Monday, May 19, 2008

GUEST POST: A Comparison of Two Alchemical Tarot Decks, by Craig Conley

I'm delighted to welcome Craig Conley, author and photographer of the intriguing The Portmeirion Tarot, as my first guest blogger. (I have reviewed his deck here.) -- Roswila (a/k/a Patricia)

Lovers of esoteric artwork and alchemical symbolism have two especially stunning Tarot decks to explore.

The limited edition Alchemical Emblems Tarot is a 22-card Major Arcana deck produced by Adam McLean. The deck was designed by F.J. Campos, using alchemical emblems colored by Adam McLean.

The Alchemical Tarot Renewed is a 79-card deck produced by Robert M. Place. This new version replaces the long out-of-print original deck published by HarperCollins and features two Lovers cards (one more visually explicit than the other).

In the side-by-side comparisons below, Adam McLean's Alchemical Emblems Tarot will always be featured on the left, and Robert M. Place's Alchemical Tarot Renewed will always be featured on the right.

Both decks are visual feasts. Place's deck features new artwork reminiscent of old alchemical treatises, while McLean's deck reproduces actual alchemical woodcuts. As a rule, Place's imagery is more streamlined than the old woodcuts, with sharper lines, stylized designs, and bolder colors. The artistic difference means that Place's imagery is somewhat more accessible at first glance, while McLean's remains more enigmatic. Place's imagery is more quickly apprehended by the conscious mind, while McLean's invites the unconscious mind to ruminate.

Some symbolism is similar between the two decks. Place's Hierophant appears to derive directly from the old woodcut, though he further echoes the lunar and solar energies in the arched windows and carved figures.

The Devil cards both feature the figure of the Alchemical Hermaphrodite, the result of the sacred marriage between opposites. This "Divine Child" is a fusion of polarities. Why it was chosen for the Devil card in both decks is beyond our comprehension. Presumably, the "enslavement" aspect of the Devil card is represented by the fusion of the man and woman, yet the hermaphrodite historically stands for an integrated Oneness, not a Duality. However, we will bow to superior knowledge of the Tarot creators.

The Hermit cards bear some interesting differences. Place's imagery follows traditional Tarot symbolism, with the addition of the ouroboros in the top right corner. McLean's woodcut is far more intriguing. It depicts a hermit who has resigned himself to an underworld journey of the psyche. He sits with arms folded in a gaping fissure, having relinquished his lantern for the light of the stars. His meditative spirit, represented by the winged figure, will follow the cycle of the cosmos, lifted and carried by natural currents.

We find some especially interesting differences in the Judgement card. Place builds upon traditional Tarot symbolism (echoing the resurrection of the man and woman with the wheat growing from the skull), while McLean's woodcut offers a whimsical approach. We see a lively circle of dancing monkey-like figures, suggesting an eternal recurrence of life as opposed to a linear resurrection. The figures dance around a double horn, one played by the Philosopher's Donkey, the other a blossoming cornucopia.

The two decks feature instances of similar imagery on dissimilar cards. For example, McLean's Triumph (Chariot) card offers the source material for Place's Two of Coins.

In the end, both presentations have their own strengths. Both feature stirring, deep-rooted symbolism. Both honor and celebrate inner transformation and the mystical journey toward wholeness.

Place revisits alchemical symbolism from a fresh perspective, while McLean offers a window into ancient wisdom. We hope this comparison will help you decide which approach resonates best with you. We personally couldn't resist either deck!

* * End of Guest Post * *

Roswila's P.S. -- A couple of the card images above are already inspiring a future post or two of my own here. I love that donkey on McClean's XX, and that VII and Two of Pentacles pair is lovely. Thanks, Craig, for your thoughtful and informative work and for allowing me to share it.

