Think of the keywords most often associated with The Magician: Power, talent and skill, resourcefulness, manipulative, opportunistic. Often when it appears in a tarot spread, it will be identified as a very powerful card of great importance.
If we look at a few generations of tarot, particularly once it became an instrument of the occult, we typically see a man standing before a table displaying the tools of his trade. Most often, he looks downward. Sometimes he is known as Le Jongleur (the juggler) or le Bateleur (slight of hand trickster), which betrays his identity as a common street performer. His diminutive stature is further betrayed by the rank of his card,which is number one in the tarot deck. In the game of tarocchi, before occult assignations to the trumps, the higher the number on the trump cards, the greater its significance in the game. Higher numbers had the greater value, and were much more significant to the game. His appearance in play was not particularly seen as an asset.
In current times, whenever The Magician appears in a spread or is discussed online, contemporary readers tend to give this card great importance. He's often referred to a master, with gestures that suggest, 'As above so below', to allude to his having divine powers that transcend the human condition to one of spiritual enlightenment.
So how did our little troubadour elevate his stature over the centuries?
I am not about to claim that I know the origin and secrets of the tarot. No one can claim that. But if we take a look at antiquity we will see strong parallels to each of the Major Arcana cards and how they may have contributed to tarot imagery. It also connects us to those who have gone before us, providing a bridge to the past, and continuity of time until we arrive full circle.
Many readers say they don't need to understand the history of tarot in order to read the cards and that the history of 200 BCE or longer ago, is no longer relevant to the meanings of the cards. After all, as do most things, the tarot deck has been evolving. Sometimes the titles have changed, and most obviously, the imagery has changed over the course of several hundred years. But the tarot deck has retained its essence: A seventy-eight card deck with twenty-two trumps, four suits, and a royal presence.
I'd like to argue that by understanding history and putting the cards in historical context, we achieve greater understanding of the cards which in turn gives our readings greater depth. This depth of understanding is also reflected in the art of the artist who created it, and if there is no understanding by the artist or its creator, then the reader at best gets a watered down interpretation, a superficial knowledge which is exactly what a reading is meant to avoid.
If we go back even before our first known tarot cards of 1400s Italy, we can trace the Magician's name to the Latin Magus, which itself refers to the more ancient origin of the word in the Persian cult of fire known as the Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda is considered the highest spiritual tier of worship. (Light and Wisdom)
So how in the millennium plus years between ancient Persia and the early Renaissance of Italy, did the significance of the 'Magician' flip flop?
We may need to take a look at Simon Magus for that explanation. He was a simple street magician of Samaria who rose in rank by tricking others into believing he had divine powers. He was eventually exposed as a false messiah, a fraud.
Skip a few hundred years or more to early Medieval Europe during the Albigensian Crusades. The highest ranking clergical position at the local level was that of Bishop, and Bishop Fulques was the Bishop at the epicenter of the Crusades. Fulques was a common man from Marseiiles, once a juggler and street performer who rose to the ranks of Bishop in Toulouse and who ultimately betrayed his people for his own gain. Once again a magician gave The Magician a bad name. Interestingly, from the Magician's appearance on the TdM decks, the Magician is seen standing on thorns or nettles. This would have clearly been recognized by the contemporary audience as a symbol of evil and wickedness growing within the subject who was standing on it. My guess is that the low esteem of the card in the tarot deck (its low ranking number) is courtesy of those historic personalities who abused power. (This is nothing that I have read before, but a connection that I have made while trying to understand the cards.)
The lesson of the low ranking stature of The Magician is the ego. The ego gets into trouble when it uses power for personal gain. Vanity and pride are the sins of The Magician who can only be saved by being reduced to nothing, total annihilation of his sense of self until within his journey he achieves an affinity with everything when he returns to the highest tier of reality, the Essence of the Universe. Hence the lemniscate, one without boundaries in relation to time or space. One is All. (Reminiscent of the Uroboros)
Man, existing on the lowest tier of reality, transcends the limitations of his ego by denying it, and eventually through his death, he ascends to once again be joined with the divine realm.
