I was playing with my new Hermetic Tarot when I noticed something interesting.
Every single card of the HT bears a subtitle originally given by the Golden Dawn, usually beginning with “Lord of…” or “Daughter of…” or something like that. There are three cards in the Major Arcana that are designated “Magi”: the Magus of Power, the Magus of the Eternal Gods, and the Magus of the Voice of Light. These cards are more commonly referred to as the Magician, the Hierophant, and the Hermit, respectively.
This reminded me of something interesting I once read: the Magician, Hierophant, and Hermit represent the three magi or wise men mentioned in the Bible.*
Despite becoming a staple of modern Nativity scenes, the magi are only vaguely referenced in one of the four Gospels of the New Testament – they aren’t even specified as numbering three, they were only said to have arrived bearing three gifts for the infant Christ. They came from the East, the land of mysticism and decadence, and were of a class of magician-priests, probably Zoroastrian (which is one ancient religious sect that I know next to nothing about, and I am interested in finding more information). The three gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
There are a few ways of interpreting the gifts of the magi; because of the scant mention of them, though, it’s all really just speculation. Probably the most common theory is that the gold symbolizes earthly kingship, the frankincense (a type of incense used in religious ritual) symbolizes divinity, and the myrrh (an anointing oil often associated with funerary practices) symbolizes death. If we take this to be the case, the magi are metaphorically revealing Jesus’ destiny by giving him these things. That they come from Zoroastrian priests from “the East” is important, because it suggests that all religions (including what, at the time, would have been among the greatest rivals to the burgeoning church) and all peoples, no matter how exotic, were subservient to the Christ child.
So, this begs the question: which card is which gift? We can associate the Magician with gold, the Hierophant with frankincense, and the Hermit with myrrh, which maintains the order of both cards and gifts (that is, the order in which they were listed in the Bible). I can’t think of better matches than these, anyway; the Magician isn’t a king, but he does exhibit earthly power (he’s literally pictured manipulating the four earthly elements in most decks). It’s no great stretch to connect the Hierophant with frankincense, and the Hermit often includes symbolism relating to death.
As if to drive the connection between these three cards home, they are spaced evenly apart within the Major Arcana, with three cards between them each. Of course, this could easily be coincidence, but it got me thinking: which card is three away from the Hermit?
I believe I’ve mentioned the concept of complimentary cards before on this blog; the idea is that any two Major Arcana cards whose numbers add up to 22 (the total number of the Major Arcana) share a connection with each other. And it just so happens that the compliment of the Magician is the World; the compliment of the Hierophant is the Star; and the compliment of the Hermit is Death. The complimentary relationship between the Hermit and Death seems to confirm that it was indeed the Hermit who brought the myrrh. Following this train of association, it’s not a far leap from the Star to the Hierophant and the notion of the divine (and it’s not lost on me that these astrologer-priests were led to Jesus by a divinely-placed star), and the World could absolutely signify earthly kingship. These three cards, though inversely ordered from their compliments, even fall into line with the story of Jesus’ eventual destiny as predicted by the wise men: he died, ascended to heaven, and was thereafter lauded by Christians as “King of Kings,” ruler of Heaven and of Earth.
The Hermit and the Magician are the two cards in the Tarot with which I most strongly identify, and, as I am wont to point out, are actually two aspects of the same archetypal figure. This idea of the three magi has led me to wonder: is the Hierophant yet another aspect of this character that I’d not considered?
There is a detail on these cards that leads me to suspect that the Golden Dawn (or at the very least Godfrey Dowson, the artist behind the HT) was aware of the connection between them. At the top of the Hermit card is an oil lantern with three wicks, in the implied shape of an upwards-pointing triangle, or the alchemical symbol for Fire. The top of the Magician card depicts the caduceus, in the implied shape of a downwards-pointing triangle, symbol for Water. Between them sits the Hierophant, and at the top of his card is the “monogram of Hermetic Truth” (in the words of the LWB). This glyph implies the shape of the six-pointed star, or the two triangles of Fire and Water superimposed on each other, representing the reconciliation of elemental opposites to create the essence of life.
So perhaps the Magician and the Hermit are two opposing (yet not mutually exclusive) aspects of the same figure; and perhaps, the Hierophant isn’t a third aspect at all, but an incarnation that combines these aspects into that singular figure. Indeed, the traditional image of the Hierophant is the Pope, whose position is that of a bridge between Man and God, matter and spirit.**
The Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is an important concept in the Christian faith. The idea of a trinity is not peculiar to Christianity, though, and I often find myself comparing their trinity to that of the Hindus: Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva, representing Creation, Preservation, and Destruction, respectively. Beginning, Middle, and End. God the Father is the Creator of the world; Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior of Mankind stands for the Preservation of the world (Vishnu, by the way, has a tendency to incarnate himself within a mortal frame so he can better serve mankind, not unlike the Christ); and ultimately, everything dissolves and becomes one with the Holy Spirit – Destruction of the world.
I think the Magician, Hierophant, and Hermit can be seen as another example of the Trinity. The Magician with his earthly power creates, the Hierophant with his connection to the divine preserves, and the Hermit, whose compliment is Death, destroys (the Hermit can also be associated with Kronos, also known as Father Time, or “the Devourer of Things”). Of course, destruction only paves the way for creation, and the cycle continues.
This, I believe, is the true significance of the Three Magi.
*For the life of me, I can’t remember where I read this. If I ever stumble across the passage again, I’ll be sure to cite it here.
**Or a bridge between the macrocosm and microcosm, represented by the six- and five-pointed stars on the Hierophant card (that is, the Crowley and Hermetic Hierophants – I don’t think they’re on any others). Normally, when the six-pointed star makes an appearance on this blog, I take it to mean the blending of elemental opposites, but the macrocosm is a viable alternative (if the macro contains everything, though, are these two interpretations of the symbol really all that different?). This thought makes me reconsider the implications of the Hermit’s lantern, which is often pictured as containing this symbol. Can the Hermit really exist outside of the macrocosm? One possible way to view these three cards that I haven’t explored above is that the Magician is the microcosm, the Hermit the macrocosm, and the Hierophant is the bridge between them. Wow. This is a long digression that might have been better included in the proper post. Oh well.