Alchemy and the Tarot of Aleister Crowley
by Hajo Banzhaf - Report by Valerie Sim-Behi
I had no idea what to expect from this workshop. Having just gone to an earlier lecture on a similar topic, I wondered if this would be a near repeat with more interesting arcane pictures, yet with a lot of material that I found quasi-applicable to tarot. I was very pleasantly surprised and found myself on the edge of my seat for most of the lecture.
Hajo Banzhaf has a very warm and engaging speaking style and a wonderful, though somewhat shy, smile. He led us on what Mary Greer aptly referred to later as “an alchemical journey through the Thoth deck,” via slides. Even for someone who knows very little about alchemy, the lecture was fascinating.
Mr. Banzhaf introduced his topic by taking us all on a stroll through the zodiac and the seasons, showing us the symbolic caduceus in the Magus card, and then began to point out the alchemical symbols that are either literally in the cards or are subtly implied by the positional relationships of the people and objects pictured.
The Majors I (Magus) through IV (Emperor) introduce the elements. In the Magus, the traditional symbols of all four elements are present in the sword, the wand, the cup and the coins, but Crowley also indicated that the fifth element so important to alchemy, the "quintessence", be represented, thus the winged egg.
In the Empress (III), the symbolism becomes perhaps a little more subtle, but also progressively more alchemical as you note that the posture of the body and arms of the Empress form the circle with a horizontal line through it that is the alchemical symbol for salt, representative of the element Earth.
With the Emperor (IV), the alchemical symbolism continues to overlay the art itself with the Emperors crossed legs and the resulting triangle formed by the arms and torso above them, which forms the alchemical sign for sulphur, related to Fire.
The Lovers (VI) is especially fascinating when glimpsing it through an alchemical lens. If you hold the card at arms length you will see that you can make out the six-pointed star which you would get by overlaying the symbols of all four elements one on top of the other*. This implied symbol is visually reinforced by the arm positions of the tall, cloaked violet figure and of the black and white child. The card also introduces the idea of alchemical opposites via the black King and the white Queen, the white child and the black child, and the red lion across from the white eagle.
Lust (XI) - Banzhaf brought down the house with the following tongue in cheek statement, "This is the least alchemical card in the deck. It has more to do with Crowley himself than with alchemy."
Art (XIV) - This card is actually referred to as Alchemy in some decks and books. First we notice the alchemical art of uniting opposites with the mixture of Fire (sulfur) and Water (mercury.) And not only have the liquids been transformed. We also have a reversal of “normal” reality with the alchemical transposition of colors illustrated by the now transformed white lion and red eagle. (Refer to card VI above for contrast.)
As we went through the Majors, Banzhaf
gently familiarized us with many alchemical concepts. He explained the material
prima, that with which one starts; the primordial alchemical trinity of
mercury, sulfur and salt; the philosophical egg; and the stages of
transformation. The process is summed up in the word vitriol, which is read
acrostically as Visita interiora terrae; rectificando invenies occultum
lapidem: “Visit the depths of the earth; by purifying you will find the
In brief, the stages of transformation are nigredo,
or blackness, a dissolution not unlike the death and dismemberment of Osiris.
(Notice the crown of Osiris in the Death card.) Realization of the veracity of
this death and dismemberment initiates the second stage in the process: albedo
or whiteness. This is the victory of purity and the freedom from desire, a stage
that imparts immortality. The final stage is rubedo, or reddening
referred to by some alchemists as the “return to earth.” Thus, briefly and
roughly, we have seen corruption, followed by purification, and then ultimately
a return to contact with the earth.
I could go on, but I fear my novice interpretation would be a disservice to the complex and fascinating topic that Banzhaf introduced so well. The good news is that Banzhaf is currently writing a book on the alchemical symbolism in the Thoth deck. I, for one, will be one of the first in line to obtain it to in order to gain further insights on this topic.
* Fire: a triangle pointing up; Air: a triangle pointing up and with a horizontal line through the middle of it;
Water: a triangle pointing down; Earth: a triangle pointing down and with a horizontal line through the middle of it.
Report © 2002 Valerie Sim-Behi
Thoth Images © AG Muller
Photograph of Banzhaf having gone through the alchemical process and become golden © 2002 Chris Asselin
Page © 2002 Diane Wilkes
Valerie Sim-Behi is the founder and moderator of Comparative Tarot, an email list devoted to studying cards of different decks in comparison to each other. She has worked with the tarot for over 30 years. Valerie created a spread that will appear in the book accompanying the Victoria-Regina Tarot by Sarah Ovenall, and has written various articles, including one on the Comparative Tarot method that will be published in Llewellyn's Tarot Calendar 2002.