Updated: Mar 15
In this series we are going to dive into the history of the imagery found in the tarot, the meaning of the card and how it changed over time, and the symbols present within what is arguably the most well known tarot deck of today - the Rider-Waite (Smith) Tarot Deck. So grab your favorite RWS based deck, a cup of tea or coffee, and join me live on Sunday mornings over on YouTube as we Deep Dive into each one of the 21 Major Arcana cards continuing with the mysterious Magician! The Juggler, Il Bagat, La Bateleur, Ill Bagatto, The Mountebank The Magus of Power
Magicians have long held a special place
in the minds of human societies. Every major culture on earth has some version of this archetypal character trope as a part of their mythological history. Be it Merlin in the ancient Celtic mythos, or characters like Dumbledore in Harry Potter in the modern age the idea of a
person who can manipulate the world through supernatural means has long fascinated the human psyche. In a very historical perspective this trope was often closely associated with religious figures such as priests, shamans, court astrologers, and the like.
In terms of the Tarot, in our very oldest examples of the tarot, we see a less mystical take on the idea of The Magician, and we find an expression of a magician one might expect to see while on a trip to Las Vegas. In most games of tarot, the Bagatto is the lowest of the Trump cards, but conversely awards the most points in the game. Today the card has meanings associated with manifestation, power, and skill. A stark contrast to earlier cartomantic meanings which actually referred to him as a man of small money and a mountebank which by its very definition is: a person who sells quack medicines from a platform 2 : a boastful unscrupulous pretender: charlatan. These two, seemingly polarized interpretations of the cards held true through time, and the more modern interpretation of the Magician was really not considered until Levi in 1855. Some of the cards meanings include:
De Mellet (1781): The Mountebank. Levi (1855): The Hebrew Letter Aleph, the Juggler. The Magus. Being, mind, man, or God; unity; mother of numbers, the first substance.
Mathers (1888): The Juggler or Magician. Willpower, dexterity.
Golden Dawn (1896): The Magus of Power. The Magician or Juggler. Skill, wisdom, adaptation, cunning, always depending on the cards around it an whether or not its reversed. Sometimes occult wisdom.
Waite (1910): The Magician. Skill, diplomacy, subtlety, snares of enemies, the inquirer - if male.
Crowley (1944): Skill, wisdom, adroitness, elasticity, craft, cunning, deceit, theft. Sometimes occult wisdom or power, sometimes a quick impulse, "a brain-wave". It may imply messages, business transactions, the interference of learning or intelligence with the matter in hand.
From Master Manipulator to Master Manifester
The Magician's meaning through time has grown from the snake oil selling charlatan to the master of divine power on earth. In the early cards we almost always see our Magician set up with his table ready to take advantage of the next passer by, ready to perform his next trick, much like the street magicians of today. It was not until Etteilla took hold of this character that we see a transition back to magicians of power from legends and myths of old, able to manipulate the very fabric of the universe - however it is interesting to see how some aspects of that original meaning carried forward such as skill, cunning, and deceit.
Our Magician stands proudly behind a table bearing the tools of his craft, robed, and seemingly mid-ritual.
The Lemniscate - The symbol everyone affectionately referred to as the "figure 8"; the symbol of infinity in mathematics, here too it represents the infinite cycles of creation of destruction.
Ouroboros - Around his waist we find the snake consuming itself. Snakes, often associated with wisdom and knowledge since Egyptian times is another symbol of wholeness or infinity.
The Elements - Depicted by each of one of the suit symbols from the deck as tools upon his altar, and even carved into the altar itself and the edge, these symbols each represent the primal western alchemical elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.
Magic Wand - Two headed to represent the duality within everything and unification of opposites, a phallic symbol of power and manifestation of life through unification with a woman.
Lillies & Roses - Red roses are an ancient symbol of passion, love, and emotion. White Lillies a symbol of truth and purpose have ancient ties and symbolism going all the way back the the Greeks who thought the flowers grew from the breast milk of Hera. White is the color of beginnings and ends reinforcing the cyclical symbolism found through the card.
As Above, So Below - The hand gesture of the Magician has a long history that traces its heritage directly to that of Astrology where it is thought that what happens down here on earth is fundamentally dictated and controlled by the stars and heavenly bodies in the sky. The Right hand reaches for the knowledge and the power from above, while the left draws it down to be made manifest here on earth.
As always be sure to check out our live discussion on this very topic over on YouTube:
Chang, T. Susan. Tarot Correspondences: Ancient Secrets for Everyday Readers. Llewellyn Pulbications, 2018.
Crowley, Aleister (aleister Crowley). Book of Thoth - (Egyptian Tarot). Red Wheel/Weiser, 2017.
Dean, Liz. The Ultimate Guide to Tarot: a Beginners Guide to the Cards, Spreads, and Revealing the Mystery of the Tarot. Fair Winds Press, 2015.
Fiebig, Johannes, and Evelin Burger. The Ultimate Guide to the Rider Waite Tarot. Llewellyn, 2013. Katz, Marcus. Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot: the True Story of the Worlds Most Popular Tarot: with Previously Unseen Photography & Text from Waite & Smith. Llewellyn Publications, 2015.
Waite, A. E. Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Dover Publications Inc, 2005.
Wen, Benebell. Holistic Tarot. North Atlantic Books, 2015.
Images Sourced From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Public_domain_image_resources