Runes v. Tarot, Part II

As a system, the Tarot is more complex, comprehensive, flexible, accessible, and nuanced than the runes. In a word, I find the system of the Tarot to be generally superior to that of the runes.

However, I still like the runes very much, and lately I find myself gravitating toward them. Of course, this town is big enough for the both of them, so I could just leave it at that. But why have a blog about the Tarot if I’m not going to use it as a platform to examine the cards against my other tools for divination? And, despite the favoritism I show the cards, there are certain situations for which I find the runes to be better suited.


There are many folks out there (especially users of the TdM, it seems) who totally disregard the Minor Arcana when reading with the Tarot, calling them superfluous. That seems to me to defeat the purpose of the Tarot, but I’m not one to deal in absolutes (like a Sith), and I’ve found that there sometimes are circumstances that do require only a portion of the deck.* Either they are simple questions that don’t call for the detail of a large reading with the whole deck to choose from, or they are matters which are of a purely spiritual nature and therefore do not need the Minors, but in any case, the runes have largely negated the issue. I don’t want to make the claim that the runes and the Major Arcana are interchangeable, because that is far from the case (although comparisons of them are great mental exercises). However, I would say that any issue which can be adequately answered with only a set of the Majors can just as well be answered by the runes.**

But it’s not so much the nature of the question that determines which system I use; it’s the nature of the reading I use to answer the question. To break it down into binary terms, there are either simple readings, or there are complex readings. The more complex the reading, the more likely I am to use Tarot cards. The simpler the reading, on the other hand, the more likely I am now to resort to my stones. This is not universally the case, but as a rule of thumb, you can more or less count on it. My runecasts these days tend to range from one to five runes; while I do still enjoy the classic three-card-draw, my Tarot cards won’t likely be removed from their box or bag unless I plan on laying down a serious spread (or if I just feel like flipping through them, but that’s neither here nor there).

The complexity of the reading isn’t always the deciding factor, either, now that I’m really thinking about it. Another variable is how much time I have to spend on the reading. I’ll likely use the runes for more on-the-fly, I’m-almost-out-the-door-but-I-want-some-quick-advice sorts of queries. If I’m reading with cards, I want to have the time to really sit with them and ruminate on what they’re trying to say to me.

The daily draw? Not with cards anymore (at least for the moment). I pull a rune.


Of course, divination is not the sole use for the Tarot, as I’ve discussed a few times before on this blog, and the same is true of the runes. To think of either of these systems as only divinatory tools is to miss out on the many other things they have to offer.

When it comes to in-depth divination, the Tarot is generally better, and the same can be said (at least in my opinion) as prompts for intellectual musing. What I mean by that should be made evident by the very existence of this blog: I can write forever on the Tarot and never run out of subject matter; the runes, on the other hand, are not as giving with inspiration. They are silent and stoic by comparison, which is fine – refreshing, even – but not conducive to the rambling and musing that I like to do here. The relative simplicity of the runes is a hindrance in these cases, at least when compared to the Tarot.

When it comes to things like meditation and spiritual development, I think the argument could go either way, although I will say that the pictures on the cards (as well as their willingness to be adapted to fit any number of themes) do make for an accessibility that the runes lack. And I think it goes without saying that the runes do not have the artistic merit of the cards.

In theory, Tarot cards can also be used as charms or talismans or for similar types of magic. I wouldn’t know how well they actually work for these things, though, because no cardstock can withstand a day in my pocket or wallet, and no magic is worth sacrificing my precious favorite cards. I know I could keep them tucked in a small notebook, but that’s just awkward. This is the primary instance for which runes are better suited. Having a stone or two (or three) in a small pouch in my pocket is a tangible reminder of the energies I wish to harness. This is why I use the runes now for my daily draw (aside from just getting to know them). It is far easier to internalize the message of a daily draw when you physically carry it with you. I tend to pull out my rune several times a day, when I’m stressed or bored, and the stone on which it is inscribed has a tactile advantage that any card, no matter how pretty the picture, lacks. I can feel it in my hands, play illusionist tricks with it, and slide it covertly into my pocket again when my attention is required elsewhere. It’s like a magician’s fidget spinner.

