I recently wrote quite a bit on the Hermit, which is one of my favorite cards in the Tarot. There are of course many cards that also hold my fancy, but in fact only one other card rivals the Hermit as my true favorite. Overall, however, this card is conspicuously absent from my writing, especially in comparison to the amount of attention I tend to pay his elderly compatriot. Beginning with this post, I hope to rectify this glaring omission.
I almost always refer to the first numbered card of the Major Arcana as the “Magician” without so much as a second thought. I suspect most Tarot-ers whose study or practice is rooted in the RWS do the same. There is certainly nothing wrong with this, but before I begin to delve into studying this card in any depth, I want to address the fact that the esteemed Magician is not his original title at all; he was formerly a lowly street performer, most often called simply the “Juggler”.
Why a street juggler would hold the first spot in the incredible sequence of the Major Arcana is a conundrum faced by many Tarot masters, including Oswald Wirth and the anonymous composer of the spiritual Meditations on the Tarot. Personally, I believe that the Tarot begins as it does because the first card happens to be akin to the thesis of an essay – it should concisely present the purpose of the subsequent body of work. Based on the nature of the Tarot, the Juggler is ideal for this position for two reasons. First, because the Tarot is ultimately a pack of cards intended for gaming, and more specifically, gambling. No matter what these cards eventually evolved to represent, there is little doubt that, during the time the Magician was only a Juggler, they were simple playing cards. And so it is fitting that a street performer, a mere entertainer who is not above stealing from you while your attention is diverted, would preface the pack.
The second reason is in the details of the card: on the Juggler’s table are laid out various items that are in fact the symbols of the suits of the Minor Arcana. In other words, the Juggler symbolically represents the entire Tarot on a single card.
In contrast to the Hermit, who has managed to remain more or less consistent over the years, the Juggler changed quite significantly when he was initiated into the occult sciences and dubbed the Magician. This transition is analogous to the change of the Tarot from a game to a conduit for esoteric knowledge, and it is therefore fitting that the first card should also change.
Now, instead of a dubious street juggler, we see (at least in the RWS) a man garbed in ceremonial magician’s robes. He retains the four suit symbols on a table, but now, rather than play sleight of hand tricks with them, he uses them as implements of serious elemental magic.
The change from Juggler to Magician does make sense considering the evolution of the Tarot’s uses. But was it really necessary? Are the Juggler and the Magician mutually exclusive? I think not; they remain the same fellow, just in different dress for different occasion.
I happen to like the Juggler and all that he implies. He is the Trickster archetype of myth, and he is humble compared to the Magician, which I like. He may operate in the gray areas of morality, but who’s to say the Magician doesn’t, as well? At least the Juggler doesn’t make pretenses about his ambiguous ethics. He’s almost honest in his dishonesty.
But that’s not to say I dislike the Magician; in fact, the contrary is true. He is not a con artist, but a man with genuine power. There’s a supernatural quality to him – he is a wizard, simply put, and he demands respect in a way a juggler never can.
I like to imagine that the Juggler is just how the Magician looks to those who think magic and such things are not real. Perhaps it is how the Magician publicly presents himself. How better to subtly exercise magic in broad daylight for a profit than to perform on the streets? Who would ever suspect him of being an adept initiated into the secrets of the elements? Yes, I believe that the Juggler was the Magician all along, and it just took us mere mortals a few centuries to pick up on it and adjust our cards accordingly.
Well done, Trickster, well done.