My Journey to the Alchemical Tarot
It was in the summer of 1987 when I first conceived of The Alchemical Tarot. I was studying an alchemical image that symbolized the Philosopher’s Stone. I had been studying alchemy for some time and I was well aware that the Stone was a mystical substance, whose creation was the central purpose of the alchemical quest, known as the Magnum Opus. Alchemists stipulated that the Stone is not actually a physical substance; it is “the stone that is not a stone. It is composed of a spiritual essence, known as the Anima Mundi. Although it is nonmaterial, the Stone has the power to transform any substance into its highest form. It can turn lead into gold; it can cure any illness; and it can transform an ordinary man or woman into an enlightened sage.
Because it is nonmaterial, alchemists created mystical diagrams, what we now call mandalas, to portray it. The image I was studying in 1987 depicted a heart, surrounded by a thorny wreath, and placed in the center of a cross. The cross framed images of the four elements, one to each corner. This type of mandala is called a quincunx.
Although I had seen images like this before, this time it was different. The image seemed to unlock a secret portal in my mind and in an instant I saw that it was symbolically interchangeable with the Tarot’s final trump, the World. In a flash, I realized that if the Tarot’s series of twenty-one trumps culminated in this image, which symbolized the Anima Mundi and could be linked to the final result of the Opus, then the whole series of cards could be correlated with this mystical quest. I then picked up my copy of Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy and began to make notes in the margins next to the alchemical images comparing them to Tarot cards.
This was the beginning of a process that would take several years. The fruit of this insight and labor was the The Alchemical Tarot, which was published by Thorsons in England, in 1995. The first edition of The Alchemical Tarot went out of print many years ago, but I regained the rights to publish the deck and I have published three newer editions. For each I made improvements in the drawings, the coloring, and the symbolism. The fourth edition, The Alchemical Tarot: Renewed, was published in 2015, it is still in print, and you can buy it through this website. I have now designed this fifth version. For this newer deck I have broken away from the initial drawings and redesigned the cards. Therefore, I have given it a new title.
My Newest Alchemical Deck
The Tarot of the Alchemical Magnum Opus began when I attempted to redesign The Alchemical Tarot in a simpler iconic form, something like the iconic images found in traditional oracle decks, such as the Lenormand oracle. I wanted to create simplified images that captured the essence of what each card was saying. While the original Alchemical Tarot images are strongly based on actual 17th century alchemical engravings, for this version I have created my own images expressing each of the alchemical processes in my own way.
I also waned to make a deck that could have been printed using wood blocks, like Renaissance cards. I used only four colors: black, white, blue, and red, each representing a separate wood block printed on a parchment background. (I found it necessary for the maintenance of alchemical symbolism to add yellow on three cards.) Because the colors each represent an area printed from a carved block, the colors are hard-edged without gradation. The black lines define the outlines and darkest areas and the blue and red areas act as medium tones that define the forms and textures. This simplified code for interpreting forms, like alchemy itself, can be traced back to ancient Greece. It is a cornerstone of Western art. What I also realized was that through this process I was distilling the symbols, paring them down to their essence. It was a work of alchemical art.
Just like my An Ukiyo-e Lenormand deck, these cards will be three inches by four inches with gold edges, and come with a small book. It will also have the same style two part cloth covered box, as in the photos below. These will be full 78 card Tarot decks.
Due to a delay at the printer the decks will be here at the end of June
but you can preorder them now by going to the web page for the deck:
The Fool and the trumps each relate to an alchemical material or process, which is part of the Opus. The alchemical name appears on each card. The four minor suits are related to the four mundane elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. To delve more deeply into the symbolism I recommend my book, The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism. The cards are pictured below.
The Magnum Opus Cards
The Unnamed Card (the Fool) – This image of a joker represents the alchemist at the beginning of the Work – His ignorance is necessary for him to begin to learn – He is a naive beginner
I. Materia Prima (the Magician) – Hermes, the god of alchemy is the Matter of the Work, containing all four elements – He is the raw material that will become the Stone – He is the spiritual essence found in the material world
II. Priestess of Water (the High Priestess) – She begins the separation of the elements, called Dissolution – She is Water, esoteric spiritually, intuition, a secret, or something that cannot be spoken
III. White Queen (the Empress) – She continues the Dissolution and represents the element Earth, sensation, attraction, fertility, and the feminine principle
IV. Red King (the Emperor) – He is Air, thinking, intelligence, authority, and the masculine principle
V. Priest of Fire (the Hierophant) – He completes the Dissolution representing Fire and exoteric spiritually – He is Hermes Trismegistus, balance, and morality
VI. Conjunction (the Lovers) – The elements are recombined in the Minor Conjunction – Sex, at- traction, coming together, and partnership
VII. Sublimation (the Chariot) – The child of the Conjunction rises impetuously toward the goal – The three glyphs are Mercury, Salt, and Sulphur (the alchemical essences: spirit, body, and mind, and the parts of the chariot) – He is also speed and travel
VIII. Disposition (Justice) – This is the process of weighing – Truth, balance, justice, and the law
IX. Exaltation (the Hermit) – Exaltation is an enhancement like meditation – The alchemist is con- tained in the ouroboros (the serpent of time) rep- resenting solitude, inner guidance, and being alone
X. Circulation (the Wheel of Fortune) – The Fixed unwinged dragon swallows the tail of the Volatile winged dragon and is in turn swallowed – They are centered in the wheel of the elements: clockwise from the upper right, Water, Fire, Earth, Air – Fate, transformation, change
XI. Fermentation (Strength) – Above the lion of strength, the Sun and Moon pour their essences into the flaming heart, representing control through love, self control, and discipline
XII. Crucified Serpent (the Hanged Man) – Represents the process of Calcination, in which the serpent, who is Mercury, becomes a willing sacrifice – Suffering, loss, discomfort, illness
XIII. Putrefaction (Death) – This is the depth of the Nigredo, the first black stage of the Opus, symbolized by the raven – The end of anything, decay
XIV. Distillation (Temperance) – Distillation im- itates the natural processes of evaporation and pre- cipitation and is used to nurture the perfection of the Stone – Health, beauty, balance, art, timing
XV. Coagulation (the Devil) – The culmination of the Nigredo, vice, enslavement, addiction, bad habits
XVI. Greater Dissolution (the Tower) – This is a greater separation of the red and the white opposites and the beginning of the Albedo, the second white stage of the Opus – Breaking, separation, sudden change, expulsion, divine intervention, or a sudden insight
XVII. Baptism (the Star) – The Siren of the Phil- osophers, giving forth blood (suffering) and milk (nurturing), with the ladder of the planets above, represents purification and the peace beyond blood red fear and milk white hope – Calm, understanding, and ascent
XVIII. Lapis Albus (the Moon) – The Feminine Moon represents the White Stone that will become the Philosopher’s Stone when it is reddened – Rest, retreat, anticipation, preparation, and dreams
XIX. Greater Conjunction (the Sun) – The joining of the yellow Sun and the white Moon brings us into the Citrinitas, the third yellow stage of the Opus – Spiritual love, soul mates, marriage, en- lightenment
XX. Resurrection (Judgement) – Wheat growing from the skull symbolizes life from death – Re- juvenation, healing, removing blocks, recalling the past, judgment
XXI. Lapis Philosophorum (the World) – This is the Phliosopher’s Stone, the Red Elixir of healing, and the essential fifth element composed of the Anima Mundi (the Soul of the World) – The Good, an inner guide, the attainment of our goals