a8.jpg (23601 bytes)The Alchemical Tarot -Review by Lee A. Bursten

If you are interested in purchasing this deck, click here.

This wonderful deck/book set was published in 1995 by Thorsons, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers. Robert M. Place designed the cards, and Rosemary Ellen Guiley co-wrote the accompanying book. The suits are Staffs, Swords, Coins and Vessels, and the Courts are King, Queen, Knight and Lady.

First off, let me state that although the cards were adapted from alchemical illustrations from the Renaissance, the concepts of alchemy do not overwhelm the deck. Many of the cards do not appear explicitly alchemical at all (i.e., showing vials and retorts and ovens, or what most people would associate with alchemy), although they are in keeping with alchemical concepts. Other influences, such as classical mythology, play a large part in the Majors. One could easily use this deck as simply a Tarot deck without reference to alchemy at all. I will admit that for myself, while I found the discussions of alchemy in the book fascinating, when I read with this deck I do not say to myself, "Oh, this card refers to the albedo stage of the alchemical process." I think the value of the alchemical material (besides its interest as a subject in itself) is the background information it provides on how the cards were designed and in the interesting correlations between alchemy and modern psychological concepts, which the deck illustrates excellently.

The outstanding feature of this deck is the artwork. There is a serene, uncluttered feeling to these pictures, and they are done with great style. Rachel Pollack in her introduction to the book calls them "elegant," which is the perfect word for them. The style is reminiscent of the understated, cool stoicism of medical textbook illustrations, which makes for a perfect contrast with the vivid, dramatic content. In fact, despite the style, in content these cards are some of the most vivid images I’ve seen in a deck. The artist has done an excellent job of creating images that could easily have been used by practitioners of the classical Art of Memory in which, to quote from the book, "the student create[d] memory images which could be associated with each subject. It was specified that these images should be striking and dramatic. They could be unusual, vividly colored, ugly, frightening, or extremely beautiful."

They also have the iconic quality sometimes found on coins. I have seen this quality on no other deck besides the Waite-Smith.

The Magician illustrates the mythological influence, as well as the cards’ simplicity. It merely shows Hermes standing before a landscape, with the four elements represented by the foliage-covered hilltop, a stone which has burst into flames, a body of water in the background, and sky and clouds above.

One of the most attractive cards is the High Priestess, which is featured on the box cover. Here the artist’s simplicity works to its greatest effect. She stands on her moon boat, with her finger to her lips, holding a shut book, while a full moon shines in a dark blue sky. This card is so beautiful and evocative that the Moon card suffers by comparison, showing Diana with a flaming torch and two dogs.

Justice looks like one of those memory images, with the top of her head sprouting flames.

A note of cosmic consciousness is introduced by the single eye peering out from the flames. (The eye motif reappears in several cards.)

The Hanged Man is a departure from the standard, and in fact kept me from using this deck for a long time. Unlike the serene Hanged Man we are used to, this one is in great distress, with coins falling from his pockets on the ground. Here is a rare instance where the alchemical theme intrudes; I suspect the change in the card’s mood was made in order to fit the alchemical scheme, leading to Death in the next card. It was easier for me to get used to this card when I realized that a Minor card, the 9 of Staffs, represents the qualities of self-sacrifice that are now missing from the Hanged Man.

The Devil is a great card. Instead of the usual hairy monster, we see a hermaphoditic creature. This entity is reminiscent of the World card of the Mythic Tarot; however, in this card the being seems imperfectly integrated; the two sexes are obviously uncomfortable and at war with each other. The being is chained to a rather forlorn-looking dragon, which crouches on a black hole bearing bat-wings. This hole represents the nigredo, the alchemical stage where the substance is reduced to ash, killed, and blackened, but the picture has a psychological power apart from its alchemical roots.

The Tower is the only Major card which explicitly shows the physical alchemical process. The standard tower has become an oven, at the top of which is a glass still. Lightning has struck the still and cracked it, in keeping with the standard Tarot Tower; but the negativity of the standard picture is ameliorated by the red and yellow drops which successfully emerge from the still and fall toward the waiting hands of the alchemists kneeling below. Thus, although the still has been cracked, the alchemical substance is successfully distilled. This is the only Major card which represents a serious departure from the standard sequence and may pose a difficulty for those used to the standard picture suggesting cataclysmic, negative change.

I have reconciled myself to this image by seeing it as part of a sequence of cards about change. In Death (a rather bleak card), only the negative aspects are dealt with. In the Tower, negative things are happening but positive changes are starting to emerge. In Judgement, the negative has faded into the background (although still present with a skull out of which grows a sheaf of grain), and change is shown as a positive rebirth. This Judgement card is especially striking due to the angel’s multicolored wings.

The Star also represents a departure, at least in terms of the specific image. A mermaid with two tails holds her hands to her breasts, from one of which emerges a stream of blood, while from the other emerges a stream of milk, both falling into and dissipating in the water in which she floats. When I first got this deck this image disturbed me, but I’m getting used to it. For me this image represents a concept often written about by Alan Watts, that the picture we have of ourselves as being totally separate from our environment is an illusion. The mermaid in this card has succeeded in reaching a state of awareness in which she can draw energy from the celestial bodies pictured above her, while giving part of herself back to her environment.

