It was very common throughout the history of the Tarot to believe that it was derived from an ancient Egyptian Book of Wisdom. Considering that the Egyptian god of Wisdom was Thoth, it is only natural that Tarot masters such as Etteilla and Crowley would associate their decks with the ibis-headed deity.
Of course, we know now that, however still technically possible, it is highly unlikely that the Tarot we know and love today was actually handed down to us by Egyptian mystics in an attempt to preserve the secrets of the Universe.
True or false, this legend does give us an interesting perspective on the nature of the Tarot. Many readers, myself included, do consider this deck of cards to be a Book of Wisdom. But what does that really mean?
One of the great defining characteristics of mankind is our capacity for complex language. Our ancient ancestors often told stories about how the language they spoke* was a gift from God. Well, a god. More specifically, the God of Wisdom, or Thoth, as he was called in Egypt. Other cultures had a name for this deity, too. The Sumerians called him Enki, and the Norse called him Odin. This god was responsible for bestowing language upon humanity, usually only after enduring a harrowing death and descent into the Underworld. Of course, in every case, the Wise One returned once again to the world of the living with his intellectual boon for mankind.
To illustrate with my favorite example, Odin, head of the Norse pantheon, was the patron of kings, battle, strife, poetry, magic, and yes, wisdom. He often went out into the world, disguised as a grey-bearded old man, obsessively searching for wisdom. He pitted himself against formidable giants in contests of wisdom, and summoned seers from beyond the grave to inquire about what they knew. He had a throne from which he could see everything in the nine worlds, and he had a pair of ravens who flew around these worlds every day, returning to whisper into his ears everything they’d seen. He even gave one of his eyes in exchange for a drink from a magic well which granted – you guessed it – wisdom. But perhaps the most extreme measure Odin took for the sake of wisdom was when he willingly hung from the world tree for nine days with a spear driven into his side. He died on the tree, and was resurrected with the magic runes – language – in his possession.
So the Tarot is, according to legend, akin to these runes, or rather, to the hieroglyphs similarly bequeathed by Thoth. Hence the designation “Book of Wisdom”. Pretty cool, huh? It’s not uncommon, after all, for ancient alphabets to hold an esoteric meaning other than simple phonetics. Take the runes, for example, which were more often used for their magical powers (like divination) than for writing. How many runestones in Scandinavia are inscribed with letters that spell utter nonsense? Surely they were put there with another purpose in mind. Or take the Hebrew alphabet, which is especially significant to the systems of the Tarot. These letters also have deeper meanings. The twenty-two Major Arcana could easily be conceived as a similar type of “alphabet” (the Minor Arcana are of a different class, but this will be discussed in a future post).
But the Tarot isn’t just attributed to Thoth; Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, messengers, and thieves, gets equal credit. The Book of Wisdom is as much his as it is Thoth’s. But why?
The Romans were the first to make a connection between Thoth and Mercury. In the days before Christianity, when the Romans conquered a people, they would allow them to continue worship of their native gods as they pleased. However, the Romans would attempt to assimilate these people by renaming their gods after Roman deities based on shared characteristics (which shows that, even though Jung was the first to theorize about mythic archetypes, the notion was around long before him). But while Minerva was considered the wisest of the Roman pantheon, the Egyptian god of wisdom was equated with Mercury (this must partially be because of the respective genders of Minerva and Thoth, but there are deeper connections which come into play here).
First of all, one must understand that Mercury is a very complex character. While his primary function is messenger of the gods, he is responsible for much more, like science and medicine. He is based on the Greek god Hermes (and while the two are very similar, they are not the same, although the Romans would have you think so). Another function of Hermes/Mercury was to guide recently deceased souls to the realms of the dead. This is where we see the primary connection with Thoth, who was present during the journeys of Egyptian souls to the underworld, and their subsequent judgements. When combined with his connections to science, we can begin to see why comparisons were made between these two gods.
Odin was also likened to Mercury by classical writers, and for the same reasons. He too had the ability to travel freely to the underworld. In fact, Odin spent a great deal of time just traveling around all of the realms of the Norse cosmos. Mercury, along with everything else he did, was patron of travelers and hospitality (I’d say Mercury was probably the busiest of the Roman gods). There are stories from both cultures about their respective god in which they traveled in disguise, searching for lodging. The humble were rewarded; the proud who did not open their doors to the gods were always punished, sometimes very brutally.
There is another trait which Odin and Mercury shared: they were both very mischievous fellows.
