We have the honour to present you a very interesting interview with Robert M. Place. a devoted scholar of the occult, an alchemist, a successful author and an extremely talented creator of wonderful tarot decks. He has designed the Alchemical Tarot, a very popular Tarot Deck with state-of-the-art depictions rich in alchemical and occult symbolism. As my personal favorite, the ‘Alchemical Tarot’ inspired me to search further for the wonders of alchemy and magic guided by the beautiful work of Robert M. Place. So let’s dive into the endless wisdom of Alchemy with Robert M. Place and explore his wonderful yet mystical world.
Question: Alchemical Tarot is a deck full of advanced symbolism, which makes me think that you are definitely a devoted scholar of Alchemy. Is that true? What inspired you to create the alchemical tarot?
Answer: I am an artist and a scholar of art history. As an artist I have always been interested in mythological and symbolic images. The Tarot provides a natural collection of subjects for my work. Likewise, alchemical texts are filled with enigmatic illustrations that have a symbolic reality that defies everyday logic the way images in dreams or in surrealistic art does. I have been fascinated by these illustrations since I was in collage in the 1960s. Because of this fascination, it was natural for me to study and attempt to understand what motivated this imagery.
I have also always been attentive to my dreams and the guidance that they provide. In the summer of 1982, I was introduced to the Tarot by a dream. In the dream, I was told that I would be receiving an inheritance from an ancestor and that it was a powerful tool that had to be used wisely. This inheritance was the Tarot and the connected wisdom tradition. My first decks were the Waite Smith Tarot and the Tarot of Marseilles. I learned everything I could by working with these decks and this study lead me into reading everything that I could find on alchemy, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and related subjects
“…I was introduced to the Tarot by a dream. In the dream, I was told that I would be receiving an inheritance from an ancestor…”
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. I think they were worried about me. I was working as a designer and 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, 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. I remember thinking that finally someone had an explanation for what was happening to me.
Shortly after this realization, 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, the goal of the alchemical Great Work. 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 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 a wreath 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. I was thinking that if the Philosopher’s Stone is the goal of the Alchemical Great Work or Opus and the World is the final Tarot trump, then the trumps should relate to the alchemical Opus. This realization was like a key that opened a lock to a forgotten door and I was amazed as images poured out of this new portal in my mind. They formed a parade of alchemical illustrations 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 to the creation of The Alchemical Tarot. This journey included an extensive study of alchemy and years of perfecting my drawings. The Alchemical Tarot was published by Thorsons, a division of HarperCollins in London, in 1995. After that edition went out of print, I regained the rights and have been publishing it myself. I just finished the fourth edition and it will be here from the printer in July.
Question: That was extremely interesting. We admire your courage to follow your dream! Did you determine who your ancestor was?
Answer: In the 1982 dream, when I was first told about the Tarot, I was waking through a room in the dream when I noticed a phone table on the side of the room with a black phone with a dial, the kind we had when I was young. The phone rang and it woke me into a hyper aware state. I was thinking; “Who could call me in a dream? I didn’t know that could happen.” When I answered, a dream operator told me I had a person-to-person call from a law firm in England. I accepted the call, and a secretary from the dream law firm got on the line. She told me I had an inheritance coming from an ancestor. She said that it was powerful and I had to use it wisely. She couldn’t tell me what it was, but she told me three things about it: it will come in a box from England, it is called the Key, and I will know it when I see it.
Within a couple of days, my friend, Scott, came over holding his new Waite, Smith Tarot in his hand. My head turned and my eyes focused on the deck before I realized what was happening and I recognized the deck as my inheritance. It was first published in England, the trumps are called Keys, the accompanying book, The Key to the Tarot, and I definitely knew it when I saw it. Within another couple of days, my friend, Ed, visited me and gave me a Tarot of Marseilles. He said that he had it lying around and had a feeling that I needed it. After that I also bought the Waite Smith Tarot.
The phone in the dream was a symbol of a message coming from outside of my normal consciousness. It interrupted the dream the way a phone call can interrupt during the day. The ancestor was not related to me through my family but represented a spiritual ancestor, someone who was on the same path before I was. Because the dream was referring to the Waite Smith Tarot, it was suggesting that my ancestor could be either Arthur Edward Waite or Pamela Colman Smith. As an author and a designer, I am working in the crafts that they both represent.
