The Magician, Part IV.

Read Part III here.


The trickster can be considered the point of origin of the story because he generates the conflict which drives it. It follows that the tricksy Juggler is the appropriate card to kick off the chain of events that is the Major Arcana. But with the Magician, another way of looking at it becomes a bit more obvious (to me) than with the Juggler: he is at the start of the sequence, because he is the creator of the world.

Now, before I continue, I need to make mention of another card which received a wardrobe change and new name with the RWS: the High Priestess.


When the Magician was a Juggler, the High Priestess was called the Popess, the Female Pope, or Pope Joan, which essentially established her as the female counterpart to the Pope (the Hierophant in the RWS),* and leaving the Juggler to stand alone. The High Priestess introduces a certain level of ambiguity into these relationships – she can still be partnered with the Hierophant, or she can court another card (such as the Hermit), or she can stand alone as a symbol of unfettered femininity. Or, she can pair with the Magician, a pairing with some significance, as I shall attempt to explain.

In fact, I have already explained their relationship to some degree in my post about the High Priestess, and I urge any who are reading this post to please read that one, as well. It is a relationship of binary opposites, the fundamental relationship between the numbers One and Two.

Basically, One (the Magician) and Two (the Priestess) are the primordial creative forces of the Universe, progenitors of all that ever was and will be – everything boils down to them. From a psychological perspective, this makes total sense, because we experience consciousness only through constant subliminal comparison of hypothetical opposites. Certainly everything ultimately reduces to one, but one is meaningless without two as a point of reference. They complete each other, give meaning to each other, like the yin and the yang. It’s probably also partially rooted in biology: there can be no offspring without both a father and a mother. The Magician is the Cosmic Father, and the High Priestess is the Cosmic Mother.** They are the personifications of the purely abstract notions of male and female, which are themselves symbolic of all other binary opposites.

Now, all this is technically by virtue of their numbers, and not necessarily of the characters themselves, so it could be argued that the Juggler and Popess represent these very same concepts as the Magician and Priestess. From a numerology standpoint, they absolutely do; but I think the artistic differences between the old and new help to highlight certain ideas that would otherwise have remained obscure.

The Magician is generative, and the High Priestess is receptive. The Magician may be the initial spark, but the Priestess is the incubator. We tend to think the gift must precede the receipt, but in the grand scheme of things, it really comes down to the classic conundrum of the chicken or the egg. One simply does not exist without the other.


Having established that the Magician is actually an equal, though opposite, creative force as the Priestess, the question of his position as first is raised once again. From a purely symbolic perspective, as explained in the High Priestess post linked above, his very masculinity is the answer. One precedes two, and one is considered masculine while two is feminine. Men come first, unfair though it certainly is,*** and we have been conditioned to think that way for an age. Look at any of the three Abrahamic religions which prevail in the Western world: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all bow to (the same) God the Father. They’re not the first. And whether you’re an adherent to any of these religions or not, your cultural heritage is imbued with the indelible imprint of at least one of them. Their message is not wrong; their specifics are not always right; but right or wrong, they are. It’s inescapable. We think the way we do in large part because of the people who thought before us.

It is only because the Tarot was conceived in this atmosphere that such a bias is reflected in the cards. This is true of the Marseilles just as it is of Waite’s cards. It could easily have been reversed along an alternate timeline, and it could easily be reversed now, without really upsetting the intrinsic meanings that either of these cards hold (symbolic attributions to the physical characteristics of genitalia aside, these associations of sex with numbers, or with any form of opposites for that matter, are totally arbitrary constructs). By all rights, they should both be in the first spot. But unfortunately our temporal limitations insist that one or the other has to be first, and the simple fact remains that the Magician just, well, is.


This is a perfect opportunity to make an essential point: “God” is not truly confined by gender or sex. Or rather, maybe “God”, as the Christians define him, is confined to his masculinity. But one of the reasons I continually find myself frustrated with this sort of religion is that “God” is used primarily as a name, a contrived denoting device with a capital “G”. This causes great confusion, because the word is not a proper noun in and of itself. There have been many gods and goddesses (lower-case “g”) since the dawn of time (that is, the awakening of consciousness). It becomes a question of whether or not any god by any name, be it God or Allah or Zeus, is really the top dog on the divine hierarchy.

When I say the Magician is God the Father, what I’m really saying is that the Magician is the demiurge. He does indeed create and manipulate the physical world, which is represented on the card by the aces upon the altar. He set up the table, he put the items in their places on it, and he moves them into their proper positions to effect the results he desires.

And yet, he still holds his wand above him, as if anything could be above him.

Your average demiurge refuses to acknowledge that he (or she) is not actually the supreme power in the Universe.**** Most of them probably honestly do not even realize it; it’s an awareness beyond their capacity, and indeed, beyond the capacity of many mortals far below them.

But the Magician knows. He knows that what he perceives as his own will is in truth the will of the Universe; that for every feat he accomplishes through his magic, he is merely a conduit for something greater; that desire and decision for him are ultimately illusions. He knows that, though earth-bound mortals may call him God, he is really only a hand of the supreme godhead.

The Magician is remarkably humble for his esteemed position. Most gods are jealous, and some are even vengeful, when their vaulted status is called into question. But though the Magician is receptive to divine influence, he is not receptive by temperament as the Priestess is. He is an active agent. It is why so many creator types do seem supreme. They harness divine energy, and they do stuff with it. The Magician may not be any more impressive than the Priestess is, but his actions certainly draw more attention than her meditations.