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‘til next time, keep enjoying the incredible wealth of images available in different Tarot decks,


[aka: Patricia Kelly]

****If you wish to copy or use any of my writing, please email me for permission (under “View my complete profile”)**** SEE ALSO: Roswila’s Dream & Poetry Realm for Tarot poetry; Roswila’s Taiga Tarot for taiga (illustrated tanka); and Yahoo DREAMJIN: Group for Dreamku – Haiku-Like Dream Poems.****

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Monday, May 05, 2008


I was going to say "Forgive me if I'm a little rushed" with respect to this reading, but its not really that at all. I'm just in a cranky mood and having a hard time focusing today. That said, I asked this deck "What's with my mood today?" I got The World ("XXI"):

I immediately thought "Ah, all the beginnings and endings I've been going through for months now are taking their toll; my world is quite literally utterly changed, and still changing." This is true but it is also true this is really going on all the time if we can acknowledge it. However, there are times in one's life when it happens at an accelerated pace and in deeper more impactful ways, as now in mine.

XXI in this deck is rather sweet, not particularly notable I would say. But as I note this I see the birds on her wrists and I think, yes, I need to hold still for a while and see what small things come to me that might not otherwise find a perch in the midst of all my busyness. I'm reminded of the birds on a fence that I so enjoyed watching as they watched me, while I simply sat in the park at the beach overlook. I need to make time for and pay attention to the little things, too, not just the huge or spectacular or the painful. The World is endlessly varied and rich at any given moment. We have much more choice -- even at the most difficult times -- than I tend to realize.

For comparison, here's The World card in the Rider/Waite/Smith deck:

I'm using The Art Nouveau Tarot today, BTW, at the request of "Puddle Duck" (who visits this blog occasionally). Below are the two cards she specifically asked to see, The Hierophant and The Lovers:

Overall, I like the Majors more than the Minors in this deck. They have the most original interpretations and interesting art on them. I was most struck by The Tower:

The Tower is usually pictured from up close. This long distance view across a vast wasteland is intense and very moving (you may not be able to see the lightning striking The Tower, due to my poor scanner).

As to the Minors, here is The Five of Cups:

The Minors are, IMHO, overall less effective than the Majors. Though each does tell a clear little story and are beautifully colorful. (I'm a sucker for bright colors in a deck, which is what drew me to buy this deck many years ago.) But it's also another deck in which I have a problem with faces. (See my comments in the previous post here about the Bohemian Gothic Tarot.) Almost all of the faces in the Majors appear to be portraits of actual people (see The Chariot just below) or at least are more realistically rendered.

Whereas in the Minors they are rendered in a rather "commercial art," even comic book style (see The Five of Cups just above, and even The Lovers at the top of this post). Some folk may have no problem with this, but it feels inconsistent to me. IMHO, the art in this deck is best when it is detailed and leans more to the realistic than the "commercial." Such as in The Chariot above, and The Ace of Pentacles below, which I think is fabulous and is an example of this deck's art at its best:

[My scanner is not the best, so you may not be able to see the distinctions I'm addressing. When I win the lottery -- I'll have to play it first, of course LOL! -- maybe I'll be able to afford a better scanner.]

My overall feeling about this deck is that it is really a perfectly lovely one, and my responses are just that, my particular leanings when it comes to Tarot (or any other) art. I've read that some folk don't like it's dated look (it was created in the latter 1980's) but, hey, isn't the Rider/Waite/Smith done in a Renaissance style? (Ooops, there's that crankiness again. :-D) I don't think an identifiable time frame for a deck's art is problematic. And last, given the clear stories these cards tell, it would probably make a good deck for a beginning reader.

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'til next time, keep being open to all moments in life, and enjoying The Tarot,


[aka: Patricia Kelly]

****If you wish to copy or use any of my writing, please email me for permission (under “View my complete profile”)**** SEE ALSO: Roswila’s Dream & Poetry Realm for Tarot poetry; Roswila’s Taiga Tarot for taiga (illustrated tanka); and Yahoo DREAMJIN: Group for Dreamku – Haiku-Like Dream Poems.****