A few years later, I began a series of meditations on the Tarot Keys, in which I would contemplate a card and visualize myself entering it as if it was a door to an inner realm. I let my intuition guide me in deciding where and when to do each meditation, and it took two years to complete the process. I started with the Magician, instead of the Fool, and proceeded in order until I meditated on the Judgement card. Next I meditated on the Fool and days later the World. Again this was an unconscious decision. Because this was the order favored by Waite and there is a story that Smith disagreed with him on this point, I had a feeling that the ancestor was more likely to be Waite.
After this realization, I began to write about Pamela Colman Smith, and champion her as the real designer of the deck, not Waite, as many other occult authors claimed. I think Waite wanted me to do this, to honor Smith for her work and set the record straight. As time when on, more and more people have been seeing the truth in this view, and have been bringing out more facts to support it.
Question: Reading and studying your magnificent guide – book which accompanies The Alchemical Tarot and your previous answer I kept wondering if you believe you are a religious person. Which religion attracts you the most? Do you believe in Magic? Do you pray? Do you cast any spells?
Answer: I was brought up Catholic and I loved the art and rituals of Catholicism when I was young. When I was about ten years old I had an experience that made me question the Church’s benevolence. After that experience, I began to see the Church differently, and as I got older I studied many different religions and spiritual traditions. I found my own way to spirituality, independently, not guided by any one religion.
The event happened when I was in the confessional. I had to confess that I had not been to church to attend mass for three weeks. Instead of just assigning me a penance, the priest leaned into the screen and said, “Do you realize that not attending mass is a Mortal Sin? And the Devil is with you right Now. If you died now you would go right to Hell!” I was so upset that later when I was kneeling on the marble step, in front of the altar, saying my prayers, to fulfill by penance, I passed out and lied on the step unconscious, bleeding from my head, for a couple of hours. All of the other children and the priest just left me there. Finally a woman came in to pray and found me. She brought me outside were my Father saw me and took me home. He had been wondering what happen to me and came looking for me.
While I was on the altar unconscious I had a series of visions. I saw many things that would come to happen later that year. Many things became clear for me over that year. I saw how self-serving it was for the Church to make not attending mass a sin on a par with murder, and how evil it was for a priest to scare a child into a faint. After this, I couldn’t take the Church seriously anymore.
Jung explains that there is one total unity of the conscious mind, the unconscious mind, and collective unconscious mind, that he calls the Self. It seems to me that the experience of the Self is the experience of Oneness and Bliss that is achieved by all mystics in all religions and in the shamanistic practices that predate religion. However, the unconscious mind also contains numerous individual archetypal personalities that can communicate with the ego and provide guidance and inspiration. They can also be troublesome and destructive. All religions recognize these entities. Polytheistic religions recognize these archetypes as the gods. But they also recognize a unity beyond the gods. In monotheistic religions, god only refers to the one, godhead. So they use terms like angels, demons, and saints to refer to the numerous archetypal forms. In a sense all religions are both monotheistic and polytheistic, but there is a problem with religions that declare themselves monotheistic.
The forms in which archetypes manifest within various cultures may be referred to as egregores. This is an occult term for thought forms that are created when a culture or a group has a belief in a deity or another otherworldy figure. The collective belief allows the archetype to take on a definite personality and appearance. The egregore may interact with members of the group as a separate personality.
The image of God that is created when God is though to dislike certain actions and people, or to be willing to punish you for not attending mass in his church, is a limited archetype or an egregore. This is not the embodiment of Oneness that is loved by mystics. And yet Christians and other Abrahamic religions claim that this is the one and only god. To maintain this claim, they must reject all other cultural egregors, and yet their god is a limited archetype just like the others. The egregore that is created by this false claim is jealous and manipulative. The Christian god is an egregore like his angels, but he is the chief egregore, a dictator commanding his legions, and a model for the authoritarian structure within the Church.
Christian Mystics have experienced God as Oneness, but often their experiences have been rejected or misinterpreted by the Church. Although others in the religion may at times experience transcendent moments of Oneness, most often, Christianity actually works to stop individuals from having spiritual experiences instead of embracing them. I am fond of the art and symbolism of religions, and I feel that it is the art and symbolism that is most likely to lead one to a mystical experience that transcends the religious teachings. However, I am not fond of most religious institutions. The art and the symbols point to a deeper understanding and wisdom that has little to do with dogma.
