A Comparison of Two Alchemical Tarot Decks

by Craig Conley

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!

About the author: Craig Conley is an independent scholar and author of One-Letter Words: A Dictionary (HarperCollins) and Magic Words: A Dictionary (Red Wheel).  He developed a Tarot deck based upon the architectural archetypes of Portmeirion, Wales, entitled the Trump L’Oeil Tarot.  His websites are OneLetterWords.com, MoonFishOcean.com, and MysteryArts.com.