The Alchemical Quest: Mind, Matter and Spirit

In his Tarot de Marseille book, The Way of Tarot, Alejandro Jodorowsky occasionally mentions what he calls the “alchemical quest: the materialization of spirit and the spiritualization of matter.” While his often befuddling blend of impressionistic and surrealistic observations (especially regarding the trump cards) evokes memories of my hippie days (“Whoa, that’s some heavy shit, man!”), this is one instance where I can connect the dots with the work of two of my favorite traditionalists: Joseph Maxwell and J.E. Cirlot. Here is an analysis of the intersection between the two, followed by additional commentary on the parallels to Jodorowsky’s approach.

Do the Pips Roar or Squeak?

That’s more than an amusing rhetorical question. One of the most daunting challenges facing those who would divine with historical decks like the Tarot de Mareille (TdM) is how to coax useful meaning from their sparely illustrated, non-scenic minor — or “pip” — cards. There is no body of traditional literature explaining how the stereotypical pip deck may have been used for divination. After all, it originated as an Italian card game.

A number of modern writers (but not nearly enough, in my opinion) have attempted to illuminate the dim corridors of the TdM and its ilk. Yoav Ben-Doav, Camelia Elias, Jean Michel David, Enrique Enriquez, Joseph Maxwell, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Lee Bursten and Caitlin Matthews have all stuck an oar in the water, and word on the street is that Donnaleigh de la Rose will soon have her own entriy in the field. If one can read French, the range of available options grows. Hopefully, someone will come up with a fresh perspective.

But I’ve yet to find an approach that is truly satisfying. The closest I’ve come was during a series of stimulating conversations with tarot author Lee Bursten on the Aeclectic Tarot forum, and through my work with the complex numerological theories of Joseph Maxwell in his book The Tarot, translated from the original French by Ivor Powell in 1975. The only reliable assumption I’ve arrived at so far is that standard suit/element and number symbolism work at a basic level of interpretation. The more elaborate systems of occult correspondence, such as astrological and qabalistic, and the body of folkloric meaning that has grown up around the narrative vignettes of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck seem a little too foreign to the spirit of the TdM.

The Thoth deck, with its “glorified pip” Minor Arcana, is arguably the “heir apparent” to the traditional pip decks. When comparing more than a few of the Thoth small cards side-by-side to the TdM pips, it becomes obvious that the designs are structurally derivative of, if not identical to, the earlier versions, just “prettier.” Only in those instances where Crowley imposed his qabalistic innovations (inverted pentagrams, Tree of Life motifs, etc.) is there a dramatic difference that Harris’s artistry wasn’t able to fully integrate. Crowley did say, in the Bibliographical Note to the Book of Thoth, that his original intent was to “execute a pack after the Medieval Editors.” I would argue that he got part-way there.

Far and away the greatest influence on my own approach has been the contribution of Maxwell to the numerological tarot, augmented by the geometrical definitions of J.E. Cirlot in the “Graphics” section of his A Dictionary of Symbols, translated from the Spanish in 1962. If you’ve exhausted the conventional wisdom and aren’t averse to a little “deep delving,” this is a good place to pursue it. If you can read French, so much the better; according to the French tarotists I’ve talked to about Maxwell, the original is even more insightful and difficult. I hope to be publishing a monograph on my work in the near future.

Because the tarot deck as we know it reputedly emerged as a card game in 15th- century Italy,[1] there is no interpretive “system” — no recognized body of historical literature — explaining how the earliest decks might be deciphered for the purpose of divination. As everyone closely associated with the tarot knows, the 40 minor — or small — cards in those decks are modestly illustrated with the applicable number of suit symbols — staves, cups, swords and coins — accompanied by a variety of decorative flourishes (usually flowers, buds, leaves and stems of diverse design), and very little else. The so-called “pip” cards of the Tarot de Marseille and other venerable decks derive their name from playing cards, which are adorned only with the number of “pip” emblems — Clubs, Hearts, Spades or Diamonds — denoting their place in the numerical sequence. The challenge in reading with these decks lies in trying to coax useful meaning from this austere arrangement of suit symbols and simple artistic devices.

Setting aside early decks like the Sola Busca tarot, the “Charles VI” (Estensi) tarot and Etteilla’s “Continental” innovations, minor cards illustrated with scenes that can easily be turned into narrative vignettes didn’t make a telling impact on divination until 1910, when A.E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith published the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) tarot deck. Due to the accessibility of this model, there is a compelling temptation among those new to pip cards to merely paste the divinatory meanings of the RWS minors onto their non-scenic counterparts in the older decks. Purists may cringe at this casual melding of ideas, but the plain truth is that they haven’t come up with anything more robust or convincing. For simplicity, we will focus on the Tarot de Marseille, or TDM.

Those traditionalists who resist incorporating any kind of esoteric symbolism into their readings don’t have much to work with. Unless cartomantic (playing-card) meanings are brought to bear, the elemental nature of each suit and the numerological associations going back to Pythagoras are about it. Much has been made of using the decorative flourishes to glean further information from the designs. Are the flowers or leaves healthy or sickly? Are there buds but no petaled flowers, or a mixture of the two? Are there neither, only leaves and stems? Are the botanical embellishments uniform in design, color and placement at both ends of the card, or do they vary? Do the decorations lie inside or outside the array of suit symbols? This kind of minutiae is the stuff migraine headaches are made of.