I believe that magic is the power of the mind, and things like charms are not absolutely necessary for it to work. They are tools for the wizard, and nothing more, but they do help if you appreciate them for what they are. And, to share a personal example of the magical utility of the runes, I recently found myself in a trying, white-knuckle situation of temptation, a test I’ve failed again and again in the past. This time, though, I had Uruz, the rune for the aurochs, symbolizing strength, clamped tight in my hand, and I made it through. It worked much better than all the times previously when I had only a mental image of the Strength Tarot card to cling to. They both have the same essential message for me, but the medium of communication is different; and sometimes, the medium makes all the difference in the world.


If I’m being truthful, though, whether I use runes or cards for any purpose often depends entirely on my mood, and I therefore can’t fully explain myself in rational terms. Just having a set of runestones around as an alternative to the cards has proven at the very least to be fun for me, and it’s added a depth to my divinatory and magic practice that would otherwise have been absent. The runes act like a counterbalance to my cards, and my appreciation for the latter has grown immensely just by possessing a set of the former.

It doesn’t have to be runes. The possibilities for divinatory and magical means are virtually endless. It just so happened that the runes clicked for me.

As a conclusion to these posts about the runes versus the Tarot, I want to talk a little bit about some of the binary oppositions – the black and white columns of the High Priestess – that are formed in my mind by the presence of these two systems side-by-side on my table.

Navigation of the metaphysical realms is made all the easier when one has two points of reference with which to work, after all. Spiritual triangulation, if you will.


I ended the first post about my runes by referring to them as the Earth, compared to the Sky of the Tarot. This is incredibly abstract, and it may not line up with the elemental understanding of others, but there are few oppositions more primal than this pair. I don’t know how to really clarify the “Earth : Sky :: Runes : Tarot” analogy, but it makes so much sense to me that I hardly feel the need to.

Of course, there is the simple/complex dichotomy that formed the basis of many of my comparisons above, and while I find the complexity of the Tarot tends to garner my interest in most situations, sometimes less really is more, and so the runes do come out on top from time to time.

An interest in linguistics leads me to point out that the Tarot is Romantic in origin and early dissemination, while the runes are Germanic. As a native English-speaker, it’s only fitting that both are represented in my divination practice.

Then, there is the historical, non-“woo” uses for these systems. Number-based gameplay for the Tarot, and phonetic letters for the runes. This one’s a double-whammy of an opposition, because you have the plebeian frivolity of gaming against patrician literacy, as well as the numbers against the letters. Perhaps the latter isn’t technically an opposition, but the fundamentals of all communication can probably be broken down into numbers and letters.***

These are only some examples of the sorts of things that go through my mind when thinking about runes and cards, and I assure you, I could continue on if I put a little more thought into it, but I’ll spare you that. If you’ve read this far, you’ve read enough. The point has been made, and the dead horse has been brutally beaten.


Well, that about wraps it up for the runes. This one also ended up quite a bit longer than I thought it would be at the outset, but I figured enough was enough – no need to keep milking this series by further breaking it down into even more installments. I’ll try my best to keep the next few posts all about the Tarot, although I can’t promise that I won’t return eventually with another post combining the cards and the runes, especially if I strike the writer’s block again. After all, as I briefly alluded to above, comparisons of the Major Arcana and the runes can be a great way to break a mental sweat. I think it might be fun to explore those possibilities someday.

One final note: this entire post (and the one before it) was all about the runes versus the Tarot, for the sake of comparison. However, I’ve found that using them in tandem is a great way to go. Who says you have to choose? What this usually means for me is that I’ll lay out a spread with the Tarot, and then pull a rune(s) for conclusion or clarification. Call it coincidence, call it synchronicity, call it the hands of the gods, call it natural overlap of comparable systems – call it whatever you will – but they often support or illuminate each other in uncanny ways. Food for thought for those of you out there who use multiple sorts of tools for divination.