I liken it all to a pencil sketch: the Magician is the pencil, the Priestess is the paper, the drawing is Creation, and the artist is the higher power. Imagine for a moment that the drawing somehow developed consciousness. Doesn’t it make sense that, from its limited stance, it might view the pencil as its creator?


By himself, the Magician might remain a mere trickster, even with his new ritual attire (you didn’t really think the trickster only wears clown clothes, did you? That would be too obvious). It is only because of his relationship with the High Priestess – a relationship the Juggler does not openly share with the Popess – that he is able to ascend to the level of Creator, because man cannot become father without a mother to bear child. The potential is really there either way – the Magician does not have to be defined by the Priestess, any more than she is defined by him. But the concepts represented by her go a very long way in refining what exactly it is he stands for. It is a perfect illustration of the idea mentioned above, that One is incomprehensible without Two.

It is also a good example of the true nature of the demiurge: he may appear all-powerful, but he is not the sole power in the Universe. He just makes the flashiest show of it.

So, we can now view the first numbered card of the Major Arcana as the Trickster and the Demiurge. Could there possibly be more? You betcha.


*It’s interesting to note that the Empress and Emperor are side by side, and the Popess and Pope are on either side of them. I think that this was supposed to make a point about worldly authority versus spiritual authority during the Renaissance – the worldly being contained within the jurisdiction of the spiritual. By the time Waite was designing the RWS, this notion about the relationships between Emperors and Popes was outdated, or had at least lost much of its practical significance.

**Hajo Banzhaf refers to the Magician and the Priestess as the Heavenly Father and Mother in his book about the Tarot and the Hero’s Journey. They are not necessarily literal persons, just concepts, and they are followed by the Earthly Father and Mother, a.k.a. the Emperor and Empress.

***Institutionalized oppression is real, it takes on many forms including sexism, and it is unfair. I know this, so please don’t castrate me for stating my observations about the world around me. And, even in a patriarchal society, those who are enlightened know that true femininity cannot be extinguished. The High Priestess is a shining example of the sublime feminine power, even from her place among the shadows.

****So, if not God, then what is the supreme power in the Universe? This post is not the place for such a discussion, so let it suffice to say that, whatever it is, it’s probably beyond our ability to define with our primitive languages. If there was a Tarot card to represent this supreme power, I would say it’s the World, although, truth be told, I don’t fully believe such a concept can be limited to a single card. If anything, the entire Tarot deck is itself the closest representation of this Universal force, and every single card is but a minute aspect of it, even the seemingly comprehensive World and the powerful demiurge Magician (and, I might add, the much maligned Devil).

The Juggler, Part III: The Magician.

Before there was the Magician, there was the Juggler. The Juggler was a character of potentially ill repute, yet simultaneously one which could delight onlookers with his tricks as he pleased. The dual nature of the Juggler’s character, combined with his divinitory associations with incredible mental dexterity – not to mention his almost clownish clothes – suggests the Trickster archetype of myth, which was the subject of the previous post in this series.

However, in the modern English-speaking Tarot community, the Juggler has effectively become the Magician, thanks largely to occultist Arthur Waite and the artist commissioned to illustrate his Tarot, Pamela Smith.

TdM Juggler and RWS Magician*

The two versions of the card incorporate similar elements, especially the table upon which are set various implements, but there nonetheless appears to be some discrepancy between them. While the traditional Juggler** wears motley performance attire, the RWS Magician is dressed in the robes of a ceremonial magus. Especially striking is the Juggler’s hat; it is so conspicuous in its size and shape, that its absence gives the Magician an air of seriousness by comparison. We know the Juggler must possess a high degree of focus to carry out his whims, but a major part of his trickery is his ability to divert our attention from his true purpose, and his hat helps to disguise this purpose. The Magician cares not for such distractions, and instead an ethereal lemniscate, symbol of infinity, floats above his head. It is the same shape as the brim of the Jugglers hat.

The Juggler appears fluid and at ease as he performs. The Magician’s stance is poised and deliberate. He holds his wand to the sky in one hand, and with the other he points to the earth. This pose is a reference to the Hermetic maxim, “As above, so below.”*** This essentially states that what is true of the macrocosm is also true of the microcosm, an idea which is central to magic theory. The Magician works his will on earth and the greater Universe unerringly conforms. The pose also suggests that the Magician has the ability to take abstract or spiritual energies from the Universe “above”, and make them manifest on earth. Either way you look at it, micro to macro or macro to micro (in truth, it’s a constant back-and-forth rather than just one or the other), the Magician clearly wields awesome power.

Now we’ll turn our attention to the table. The Juggler plays with various objects that can usually be likened to the suit symbols of the Minor Arcana, although they can just as easily be random knick-knacks;**** but the items upon the Magician’s table can be mistaken for nothing else. There are four of them, and they are very clearly implements of the same sorts as are pictured on each of the aces. This implies that the Magician has the raw forces of the elements at his disposal. The combination of his Hermetic stance and the elemental aces on his table serves to underscore that his will is all powerful. He can manipulate the physical elements of this world with ease, but his true influence stretches far beyond the realms of crude matter.

In short: the Juggler performs tricks and illusions. The Magician performs magic.



For this post, my aim was to examine the basic elements of the Magician card versus those of the Juggler. It is a digression from the overarching theme of mythic archetypes that is the purpose of this series, but I think it’s a necessary one to make in order to more fully appreciate what’s coming next as compared to what came previously. The Magician can still be associated with the Trickster, by virtue of his being a reincarnation of the Juggler (by the same token, the Juggler can be associated with all that I will claim for the Magician in the upcoming installments). But there is another archetype the Magician represents that is different than the Juggler’s trickster: God the Father, Creator of the Universe. It might seem like quite a leap, but I assure you, it’s all there in the cards.