The elemental qualities of the suits and the metaphysical nature of the numbers are reasonable places to start in building a coherent approach to the pip cards. Tying the four classical elements of Empedocles to the temperamental “humours” — Choleric (Fire), Sanguine (Air), Phlegmatic (Water) and Melancholic (Earth) — adds a touch of color to the traditional derivations. Elemental Dignities as devised by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and explicated by Order chief S.L. “MacGregor” Mathers in a series of example readings in Liber T, can also impart nuance to the interpretation.

The numerological pondering of Joseph Maxwell,[2] with its imaginative deconstruction of the card numbers into their root principles of unitary, binary, ternary and quaternary, can bring the dry arithmetic of the ancient philosophers to life. The reassembly of these core concepts into various “isomorphs” — different sets of two numbers that add or multiply to the same number (e.g. 2+3=5; 4+1=5) — provides alternative ways to “shade” the meaning of the card representing the product of those calculations. The Fives are considered active cards that seek renewed growth through vigorous change; Five as 2+3 can show the need to invest the uneventful equilibrium of the Two with a constructive dose of initiative and direction typified by the Three, while the “4+1” variant can indicate worldly stagnation that is ripe for the jolting intrusion of fresh insight and inspiration. The first of these is more gradual in its development, the second more radical; one shows change as an orderly outgrowth of dissatisfaction with the status quo, while the other manifests as a necessarily disruptive antidote to complacency. Together, they cover the full spectrum of meaning usually applied to the Fives.

The ideas of Maxwell serve another purpose: the visual presentation of most — if not all — of the pip cards lends itself to breaking down the images into an arrangement of geometric figures, mainly lines, crosses, triangles, rectangles, diamonds and squares. These figures interrelate in a variety of interesting ways, often interpenetrating, and thereby furnish an overlay of meaning typically ascribed to their particular shapes. In his book, A Dictionary of Symbols,[3] J.E. Cirlot included a section titled “Graphics” which offers a thorough analysis of these shapes as active and passive principles, both material and spiritual.

For example, the number Seven brings together the triangle and the square that when joined — depending on which figure is uppermost — can show progress (triangle) arising from a stable base (square), or inertia (square) constraining growth (triangle). There are also permutations based on whether the triangle is upright or inverted. (Reversal obviously swaps this orientation.) The Seven is another active number, departing the agreeable but unmotivated domain of the Six in search of a more dynamic expression of equilibrium. This number has been described as showing the need to step off in a new direction, but also to carefully contemplate the proposed destination before abandoning the current steady state of affairs. Thus, all of the Sevens have an air of caution or tentativeness about them. Here is the TdM 7 of Pentacles laid out geometrically.

Copyright 2017, Parsifal’s Wheel Tarot & Astrology

The key figures in this image are the bottom square of four coins and the upper array of three coins in a downward-pointing triangle. Understandably, per Cirlot the square represents the material and passive quaternary, while the inverted triangle portrays the involutive ternary. Rather than aspiring to transcend the mundane inertia of the Earth quaternary, the creative Water ternary is drawn back into it, instilling a utilitarian discipline and effectiveness to the elastic reach of the ternary that is more about “working within the system” than escaping or reinventing it. The figures don’t directly interpenetrate but are joined by the intermediary, evolutive triangle arising from the top of the square.

This configuration suggests that the 7 of Coins is of an economizing rather than expansive nature: the implied next step is toward consolidation and conservation of effort, although practical ingenuity is striving to meet it half-way. The paired triangles in the bottom square are complementary opposites, creating no net impetus for change, but their stabilizing influence is drawn upward via the line connecting them to the apex of the inverted triangle, and also to that of the countervailing upright Fire triangle. The evolutionary forces aligned against the recidivism of the topmost triangle appear to be marginally sufficient to offset the loss of momentum it implies. The harvest will eventually be brought in despite an excess of prudent but ultimately fruitless expedients that conspire to delay it. The “belt-and-suspenders” weren’t needed after all.

What led me to the inspiration for this post was the following passage in The Way of Tarot regarding the geometric construction of the TdM card Le Chariot:

“If we examine the position of the figure, we shall discover that his head, arms and body form a triangular shape that fits into the square of the vehicle. A triangle inside a square: spirit in matter. We shall see this symbolic geometry again in the Seven of Pentacles. The Chariot therefore evokes the alchemical quest: the materialization of the spirit and the spiritualization of matter. From this perspective, we can say that the vehicle represents the body; the horses, energy; and the figure, the mind and spirit.”

J.E. Cirlot’s annotated illustrations in the “Graphics” section of A Dictionary of Symbols offer considerable food for thought along these lines.

English Translation copyright 1962, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London
English Translation copyright 1962, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London
English Translation copyright 1962, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London

[1] See the manuscript of Martiano da Tortona, ca. 1425

[2] See The Tarot, English translation by Ivor Powell, Neville Spearman Ltd., 1975

[3] English translation by Jack Sage, Philosophical Library, 1962

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at

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