*In my experience, that portion of the deck does not necessarily have to be the Majors. It could be only the Minors, or only a single suit, or the courts. But for the purposes of this post, I don’t need to get into all of that.

**I was once involved in a debate on the Aeclectic forums (R.I.P.) about the necessity of the Minors in a deck of Tarot cards, and at one point I said that, if I was only going to read with Majors, I may as well just use runes or some system with a comparable amount of lots from which to choose. Now, this might sound a little disparaging, which wasn’t my intention, but I maintain the point all the same. The Majors are flashier and more fun to talk about, but the Minors are what sets the Tarot apart from simple sortilege. If the Tarot gives more nuanced readings than the runes, it’s largely because of the Minors. And, as I said above, I do find value in Majors-only readings, but that’s beside the point. These folks were saying the Minors are unnecessary across the board – a waste of cardstock, you might say – and I find issue with that stance. But I’ll get off my soapbox, now.

***And here is one thing the runes can be used for that the Tarot cannot: writing (at least, not unless you can write in Hebrew and subscribe to a Tarot-Kabbalah system of correspondences, and even in such a case, you’re still really only using Hebrew, and not Tarot). I for one get a kick out of writing my to-do lists and other, similarly mundane things in runes. It makes my grocery list look like it should be chiselled into the walls of the Mines of Moria.

Well, I think that’s fun, anyway.


The Juggler.

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”.

The Juggler – TdM

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.

The Magician – RWS

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.


The Juggler, Part II.

Death: or, He Who Must Not Be Named.

In the original Marseilles decks, card number thirteen was left without a title. It was unique among the rest of the Major Arcana for this reason. Of course, today we do know this card by a name: Death.

Card 13 – TdM

Perhaps the first users of the TdM didn’t see the need to name a card that held such somber implications. It’s number 13 (traditionally an unlucky and even evil number) and the picture of a giant, decaying skeleton mowing down body parts with a blood-red scythe was enough. No need to make the situation worse by literally spelling the mortality of the querent out for them.

There’s no doubt about it: turning up this card can be a scary experience. It is an imposing card, whether it’s the naked skeleton of the TdM or the armored and mounted skeleton of the RWS. The skeleton always appears larger than life, towering over the figures that are totally at its mercy. And here’s the scariest part: even if you are spared, and the skeleton passes along on its way, you know that eventually it will return for you, and there is no outrunning that massive white horse.

There’s no way around it – we are all going to die.

But to assume that turning up Card 13 means a death sentence is foolish. It certainly can mean that you or someone close to you will die. But most likely, it does not. Not death in the literal sense, anyway.

The symbolism in this Death card relates to Scorpio in all three of its aspects, highlighting the transformative nature of this card – CHT

It might help to remember that the Tarot works through symbolism. None of the cards ought to be taken at face value, at least, they shouldn’t be until you’ve ruled out every symbolic possibility. When you turn up the Tower, do you expect that your home will literally be struck by lightning and reduced to rubble? Or should you expect to get a personal visit from the Pope every time you turn up the Hierophant? No, of course you don’t. So why should the Death card be any different?

Because of this, many modern decks have redesigned and renamed Card 13 to something a little less distressing such as “Transformation”. This doesn’t sit well with me, but I do understand. The point is that Death as an archetype is symbolic of much more than simply dying. In myths of the Hero or of the Dying God, Death is the first part of the journey to becoming something greater. The hero must die before he can be reborn.

To cross the threshold of Death is to enter the realm of the unknowable. This is precisely why, despite its inevitability, despite its necessity, the thought of dying is so terrifying to us.  This is also why the ancients held such respect for the dead: there were none wiser than those who had passed on beyond this world.

