing The Alchemical Tarot?
you know from my past
interview, the creation of the original Alchemical Tarot was connected to a
series of synchronistic events that gave the entire process a magical
quality. It seemed that the Alchemical
Tarot itself wanted to be published, and that all I had to do
was research, write, and illustrate it and then hang on for the ride.
Thanks to teaming up with Rosemary Ellen Guiley, who was my coauthor on
the book, it was published in England by Thorsons.
Thorsons was the English branch of HarperCollins, who was the largest
publisher in the world. The plan was that Thorsons would distribute it
in Europe, and the American branch, HarperCollins San Francisco, would
distribute it in the U.S.A. it was published in 1995 and this plan
worked well for the first few years -- but before the decade was
finished, the two branches had a falling out, and HarperCollins S.F.
stopped distributing it. Thorsons found a smaller company to handle the
American distribution and, as a result, the sales fell off.
The United States, of course, is the larger market, and distribution in
the Unites States was so bad that many tarot collectors and readers
assumed that the deck was out of print long before it actually was.
Thorsons, meanwhile, stopped publishing any new tarot decks because of
the growing printing expense and what they perceived as a falling
market. They also let all of their other decks go of print but they
held onto the Alchemical Tarot,
mainly, I believe, because they were proud to have published it and
felt that it was their best Tarot.
Because of this situation, I began to look forward to the time when
Thorsons would actually let it go out of print so that I could get the
rights back and resell it to an American publisher. I even approached
some publishers with the idea while it was still in print.
I did get the rights back a couple of years ago, but I found that all
of the publishers that I approached about reissuing it declined the
offer. I even had an agent take it around -- but still no bites.
Generally, publishers feel that tarot decks are expensive to print, and
they are reluctant to reprint an already published deck because it
would not get that initial boost in sales that a previously unpublished
The problems with distribution, however, did not hinder the reputation
of the deck. Because of its inspired use of alchemical symbolism, its
scholarly research, its artistic merit, and its uncanny ability to
capture psychological moods in pictures, its reputation as a desirable
deck grew. It is a perfect deck for collectors, tarot readers, and for
those interested in meditation and study. Also, because many people
believed it to be out of print, even before it was, the buying audience
began to look for used or resale copies.
The result was that the resale price began to climb. This trend reached
its peak in September of last year when an unused first edition of the Alchemical Tarot sold on an eBay
auction for two thousand seventy-five U.S. dollars.
With the original deck selling for such high prices, I realized that
there would be a market for a higher quality reprint of the deck that I
would need to sell for a higher price than a mass-produced deck, but
that would still seem reasonable next to these inflated prices. As the
original was illustrated in pen and ink and colored by hand with
gouache, I began to create digital files of each illustration so that I
could print it as a fine art ink jet print, also known as a giclee. I
self-published the new edition, called The
Alchemical Tarot: Art Edition, on 100% cotton rag paper with
archival ink, and signed and numbered each one. This was an archival
edition that was designed to last 100s of years like any fine work of
As I had to recolor each card on the computer for this new edition, I
took advantage of this process to make improvements in the deck. I made
some changes in the drawings, changes in the colors, and added shading.
I took out the line drawing of the archway that formed the border on
each card on the Thorson edition so that the image could fill more of
the space. This is the way that I originally intended the cards to
look. I only added the archway because the publisher wanted them wider
than I intended, and the columns took up the extra space. Also, when I
first designed the Lovers card for this deck, my editor at Thorsons
felt that it was too sexy and asked me to tone it down. As an added
feature, the art edition included both versions of the Lovers -- the
one that was previously published with the deck, and the censored one.
The Art Edition is still in production, and is now up to number 68.
Although I then had a version of the Alchemical
Tarot in print, I was still receiving almost daily emails from
people asking me if I knew how they could find an affordable copy of
the Alchemical Tarot. It was
clear that there was still a need for a lower priced version of the
deck. I decided I would publish it myself but, as I was not sure how to
proceed, I posted a request in my newsletter asking for help. Leisa
ReFallo, Tarot reader, author, and webmaster of Tarot Passages and The Tarot Connection, answered that
request. With my skill at illustration and writing, and Leisa’s skill
at layout and other computer skills and her self-publishing experience,
we decided that we would be a good team, and we formed a partnership
called Hermes Publications.
