The Alchemical Tarot by Robert Place
By Richard Avila
So, after finishing the Rider Waite article, I ran informal poll to see what deck I should pull out of the boxes and talk about next. My entire polling group consisted of one person: Lara Houston. Turns out Lara wants to hear all about Robert Place’s Alchemical Tarot, so guess what? Today we’re going to discuss the Alchemical Tarot.
First off, the deck is the brainchild of Robert Place. Mr. Place is an artist, writer, and scholar who has devoted his life to study of the Tarot. The Alchemical Tarot is one of many decks he’s designed. Aside from designing decks, he is also a writer and researcher who is probably best known for his book Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination. He lives in upstate New York, and if you’re lucky enough to be out that way he occasionally lectures and teaches classes.
The Alchemical Tarot, as one could guess from the name, is a fusion of alchemy and the cards. Seeing as Mr. Place has redesigned the deck four times, written two books on the subject (the original book that came with the first edition, and then Symbolism And Alchemy in 2011), and is working on a third book, we could probably assume that alchemy is a subject near and dear to his heart.
Those of you familiar with Christine Payne Towler’s Tarot Of The Holy Light will recognize her from that deck as well, as that is also a deck based on alchemical studies and she’s pictured there too.
In the picture below, we have the Magician, High Priestess, and Four of Vessels. Something I like about Robert Place’s decks is that they are very well researched. A lot of thought goes into them, and each one is a world unto itself. His Alchemical, Sevenfold Mystery, and Vampire decks all have this immersive quality about them. After I picked up the first deck, I got the companion book, Symbolism & Alchemy, and also a DVD he released with 50 pages of notes and four hours of lectures on the deck and on alchemy in general. I spent several months with the Alchemical deck and came out of it with a greater understanding of alchemy, the deck, and Mr. Place’s card reading methods.
In his books, Mr. Place makes the connection between alchemy and Tarot quite clear, and his deck illustrates it perfectly. As he points out, alchemy was popular across Europe both before and during the time the first decks were being created in Italy. Alchemy was the hard science of the time, and later developed into chemistry. To illustrate how important alchemy was, Sir Isaac Newton – inventor of the reflecting telescope, developer of calculus, and first true proponent of the scientific method of study and research – devoted himself to it his entire life. The study of alchemy in England was frowned upon and forbidden by both church and state laws, and Newton was willing to risk prison and perhaps worse to pursue his studies.
But enough about history. Let’s talk about the decks. The first edition was published by Thorsons in 1995, and the deck came with a book which Mr. Place co-authored with Rosemary Ellen Guiley. He and Guiley collaborated on a previous Tarot work – The Angels Tarot. I had never heard of the Alchemical Tarot until I ran across it on Ebay. I’d already read his history of the Tarot and owned the Vampire Tarot (which we will get to at some point), so buying the Alchemical was a no brainer.
The Rider Waite, which we already discussed, is the basis for many decks. Alchemical however, is not one of them. The Alchemical deck is more closely related to the Marseilles Tarot. The Marseilles Tarot was the standard prior to 1909 and is different from the Rider Waite in that the minors don’t have scenes on them.
They just contain the symbols of the suits.
A four of wands card will show, well, four wands and that’s it. Alchemical sort of sticks with that methodology.
Between 1995 and 2015, Mr. Place released 4 editions of the deck, each one slightly different from the other. The first edition has larger cards (4.75”x3.25” as opposed to the newer decks, which are 2/75” wide). The back has a rose in the center on a black, white, and red background. The three colors symbolize different operations in the great alchemical work and the rose is the perfection of that work. The first edition also has large white borders which were removed in later versions and it was printed on white paper. The first edition has bright colors, while the 4th edition is more muted in tone. The other card back is from the 4th edition.
The woman pictured is Lady Alchemia – alchemy personified – and is taken from a 17th century manuscript entitled the Collectanea Chymica.
As much as I enjoy the Alchemical decks, I don’t think I’ve ever done a real reading with them. In the comments about the Rider Waite, Charlie O'Neal described that deck as having the energy of water and emotions, which I happen to agree with. The Rider Waite is warm and inviting and in many ways straightforward. The Alchemical has never felt that way to me. (Nor should it. Alchemy is all about the mystery and the unravelling. Alchemists don't talk about things; they talk around them.) It’s an intellectual exercise, and to me a bit clinical. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I feel like I learned much from it and find it to be a truly beautiful deck. I could definitely read for myself or others with it – but I’m not inclined to. I will take it instead for the intellectual exercise a good study of it will provide.
And that is the Alchemical deck.