Finally, the World is an extremely attractive card, showing a female Hermes standing before a red heart, encircled by an ouroboros (a snake swallowing its tail), with the four elements represented by four small pictures surrounding the central figure; rocky earth, flames, a wave in the ocean, and a sky with clouds. Red predominates in this card because it represents the alchemical stage of rubedo, or reddening.

The Minors of this deck are strikingly original and a welcome change from Waite-Smith inspired decks. Alchemical concepts and illustrative devices are worked into the cards, but more subtly than with the Majors. There are some cards that visually echo Waite-Smith, for example the 2 of Vessels, which shows a couple inside two glass vessels placed end to end, or the 8 of Coins, in which a coin-maker is stamping out identical coins. Some cards illustrate themes similar to the Waite-Smith but are different visually, for example the 4 of Coins, in which a man is burying his four coins in the earth. The same message is conveyed, but there is added subtlety in the fact that he is piling the dirt in the center of the hole, as if he wants to bury the coins but still can’t bear to cover them up.

Other cards are completely original, such as the 5 of Staffs, showing a hand whose five fingers have burst into flame. This is a very vivid image which can be taken either positively, illustrating an abundance of energy and motivation for a project, or negatively, indicating that soon one will be "burned out."

Compared to the Waite-Smith, there are more cards in this deck having to do with love and work. For instance, the 4 of Staffs illustrates a mature, enduring romance, rather than the Waite-Smith’s suggestions of hearth and home; and the 8 of Vessels shows a potter at his wheel, illustrating fulfilling work, rather than the Waite-Smith picture which shows a figure walking away from something.

There are many animals in this deck, which are used to great effect. In the Ace of Vessels, an exceptionally beautiful card, a heart floats in a glass vessel which rides on the back of a fish. Out of the heart grows a grape vine. The 7 of Swords is similar to the Waite-Smith, but instead of a man stealing the swords, a fox is shown with a sword in its mouth, bringing it to a pile it is collecting. The fox looks appropriately sneaky. Finally, in an especially evocative card, the 4 of Vessels, an elephant balances atop four vessels. This is a wonderful image, because one can identify with either the vessels, successfully balancing a great weight, or with the elephant, perched precariously.

The Court cards in this deck are treated somewhat differently than in other decks. Although the current trend is to interpret them as distinct personalities, representing either other people or parts of oneself, these cards are basically treated like the other Minors, as particular situations. While one could use the standard interpretations for some of the cards, others, like the Queen of Staffs (representing a choice between the crude and the sophisticated) and the Queen of Swords (a choice between positive or negative thoughts) seem designed to specifically illustrate these concepts and would be difficult to reconcile with the standard interpretations. Interestingly, in a previous book, The Mystical Tarot,

Guiley presents similarly simple, although more traditional, Court card interpretations for the Waite-Smith deck.

For myself, I prefer these Court cards; I no longer get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever a Court card comes up in a reading. I encourage people to try this system and see how it goes. To those who might be outraged at the abandonment of the currently popular method of interpreting courts, I would suggest that complex and difficult is not necessarily better, particularly in activities that involve exercising our creative and intuitive faculties.

Those who are intrigued by animals on Tarot cards (like I am) will be pleased to see the Kings, who are each represented by an animal: a whale for Vessels, an eagle for Swords, a lion for Coins, and a dragon for Staffs.

The book that accompanies the deck is well-written and, as mentioned above, interesting as a primer on alchemical concepts. The descriptions for each Major card are followed by a paragraph headed "Tarot Wisdom," which purports to suggest what the card might mean in a reading, although sometimes it is simply a rehash of the descriptive material and leaves one in the dark about what it might mean in a reading. The Minor descriptions, while short, are much more down to earth. A scant 17 pages is devoted to material on reading, spreads, and meditations. There is some interesting material by the authors about their personal experiences while creating the deck, but Guiley’s contribution, revolving around a muse called "Silver Lady" which appears in her dreams, seems a little self-indulgent. Since space was obviously at a premium, I would have preferred a little less Silver Lady and a little more insight into the authors’ views on the practical issues of reading with the deck.

I can’t recommend this deck highly enough. Let me assure anyone who thinks they may be put off by obscure esotericism that they will not find it here. The psychological archetypes are just as vivid and easy to work with in this deck as they are in other successful decks (or more).

This deck is prominently featured in Rachel Pollack’s new book, The Complete Illustrated Book of the Tarot.

If you are interested in purchasing this deck, click here.

Review Copyright 1999 Lee A. Bursten

The Alchemical Tarot by Robert M. Place and Rosemary Ellen Guiley
Thorsons, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
1160 Battery Street, San Francisco, California 94111
ISBN 1 85538 301 2


Page Copyright 1999 by Diane Wilkes