*Interestingly, these two cards appear to be mirrors of each other. Is there significance in this? Perhaps, and I may or may not return to this thought in a future post.

**For the purposes of this post, “traditional Juggler” refers to the Marseille-pattern Juggler.

***Might not the Juggler also be considered to be making the same statement through his gesture? It can certainly be read that way. The Juggler may very well be hiding all manner of secret hermetic and occult wisdom, but if this is true, the many anonymous hands that contributed to his appearance left no indication that it was intentional. We just can’t know. One of the things that made Waite’s Tarot so revolutionary (aside from Smith’s Minor Arcana illustrations) was that he published a book detailing the cards and their symbolism. The Marseille Tarots are occult only because they were interpreted that way long after their creation; the RWS, on the other hand, is occult because its creator made it so, and we do know that, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

****The items on the Juggler’s table often vary from card to card. For example, the early versions, such as the Visconti and the source material for Huson’s Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot, show stock items of the street performer’s trade. While this might include a wand or a cup, it also might include balls or spinners or other random, non-Tarot-related items. Oswald Wirth’s Juggler, on the other hand, has objects on his table which very obviously correspond to the minor suit symbols (ironic, considering he never made a Minor Arcana). The Marseille Juggler typically falls somewhere in the middle: the items on his table appear to include a couple coins, a small cup or two, and a knife, and he holds a baton in his hand. These are very similar to the suit symbols, but they admittedly look nothing like any of their respective aces, so the similarities could therefore possibly be only coincidence.

The Juggler, Part II.

The last time I wrote about this card, I briefly discussed the evolution of the Juggler to the Magician. Today I am here to talk about the Juggler again, keeping that superficial distinction between him and the Magician in mind (I will follow up this post with one on the Magician).


Despite prefacing the Major Arcana, the Juggler is a lowly character. He is a street performer, probably dishonest and operating in a seedy part of town. He amuses passersby with sleight of hand tricks, even possibly stealing from or cheating those who are not as intellectually sharp as he is (and he is very sharp).

Not to paint a picture of a bad guy; on the contrary, I find the Juggler to be very likeable. He represents focus and skill, excellent even if they are occasionally applied to dubious ends. I’ve equated the Juggler to the mythic Trickster a few times on this blog, and now is the time, I think, to explain why.


Tricksters are often associated with the myths of tribal cultures, especially African or Native American myths, but the trickster character exists everywhere. In the mythic realms of gods and demi-gods the world over, where might is right and magic generally abounds, the trickster relies on his wiles to get by. If the gods and giants are forces of nature, the trickster is mankind, at the mercy of and yet able to outsmart these forces. The trickster does not always come out on top, and oftentimes he must endure punishment even when he does. But his mind is his most powerful attribute, and he knows how to use it.

The questionable character of the trickster stems from his ability to outsmart. Even if he is not bad, he is almost always antagonistic in some way. Sometimes, this is necessary for his survival. Oftentimes, however, it seems like the trickster is just antagonizing for the sheer joy of generating conflict, or even just out of boredom. He certainly has some very human qualities, even if they aren’t always flattering ones.

With a few exceptions, though (Odysseus), the trickster as a character is not a mere mortal. He is often not quite a god, either. The trickster is usually in between, not quite mortal, not quite divine, not welcome here, not welcome there, but showing up anywhere he pleases all the same. One of the interesting qualities about the trickster is how generally disliked he is by the other characters in his stories, and yet how beloved he is by those who tell the stories.

The Visconti and Medieval Scapini Tarots: two renditions of the earliest known Juggler.

The Juggler is no exception. Despite his seediness, there are few out there who don’t consider him to be a favorable card. But why is this so? The trickster is often identifiable as a “culture hero”, which basically means he is responsible, in a mythic sense, for somehow making life better for people through his trickery. Prometheus tricked the gods into allowing humans to eat the meat from sacrificial animals, and then he stole the fire for them to cook it, too.* Loki invented the fishing net and Hermes invented the lyre. Anansi the spider is responsible for all storytelling. Is Anansi a good guy? Not always, but it would be a bleak existence for mankind if it weren’t for his contribution to culture.

From the Deviant Moon. Despite his title, this guy is certainly a Juggler type. Perhaps it’s the extra arms, but this Juggler in particular reminds me of Anansi more than any other.

In some versions of the Anansi myths, he is not only the god of stories, but of all wisdom, as well. Indeed, in much of the world’s mythology, the distinction between the trickster and the god of wisdom is a blurry one, although I’ve already written about that. The point is that there is much more to the trickster than meets the eye.

Such is the case with the Juggler. He appears to be nothing more than a performer with a comically floppy hat, but is he, really? Is he hiding something? Is he not also a conman, with more than just tricks for entertainment up his sleeve? He very well may be, but even that is just part of the whole picture. He’s the great manipulator personified, playing with gods and men as effortlessly as he plays with the implements on his table. His goofy hat symbolizes the vastness of his intellect, and his blonde curls and youthful countenance provide a seductive mask to hide a truly mischievous nature.

Oswald Wirth

Just as the trickster is the spark that generates conflict in every story of which he is a part, so is the Juggler the spark that generates the progression of the Major Arcana. I don’t believe this is the only reason he stands at the front of the pack, though. I think his position also has something to do with that connection I spoke of earlier with the gods of wisdom – sky gods – – creator gods, even. You see, sometimes the Juggler is merely a trickster; sometimes, though, he transcends mischief and becomes something much greater.

That, however, will be the subject of another post.