Despite being a rather non-traditional depiction of Death, its lack of a name is a very traditional detail – DMT

Gods of Wisdom are always connected in some way with Death, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post.* This correlation has its roots in the origins of language. The god would usually die, descend into the Underworld, and return with the gift of writing for mankind. But why? The answer is actually pretty simple: to name something is to imply its absence, or its symbolic death. Would you have to ask for food if you already had some in front of you? That’s the basic idea, anyway.** Thus, language is symbolically connected to death. In many myths, the ability to name something also gives the namer power over the named, especially in terms of summoning. To use the mundane example of food again, to speak of your want for food not only implies its absence, but can cause it to be brought to you. In this way, language is also connected to magic. To name the Devil is to summon him from the netherworld. Speak of him, and he shall appear. This is a common superstition that is derived from the magic of language (who knows, perhaps this is why a name was omitted from Card 13).

So, Death is connected to language, and is by extension connected to magic. You can now see why gods associated with death like Thoth and Odin, besides bestowing language upon mankind, were also revered as gods of immense magical skill. Perhaps we also link Death to magic, because without the certainty of Death, there would be no appreciation for the magic that is life. There is magic in mystery, and the world would become bland and flavorless if we were cursed with immortality.

In hero myths, the hero always dies, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. But he must die if he is to gain the magic of whatever it is he set out for. A man (or woman) is not really a hero until he or she is reborn or returns to the world of the living with the magic whateveritmaybe in his or her possession. One cannot truly be a hero if he or she does not first endure death.

Card 13 therefore represents a symbolic death, a spiritual death. It is necessary for us to experience this from time to time, or there would be no improvement, no movement towards a greater understanding of ourselves and our Universe. It’s never fun, it’s always scary, and you will need to grieve. You will probably feel empty inside for a long time after the death of your spirit. But this leaves room for spiritual growth. After all, your spirit will never really die. And if you’ve lived a good life, full of love and the loss that inevitably comes with it, by the time you meet the skeleton for real, you will welcome it, and willingly follow it to the unknowable realm that holds the secrets of magic and wisdom.

Notice the towers in the distance – RWS

The sinister number thirteen does have a light side: it is the number 12, plus one. It is the number of disciples, with Jesus walking next to them. It is the number of the Zodiac, with the Sun traveling among the constellations. The Sun always sets; Jesus died on the cross. But he was resurrected, just as the Sun rises again each morning. Thirteen thus carries with it a glimmer of hope. You can see this hope in the Tarot: in the RWS, off in the distance, can be seen the Towers of the Moon card. These towers represent the threshold of the return to the living. In the Moon, they are dark and ominous. Here, however, we can see the Sun rising between them, reminding us that, despite the difficult journey that lies ahead, everything will be just fine. The lesson here is to accept that Death is inevitable. Be humble; your time will come whether you’re king, bishop or peasant. Only when you learn to humbly accept the inevitable can you really live your life to the fullest. It’s okay to abstain from naming this card for fear of calling the Grim Reaper to your door if that’ll help you sleep at night, but understand that he will show up there eventually, whether you turn up this card or not.


Death is always the end, but in the cycle of life, the end is also the beginning.

The Dance of Death – GE

*The Hermit, or the archetype of the Wise Man, is connected to Death by virtue of the respective numbers of each card. This idea is called complimentary cards, and it refers to any pair of cards in the Major Arcana whose sum equals 22, or the total number of cards in the Major Arcana. Card 9 the Hermit plus Card 13 Death equals 22. There are only two cards that do not have a compliment: the Fool (0) and Strength (11). This is fitting for both cards, but that will be discussed in future posts for each card.

**I’ve come to realize that the seemingly complex or even absurd symbolism found in myths around the world often boil down to an astonishingly simple concept. The origins of writing and language were especially mysterious to ancient man, so it makes sense that their myths explaining it would deal with equally mysterious subject matter such as death and magic.

The Wise Man and the Trickster.

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 probably 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).

The Hermit is Thoth – CHT

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.

The Magician is Mercury – CHT


The Juggler – TdM

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.