The Magician, Part V: The Magus.

The sun shines and the moon reflects. The Magician is a sun god, just as the Priestess is a lunar goddess. Waite says as much himself when he likens the Magician to Apollo (pg. 36, PKT).

The sun and sky gods of antiquity often became associated with the Creator over time. In the last post, I discussed the Magician as demiurge, creator of the physical world, often erroneously thought to be the supreme power in the universe; in the following posts, I’m going to examine an aspect of the Magician that is related in many ways to the idea of creator, but is not, strictly speaking, the same thing. This is essentially summed-up by the Apollo connection: the Magician can be the god of the sun and sky, and though he can also be the creator, he doesn’t have to be, just as Phoebus was the sun god of the ancient Greeks, but not their creator.*

Am I trying to say that, aside from the trickster and demiurge, the Magician is also a solar deity? Well, yes and no. He is, but that’s beside the point. The aspect of the Magician which is the subject of this post is probably the most elusive yet, so please bear with me. As the title suggests, I think this aspect is epitomized in Mr. Crowley’s version of the card, which he opted to call the “Magus”.

A.E. Waite did consider his Magician to be an embodiment of Apollo, and insofar as the High Priestess is Artemis, I’d concur. I couldn’t say whether or not Crowley also agreed with this attribution (his Priestess remains Artemis, so I think on some level he would’ve agreed, but he was also a generally disagreeable person, especially towards Waite, so who knows), but either way, he chose a different classical god to represent the Magus for his Thoth Tarot.

Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, called Hermes by the Greeks, is the face of the first numbered card of Crowley’s deck. Commerce, medicine, science, travelling (both in an astral and mundane sense), and trickery – all of these things and more fall under the domain of Mercury. Is he a creator? Not in the sense that the demiurge is, although he is certainly creative. Is he a sun god, like his half-brother Apollo? No, nor is he overtly associated with the sky, as Zeus is, despite his winged sandals. He is a male like the Magician, but he’s not necessarily the “manliest” of the Greek gods, some of which are very manly indeed. And yes, he is sometimes portrayed as a trickster like the Juggler, although that is far from his primary purpose. Is his gender and his guile enough reason to justify his place at the head of the Tarot pack alongside the likes of Odin, Apollo, Anansi and Jehovah?

At first glance, the connection seems tenuous. Of course, I’ve already written a post about Mercury’s deeper connection to gods like Odin and Anansi, so I don’t really need to get into that here, at least, not yet.** First, I think I should spend some time examining the Magus card itself.

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Crowley’s Magus is as different from the Magician as the Magician is different from the Juggler, if not more so. Not only is there no characteristic table in front of him, the Magus is totally naked, except for his winged sandals. The Coin, Wand, Cup, and Sword instead float in the air around him, but they are joined by some additional implements. Behind him rises the caduceus, the winged staff of Mercury, with its intertwining serpents forming the lemniscate above his head (this symbol of infinity being one of the few constants throughout all of this card’s incarnations so far). Finally, a baboon lurks behind the Magus, a companion who has quite an intriguing role to play.

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What does all this stuff mean?

Well, the sandals and caduceus illustrate beyond a doubt that this is indeed Mercury. That’s important, and I shall return to examine this point further in the future. As far as the nakedness, I genuinely don’t know. It could just as easily be an artistic liberty taken by Freida Harris as it could be symbolic of something else. Perhaps it’s another nod to his divinity: not only is the Magus naked, but his exposed skin glows with a golden luster that is totally un-human. No matter what we theorize about the Magician’s or the Juggler’s inherent divinity, they are nonetheless portrayed as mortal men. Not so with the Magus.

This immortal quality is implied even further when we consider that the Magus is not only levitating, but seems to exist in some alternate or in-between dimension. He is not in a garden like the Magician. This is right in keeping with Mercury’s ability to jump from one plane of existence to another, a characteristic he shares with folks like Odin and Thoth.