Part III

From Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot. The monkey is an interesting detail with some importance, but we won’t get to that for another post or so.

*The name “Prometheus” means fore-thought, which is an apt moniker for a trickster type.

The Hobbit Tarot.

I’ve always been hesitant to buy a themed Tarot deck. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a cool idea – on the contrary, I rather enjoy making connections between the cards and my favorite books and movies. The thing is though, I tend to think my own ideas are better than everything I’ve seen actually published,* and anyway, a themed Tarot just seems too narrow in scope to actually be effective as anything but an art collection.

On the other hand, though, there are so many themed decks out there, it’s almost as if they constitute a Tarot sub-genre all their own. Shouldn’t a well-rounded Tarot collection include one of them? Well, I thought so, but of all the options out there, which one should I choose?

An example of the Major Arcana, a court card, and a small card from the Hobbit Tarot. I do not fully understand the significance of the pattern on the back.

I actually bought the Hobbit Tarot on a whim upon seeing it (priced ludicrously cheap) at the local metaphysical shop, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think I couldn’t have made a better choice. For one, it is its own entity, not just a Hobbit-themed RWS ripoff. For another, J.R.R Tolkien is one of my favorite authors of all time, and among all his works, The Hobbit is probably the most timeless.** If I had to pick a single story to be represented in my Tarot collection, I can’t think of one better than The Hobbit.

Rather than cards and companion book, in this instance, I think it’s more appropriate to say book and companion cards.

What remains to be seen, however, is how well the actual deck stacks up to its potential.

I think there are two criteria against which I will judge these cards: How well do they work as a Tarot deck in general? How well do they tell the story of The Hobbit?

This post will answer the former; as far as the latter goes, I have to admit it’s been a few years since I last read the book, and so I intend to reserve the greater part of my judgement in that regard until I have a moment to read it again. There are, however, a couple points I would like to make about its alignment with the story that caught my attention even without having recently read it, and I will address those shortly. First, the cards as Tarot.

I’ve already mentioned that this is not a RWS copy. This is a partial truth. It does place Strength at 8 and Justice at 11. It also maintains all the traditional Tarot titles rather than substitute them with Hobbit-based ones. Pentacles is Coins; the courts consist of Pages, Knights, Queens, and Kings. Leafing through the instructions booklet, it seems as though the divinitory meanings of all the cards are more or less consistent with the RWS. So I suppose it’s safe to say that, if you are familiar with the standard RWS definitions, you can use these cards. The difference lies in the artwork. These are all scenes from the Hobbit, and virtually no attempt is made by the artist to make them look anything like P.C. Smith’s iconic drawings. If you are the type to read intuitively based on imagery – and not based on Waite’s book definitions – no amount of familiarity with the RWS will aid you with these cards.

It seems to me that the little booklet is required reading for this one. Each entry consists of a description of the scene depicted in relation to what’s going on at the corresponding place in the book, followed by suggested divinitory meanings. Just reading the descriptive first part, some of the scene-to-card transitions seem a bit of a stretch; reading the second part about the divinitory meanings usually clears it up quite nicely. Often my confusion (or skepticism) with the first part is replaced with an “Aha, that’s pretty clever” upon reading the second. The booklet itself is among the nicer ones I’ve got – it’s nice and fat (95 pages), with plenty of info. In the introduction, the author also heads off some of my doubts going into these cards, saying that “In bringing together the Tarot and The Hobbit, a kind of marriage has been achieved between these two very distinct mythical realms, and like all unions, this one also has its own contradictions and unities, its own ‘personae’.” That’s fair, I think, and I’m glad the author said something to that extent, because otherwise I’d probably have held onto some impossible expectations which ultimately would have led to disappointment.

The artwork is pretty good. I think the artist did a fine job of recreating the Middle Earth aesthetic without relying on the Peter Jackson movies to do the imaginative work for him. It looks like a pseudo-Northern European wilderness, which is what Tolkien was shooting for with the book. So well done, there. The problem is that some of these scenes look pretty generic, and without Hobbit-based titles to draw from, the LWB is absolutely necessary to understand what exactly they’re supposed to be showing us. The small cards almost never show their suit symbols, either, so without the suit names on the cards, you would never know what they were.*** I don’t really have any issue with this, but I think it merits pointing out all the same.

The court cards are somewhat odd in that they have no discernible pattern. Bilbo is represented in a few of them all by himself, and some of the other ones use totally generic characters (two of the Queens are nameless women of Laketown, for example). I should point out that there is an occasional card in the pack that depicts scenes or characters that actually exist outside of the storyline told in the book. The most notable examples of this are the four Queens, two of which, I already mentioned, are generic Laketown women, one of which is a mournful Warg bemoaning the fate of her kin after the Battle of Five Armies, and the final one is Goldberry bathing in a pond (with a man watching her in a way that would totally be creepy if I didn’t already know him to be Tom Bombadil). Goldberry and Tom are only mentioned in the Lord of the Rings, although they certainly existed during the time of the events told in the Hobbit. Luckily, I was actually elated to find Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, regardless of the fact that they don’t really belong among these cards (if you know anything about Tom Bombadil, though, you’d understand that he can do what he pleases).****

Another example is the Hierophant, which appears to be Gandalf the White (and he does look distinct from the other times Gandalf appears in these cards in his grey guise), complete with an apparition of Shadowfax, another bit that does not appear in the Hobbit. Temperance is even stranger, showing a high-ranking goblin rousing his fellows to fight the Battle of Five Armies after the events under the Misty Mountains. While that does happen in the timeline of the book, it’s not part of the narrative itself that I can remember; but what actually bothers me about this card is the very use of such a malevolent character for such a typically benevolent card. I think the point is that he is tempered by battle, but even among the other stretches I mentioned before, this one’s a bit much.