Leisa did a lot of research, and found us a printer in India who was
set up for printing playing cards. The printer quoted us a price for
what would amount to a small first printing that was comparable to
prices per deck for larger printings. So we were set to go. The result
was The Alchemical Tarot: Renewed.
I had to slightly re-proportion the cards for this new printer but I
basically used the improved digital files that I had created for the
Art Edition. I even included the censored Lovers card and kept the
larger format without the flanking columns. To complete the deck, I
designed a tuck box and wrote a Little White Book (LWB) that provided
some basic information about the intent of the deck and a divinatory
meaning for each card. The deck is printed on the same card stock as
regular playing cards, and it has the same durable coating. It is a joy
to shuffle and the colors are vibrant and scratch resistant.
Dan: There may be some folks who like the art
but may be unsure about ‘Alchemy’; they imagine scenes of dark
laboratories filled with cobwebs and a wizard melting lead. Can you
tell us a bit about alchemy in modern terms?
of all, the design of the Alchemical
Tarot is close enough to the type of tarot deck that most people
are comfortable using; by simply looking at the pictures and
interpreting them for one’s self, it can be used like any other deck.
A knowledge of alchemy, however, is helpful if one is going to delve
more deeply into the mystical aspect of the deck. This is not as
difficult as it sounds. Alchemical symbolism is already part of our
culture, and many alchemical concepts have found their way into
everyday speech and have been familiar to us since childhood. In a way,
you already know alchemy, but are not aware of it. Also, some
alchemical symbolism is a common part of tarot interpretation. For
example, the relationship between the four minor suits and the four
elements. Enough of the basic alchemical symbolism is covered in the
LWB that comes with the deck that anyone should be able to use the deck
effectively by reading this material.
The Alchemical Tarot,
however, is rich in details, and many people want to know what every
one of these individual symbols means. There are several ways to
accomplish this. They can read books on alchemy -- particularly ones
with a rich collection of illustrations, such as Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy. They can
join The Alchemical Tarot study group on the Aeclectic Tarot Forum.
They can buy a CD of my Alchemical Tarot Symbolism teleclass. Or they
can wait until the end of the year and buy the new edition of The
Alchemical Tarot companion book.
No matter which way one chooses, this study is rewarding (and not
difficult). Knowledge of alchemy gives one a clear understanding of the
traditional symbolism that has been in the tarot from its creation. It
especially magnifies the mystical intent of the story told in the
trumps. Also, as Jung observed, alchemical symbolism naturally emerges
in one’s dreams, and a knowledge of it gives one a deeper understanding
of the inner language of the psyche -- which, it seems to me, will make
one a better tarot reader.
Historically, alchemy has been an important part of our culture. It is
the precursor of modern medicine, chemistry, and physics; however, in
the past, these scientific interests were not differentiated form
philosophical and mystical pursuits. Besides working on practical
applications of their craft, all alchemists believed that there was one
Great Work that only the greatest alchemists would achieve. This was
the creation of the Philosopher's Stone -- a substance that was not
really physical, but composed of the mystical essence of matter.
The Philosopher’s Stone was a catalyst that could change
it interacted with to its highest form. It could change lead or any
base metal into gold; it could cure any illness; prolong life
indefinitely; and turn an ordinary person into an enlightened sage.
The Alchemical Tarot is based
on the realization that the story in tarot’s trumps is interchangeable
with the various descriptions of the Great Work found in alchemical
texts and illustrations. Furthermore, it posits that the World card in
the traditional Tarot of Marseilles can be interpreted as a depiction
of the Philosopher’s Stone. The beautiful nude on the World represents
the Anima Mundi -- the Soul of the World -- who was considered the
substance of the Stone. The symbols of the four evangelists in the
corners represent, alchemically, the four elements, and the Anima Mundi
is their mother. She is also known as the Quinta Essentia -- the
essential fifth element -- which is the origin of the word
“quintessence.” In the Alchemical
Tarot this relationship is made even more obvious.
Dan: I love the
card backs. Tell us about the
choice for the illustration. See, I have this thing about roses. And
roses, both red and white, appear throughout the deck (I love the ones
in Temperance - but that would be a different question). So my question
about the rose on the back is not a trite question at all; it's a
backwards way of getting you to explain the use of roses in Alchemy and
the Alchemical Tarot: Renewed.
rose is one of the oldest cultivated flowers. So it is natural that it
represents perfection, compassion, and love. The ancient Greeks
associated it with Aphrodite, and the Romans with Venus -- their
respective goddesses of love and beauty. Later, the Christians
associated it with Mary and her more chaste love.
