Tarot and Alchemy: a short introduction

Schilderij van Joseph Wright getiteld: De Alchemist op zoek naar de Steen der Wijzen ontdekt fosfor

When you think of Alchemy, you usually think of the 16th and 17th centuries. You probably see the image of (old) men brewing all kinds of concoctions from which they try to make gold. The candlelight and the old books & manuscript add an occult touch to this image. You might think it is a bit silly, but many great discoveries have been made during these experiments! And nowadays,  we are actually able to create gold out of other commodities (although this is such an expensive process that the costs do not outweigh the benefits of the gold obtained). You could, however,  argue that these alchemists were the forerunners of our “modern” sciences (physics, chemistry, medical sciences).

The alchemists of the 16th and 17th centuries were not only concerned with matter, spirituality played a major role. They mixed religious and psychological images, scientific experiments and matter. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa – alchemist, physician and occult philosopher who lived from 1486 to 1535 – stated in 1 of his books on occult philosophy that there are 3 forms of philosophy, namely Physical philosophy, mathematical philosophy and theological philosophy. One had to excel in all these things if one was to be a good scientist. Some great scientists started intuitively and searched for the ‘proof’ afterwards. They came to great discoveries about the inside of man by looking for analogies with things they saw happening outside themselves, but also the other way around.

An example is Robert Fludd, who, at the beginning of the 17th century, was the first to correctly describe the blood circulation of man. He had come up with the idea because he compared the human heart to the sun and the blood to the planets that revolved around the sun. So he compared the macrocosm (sky) to the microcosm (man); “So Above, So Below”  you might say (or should it be “So Outside, So Inside?)

Robbert Fludd (1574 - 1637)

This is a Western view of alchemy. But, alchemy is ambiguous. It was practiced in all times, in all cultures and all philosophical currents. Think of the Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, in Islam, Taoism and Hinduism. Although every culture has its own alchemical tradition in every age, there are a number of similarities:

  1. It is always a transmutation or transformation process
  2. Symbols are used everywhere
  3. The transformation is always twofold: within man and outside of man
  4. Every culture / philosophy of life knows the image that nature is made up of elements
  5. In every culture / worldview one recognizes that there are a range of synchronistic connections (e.g. planets, colors, body parts, astrological signs, animals, etc.)
  6. There are always two main ingredients present, namely something that is complete and perfect (for example gold) and the secret recipe to achieve this (for example, the philosopher’s stone)
  7. One works in each current with opposites and pairs that complement each other (sun and moon, male and female)
  8. Often there is the belief that there was once a time when the secret recipe was known (compare with Jung’s collective subconscious or the “golden age”). It was believed that the secret knowledge had once been transmitted to humans, for example by gods, angels, aliens, etc.)
  9. It’s all about experimentation; You have to see things for yourself, experience things for yourself to move forward.

You can see that all characteristics can be placed 1 on 1 on the Tarot! Tarot is also essentially an alchemical experiment.

Religion and spirituality have never really left science (although it might appear that since the Enlightenment it has only been about reason). In fact, now in the 21st century, a new alchemical search is beginning as the areas “outside” and “inside” are much less separated than they used to be. The mind-matter question (physical vs psychic vs metaphysical) is very topical in, for example, Quantum Mechanics. There is still so much inexplicable in this area and there is plenty of experimentation. Many new multidisciplinary disciplines have emerged within this, such as Quantum Consciousness, Quantum Chaos and Quantum Cosmology. And the more scientific progress one makes, the more questions arise. And the more discoveries are made, the greater the surprise when one finds out that some of these new insights were long known (and described in ancient alchemical, religious, or philosophical writings).

Carl Jung had already predicted the emergence of the new disciplines in 1951 in his exposition “Æon” (part 9 of the collected works of Jung¹); He writes:

Sooner or later nucleair psycics an the psychology of the unconsciousciousness will draw closely together as both of them independently of one another and from opposite directions, push forward into transcedental territory… Psyche cannot be totally different from matter for how otherwise could it move matter? And matter cannot be alien to psyche, for how else could matter produce psyche? Psyche and matter exist in the same world, and each partakes of the other, otherwise any reciprocal action would be impossible. If research could only advance far enough therefore, we should arrive at an ultimate agreement between physical and pshychological concepts. Our present attempts may be bold. But I believe they are on the right lines

Carl Jung argued that every concept in modern physics is derived in 1 way or another from a primordial archetypal idea. According to him, the unconscious processes of transformation that the ancient alchemists underwent and that they projected on their experiments were often about conflicts between archetypes and the attempts to unite the opposing archetypes. These processes still take place within the “modern” human being. Even though it has also been more concerned with spirituality lately, it is still important to gain insight into the more primitive areas of the unconscious. Only then can someone get to know themselves and get into balance. Uniting opposites (within yourself) is what alchemy, Jungian therapy and Tarot have in common.

The entire text of Aeon can be downloaded for free from Internet Archives

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