“THE ALCHEMY OF TAROT”
American Tarot Association
Published in The ATA Newsletter
Vol. VI No. 1, Winter 2001
Originally posted on my website: TarotCounseling.org
Some Tarot readings are insightful offerings of new information for their clients, while other readings are powerfully transformative and emotional experiences with life-changing effects. What makes these reading so different? As a trained psychotherapist, I’ve spent many years exploring this question in my counseling practice and applying it to my work with the Tarot clients. In this article I would like to present a summary of my findings on the relationship between alchemy and Tarot as creative and potentially transformative experiences.
Alchemy, the ancient science for creating gold from base metal, is an esoteric tradition which offers metaphor and meaning to transformational styles of working with people and change. By understanding the ancient wisdom represented in the alchemical process and the steps involved in completing the journey of change it represents, we find a pattern for exploring personal challenges and draw strength in knowing there may be meaning in the madness of chaos and change in life.
Swiss psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung introduced the modern reader to the symbolic quest for what he called individuation in alchemy. To Jung, individuation is the process of becoming aware of oneself as an individual, being able to act on one’s psychic uniqueness, and to reach the state of wholeness. He correlated the stages of the alchemical procedure with the steps to human integration of conscious and unconscious material, and moving beyond one’s ego identity to reach her/his potential self.
Alchemists were the original chemists and philosophers. To the outer world they practiced their science as they experimented with mercury and other materials. Their objective was to turn these base metals into gold. On a deeper level, the object of their study was to discover the golden syrup of eternal life.
In order for me to reveal the depth potential of working with the Tarot, a greater understanding of the alchemical stages is essential. Each stage of alchemy correlates to a part in the sequence of a transformative reading, with each step building upon the previous one.
The process of alchemy begins with the Nigredo, where the black prima materia is placed in a pot or cauldron and heated. Jung likened this material to the unconscious, containing the massa confusa, or chaos, without order. It is a time of self-reflection.
I associate this stage with the client’s presenting problem, what s/he is seeking help with. In Tarot work, we can think of this stage as the query or question the client is asking, the issue that is placed on the table. It represents the unknown and unformed state of the client and his/her story. The Tarot cards are laid down with the reading in a raw state without interpretation.
The next stage is the Albedo, the whitening. In alchemy, this is where the pot has been heated. Melting and blending combines the base materials, purifying the black material to a white appearance. At this point, the alchemist may chose to repeat the process to purify it further.
When counseling the Tarot client, the conscious or traditional understanding of each card and its position in the layout lends insight when shared with the client. I believe this is the most basic and least personal level of Tarot reading. The cards are interpreted for the client, bringing the knowledge of the cards to light. But, it does not include the client’s perceptions or feelings, and therefore this stage only offers insight without integration. The information is recognized, but not personalized. There is no actual change in the client and the effect of the reading may fade.
I would like to take a moment to distinguish two styles of reading the Tarot. The insight-oriented Tarot reading is interpretive and tells the client what the cards say. This reading stops at the Albedo stage of the alchemical process. In contrast, “Tarot Counseling” offers an experience of the cards. It supports the transformative potential of the client (and the reader/counselor, possibly). Further distinction can be made, visually, by imagining the Tarot reading as satisfying the mind, from the shoulders up, while Tarot Counseling can be a full-body experience including the heart, gut, and lungs.
The next alchemical stage is the Rubedo, when the alchemist allowed the materials to cook to a red hot state and began to integrate new knowledge. The materials were heated to such a state that they blended and purified to a new form, with no resemblance to their original form.
In working with the Tarot client, new understanding comes when s/he is personally involved in the reading. This is accomplished in a variety of ways: drawing the client out by asking for his/her personal associations to the cards, active imagination, listening and weaving in her/his personal material into the story of the reading, supporting any emotion that may come up for her/him, and including both of your intuitive impressions. The experience of the reading is more significant than the details of the Tarot cards.
Last, the Coniunctios represents our journey’s final goal, the gold in the alchemical motif. Psychologically, this represents the completion of the individuation process when one has discovered his/her true self internally and is living this truth in the world, with an aware and congruent existence. This final product is what the alchemists called the Philosopher’s Stone.
For the Tarot client, the Philosopher’s Stone is represented by the capacity to allow her/his experience within the reading to change his/her life. The knowledge of the cards and the wisdom of personal experience are integrated, personalized, and acted upon in the client’s internal and external life. The gold is the client’s capacity to shine his/her light in the world from within and transform the original issue into a creative solution.
While alchemy offers a valuable metaphor for tracing the transformative journey inherent in life, it takes practice and skill development to apply this model to Tarot work. This short presentation on the relationship between Tarot and alchemy is intended as an introduction to the art of transformation.
Excerpted and summarized from An Introduction to Transformative Tarot Counseling, by Katrina Wynne, M.A. All rights reserved.
Material from this article is included in Katrina Wynne’s webinar series on Astrology, Alchemy, and Kabbalah in Tarot, available through Global Spiritual Studies…see link.
Alchemical Studies, C.G. Jung, translated by R.F.C. Hull, 1967, Bollingen Series / Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
The Alchemical Tarot, Robert M. Place and Rosemary Ellen Guiley, 1995, Thorsons, San Francisco, CA.
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