The card back design of the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery features the Staff of Serapis, Serapis being a principle god in Egyptian mysticism. The staff features the head of a wolf, a lion, and a dog, representing the three Platonic souls and also, the past, the present, and the future heads of Cerberus. During the Renaissance, this imagery was associated with Prudence, who is featured on The World card.
That Staff of Serapis card back design was the first thing I saw of this deck, and I was immediately intrigued. Years ago a friend of mine gifted me with the Sevenfold Mystery deck, believing this was a deck I’d love, and he was right.
Creation of the Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery by Place began “at the dawn of the 21st century” and was initially inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Edward Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones himself was inspired in large part by Botticelli and Michelangelo’s depictions of human figures and expression of Neoplatonic themes.
The unnumbered Fool card is Stultitia, featuring a woman with ass ears symbolic of the Soul of Appetite. She is blindfolded, symbolizing ignorance, and the dog at her side represents instinct. And of course, The Magician card is Hermes, and the High Priestess is Sibyl. Note that Key 9 is unnamed, for The Unnamed Seeker, The Hermit. This is “a mystic who has a vision of the sevenfold mystery. . . He has no name because he represents silence and meditation.”
I was intrigued by the renaming of The Hanged Man to Traitor, representing the Renaissance punishment for being a traitor. This is the suffering necessary in the initiation into ancient mysteries. These are the ordeals that serve a higher function. Key 14 Temperance is the virtue that balances the Soul of Appetite. Here we see the virtue personified as a tree with water quenching the fire so that the fire won’t devour the tree. This is one of my favorite depictions of Temperance.
By the way you’ll notice here that the numbering and order in the Majors follows the traditional Key 8 is Justice and Key 11 is Strength.
Now let’s talk about the deck’s namesake and the main theme that runs throughout the deck design. According to Plato, we have three souls: the Soul of Appetite (associated with the virtue of Temperance), the Soul of Will (associated with the virtue of Strength or Fortitude), and the Soul of Reason (associated with the virtue of Justice).
A fourth virtue that encompasses the above three is Prudence, which was wisdom + a mystical state of enlightenment achieved when the first three virtues are brought into a healthful balance. Prudence in the tarot is Key 21: The World card.
Three more virtues, Christian in origin, are birthed from Prudence, who is also Sophia, the Wisdom of God: Faith, Hope, and Charity. These seven virtues form the Sevenfold Mystery. The Sacred Seven in the Mystery also refers to the astrological correspondences from the Hellenistic Ladder of the Planets– Luna, Mercury, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery was designed to illustrate the mystical heritage found in the Major Arcana while the four Minor suits supplement the discourse. The Sevenfold Mystery is the transcendental philosophy of seven soul centers that are the steps to mystical ascent.
In this deck, the Minors are ordered in the sequence of Coins for the realm of Sensation, Cups for the realm of Intuition, Swords for the realm of Thought, and Staves for the realm of Feeling.
Although not titled on the deck itself, the Little White Booklet that comes in the tuck box lists out the title for each pip card. The Two of Coins, for instance, is The Serpent; the Three of Coins is The Artist; the Four of Coins is The Miser; the Five of Coins is The Beggar, and so on. The Seven of Coins is the Ladder of Coins connecting earth and sky, symbolic of ascension and liberation.
The Ten of Coins is The Materialist, with coins covering his eyes to represent materialism. This is excessive self-interest, but it is also the ability to create weath and fame for oneself. Understandably, the point of view espoused by Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery is Christian. The expression of virtue and vice are Christian in ideology, even with Key XV from the Majors being named Satan and Key XX being the angel Gabriel.
Where earlier the Ace of Coins was the Mandala, here the Ace of Cups is The Castle in a Cup, representing the true home of the soul, while the bird symbolizing finding one’s true purpose. The Three of Cups is named The Support Group, the Four of Cups The Elephant, and the Six of Cups is The Gardener, tending plants at each stage in their development. The Seven of Cups depicts The Cups of Temptation, showing the vices. The Ten of Cups is The Tetractys, representing the four elements plus the three alchemical essences, plus duality, plus the unity of true virtue, altogether creating the Pythagorean design for creation.
The courts here are titled Lady, Knight, Queen, and King. The Lady balances the cup of intuition and unconscious. The Knight of Cups collects rain water, representing the seeking of information, questing into the unconscious, the Queen contemplates the sealed chalice of mystery, and the King manifests a heart above his chalice. The whale pictured here is the alchemical master of water. On kind of a random note, is it just me, or does the King of Cups look like Robert Place? I’m guessing it was unintentional, but the resemblance is a bit uncanny. =)
In the realm of Thinking, corresponding with the element Air and depicted by the suit of Swords, we’ve got titles such as The Dueling Swords for the Two of Swords, The Suffering Heart for the Three, The Sage in the Four of Swords, The Blacksmith in the Five of Swords, and The Fox designated by the Seven of Swords where the fox is offering a coin to a dove, while being in the suit of swords, and thus symbolic of trickery, illusion, deception, but also cleverness. The Eight of Swords is The Prisoner who needs to overcome blocked energy and the imprisonment of negative thinking.
Have you noticed the strong affinity among tarot aficionados for the Pre-Raphaelite era? A large part of that is probably due to the shared philosophy that art is a spiritual or magical endeavor. So there’s a natural kinship between Pre-Raphaelite artists and mystics.
Renaissance artists such as Botticelli, who inspired Burne-Jones, who inspired Robert M. Place, used an ideal female nude as a symbol for the most exalted spiritual essence, and so you do see a fair bit of female nudity in this deck.
Returning to descriptions of the deck imagery, the Knight of Swords features a knight slaying a dragon, representing one who rights the wrongs, fighting evil, taking action, but also of being excessively judgmental. The Queen of Swords represents sound judgment, but she is also Truth above all other considerations, whether that be for better or for worse. Again, an incredible interpretation of the Queen of Swords.
The Ace of Staffs is Venus holding the living torch of passion. The Two of Staves is The Combined Flame uniting Mercury and Venus, while the Three of Staves is The Boat, bringing food and wealth. This is symbolic of reinforcements and replenishment arriving. The Five of Staves is The Hand, for the flow of creativity through handiwork. I love Place’s interpretation of the Eight of Wands here– this is The Woodcutter taming the flaming staves, controlling by simplifying and focusing. The Nine of Staves is The Crow who is sacrificing himself in a fire.
Among the many decks he’s published, Robert M. Place is probably best known for The Alchemical Tarot, which is now on its fifth edition. I’ve been meaning to get my hands on a copy of Place’s Alchemical Tarot. I am a huge fan of his work, both his books and decks. The Sevenfold Mystery was my intro to his decks, and after that, acquired the Tarot of the Alchemical Magnum Opus, which I’ll review at some near future point here on this blog. And I know I’ve talked at length about one of my favorite tarot books, his Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism. (I’ve also been pining hard for his Buddha Tarot! It looks amazing!)
In both The Alchemical Tarot and Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, you get that meshing of historical artistic styles rendered with modern digital art that has become Robert Place’s signature. With is iconic art style and the volumes of research he has contributed to the world of tarot, his name will be engraved in tarot history. I get so much from working with his decks, especially when paired with all the tarot literature he provides to the world, and Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery is among my favorites.