One thing I wondered about was how these cards would show the “feminine archetypes” of the Major Arcana when the book is lacking in strong feminine characters (one of the few shortcomings of Tolkien as an author*****). I was not disappointed – the High Priestess and the Empress show situations rather than characters, and I think, given the source material, that was a good decision.

Three cards which would normally picture female archetypes.

All in all, as a Tarot, this is not the best, and as a recreation of the story, it’s not the best (further judgement on that matter to come), but as a Tarot depicting the story, it’s as good as I think could be reasonably expected. I like it, anyway, and I was surprised when I took it out to read with to find that, with the LWB close by for reference, it gave me pretty insightful results. So, I say, take the shortcomings with a grain of salt, because the Hobbit Tarot does ultimately succeed in what it sets out to do, namely give good readings using the fanciful imagery of Tolkien’s most accessible work.


* I am aware of how snooty that sounds, but I’m just being frank. I mean, those Norse mythology Tarots out there? Please. It’s unfair of me to call them bad, but I think there’s certainly room for improvement.

**Alright, timeless is such a cop-out term to use here, especially when dealing with the mythos of Middle Earth. It’s all timeless, but even I, a self-professed Tolkien nerd, must admit that these books are not for everyone’s tastes. The Lord of the Rings is long as shit, requiring a commitment of at least a couple of months to read in its entirety, and The Silmarillion begins to cross over into super-nerd territory (although I was surprised to find that it actually wasn’t quite as dense as I’d expected). Mention anything beyond that, and you’ll get a blank stare from anyone less than a hard-core Tolkien-head. The Hobbit, by contrast, is meant to be a children’s book, operating just as well within its own little nucleus as it does within the greater context of Tolkien’s body of work. It is a rare example of a perfect standalone fantasy story. I had to pick a word other than favorite or best for this post, though, because it is not my favorite Tolkien book, so for lack of anything better, timeless it shall be.

***There are some exceptions, especially in the suit of Swords. Overall, however, the suit symbols are absent.

****Tom Bombadil is the Hermit in the Lord of the Rings Tarot (by the same artist), which is awesome (I don’t have that Tarot, nor do I particularly desire it, but I’ve seen pictures online). The Hermit in this Tarot is Beorn, which is also a pretty great choice, although the traditionalist in me really wishes he’d had a lantern. There’s no reason to assume Beorn wouldn’t have a lantern lying around somewhere in that great abode of his, and a Hermit without a lantern just doesn’t seem whole to me. I couldn’t help but notice that Tom Bombadil has a lantern in the LOTR version, so there’s no excuse for the omission. Out of all the non-traditional details of these cards, that one probably bugs me the most (with the possible exception of Temperance). But anyone who knows me knows how much I like the Hermit, so I’ll admit to some bias there.

*****Although to be fair, there are a couple great female characters in the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. Although, to be fair again, they are far outnumbered by the men.

A Choice of Lovers.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve done what I used to enjoy so much on this blog: analyze a specific card of the Major Arcana. I don’t know why it’s been so long; either I’ve written about something else or I’ve written nothing at all. One of my eventual goals for this blog is to write about each of the Major Arcana at least once, and I think it’s high time I got back on that train.

I’ve chosen the Lovers as my subject today, because its changes over time are a little more apparent than many of the other cards, providing me with ample fodder for discussion. This card has a couple possible meanings depending on the deck used, and I’m going to focus on four particular versions of it in this post.

I’ll begin with the most straightforward version, which happens also to be the first, chronologically speaking. You can pretty much take the Visconti Lovers at face value.* It depicts a marriage, and can be interpreted to mean what it says: love, especially a romantic or everlasting love that joins two people. Pretty simple, right?


Interestingly, this early version of the card is not what many would consider the most traditional – that distinction goes to the Marseilles Lovers, which is more correctly referred to as the singular “Lover.” The central figure is a young man. On either side of him is a woman, and hovering above them is a Cupid-like cherub. Rather than actual love, this card is typically interpreted to mean a choice, as the man must choose which woman to take as his lover. The choice of lovers pictured on the card is symbolic of choice in general – but not your run-of-the-mill, what-do-I-eat-for-breakfast sort of choice. This is the sort of choice that presents itself at pivotal moments in life, the sort of choice that defines who you are.


There seems to be two prevailing ways to interpret the women. Probably the more common of the two is that one woman represents Virtue, and the other is Vice. The Lover must choose what sort of man he will be; will he live a righteous life, or will he succumb to baser temptations?

Alternatively, one woman can be the man’s mother, and the other is his, well, lover, and he must choose between them. You can get Freudian with that if you like, but what this generally symbolizes is the choice to grow up, essentially. Will the Lover choose to leave the past behind and face the future and its responsibilities head-on, or will he falter and regress back into the metaphorical arms of his mother?

Of course, this card can also be taken at face value, in which case it could be interpreted similarly to the love in the Visconti version (although the sole partnership implied in the Visconti is absent).


The Golden Dawn tweaked much of the Major Arcana to better jive with their occult philosophies, and the Lovers are no exception. Now, I don’t know what the actual Golden Dawn Lovers looked like, but apparently they depicted it as the climactic scene of the Perseus myth, when Andromeda is about to be devoured by a sea monster and Perseus flies in like Superman to save her.

Hermetic Tarot

Why does this Tarot card deviate so much from its source? What reasons did the Golden Dawn have for using such an oddly specific story to illustrate this one card? Unfortunately, I don’t really know. Certainly Perseus took Andromeda as his lover after the rescue, but there are so many love stories out there from which to choose.