Understanding who The Magician could be, gives a reader greater depth of understanding when it appears in a reading. We shouldn't limit our readings to the coined keywords which may only give our readers a limited and superficial understanding of the card's meaning.
As always, I hope you have enjoyed this post and I welcome comments.
Photo from top left: Tarot of Marseille Lo Scarabeo; Oswald Wirth Tarot US Games reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902 USA. Copyright ©(2011) by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. Further reproduction prohibited; Rider Waite Tarot reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902 USA. Copyright ©(1971) by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. Further reproduction prohibited; (Sacred Rose Tarot) reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902 USA. Copyright ©(1982) by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. Further reproduction prohibited; The Cosmic Tarot and the Anna.K Tarot; (Cosmic Tarot) reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902 USA. Copyright ©(1998) by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. Further reproduction prohibited; and the Anna.K Tarot Llewellyn 2013
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When I randomly chose a card to help me illustrate the evolution of tarot images, the Wheel of Fortune was the card I pulled. In the uncanny way tarot is always relevant to a question, it appeared to say that life goes on and that change is the only constant we can bank on.
In my other writings, I've already established my agreement with the historians who state that tarot was born in 1400's Northern Italy. Playing Cards themselves may have originated from elsewhere, but that 78 card deck that we've come to recognize as Tarot, was undoubtedly born in Northern Italy. Admittedly it was born almost overnight, and the original inspiration and basis for its imagery remains the Holy Grail of esoteric knowledge. It's a blog topic for another day.
The first deck we have to consider is the Visconti-Sforza (V-S) Tarot. The best that we can do is piece together an extant deck from a variety of decks commissioned by these families of Milan. These cards show glimpses of the lives and lifestyles of these very affluent noble families. The cards were hand painted and intended for card play for a limited audience, namely the family, and not intended for a public audience. The most obvious associations of the higher trump cards, (the Major Arcana) appear to be based on religious imagery, even if it may be of a heretic nature. The church would not be inclined to condone religious symbolism in a game of cards which usually meant gambling and an excellent example supporting a fringe religious agenda is the Pappess card as depicted on the V-S deck. This card, now known as the High Priestess, is a portrait of a 14th century Visconti relative, Maifreda da Pirovano, who was actually elected Papessa (female Pope) by the Umiliati movement in Milan which was decidedly anti-papal in nature. We all know how the established church feels about female priests. In the example of the featured card of this blog, the Wheel of Fortune, may have intended to describe a belief in reincarnation, a belief that the Church distanced itself from and made a point to denounce has heretical. It might alternately be argued that The Wheel might have been more recognizable as a torture device, well known and utilized since antiquity. The public undoubtedly would have seen The Wheel was a reminder of the penalty for not living right and behaving in defiance of the law.
The Sola Busca(SB) tarot is an extant deck from the late 15th century and very possibly commissioned for a marriage between the aforementioned V-S families, though this is not known for certain. Although the SB deck is a 78 card deck, it is notably different from other decks of Trionfi from the time. The imagery of this deck is less religious and based more on classical antiquity, with particular focus on alchemy. The late 15th century was a period of enlightenment, leaving darkness to the middle ages in favor of science and learning. The SB doesn't even have a Wheel of Fortune per se, but rather a card titled Venturio which appears to be the Wheel's equivalent. The SB deck seems to be the first deck that directly associates tarot with occultism. Though the deck may not have be used as a form of divination, it seems to be the grand daddy for the cause. It should be noted that every card in the SB deck is fully illustrated with pictorial meaning given to even the pip cards, which makes it very different from other tarot decks of its time.
(I am ashamed to say that although I do own a deck of the 1995 out-of-print SB it remains in its factory seal because I have yet to open it, which is why I do not have a picture of Venturio among the other cards in this photo. My heart says yes open the deck, but my head says no. I'm guessing my heart will eventually win, but for now, they remain in conflict.)
