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The Tarot: An Alchemical Journey

This article was written on August 20, 2009 posted under Tarot

When I first began experimenting with tarot cards, I resolved not to read any books on the subject. My goal was to communicate with the images unhindered by preconceptions. As such, I learned a great deal about tarot direct from the source. I also, however, developed a hunger for more information. I wanted to understand the history and the philosophy that led to the creation of the tarot, and I began reading everything that I could find on the tarot, Gnosticism, alchemy, and such related subjects. I soon had covered every table in my studio with stacks of books reaching toward the ceiling, and I had filled a large hardbound book with charts, lists, and notes.

One day, I was reading a book on alchemy and became fascinated by a mandala-like symbol representing the Philosopher’s Stone: a substance of pure spirit that is the goal of the alchemical quest. The oval design depicted a heart in the center of a cross, with images of the four elements assigned to each quarter. A thorny vine tightly encircled the heart. A rose bud sprouted from the top of the heart and five drops of blood flowed down the front of it.

In a flash, I realized that the symbolism in the design was interchangeable with that of the World card in the tarot. The heart was a reference to the “Sacred Heart” of Christ. That it was in the center of the four elements was a symbolic way of stating that it was the fifth element: the spirit that holds together the other four and creates the world. Alchemists call this the “quinta essentia,” or fifth essence—a spiritual substance that comprises the Philosopher’s Stone and provides the origin of our word quintessence. The heart is also a symbol of the soul and is more commonly referred to as the “Anima Mundi,” symbolized by a nude female.

On traditional depictions of the World card, an unclothed woman is dancing amidst four creatures—a lion, a bull, an eagle, and a man—who represent the four evangelists of the Christian Gospels. Through their astrological association to the four fixed signs of the zodiac, they are equated to the four elements. Putting the woman in the center of the elements turns the layout into a quincunx—a standard symbolic arrangement of five objects, with one at each corner of a square and one in the center. This arrangement clearly refers to the Hermetic fifth element, the Anima Mundi: the goddess sought after by the alchemists.

When I made this realization, I felt a key opening a lock in my mind. I sat mesmerized by the obvious fact that the tarot trumps are alchemical, and that the series of trumps outlines the alchemical Opus, or great work: namely, the search for the Philosopher’s Stone. This insight happened in seconds, but it began a seven-year journey that led me to design and write the Alchemical Tarot. Once that journey was complete, I was able to organize the Hermetic/alchemical message contained in the tarot trumps. Below follows an outline of my system.

The Great Opus
First off, the Fool is unnumbered because it is actually not one of the Trumps. In tarot, it is a wild card of no value. In alchemy, the Fool is the soul who takes on the challenge of the Opus, the alchemical journey represented by the other cards of the Tarot.

The first character that the Fool encounters is the Magician. In occult tradition, the Magician’s implements are thought of as the suit symbols of the Minor Arcana of the tarot. The occultists also equate these four symbols to the four elements of alchemy: fire, earth, water, and air. As master of the four elements, the magician represents the “prima materia,” or the raw material that will be transformed into the Philosopher’s Stone through the Opus. All four elements are contained in the prima materia, held in balance by the fifth element, which is hidden inside. Through the Opus, the alchemist will bring what is hidden to the outside. The prima materia is often symbolized in alchemy by the classical god of alchemy and magic, Hermes.

The next four trumps—the High Priestess, the Empress, the Emperor, and the Hierophant—represent the first process of the Opus: the dissolution. In the dissolution, the prima materia is broken down into its four separate elements. Two elements are masculine, two are feminine, and they are grouped to form two pairs of lovers. The High Priestess and the Hierophant are water and fire, the spiritual couple often symbolized by the Moon and the Sun. The Empress and Emperor are the physical couple, earth and air. They are symbolized by the white queen and the red king.

The next card, the Lovers, represents the sexual union of the couples. This is called the first or lesser conjunction. The greater conjunction occurs during the last stages of the alchemical Opus. There are four stages, each characterized by a color. The first stage is called the nigredo, or the blackening stage; the second is called the albedo (whitening) stage; the third is the citrinitas (yellowing) stage; and the fourth is the rubedo (reddening) stage.

The Alchemy of Creation
Since the prima materia has been prepared, it is ready for the first stage—the nigredo. This is a somber process in which the gross physical qualities of substance are brought to the surface for purification. This stage contains the entire middle section of the trumps and deals with grave issues such as time, death, evil, and virtue. It stretches from the Chariot to the Devil, with each card describing an alchemical process. By the end of this stage, the Lovers are killed so that they can be resurrected in an exalted, spiritualized form and transformed into the Philosopher’s Stone.

The Chariot represents sublimation, in which the impetuous substance, when heated, jumps from a solid to a gaseous state—bypassing liquid—and rises to the top of the vessel. Justice, the first of the virtues, represents disposition, in which she determines the correct proportions of the elements through the use of her scales. The Hermit is exaltation; here the prima materia is dissolved into a purified form of itself, an analogy for meditation. The Wheel of Fortune represents the transformation of the fixed (passive) substance into the volatile (active), and volatile into the fixed, a yin-yang rotation that is an overview of the entire nigredo stage. The virtue Strength is equated to fermentation, a process by which the alchemists believed a spirit entered the body of the matter. The patiently suffering Hanged Man is calcination; he represents the matter suspended over a corrosive agent. That brings us to mortification: Death, in which the physical Lovers die so that they can be reborn. Temperance represents distillation: a liquid is poured from one vessel to another as a kind of a welcome relief, poised between Death and the Devil. She allows us to integrate the lessons of the nigredo stage. Finally, the Devil represents coagulation, in which the gross qualities of the substance are made obvious so that they can be washed away.

The albedo, or whitening, stage begins with the Tower, as white lightning breaks through the blackness of space and creates a second separation called the greater dissolution. The Star represents the washing or purification that is now made possible through the processes of the Opus. This is called the baptism. The Moon, or the White Stone, is the result of this process. It is an embryonic stage of the Philosopher’s Stone.

The citrinitas stage begins with the yellow Sun. This is the most important part of the Opus. The mystical transformation happens as the spiritual couple, the Moon and Sun, are brought together in the greater conjunction. After this, the physical couple are resurrected to join them, as depicted on the Judgement card.

All four elements can now take their place around the Anima Mundi on the last card, the World. This occurs as we reach the final stage—the rubedo, or reddening. Here, at last, the red Stone of the Philosopher is born.




From Llewellyn's 2001 Tarot Calendar. For more Llewellyn tarot decks and books, click here.


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