In a nutshell, the Perseus myth is a Hero’s Journey story, like so many other stories before and since. So far, we’ve seen the Lovers represent Love and Choice. Both of these are important themes in the great human drama, but only the latter is really a prerequisite of the Hero’s Journey. The Hero always must make the difficult decision to embark on his (or her) journey. It is a common trope for the Hero to find true love, for sure, but it’s not required, and anyway, if it does happen, it normally happens towards the end of the journey, not chapter six. When taken as a whole, the progression of the Major Arcana symbolically depicts the Hero’s Journey, and in this context, the Lovers card stands at that turning point, that choice, to embark.

And yet, this is not the moment of the Perseus story pictured on the Lovers card. Some traditions hold that the Lovers should neither be interpreted as love nor as choice, but rather as a test or trial to be surmounted, and this view is mentioned in a pamphlet written by Mathers, who was at the head of the Golden Dawn. Where and when this tradition originated, I do not know, but it seems likely that the Lovers Perseus and Andromeda against the sea monster are meant to be a representation of it.

In the very same pamphlet, though, Mathers wrote that he actually preferred to think of this card in Kabbalistic terms,** as the path descending from Binah to Tiphareth – or in layman’s words, divine-feminine energy descending towards balance, much like Perseus (guided in the story by Athena) flying down in Hermes’ sandals to restore the peace that reigned in Ethiopia before Andromeda’s parents pissed off Poseidon. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I am not a Kabbalist, and therefore cannot speak to the validity of the reasoning behind this. However, there is an element of the divine in every version of the Lovers that might attest to this idea, whether its a Cupid or an Angel (or a monster sent by an angry Lord of the Sea). This supernatural third party is a staple of the Lovers card (even the mundane Visconti-Sforza wedding shows a blindfolded angel), and I’m sure there are endless possibilities for interpreting it, although I won’t get into that here.


Of course, for all the influence the Golden Dawn has had on the way we view the Tarot today, their version of the Lovers remains obscure. A.E. Waite, creator of the most popular Tarot deck ever published, was a member of the Golden Dawn, but he ultimately rejected their mythic version of the Lovers in favor of his own.

Universal Waite

The RWS shows imagery taken from Genesis. Eve and Adam are standing beneath the Trees of Knowledge and Life, respectively. In Cupid’s place, an angel of God watches over them. These biblical motifs, whether intended by Waite or not, actually quite ingeniously combine all three traditional meanings covered above. Adam and Eve were literally created for each other, the epitome of Lovers.*** These lovers are then given the mother of all choices – whether to remain obedient and in Paradise, or to commit the original sin and be cast out. Now, we all know how these Lovers chose in the end, but they are pictured in the card as having not yet made this choice. And finally, the choice presented them is a temptation, a trial of faith.

The RWS Lovers is fascinating with all its subtle nuances, and it truly deserves its own post, which I will certainly write (someday). For now, I’m just going to leave it with the conclusion that it does manage to combine all three traditional interpretations.


The fact that all three ideas can be combined in a single picture is significant, because it shows that, while divergent, they don’t have to be exclusive. Every significant choice in life is really a trial of sorts. And every trial is a result of a choice, and is probably a precursor to another choice. And the decision to take a lover can be among the most important choices one makes in life, and no love affair is without its trials and tribulations. So in a roundabout way, these different meanings are rooted in similar ideas. The main point here is that the Lovers, in some way, is essentially a metaphor for a crossroads. Think about it: a crossroads symbolizes both the convergence of two paths on a single point (a wedding), as well as the choice of which of those paths to follow. Also, consider the legend of Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in exchange for sick guitar skillz. It’s the classic story of a test of character after the fashion of Dr. Faustus (Faust may have made the wrong decision, but I can’t begrudge Robert Johnson for his).

In every instance, the crossroads represents a pivotal moment, and it is on the querent to step up and do what’s right in that moment, whether that’s to be faithful to your partner, or faithful to the Creator that commands you not eat of the Tree. Regardless of how you choose, God or Devil, it’s your choice.

Mr. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. This card combines many traditional elements with Crowley’s own ideas about the Lovers.


*Actually, since the Visconti Tarots were left untitled, some prefer to name it simply “Love,” and I kind of like that.

**One of the very few times that there is a hint of occult influence in Mather’s pamphlet – despite being Mister Golden Dawn, he evidently aimed this little book at the general populace rather than the select few who would have been familiar with such things as the Kabbalah.

***Yeah, I’ve conveniently forgotten to mention Lilith, but if you think about it, Adam choosing between Lilith and Eve is right on point with the meaning of the Lovers presented in the Marseilles pattern. In the Thoth, these two primordial women are pictured in the top corners of the card.

3: The Cardinal Directions.

Sentinel’s Spread Index.

The watchtower has been built, and the sentinel has ascended to his (or her) post at the summit. It is now time to get your bearings.

The title of this portion of the spread should make it pretty obvious what the next four cards represent. More than just the cardinal directions, though, these cards are supposed to be resources (in a metaphorical sense) that you have at your disposal. Because of this combination of meanings, I generally tend to think of these cards in terms of walls: there is one facing each direction, and they serve to “defend” the tower in the center from potential dangers on the horizons. Right now, all you will see is what you have to use. It won’t become clear how you might use them until later on.

The walls are the intermediary cards between those of introspection we drew in the previous post and those of external influences we’ll draw in the following one. They stand in the middle, delineating the inside from the out. They are yours to use, but they are not you in the sense that the tower is, nor are they fully separate from you in the sense that the cards in the next post will be.