The rose can also be thought of as a Mandela. Dante though of it that
way when he described heaven as a celestial rose. Symbolically, it is
the Western equivalent of the Buddhist lotus.
In alchemy, the rose also represents perfection. To the alchemists, it
is the vegetable world’s equivalent to gold, which was considered the
perfection of the mineral world. Red is the masculine color, and white
the feminine. That is why I made the rose on the back pink, to
represent the unity of these opposites. It is this balancing of the
opposites that leads to the perfection of the Stone. This is one of the
aspects of the alchemical process that Jung valued, because he found
that one’s psyche naturally attempts to achieve a similar balance, and
found alchemical-like symbols of opposites emerging in his patient’s
Dan: A few of the
images in the Alchemical
Tarot are a serious divergence for
some Tarotists. I'd like to chat about a couple of them. The Five of
Wands to many, implies conflict. Here we have a hand with five fingers
that terminate as flaming twigs that translate as... 'creativity'?
Could you explain the divergence from what some might expect?
four minor suits in the tarot actually arise from an older four-suit
deck that existed in Europe -- at least 50 years before the trumps were
added to create the Tarot. Although these original decks, like the
tarot. were designed for playing games of chance, the oldest evidence
of cards being used for divination in both Italy and Germany are books
that describe divinatory meanings for the pips and court cards in
four-suit decks. Also, there is evidence that up until the 19th
century, traditional card readers seemed to favor the four-suit decks
for their practice, as Gypsies do today.
In traditional decks, the pip cards primarily depict a repetition of
the suit symbol -- one for the ace, and on up to 10 repetitions for the
final pip. Although some decoration could be added, there were no
figurative scenes designed for divinatory interpretation, as we find in
the Waite-Smith deck today. I have done extensive research of the
evidence that exists for interpretation of these early pips and have
found that all the methods of interpretation seem to be based on two
First, the four suits were related to the four elements and therefore
the four humors and to the four personality types based on the four
humors. So, for example, Staffs would be related to fire, as it is by
readers today, and therefore, a choleric personality type, who is
energetic, creative, and forceful, but easily angered.
Second, the numbers, one to ten, have important symbolism connected to
them that stems form the ancient philosophy of Pythagoras, and which
has been added to over the centuries by alchemists and Christian
mystics. To the alchemists, the number five, for example, represented
the fifth element, known as the Quinta Essentia, which is the catalyst
for change and growth that is essential to life. The fifth element is
the spirit that permeates matter, symbolized by the other four
elements. This relationship between the four and the essential fifth is
exemplified in nature by the human hand, which has four fingers in a
row and then a fifth finger, the thumb, which is able to interact with
the other four.
Traditional card readers it seems found meaning by combining the
numeric symbolism of each card with the personality characteristic
suggested by the suit. This is basically what I did in the Alchemical
Tarot. From the examples I just discussed, it should be obvious
arrived at the symbolism on the Five of Staffs. I based my
interpretations on this traditional method with the emphasis on the
alchemical side of it and illustrated the meaning with scenes like
Pamela Colman Smith, it seems, based her interpretations for the pips
on lists of traditional meanings that were most likely supplied by
Waite. But besides the traditional lists, they were also influenced by
the Golden Dawn’s system of equating the two through ten of the pips to
the astrological decans.
Because the Waite-Smith deck is so
popular, I tried to give Smith the
benefit of the doubt and have my interpretations agree with hers
whenever possible. But sometimes the Waite-Smith deck’s pips were too
far from the alchemical meanings that I feel are closer to the
traditional meanings. When there was a conflict, I had to go with the
I taught a teleclass with Leisa on the symbolism of the four elements
and the four minor suits last month, and the class can be purchased on
a CD with extensive notes at the Tarot Connection. Right now, I
am putting together a teleclass on number symbolism for next month.
Dan: I love Temperance. We have the urns of the
Sun and Moon, exchanging vapors, and they frame a rose bush with red
and white roses. I have 32 rosebushes at my house, and I've never
gotten them to bloom like that (lol). Can you talk about Temperance?
Temperance illustration is directly based on an image of Mary the
Jewess -- also know as Bain-Marie -- which is found in Michael Maier’s Symbols of the Golden Table,
published in 1617. Many people think that alchemists were all old men
-- but some of the most famous are women such as Mary, an ancient
alchemist who is credited with inventing distillation.
