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The Alchemical Tarot
An Interview with deck creator Robert Place, by Dan Pelletier

Background: Robert Place's Alchemical 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.


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?
Robert: As 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 deck gets.

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 art.

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?

Robert: First 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.

Alchemical Renewed: WorldThe Philosopher’s Stone was a catalyst that could change anything that 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.

Alchemical Renewed: Card BackDan: 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.

Robert: The 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 dreams.

Alchemical Renwed: Five of WandsDan: 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?

Robert: The 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 factors.
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 how I 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 Smith did.

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.

Alchemical Renewed: TemperanceBecause 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 alchemical meaning.

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?

Robert: The 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.

Michel Maier's "Mary the Jewess"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.
Alchemical Renewed: Nine of WandsDan: 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 you think.

Robert: When 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 image.

IAtalanta Fugiens am not surprised that the text is describing an actual chemical 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?

Robert: The 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 center.
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 the Soul.


The Alchemical Tarot: Renewed and Alchemical Tarot: Art Edition are available for purchase through the Tarot Garden's online Boutique.

The Tarot Garden

The Alchemical Tarot

An interview with deck creator and artist Robert Place

Robert Place

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