Each direction is associated with an element and its corresponding Tarot suit. Everybody has his or her own way of matching directions and elements and suits, so by all means, if you have a favorite method, use it. For me, I tend to associate East with Air and Swords, South with Fire and Wands, West with Water and Cups, and North with Earth and Coins.* I always begin laying cards with the East because that is the direction of the sunrise.

For the current exercise, I drew the following cards as the walls for my sentinel outpost:

Counterclockwise from bottom right: East, South, West, and North, with the watchtower occupying the center.

East / Air – My Eastern wall is constructed of Four Swords. Air is the element of the mind, and swords in this quadrant are generally (but not necessarily) a good sign, because it is their natural habitat. Numbering four, these swords are balanced and stable, too, so all in all, I think we can conclude that, at least for the issue at hand,** I’m possessed of a strong mental capacity that doesn’t unnecessarily overexert itself. I should be adequately equipped do deal with any intellectual obstacles ahead.

Basically, I know what I’m talking about here, and while putting words to the cards isn’t always easy, particularly when trying to explain a reading such as this one (by which I mean it’s a sample reading that seems to have turned out with some degree of self-awareness), I ought to be more than capable of getting my point across. I want to make sure that I don’t try too hard, though. I do have a tendency to ramble.

 South / Fire – The South is the realm of passions, spirit, creativity, or whatever you wish to call the driving force in your life.  The southern wall is the Six of Coins. The coins are the suit of tangible things, and this card in particular is sometimes associated with giving and receiving. Six is another balanced number, but one with a bit more abundance than the four.

What’s driving me at this moment is a desire to make the abstract in my head a little more concrete, and what better way to do that than write it out and share it with others?

West / Water – To the West lies the realm of emotions, and facing this direction is the Three of Coins. This is usually considered a card of work, particularly the beginning stages of an endeavor. It is a number of initial results, the first time in the numerical sequence that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

This card poses a slight difficulty, because the subject of this reading is one that is more or less devoid of emotional attachment. Perhaps this is why we see the cold solid coins, rather than the cups that would be typically associated with this quadrant. Perhaps it’s referring to the simple emotion of contentment that comes with working on something that I’ve created. This spread isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s something I’ve orchestrated all the same, and I enjoy working with it.

North / Earth – Earth is the element associated with the physical realm, and so the Northern wall tends to represent the closest thing to an actual “material” resource. Here we have the Two of Wands, however, and wands are arguably the least material of the suits.

The Two of Wands usually evokes potential in my mind, perhaps representing a spectrum of possibilities that would have stemmed from an initial idea (the Ace). In the quadrant of earth, this suggests to me an ability to bring these ideas into reality. Notice that the northern and southern walls relay similar messages about making the abstract concrete, but while the south shows a drive to do so, the north shows a capacity to make productive use of that drive.


I’d like to take a moment now to make a point about this reading: as I’ve mentioned, the issue in question is the spread itself. It’s an instructional reading, broken down to explain how the spread works, but it is a real reading. I’ve drawn all of these cards at random (except the sentinel, of course), and done my best to make sense of them. I did not, however, dream up a hypothetical scenario upon which to base my interpretations, and as a result, the cards reflect only what I brought to the table – that is, an intent to explain the structure of the spread.

This is therefore an intellectual exercise more than anything else, and that’s clearly expressed by these walls I’ve placed around the sentinel.*** The eastern wall is the one with the card that makes the most sense – the suit of the mind in the quadrant of the mind, and a particularly stable and balanced card at that. After that is the southern wall. This card isn’t as straightforward as the eastern one, but it still makes plenty of sense to me.

On the other side of the coin we have the western and northern walls, which I’ve had a little more difficulty deciphering. This is because this hypothetical reading does not center around an emotional issue, nor is it grounded in any physical matter. I can still make sense of these cards, but it’s apparent to me that they do not have much to contribute to the overall point of the reading, at least so far.

The reason I approached this spread sans-question is because it is specifically designed to give an overview of your life, taking into account many levels, regardless of which of those levels have directly to do with what’s on your mind. I rarely use this spread with a particular question in mind, and when the entire spectrum of my life is taken into account, all four quadrants will normally have a message for me. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that, while this reading is intended as an instructive sample, it is by no means representative of the depth that this spread can sometimes reveal. It’s the sort of thing that’s difficult to express through a generic example, and yet a generic example is the best way I know to really explain how all the parts work together.


Now we have a watchtower and a perimeter; the outpost is complete. At this stage, I like to arrange the cards to align with the actual points of a compass, like so:


The numbers three and four are integral to the structure of this spread. Considering the sentinel as separate, the outpost so far is constructed of three (the tower) plus four (the walls) cards, totaling seven. In numerology, three is sometimes considered the number of spirit, and four the number of earth (precisely because it’s the number of classical elements and cardinal directions). Seven is traditionally considered a holy number because it combines the spiritual and the mundane, simultaneously grounding the lofty spirit and raising up the lowly material. Even though the individual cards of the tower generally represent body, mind, and spirit, they can be taken as a whole to represent your non-corporeal self, which in turn is brought down to earth with the addition of these four walls, which represent how you connect with the world around you. Thus the seven cards of the outpost combined represent your entire self at the time of the reading.****

Three and four multiplied equals twelve, which just so happens to be the number of cards required for the next part of this spread.


*This is how I usually lay out the spread, but sometimes I wonder if the South shouldn’t be Air, and East Fire, so that the elemental opposites (that is, Earth and Air, Fire and Water) actually sit opposite each other on the compass. It ultimately doesn’t matter, though, so long as I’m clear with myself about what’s what before I actually start laying down any cards.