The symbol Mary is holding represents
distillation. Like the
traditional images of Temperance, it depicts water flowing between two
cups. The difference is that one of the cups in suspended in the sky.
This illustrates the alchemical saying, “Art imitates Nature.” All
alchemists believed that they were Nature’s agents put on earth to
bring the works of Nature to perfection. Here we see that distillation
is the alchemical way of harnessing the natural power of evaporation
and precipitation, which is how Nature makes rain and allows the plants
to grow. Between the part in the vapor and the water we see roses
growing. As I said, this is an alchemical symbol for perfection, which
here is growing out of a dung hill, turning waste into beauty. The
roses are half red -- masculine -- and half white -- feminine.
Last card –
I promise. The Nine of Wands.
I found this
wonderful article that tells us, "Historians now agree that the
wolf, for example, was usually an alchemical metaphor for the mineral
stibnite - antimony sulfide - which, in molten form, '’voraciously'’
dissolves many metals, including gold. One of the traditional
alchemical symbols of gold is a king. Since antimony sulfide converts
'base' metals into sulfide, scums that can be skimmed away from melted
gold; the wolf and king picture is merely an allegorical recipe for
refining pure gold from its alloys". Myself, I think this is a really
important metaphor, and far more meaningful than a man with a bandage
leaning upon his staff as seen in the Waite deck. I'd like to know what
that New York Times article on the web site was originally published in
the newspaper (on Tuesday April 10, 1990), it had a picture of the
alchemical illustration that it is referring to. I know, because I have
a copy of it here. The picture of the wolf in the fire is from Michael
Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens
(Atalanta Fleeing), 1618, and the Nine of Staffs in the Alchemical Tarot is based on that
I am not surprised that the text is describing an
process in symbolic form, and I am not surprised that modern scholars
are impressed by this fact. It gives alchemy validity to them because
it shows that the alchemists knew something about chemistry and
physical reality. Alchemists, however, believed that all substances
contained three essences, which they called Salt, Mercury, and Sulphur.
These are not to be confused with the physical substances of the same
names. To the alchemists, these represent something more akin to Body,
Mind, and Soul. Everything had these three essences, including the
alchemical work itself.
Lab work, or chemistry, is the body of the work and only one part. Some
alchemical texts are not concerned with this aspect at all. In the
Body, the grey wolf in the fire symbolizes a chemical process. Alchemy
also had Mind which is the art and philosophy of the work. In Atalanta Fugiens, this is expressed
in the art and poetry of the text. In addition, the text included a
musical composition. The Mind would be represented in this example by
the beauty of the engraving of the wolf. There is also Soul, which the
alchemist developed through prayer, meditation, and visions and dreams.
The Soul of the engraving corresponds to its dreamlike visionary
aspect, which symbolizes the sacrifice of the ego as part of the
attainment of a higher spiritual state.
I just completed a two part teleclass on alchemical symbolism this
month. Again, it is possible to buy a CD of this Class through the
Tarot Connection and I plan to repeat this class again in the future.
Dan: Can you tell me just a bit about your
three card spread?
Images in the tarot, and especially the Alchemical Tarot, are actually
hieroglyphs. Ideally, hieroglyphs are designed to communicate in groups
or sentences. This is why I believe that the most effective way
to use the Alchemical Tarot
is to lay out the cards in groups of three that are to be read as one
statement. To read them, one observes the directions that the figures
are pointing to or moving toward -- the same way that one would
interpret the action in a painting. We ask ourselves how these
characters are interacting and where they are going.
After observing for many years how the cards react when they are laid
out like this, I saw that there are seven possible categories that the
action can fall into. I labeled them as follows:
1. Linear - the action moves from left to right on right to left.
2. Choice - two cards are back to back, so that the central one
seems to be rejecting the one at its back.
3. The Meeting - two cards are face to face and meeting each other.
4. The Central Origin - the cards on the sides flow away from the
5. The Central Destination - the cards on the side head for the center.
6. The Central Block - the center card stops the action.
7 the Central Teacher - the center card points to two possibilities,
illustrated by the cards on the sides.
Using them in groups like this helps get the ego out of the way, and
allows the cards to talk for one’s Higher Self. To learn more about my
method, you can read one of my books, or attend or buy a copy of my
teleclass called Hieroglyphs from
Tarot: Renewed and Alchemical
Tarot: Art Edition are available
for purchase through the Tarot Garden's online Boutique.