Robert Place is one of my favorite tarot authors. He is a true scholar who knows the history of the tarot in fine detail. Recently I came across an online interview with Robert done by tarot author Dusty White as part of his free lessons on the tarot. The material was so fascinating, I took notes on Robert’s comments as I listened and decided to post them here. Please don’t expect polished writing; the format is pretty much how I take notes when I listen to a lecture. I highly recommend listening to the interview. My notes just capture the main themes.
Here are my notes on the interview:
Robert Place is the creator of The Alchemical Tarot. There is a new version available: The Alchemical Tarot Renewed (3rd Edition). There is a new book Alchemy and the Tarot to accompany the deck.
The Hanged Man Card: Gebelin discovered the tarot in the late 1700s in France and had no sense of the tradition, so he make a lot of wild guesses about the meanings. The original name of the Hanged Man was the Traitor. In Italy being hanged by one foot was a manner of humiliating someone. Publicly hung paintings called “shame paintings” were made of people being ridiculed by being hanged by one foot. Hanging by one foot was a symbol of being shamed. Mussolini was hanged by one foot at the end of the war to publicly humiliate him. Churches in Italy have pictures of the Last Judgment in which figures in Hell are hanging by one foot.
The tarot cards developed in the 1400s in northern Italy during the heart of the Renaissance, a golden age of creativity. Minor artists or folk artists created the deck. Catholicism was the only religion. The Renaissance was reclaiming the pre-Christian classical past, and post sets of images (Christian and pagan/pre-Christian) made their was into the tarot cards. There was a great interest in the pagan gods. Their idea of ancient Rome was very romantic and unrealistic. Many pagan themes exist side by side with Christian themes in the tarot.
Marsilio Ficino (Oct 19, 1433 – Oct 1, 1499) was a famous humanist philosopher of the 1400s. He tried to synthesize pagan and Christian ideas. An old deck from Florence had astrological symbols in it. The tarot had nothing to do with ancient Egypt.
The deck was not originally called “tarot” in the 1400s. The Italian named is tarocchi, which came into use close to 1500. The cards were originally called trionfi – the cards of the triumph, named after triumphal marches of ancient Rome. Our word “trump” comes from “triumph.” All cards were used for games and gambling. Anything used for games was also used in various divination practices (like random number generators). The earliest evidence is the use of the regular 4-suit deck.
Early card decks existed in China because they invented paper from mulberry bark. (The mulberry tree is also essential to silk production.) Making paper was like inventing the computer in terms of the spread of information. Paper was originally used for money. In the 1200s trade brought paper to Europe. Cards spread from Asia into the middle east. Mumluk cards were introduced into Spain and Italy in the 1300s. The Mumluk deck had 4 suits of 10 pips and 3 royal cards (all male). The suits were coins, cups, scimitars, and polo sticks. This is the first deck introduced into Europe. The Mumluks were Egyptian slaves who conquered their bosses and became the rulers. The Mumluk slaves were from all over the region. Many were Slavic. The Mumluks were multi-cultural. Being Islamic, they did not use images of people on the cards, just abstract symbols.
The tarot was created when trumps were added to the 4-suit deck, some time between 1410 and 1430.
There is a hierarchy of rank in the parade of triumphs, from lowest to highest. In the 1200s these parades spread from Italy throughout Europe. They were an ancient Roman tradition. Triumphal arches were built for them. They were like our modern ticker-tape parades.
In the 1400s the World card image was the New Jerusalem being held up by angels – from the Book of Revelation in the bible. The Visconti deck may show a victorious knight coming to the Grail Castle in the World card. A victorious knight holds up a banner of victory and is greeted by the goddess of sovereignty.
The Marseille deck (French) has a more modern image of a woman in a wreath on the World card. She may represent the “fifth element” like the woman in the Bruce Willis movie. [See my addendum for further thoughts about the Marseille World card image. It may date back to 1500. — my comments, not part of the interview.]
Tarot came to Robert Place through dreams and visions. It began with a dream of a phone call in which he was told he would be receiving a box from England. Shortly thereafter a friend gave him a Waite-Smith deck, which he recognized as his inheritance in the dream. A couple days later a friend gave him a Marseille deck. He spent time meditating on the cards. He would visualize a card in great detail in his mind, then enter through the card in his imagination as if it were a door, meet the symbols and characters, and then return to reality. (Alice came back out through the looking glass.) His main form of divination originally was “dream divination.” He put the tarot images together to create a “waking dream” as if he were a dream maker. Hermes was the god of dreams. The dream maker gave him a way of communicating during the day. He did not like the books available on the tarot. He never had Hebrew letters in this dreams, so the ideas about kabbalah and tarot did not resonate with him.
In his meditations the characters in the tarot cards began to interact with him and take him on journeys. It took about 2 years to get through the trump cards in order from the Magician through the World, one at a time. The process took over his unconscious. It became a shamanistic practice.
The Star Card: Why a naked lady?
Ficino was trying to revive Platonic philosophy (neo-Platonism or mystical Platonism). They were trying to reclaim the ancient classical world. One Italian town displayed a nude Venus they found, but a famine happened, so they buried the statue in a rival city. They had a love-hate problem with the nude (vs. the naked). The nude represents a spiritual ideal. Ficino tried to sanctify the nude. He translated Plato’s symposium (drinking party). Socrates was at the drinking party. All the guests were hung over and tied from having too much sex with the food girls, so they decided just to talk about love instead of doing it. Socrates said that love is the force that drives us toward what we really desire, which is immortality. The highest good is a spiritual ideal. All love takes you to a higher form. There are two Aphrodites, one born of Zeus and the other born of foam when Kronos castrated his father and threw his genitals into the ocean. There is a celestial and an earthly form of Venus. Botticelli painted the primavera, with Venus clothed in a garden. Sexuality is expressed symbolically. Later Botticelli painted the celestial Venus or spiritual Venus on a half-shell, which sanctified the nude. The nude became a symbol of the highest spiritual good or of pure truth. The nude became something sacred. Michelangelo painted Christ nude in the Sistine Chapel. At the Last Judgment Christ is nude, a synthesis of Apollo and Christ (two Sun gods).
In the early tarot decks there were no nudes. After Ficino, nudes began to appear on the cards. The final trump, the World, became a nude representing the soul (the World soul or anima mundi). The Star has a nude, the soul bringing us to higher spiritual truth. The Lovers card has clothed figures (sexual love) versus the nude (spiritual love).
Robert’s website is http://alchemicaltarot.com
He teaches at the New York Open Center and will be at the Reader’s Studio in April, 2012.
He has a newsletter which can be requested from him at his email firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert also created a vampire tarot deck.
Addendum: After hearing Robert’s comments about the Marseille World Card, I got curious about when that image (the woman inside the wreath) first appeared. There is an article as tarotstudies.org, which reviews this issue and gives an example of the Marseille image from around 1500 as a Sforza Castle well card (c. 1500). Although the original image of the New Jerusalem on the World card dates back to the mid-1400s, the Marseille image dates back to at least 1500, only 50 years later. Perhaps the shift was due to Ficino’s writings about the nude becoming popular and having great influence among artists at the end of the 15th century.