The Trickster is a very popular figure in world mythology. He is especially prevalent in Native American and tribal African myths (and in those myths, he is often associated with storytelling and language. Hmmmm….), but he can be found in some form or another in almost every culture. Through his conniving, others found themselves in dire circumstances, and through his wiles, they were usually saved again. He was often the spark that generated conflict within a myth, and he was usually as loved by humans as he was disliked by gods, because his tricks tended to result in their benefit (like Prometheus’ gift of fire). Mercury is very often considered the Roman Trickster. And while Loki is the official Trickster of Scandinavian myth, he and Odin are similar in more ways than not. It’s my theory that Loki is in fact nothing more than a shadow of Odin, or the darker aspects of Odin’s character personified as a separate character. This is a common way to analyze mythic characters (and when this is taken into consideration, it makes the Norse cycle of myths all the more tragic. Those who know the basic story arc and the parts played by Odin and Loki will understand why). I could write an essay on why I believe this, but a Tarot blog is not the place. Suffice it to say that the archetypes of the Wise Man and the Trickster are very closely intertwined.
Language, death, and magic appear to be the lowest common denominators of Wise Men and Tricksters across the board. Now, I’ve spent almost no time discussing magic, but it’s derived from the association with language, which is itself derived from the association with death. If anyone wishes for me to write a post elaborating on this, please leave a comment below; for now, I’ll continue on to the main point.
Now, there are many cards in the Tarot that deal with the themes mentioned in the previous paragraph. There are two in the Major Arcana, however, that exemplify the Wise Man and the Trickster especially well.
The Tarot card which best illustrates the Odinic search for wisdom is, in my opinion, the Hermit. In the RWS, the Hermit even looks reminiscent of Odin, with his grey beard and his hooded cloak. And in the CHT, the Hermit appears to have the head of an ibis, like the god the deck was named for (seriously, take a look at it and tell me he doesn’t).
His staff can represent the endless travels of the Wise Man, and the lantern shows his ability to shine light on dark secrets. The image of Cerberus in the CHT illustrates his connection to the underworld. With his robes, apparent age, and meditative visage, he is the very image of the archetype of the Wise Man, at least as he is popularly imagined in the West. The importance of the Hermit in the Book of Wisdom that is the Tarot cannot be understated; he is quite literally the personification of the legendary mythic figure that gave it to us. Or, at least, he is one of the personifications of that figure.
The other can be found in the card called the Magician or the Juggler. The Magician is very intelligent, more so than any other card in the pack. But he is not necessarily wise by definition of his character. His mental dexterity gives him the qualities found in the Trickster. He can talk his way into and back out of any situation, and he is not above using slight-of-hand tricks to fool unsuspecting onlookers into thinking he’s more powerful than he actually is. This is especially obvious in the TdM, where he is pictured as a lowly street performer (in other decks, he is pictured as a more respectable magician in ceremonial robes, and in the CHT, he is Mercury himself, but you can still spot the dubious smirk on his face). This isn’t to say he’s bad. He’s a neutral character by nature, who operates in the gray areas of life, but one should keep in mind that so is the Wise Man; wisdom in and of itself does not make a virtuous person.
I think the Hermit and the Magician – and, on a deeper level, the Wise Man and the Trickster – are two sides of the same figure. I’m not alone in this opinion: Crowley asserted as much in his Book of Thoth, calling them each a manifestation of Mercury (he never used Odin for an example, calling Norse myth a “debased” version of Classical and Egyptian myth. While I grudgingly admit that I see where he’s coming from, I think it’s too harsh a treatment for such a colorful mythos, and as I illustrated here, examples from Norse mythology can easily be applied to the Tarot, and to good effect. Or so I hope, anyway). So, the Magician and the Hermit represent two complimentary aspects of the multi-faceted Mercury, or Hermes, or Thoth, or Enki or Anansi. Or, if you prefer, the Magician is the Loki to the Hermit’s Odin. The list can go on.
No matter how you name it, the personalities inherent in these two cards are indicative of a dichotomy that I believe is integral to the successful use of the Tarot. I have a respect for every card in the Tarot, but the Hermit and the Magician together are representative of my personal approach to using the deck. The Hermit or Wise Man is passive, and stands for the study of the theory behind the Tarot. He seeks knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The Magician or Trickster, on the other hand, is active, and stands for the practice and application of the Tarot (you’ll notice that the implements at his disposal are also the symbols of the four suits of the Minor Arcana). He seeks knowledge as a means to an end. Only together can the skills of the Magician and the Hermit lead to a comprehensive understanding of the nature of the Tarot, just as any good Wise Man needs powers of illusion to be considered a wizard, or any good Trickster needs a modicum of prudence to maintain balance and not send the world around him into a blazing Ragnarok.
*To be technical, it was written language that was granted by the Wise One. During the times that these myths originated, writing was the privilege of a select learned few. This added to the mystique of writing. Manipulation of spoken language is more in the realm of the Trickster’s operation. It is very interesting to note that Odin was responsible for both: the runes, as a result of his death on the world tree, and poetry, or spoken language, as a result of his acquisition of the Mead of Poetry (which he obtained through trickery). This is just one of the many reasons why I believe Odin to be both the Trickster and the Wise One.