This is is an account of how I became involved in the Tarot and was inspired to create my first deck, The Alchemical Tarot.
It is adappted from my introduction for my book Alchemy and the Tarot
copyright Robert M. Place 2011
Living in New Jersey in the summer of 1982, I was introduced to the Tarot in a dream. I was in the midst of another dream, when it was interrupted by the ringing of a dream phone. I picked up the receiver and I was connected to a secretary from a dream law firm, who told me that I would be receiving an inheritance from an ancestor and that it was a powerful tool that had to be used wisely. Shortly after that night, a friend came over with his new deck of Tarot cards. It was the famous deck designed in 1909 by Pamela Colman Smith, and my eyes were drawn to this deck as if they were no longer controlled by my brain. Although I was not unfamiliar with the Waite Smith Tarot, I now saw it in a new light—I knew that this was my inheritance. Within a few days another friend, without any prompting, gave me a copy of the Tarot of Marseilles. He just said, “I had a feeling that you needed a Tarot deck.” That was my first deck, but soon I went into Manhattan to buy the Waite-Smith cards that I had seen.
Naturally, I began to experiment with these two decks. Realizing that they were a gift from the dream world, I saw that they were tools for creating a message in pictures that could be interpreted as a dream—a waking dream. I decided I would try to learn more about the Tarot and see if anyone else was approaching the cards in this way. I was disappointed, however, with most of the books that I could find. They did not seem to share my insight and focused on associations for the cards that often had little to do with the actual images depicted on the cards. So, I decided that I would learn directly from the cards by interacting with their pictures.
I learned a great deal from this direct approach, but eventually I realized that to go further I had to gather more information from various subjects that seemed to relate to the themes found in the illustrations. I began reading everything that I could find on Gnosticism, alchemy, Neoplatonism, and related subjects and found correlations and explanations for the Tarot’s images. I quickly filled a large hardbound notebook with charts, lists, and notes describing my observations. By 1987, stacks of books reaching toward the ceiling became a common sight in my workroom and living room and my reading had become noticeably excessive to my wife and friends―as well as to myself. I was working as craft jeweler at that time and my work was beginning to suffer, but I knew I was onto something. It was just that I was unable to explain what inspired my obsession. One afternoon, during that year, I was reading in the living room while a commentator on the radio was talking about the Harmonic Convergence. For weeks, I had been hearing about this exceptional alignment of planets that was said to mark the dawning of the New-Age, but I was not that impressed. I had decided that it was just another New-Age curiosity. But, this time something the commentator said made me take notice; he said that during this period of spiritual transformation sensitive individuals all over the world would be experiencing a flood of information on spiritual subjects. Finally, someone had an explanation for what was happening to me and this announcement seemed to foretell that there was more to come.
Shortly after August 16, 1987, the date of the Convergence, I was reading Picture Museum of Sorcery, Magic, & Alchemy, by Emile Grillot de Givry, when I became fascinated by an alchemical hieroglyph representing the Philosopher’s Stone. It was one of a pair of engravings that represented the Stone as a type of mandala. The one I focused on depicted a heart surrounded by a thorny wreath and placed in the center of a cross that divided the background into four sections. Each section contained an image representing one of the four ancient elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. The heart had five drops of blood on its surface and a rose bud sprouting from its top. Besides the obvious connection with the Sacred Heart, the five wounds of Christ, and the crown of thorns, the image had something else. It connected with something deeper.
In a flash of insight, I realized that the symbolism of the design was entirely interchangeable with that of the World card. The dancing nude on the World stood in the center of wreath (although thornless) and could be interpreted, like the heart, as a symbol for the soul. The creatures representing the four evangelists in the corners of the World were also symbolically connected to the four elements through their Medieval correlation to the fixed signs of the zodiac: the bull to Earth, the eagle to Water, the angel to Air, and the lion to Fire. This realization was like a key that opened a lock to a forgotten door. I sat mesmerized as images poured out of this new portal in my mind. They formed a parade of alchemical illus- trations that were spontaneously paired with Tarot trumps and it became obvious that the trumps are alchemical, and that the series of trumps describes the alchemical Opus. This insight happened in seconds, but it began a long journey that led me deep into research that was both scholarly and intuitive, back into illustration work, and to the start of my career as a writer. It helped me to experience the Western tradition of meditation, and spiritual transformation, and led me to create The Alchemical Tarot.
From the beginning, this work has been guided by the spontaneous magical coincidences that the famous psychologist, Carl Jung, labeled synchronistic. Synchronicity guided me to my writing partner on the initial project, Rosemary Ellen Guiley, to my first publisher, HarperCollins, and has kept the deck in the public eye all of these years. I have now published the fourth edition, 20 years after the first publication. During this time, the art for The Alchemical Tarot has been in museum exhibitions in Italy and California, appeared on the cover of the LA Times, and been included in several television shows. The first edition has risen in value—reaching in one instance the highest price paid at auction for a modern deck. When I was initially working on the deck, the magical ease with which I found a partner and a publisher led me to believe that the deck itself wanted to be published. I now believe that it is more accurate to credit the Anima Mundi with this flow of success. The Anima Mundi wanted The Alchemical Tarot to exist and I was her artisan for the project. It is the Anima Mundi who speaks through the cards, not me.
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