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Igniting the Serpent Part 2: Robert Place and envisioning the Oracle

In Part 2 of this series, Robert Place, the internationally known Tarot artist, who is most known for his work on The Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Seven Fold Mystery, shares the processes of collaboration with Rachel Pollack which led to the genesis of the Burning Serpent Oracle.

Artwork for the Alchemical Tarot, one of Robert Place's best known artistic achievements.
courtesy Robert Price
Robert Place
courtesy Robert Place

Rachel describes how the tradition of the Lenormand deck informed the development of the Burning Serpent Oracle. Now, Robert will describe the creative and artistic processes that assisted them in transforming that tradition into something unique and new.

Can you tell us what brought you and Rachel together to work on this special project?

I have known Rachel for many years. When I first started working on The Alchemical Tarot, in the early 1990s before it was published, there was an article about it in Gnosis magazine. Rachel read the article. When I was selling my jewelry at a craft show in Poughkeepsie, she made a point of coming to see me. I invited her to our house to see the art for the deck and then asked her to write an introduction for the book. So you could say that is when we first collaborated.

Two years ago at the Readers Studio, Rachel mentioned to me that she would like to collaborate on a deck and I liked the idea. It took us a while to work out what we wanted to do but eventually we decided to do an oracle deck and she came up with the title, The Burning Serpent Oracle.

What specifically inspired your designs in these cards? (If you have specific examples of influence, 1 or 2 instances would be great). They are so simple and yet very rich and elegant.

When I lecture on the card collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I see a lot of divination or oracle decks that were created in the 19th century. There are numerous examples, but none of them are strictly Lenormand cards, although some share certain themes with Lenormand. It seemed to me that these decks were free from the constraints of the Tarot’s themes and more in touch with dream images. Dreams have always been my main focus and I wanted to make a set of cards like one of these.

Also I wanted to continue creating images in the style that I had developed for my Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery. This style is based on the work of the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones, but reinterpreted in my linier, woodcut like style. Rachel gave me the concept for the first image, the Burning Serpent. I drew a serpent with all of the scales depicted in the decorative way I had been working in for the Sevenfold deck and I added flames that look like they are right out of one of Burne-Jones’s woodcuts. But I needed a base. On the Internet I found a photo of an ancient Hebrew stone altar, an altar for burnt offerings, and drew that as part of the picture. The serpent appears to be an ancient offering to God. Rachel was delighted.

We continued to discuss ideas and I would work on them in my intuitive way. Often I am not entirely sure what a drawing is saying until I have completed it. After several cards were done we realized that we were creating a Lenormand deck. It was like the Lenormand tradition had just emerged in the deck without us intending it. From that point on we consciously covered all of the Lenormand themes. But the cards also have a deeper mythological layer, like some that I have seen in the Met.

In Part 3, Robert will conclude his comments and reflect on his muse and his goals as an artist working in a medium that is intended to personally inspire the user and reader of these images.

The Burning Serpent Oracle can be pre-ordered through Premiums are available for some ordering categories.

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