Alchemical Symbols and Color


Are these two separate topics, the use of alchemical symbols and the use of coded colors on the older cards? If so, perhaps we can start a separate thread for color, but for the time being, I will post them together.

The Marseilles style cards are my favorites. What can I say...but since I am unable to acquire any new versions for my collection, I picked up the Sola Busca deck the other day, which actually predates the Marseilles style cards, even though I agree with Catboxer and DMJ that these probably are not real Tarot cards but may have been produced for gaming.

The accompany information sheet that comes with this Lo Scarabo deck suggests the deck is filled with alchemical symbolism, which the notes are intricately tied into the colors used on this deck.

Camoin notes the esoteric symbols and use of color. Both, though, only note the presence of it, not any ‘hints’ as to what those symbols might be.

Camoin points out that before cards were printed in different colors, they were colored with the aid of stencils and that when printing technology was developed to a point where printing in actual color was possible, the color range had to be reduced. He also points out that printers were not necessarily familiar with occult thinking and may have made ‘mistakes.’

So obviously, the way to determine if a deck included mistakes is to know what the symbols are, and what the colors represent.

Camoin's research partner, Alexandre Jodorowsky, apparently wrote a book on this called "The Art of Tarot" and I notice that the amount of information available at the Camoin site has diminished over the past year or so. (Guess they want us to buy the book!)

Has anyone done any research and/or thinking on this topic?

PS - Since posting I went back to Camoin and only found two books listed for sale:

In French: Géométrie du NOMBRE D'OR" by Robert Vincent.

In Spanish: EL LIBRO DE ORO - EL TAROT DE MARSELLA by Daniel Rodes and Encarna Sanchez, in collaboration with Philippe Camoin.


some clarifications (I hope) on alchemy

It dawned on me that when I wrote my message above, that I knew certain people in this group would know exactly to what I am referring, and others may be more familiar with the divination facet of the cards, so I thought I’d post a little about what alchemy is, at least, to me.

The idea of turning lead to gold is symbolic and refers to transforming the coarse elements of the human soul into finer, more ethereal matter. According to some, this is achieved by the type of work we do on ourselves, refining and honing ourselves to the point of gaining access to the higher worlds through our own higher being.

This reminds me of a little book I read years ago by anonymous (aka Joseph Benner) called “The Impersonal Life.” I must warn you, this book uses Christian symbolisms to depict the process of resigning to a higher intelligence! ;) And while searching for the author’s name online, I learned, to my shock and horror, that the King himself, Elvis Prestley, found food for his soul in this very book… I’m all shook up. You can read more about the book at:

Another book I enjoyed a great deal on this topic of alchemy is “The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy for Personal Transformation” by Dennis William Hauck. He has an excellent website devoted to a contemporary meaning of alchemy at: .

The seven steps to personal transformation are described in the Hauck book:

1) Calination (Burning off the Dross)
2) Dissolution (Learning to Let Go)
3) Identification (Identifying Essences)
4) Conjunction (Creating the Overself)
5) Fermentation (Fire in the Soul)
6) Distillation (Consecration of the Stone)
7) Coagulation (Ultima Matter of the Soul)

As I noted in my initial post on this topic, alchemy describes three ‘substances:’ Sulphur, Mercury, and Salt. If one were to correlate these to the elements, they are assigned as such: Air is assigned to the higher worlds not recognized on the physical plane, Sulphur is Fire, Mercury is Water, and Salt is Earth. Some alchemists, including the 20th century du Lubicz (see the book, “Al Kemi” by Vandenbroeck to learn more about him) defined these spiritual elements of Sulphur, Mercury and Salt as ‘above’ the four more commonly known elements of Fire, Air, Water, and Earth.

I hope this adds a beam of light to the topic rather than totally confuses you, if you are unfamiliar with these ideas. Check out the Hauck website. It’s really a phenomenal stop on the Internet.

And I’d love to find the processes of alchemy in the Tarot cards. I believe that Camoin and Jodorowsky are referring to this in their description of the basis of the Tarot.


Glad you posted this important topic, Ophiel.

Let me add some rather quick reflections as I try to catch up on a whole week's worth of posts.

Firstly on colour symbolism. I tend to also agree with Camoin that, as he pointed out, the reduction of colour usage in the cards with the advent of printing may have caused some loss of symbolic significance. This, however, would not, I think, have been as great as what may be taken by some, for the main colours were still available: it is rather the density of shading which became lost (eg, light vs dark green, light vs dark blue, etc).