**I did not approach this exercise with a specific question in mind, which means I’m leaving it up to the cards to illustrate the main issue of their own accord. If you will recall, I interpreted the three cards in the previous post (linked above) as representing my purpose here, namely to share my spread and my methods of reading with it. Having established that as the subject of this reading, I will continue to interpret the cards in this vein unless something comes up that makes me seriously reconsider it.

***Or rather, it’s been pretty clearly expressed to me. Whether or not I’m expressing it clearly in my turn is up for debate.

****Alternatively, you could consider each of the walls to be one of the classical elements, with the central cards collectively representing Aether or Quintessence. This means that there are five “points” here, analogous to the five points of the pentagram. As I briefly mentioned in another post, the pentagram is a symbol of the microcosm, and the six-pointed star is correspondingly a symbol of the macrocosm. Therefore, the cards that make up the outpost reflect the querent; the next twelve cards (keeping in mind that twelve reduces to six) reflect the querent’s world.

The Complete Book of…

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted here, so I thought I’d publish a quick book review for the sake of keeping this site somewhat active.

First thing’s first: the title of this book is beyond stupid – Complete Book of Tarot Spreads. Not only is this a lie (I’m aware of many spreads that are not in this book), it’s the type of title that smacks of phony marketing ploys which would normally drive me away.* This is compounded by the subtitle “Includes 122 Layouts (!)”. I haven’t counted them, but if everything in this book is included in that number, then it’s a bit of a stretch, because there are several “spreads” that are really only one card, and several more that are better classified as “exercises” than proper spreads for divination. This title is meant to draw in suckers.

I actually really like this book.

However, when I saw this in the bookstore, I flipped through it out of skeptical curiosity, and found that, in spite of the title, the content of the book seemed honest and practical enough to be genuinely useful to me. It helps to know (for me, at least) that this book was originally published in German with the title of Tarot Praxis, which translates to “Tarot Study” or “Tarot Practice.” It seems that it’s only in America that publishers feel the need to try and dupe people into buying things, as if we consumers weren’t intelligent enough to make a decision without a radical promise of some sort of exponential pay-off (I realize I may be overreacting slightly to this title, but I so resent the commercialism in this country – stop talking at me like I’m a fucking jackass!).

And it’s true, this book does offer more than just spreads – it offers practice, as well. It’s comprised of three sections, only one of which focuses on actual layouts.

The first section is called “Practicing Tarot”, and it consists of all kinds of handy and helpful advice for the modern Tarot reader, laid out in quick and easy chapters. There’s no history or exposition about the occult or the “woo” factor. The deck pictured on the cover is the RWS, but the book itself does not focus on any single version of the cards. It also tries to dispel many antiquated myths about Tarot reading, such as the idea that one cannot and should not read for him or herself. This book is cut-and-dry practical Tarot and nothing more. The language is somewhat terse, but it gets the job done, like a no-nonsense book should do (it is good, but by no means is it “complete”).

The second section is entirely about the layouts. There is little by way of explanation here; just pages upon pages of various spreads. This section is also divided into chapters, categorizing the spreads within to better facilitate easy look-up for any given situation. There are a few large and complex spreads here, but for the most part they are fairly simple, even to the point of being a bit generic at points. I’ve played with many of these spreads so far, and for the most part, I like them. As with the first section, they get the job done, and if they don’t for some reason, at least they provide basic templates for spread shapes and questions that can easily be tweaked by the individual. While not at all “complete” (yeah, I’m going to keep harping on that), this section is decently comprehensive, so that most of your everyday sorts of issues (and even some that go beyond the everyday) can be sorted out with its help, no problem.

The final section is called “Tarot & Astrology”, and is the shortest section by far. That’s pretty self-explanatory, I think, and most of this section is made up of various charts for astrological correspondences (the basic template used here is that of the Golden Dawn). It’s very convenient for quick reference, and this is the only section of the book that talks about anything that’s not strictly Tarot cards. Considering that, of all the systems applied over the years to the cards, astrology is probably by far the most common, this was a thoughtful addition to the book on the part of the authors.

I’ve been using this book a lot lately, and overall, I think it’s very good. It can probably be used with success by beginners and advanced Tarot readers alike.** In Germany, another use of the word “praxis” is to denote a rigorous practice test designed to help students pass the Abitur, which is essentially the equivalent of the SATs here in the US (albeit much more academically intense than our sad excuse for a college aptitude test – man, do I sound condescending. I guess I’m still fired up from my commercialism rant. It’s true, though, what I say about the SATs). With that in mind, this book is basically just a Tarot study guide, and as such, it is very well done.

But doggone-it, it is not complete.

* Anything that’s labelled “complete”, or “ultimate”, or worse yet, “the only (insert subject here) book you’ll need” always raises doubt in my mind. As a guitar player, I’ve seen many, many “ultimate” guides and “complete” books of tricks that promise virtuosity overnight. It’s total bullshit, and I’d never spend my money on it. Tarot cards are admittedly a bit different than musical instruments, and it seems that, although the literature available is overflowing with these sorts of titles, they do often have content in them worth reading. I just wish the publishers would dispense with these titles that are nothing more than empty promises. As good as some of these books really are, none of them could ever truly be “complete.”

**For the record, on the scale of Beginner – Intermediate – Advanced, I consider myself at the time of this writing to be somewhere in between Beginner and Intermediate as far as skill with card reading is concerned. So no, I can’t actually say with certainty that advanced readers would get something from this book, but I think it’s pretty good all the same.