The Tarot of Marseilles and Milan style decks, (TdM) notably the Conver's rendition, seems to continue to echo and elaborate the heretical tradition created by Northern Italy. In northern Italy, Milan among the cities, papal heretics were offered refuge during the Albigensian Inquisition. Though the Cathars were annihilated centuries before the first incarnations of the TdM, it is possible that the imagery of the twenty-two trump cards preserve to some degree in pictorial form, the story telling legacy of the Cathars and does it in plain view within a deck of cards. The fact that this deck was massed produced, says that this deck was intended for the masses. The Wheel of Fortune of the TdM, also echoes a karmic tradition which like the V-S, suggests reincarnation. I highly encourage anyone interested in the TdM as a possible link to Catharism, to read the research by O'Neill and Swiryn and others who have written on that topic. It's fascinating and will offer a perspective we don't often consider, resulting in greater understanding of the Fool's Journey which will in turn give greater insight to the meanings of each of those cards. It at least offers food for thought.
The deck of Etteilla, which today is known as the Grand Etteilla Egyptian Gypsy Tarot, was created by a Frenchman (Alliette, who reversed the spelling of his name) and created a deck for divination based on the belief that the Gypsies (Romani People) were originally from Egypt and they spread the secrets of divine wisdom with them throughout Europe. Regrettably, much of Etteilla's work and the work of his contemporaries was dismissed once the Romani were determined not to be from Egypt at all, and the premise of a Romani Egyptian connection had been proven to be incorrect. But using the cards as a form of divination had by then captured the collective imagination and became a very fashionable thing to do especially among the rich and famous. The work of Etteilla and others of his time focused on the symbolism of the ancient imagery, with an intent focus on learning their significance in the application of cartomancy. Eventually, cult groups such as the Order of the Golden Dawn birthed their own decks, such as the Hermetic Tarot (which I forgot to include in this photo) and the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) deck and the Thoth deck of Aleister Crowley (which I regrettably put in reverse order of creation in my photo). These cards retain to some degree, the same notion of cause and effect, karmic justice and uncontrollable events that every living soul has to deal with.
It should be noted that the RWS deck shares similarity with the SB deck in that every pip card is depicted with a full descriptive pictorial scene, and some of the SB images were directly lifted by Pamela Colman Smith (the RWS deck's artist) after she saw photographs of some of its cards which was on display in London around the same time.
All the cards on the lower tier of my photograph were chosen for the one thing they each have in common, and that is using a story, myth, or parable to illustrate the meaning of the card as it was understood by its artist. From bottom left to right: The African American Tarot, the Russian Tarot of St Petersburg, the Bruegel Tarot, the Mythic Tarot, and the Old English Tarot.
Most, but certainly not all modern decks, owe an homage to the RDS tradition of meaning which to this author seems to be a mix with religious, astrological and alchemy references.
Our modern day tarot interpretations are generally no longer focused on passing on religious traditions.
I hope you have enjoyed this article and I welcome your comments below.
© All material on this blog and site are copyright. Anything quoted from this site must be credited to this author and/or include a link to this site.
When I purchased this deck in the early 2000s, it was because l was fascinated by its concept.
The Old English Tarot by Maggie Kneen. The artist of this deck was inspired by the style of the Lutrell Psalter.
The Luttrell Psalter is an illuminated volume of psalms created in the early mid 1300s in England. It was commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell and created by anonymous artists and scribes.
The original manuscript was created on high quality vellum and sewn together.
Scenes that accompany the psalms reference Luttrell's own life and that of his family, particularly reflecting their contributions to society. I love learning history through tarot.
The result is that this manuscript opens a window into the life of the early medieval society. We catch a glimpse of the clothing styles, architecture, and details from peasant life of the time.
The borders are elaborately patterned with strange mythical creatures.
As for the deck's art, it sometimes borders on the precious side, which for me is not my favorite aspect. The imagery is quite small especially on the pip cards which makes seeing and connecting to the imagery difficult.
Having said that, it is a gentle deck, guaranteed to offend no one. Good to use with querents who might be on the fence regarding a tarot reading.
I've included a random assortment of cards in this photo.