Assuming that there was some importance placed to the colours used for particular parts of the cards (and in at least some cases, I personally think that this is, in fact, the case), the questions which arise are what they refer to, and which early cards ensure a similar colour usage.

Colour, I think, needs to be also understood in the context of the illustrated matter at hand. For example, a (deep - or even simple) blue upon the robes of a woman may indicate Marian/Isian elements, whereas upon a King or emperor his royalty. Of course, we tend to now see more Blue as indicating the element of Water, and 'hence' our receptive or feminine characteristics - but this is more modern. Even in terms of the elements, blue has also been used to signify (in again more modern continental theurgy) the element of Air, as represented by the blue sky!

Still, in each of these cases, I do think that the colours plays an independent effect upon our spiritual senses. In that aspect, whether the blue (again just as an example) is of Water, of Air, of regal stock, or of Isian or Marian depiction allows us to respond spiritually to a quality depicted: blueness.

On the cards, then, the blue of the robes, of the water, of the implements, or of animal parts, become tinged with a different quality to ones which have green, yellow, red, orange, black or white.

With regards to alchemy, I do not think this played a great an influence upon the deck as may have been expected. It seems that already numerous pictorial depictions of the alchemical process were available, and that only in vaguer indirect background impulses was this 'incorporated' within Tarot imagery: the royal road to the Divine, though having alchemical equivalence, appears distinct.

Again, having said this, I do think it worth investigating what these two systems have to offer and the ways in which they each may illuminate each other - as do Kabbalistic and astrological considerations.

Maybe these are vastly different thoughts incorporated in your posts... how to proceed? Keep threads for each colour and each alchemical process separate, or at least colour and alchemical considerations separate?


Occult symbolism, not alchemy specifically

Welcome back JMD.

Now that I read my post in light of your response, I'm wondering why I focused on alchemy. I think symbolism in general would be a better focus.

I think the alchemists were off on their own, doing better living through alchemy. Let's change that from alchemical symbolism to just to symbolism.

(Should we start a new thread on this, to avoid confusion later? I would much rather make this more general right now to embrace symbolism in general.)

Just as you pointed out the shift in meaning of different colors, I am noting the obvious: there has been a significant shift in the meaning of symbols, too.

And here's where I start thinning, knowing the 'meaning' of the symbols on the cards, meanings that would be apparent to the contemporary mind of the 15th-18th century (or whenever these cards were 'current.') Where does one look? There is a fair amount of medieveal/Renaissance writing available at my local bookstore, and no doubt a humanities college library would have an abundance of material.

Or do you think the symbols here are more sublime? We must remember the soul mood of this period is different than today. I have a rough time with that, reaching back and trying to imagine what someone from this period might 'feel' from just settting eyes on these cards.


I very much agree with the thrust of your above post, Ophiel - yet this is what we are, in various ways, doing: seeking an understanding into the symbols used; discovering not just how they may have been variously understood by variously educated and spiritually oriented earlier peoples, but also what the imagery symbolically incorporates - with or without the express knowing of its early users, printers and compilers.

For example, symbolic representations of swords goes beyond their usage as mere weaponry (as I indicated in another thread)... and sometimes, maybe imagery itself slowly evolved (even prior to Tarot) to give rise to symbolic wholes which, though copied, had to be only subsequently ever-so-slowly meaningfully unveiled.

As two examples which come to mind as I write this, I'll make a new post in the Moon card thread (regarding its overall topographical outline), and also begin a new thread on the sequence of XVII, XVIII, XVIIII.

Rusty Neon

While it is by no means certain that alchemical symbols and colours entered into the Tarot de Marseille, it is interesting in itself to look at the tarot from the perspective of alchemical symbols and colours.

In Latin alchemy, the alchemical colours were:

- Black: for the nigredo (blackness) stage in alchemy
- White: for the albedo (whiteness) stage
- Red: for the rubedo (redness) stage
- Gold: for alchemical gold, the final goal of the alchemical process.

We could, if we wish, substitute the tarot deck's yellow for the gold.

(Note also that, in Greek alchemy, there is an intermediate, citrinus (yellowness) stage between albedo and rubedo.)

Rusty Neon


Arcana XIII brings to mind a number of alchemical aspects:

(1) The black soil reminds us of the nigredo (blackness) stage of alchemy.

(2) The motif of death in the XIII brings to mind the process of putrefaction, one of the parts of the nigredo stage.

(3) In the card, we see that the king and the queen have been decapitated. Their decapitated heads are strewn on the black ground. Decapitation is a common alchemical symbol in connection with the nigredo stage. An initiatory death is required for the black work to take place. Recalling the alchemical maxim "Solve et Coagula", the death ensures the dissolution that must take place before the coagulation.