Since I was a child I have had a guiding voice in my mind. As I was working on The Alchemical Tarot, I began to identify the voice as Hermes, the Classical god, who is the messenger of the gods and the bringer of dreams. He is also the god of alchemy, and it fitting that he led me into the study of alchemy. Hermes is an egregore but his individual role is to be a messenger for the One. Unless he is communicating with me through a dream or as a voice in my head, the way I communicate with him is through the Tarot. Most people consider a Tarot reading a form of magic.
“…Since I was a child I have had a guiding voice in my mind. As I was working on The Alchemical Tarot, I began to identify the voice as Hermes…”
Question: We are also fond of the Greek God Hermes, the divine Messenger of the Gods. Tell us more about the Burning Serpent. Will we use it in a similar way as a Tarot Deck? Could we also use it in Magic Spells and Rituals?
Answer: A few years ago Rachel Pollack approached me at the Readers Studio, in New York, and suggested that we should work together on a project. I immediately agreed. After letting the idea develop for a while, we decided that in spite of our deep involvement with Tarot we wanted to create something new, an oracle deck like the historic ones that I lecture on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We wanted it to speak directly to people the way dreams and images had spoken to us throughout our lives. We planed a set of images that would be simple and easy to understand and yet stir people’s imagination and intuition. I would design the deck and Rachel would write the book but we would both be involved in each other’s part of the work.
At that time, a lot of people in the Tarot community were becoming involved with a particular European oracle deck called Lenormand. It was first created in Germany in 1847 and named after Marie Le Normand, the most famous fortuneteller of the Napoleonic era. She had died in 1843 and her name was attached to the deck for marketing purposes. It was not a deck that she had used. It had 36 cards that were related to a German four-suit playing card deck with a small image for the playing card at the top of each card. But the main area of the card was dominated by an iconic image intended for divination, such as a tree, a ring, a child, a house, the moon, the sun, or a garden.
As Rachel and I were working on our deck we realized that many of the images that we had created were included in a Lenormand deck. It was as if Lenormand was reaching out to us. And we also knew that an audience for Lenormand was already developing. So we decided to make it a Lenormand deck. However, we found that in the Lenormand tradition the cards contain simple mundane images that are given very precise but limited meanings. This precision is what people liked about the deck. It made it useful for reading on practical matters. And the Lenormand readers liked to contrast it with Tarot, which they felt is too open to interpretation. This is a criticism that I do not agree with and we wanted our deck to have more depth.
A Lenormand can be used in several ways but the principle reading, called the Grand Tableau, involves laying out the entire deck in five rows. There are two cards in the deck that represent people, one a Man and one a Woman. They are called the significators. If you are reading for a man, the Man card represents the client, and the same with the Woman card for a woman. The simplest way to describe the reading is say that you use the cards that surround the significator in the layout to create a story about that person, one that tells where they have been and where they are going.
In creating the story, the direction of the images on the cards is important. For example if you are reading for a man and the Man card is facing the Woman card, this would be interpreted as a romantic attraction that they share for each other. If they are looking away from each other, there is no attraction. This is actually similar to how I read the Tarot. I assign a basic meaning to each card, based on the image on the card, and I look at the direction of the figures on the cards to see how they are interacting in my layout. However, in Tarot there is also a deeper symbolic level that allows the reading to connect with the inner spiritual guide that I call the Higher Self. This allows the reading to become not just a forecast of events but advice or wise council from this inner source of wisdom. We both wanted our oracle deck to have this deeper level of symbolism.
For the first card in the deck, which usually depicts a man riding a horse, called the Rider, I created an image of Hermes riding Pegasus and we called it the Messenger. For the Sun, I personified it as Sol; for the Moon, Luna, the Scythe depicts the tool being held by Demeter, and the Snake is depicted burning on an ancient altar, and called the Burning Serpent.
Another innovation of the deck is that there are two Man cards and two Woman cards, one facing each way. These can be used in the deck as substitutes when you are reading for a gay or lesbian client, so that the deck can be used with two women or two men. Or you can use all four and assign the extra card to other men or women that are important in the client’s life. There are also two additional cards called Osiris and Isis. These cards represent the Higher Self of the Man and of the Woman. If you want to read the deck as a Lenormand, you can leave out the extra cards and read each card in the traditional way. But if you want to read the deck as a unique oracle deck, you can include extra cards and pay attention to the mythic and symbolic layers in the images. They can also be read like Tarot cards.
That is why we titled it The Burning Serpent Oracle: A Lenormand of the Soul.
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