Rusty Neon

.... Nigredo ....

XX Judgement in the Tarot de Marseille also brings to mind the stage of nigredo (as well as the stage of albedo). We see the human figure in the centre of the card standing up from a tomb similar in design to the tombs we see in antique alchemical illustrations.


Colors chosen for symbolic meaning would necessarily have to be very direct and unsubtle. In great part, this would be because there were only so many colors available in medieval Europe. Even granting that this period in history, as 'medieval' gave way to 'renaissance', had a thriving industry in color, with greater availability than ever before, in practice there would have been a rather limited palette available to most people.
And alchemists, though probably educated and cosmopolitan people, were not necessarily artists. Their choices for representing meaning through color would very likely be just those commonly available shades. Those would naturally include red (iron oxides), white (lead), yellow (ochre), green (beetles), blue (lapis), black (carbon), and, rarely, purple (sea animals). Other colors would be mixtures or special recipes concocted by a color specialist, such as a dyer, and wouldn't be generally available for everyone.


Psychics and clairvoyants are fond of pointing out that auras have color, drawing correlations between the shifting colors they see around people and their psychological meanings. (Not those vague cloudinesses seen in 'aura photographs' at psychic fairs...) This would seem to mean that colors not only have their 'assigned' meanings, such as in alchemical literature, but also their 'real' meanings, since the auric colors (and shapes) are understood to be direct expressions of a person's general temperament or of a specific thought. All of the auric colors can be dark or light, strong or weak: low color value and low 'saturation' for the lower and more selfish thoughts, brilliance, transparency and purity for higher and impersonal thoughts. For instance:

Yellow (or gold) is the color appearing when hard thinking is being done. It ranges from the muddy brown of sinister plotting, to the mustard shade of intellectual rumination, to the brilliant translucent jonquil of spiritual wisdom.
Red signifies love of one kind or another: from murky dried-blood shades of grabby need to the elevated crimson of selfless love.
Orange: courage / arrogance
Green: growth /adaptability
Blue: spiritual understanding
Violet: compassion

Doesn't it seem likely that the alchemical color designations originally were a more or less complete overlap with the 'higher' colors to be seen by people with the sight to see such things?


Colours have long had an association with various qualitative processes, and have at times been used to determine correspondences (between, for an example amongst others less obvious, saffron, gold and the Sun) - see, for example, Agrippa's Occult Philosophy.

With Alchemical considerations and colour, it may be worth pointing out that the stages in the process of perfection are somewhat different to the achieved pure state described as gold. Alchemical gold may not in fact be yellow.

Reflecting also on the various colours found in nature, it seems that only six stand out clearly (and of these, two are not described as 'colours' from a physicist's point of view - though they are from a phenomenological one):
  • black
  • blue
  • green
  • white
  • yellow
  • red
Even physiologically, this seems to be the full complement of 'colours': our visual organs (with the eyes) picking up brightness with its rods (black and white) and three primary colours with its cones (blue, green and red), and our visual cortex further manipulating the signals into binary opposites of green/red and blue/yellow.

Whereas the six mentioned have peculiar qualitative differences (as distinct from each other as pears and peaches), the other 'colours' we see can easily be described in terms of this set of six - with orange, for example, described as sharing of the red and yellow (phenomenologically, not just in terms of being able to generate the same with those pigments).

The order I have listed the colours, by the way, is not at all random, but reflects Light's movement from darkness, to light, and back to darkness - but the latter as Light carrying within it the seed of transformation. This is also the same order as mentioned in the alchemical process, and which can be observed as one works with the putrefaction, calcination and ascension of the raw matter to be slowly transformed: to first black, then white, and then red.

Is the alchemical transformative principle, however, quite what is depicted in the way of ascent and transformation as depicted in Tarot?

Individual cards do indeed suggest similar motifs as presented in the transmutation of the self, and the negrido or death is certainly one which makes itself visible in numerous settings.

Of the rubedo stage, one would expect to find the resurrected and integrated marriage of Sun & Moon, of King & Queen - and this can also be seen in XXI the World - especially as the card is at times described as hermaphrodite (ie, hermes-aphrodite), and the 'middle' stage in the Tarot depicted in its more numerous steps as the appropriate mixing of the fluids and their solve & coagulation within the vessels of Temperance and as the heavenly bodies of Star, Moon and Sun... of blue, green, white and yellow.

Though, then, there are indeed parallels, I do not see that the symbolic Tarot representations have alchemy as their principal motif or influence.