Which brings me to the primate hovering behind the Magus. This is Thoth in animal form, who was sometimes represented in ancient Egypt as a baboon instead of the usual ibis or ibis-headed man.*** Thoth is, obviously enough, of integral importance to the Thoth Tarot on many levels, but in this instance he almost seems to be antagonistic to the Magus’ purpose, making a mockery of Mercury and all he’s trying to accomplish.

Alongside the typical suit symbols, the Magus has in his arsenal a winged egg (called the “orphic egg”, which I briefly discussed in my post about Crowley’s Hermit), what appears to be a bundle of dried leaves or herbs, and a scroll and quill. The scroll and quill again call Thoth to mind, as he is the scribe of the Egyptian gods, and was credited with the invention of writing. Language is one of the Magus’ greatest assets as both trickster and demiurge, and it is his gift to mankind. The baboon, however, is a constant reminder that, no matter how elevated we think we are, humans are still animals at the end of the day, and while language does give us great power, it also limits us, confining our instinctual understanding of our place in the cosmos to restrictive definitions and superficial descriptions. In a way, the moment we developed complex language, freeing ourselves from the bonds of animal slavishness, we also alienated ourselves from a true comprehension of our place in the universe, a comprehension that defies all attempts to be put into words, though we sometimes desperately try. The monkey therefore points and laughs at us, nature’s own little trickster. We cannot escape his taunts, and he is forever in the Magus’ shadow.

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Next time, I will address some of the points and questions raised throughout this post: the mythic relationship between this enigmatic figure and the sun and sky gods; how these are connected to language and the gods of wisdom; the significance of Mercury as opposed to some other character; and, eventually, a return to the Juggler to tie it all together.

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*The sun god and the sun are two different things, by the way. Helios is the name of the Greek figure (titan or god, it’s not really clear which) who is the sun. Apollo, on the other hand, represents the attributes of the sun, such as warmth and light. Nevertheless, he is very often referred to as the “sun god.” To clear the matter up a bit (mythology can be frustratingly confusing sometimes, I know), Hyperion (a titan) is “eternal light,” Helios (a titan or god, and Hyperion’s son) is the sun, and Apollo (a god, and Zeus’ son) is the light and warmth of the sun. None of these three, incidentally, are creator-gods. The closest thing to demiurge that’s named in this footnote would be Zeus, Apollo’s father; and while he is not a god of the sun in any way, he is the god of the sky.

**I can’t be positive, but I’m pretty sure I’ve created more links on this blog to the “Wise Man and the Trickster” than I have to any other of my posts. If you can’t tell, it details a central theme around which my approach to the cards – and indeed, to myth, magic and divination in general – revolves. Sorry to those who have already read the post, but I can’t even promise that this will be the last time I link it.

***Alternatively, it can represent Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god and friend to the hero Rama. Hanuman is incredibly powerful and especially tricky, although to be honest, I don’t know much else about him at present.

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Part V, Mr. Crowley’s Hermit.

Read Part IV about the Marseille and Wirth Hermits here.

Compared to the Hermits we’ve studied up until this point, the Hermit from the Thoth Tarot (CHT) seems like a radical departure from tradition.

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Thoth

It’s true, Crowley did reinvent the Tarot, creating his own, new spin on an old tradition. The Hermit plays an integral role in Crowley’s complex vision. I will discuss my understanding of Crowley’s ideas relating to the Hermit in this post, focusing on details that set this Hermit apart from the others, but ultimately, I intend to illustrate that at its core, this is still a Hermit like all the rest.

The artist, Lady Frieda Harris, was very clever in the way she portrayed this character. At first glance, this man, facing away from us, appears to have the long hair and beard we’ve come to recognize as characteristic of the Hermit. Look again, though, and you may notice that from this angle, his beard looks rather beak-like, and the hair is reminiscent of feathers, or perhaps an ancient Egyptian headdress. Why, this Hermit appears to be none other than the ibis-headed scribe of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, whose name graces the entire deck: Thoth himself. In Crowley’s companion text, The Book of Thoth, Crowley states in his entry on this card that the Hermit is indeed Mercury “in his highest form”.* Those who are familiar with classical mythology, as well as classical writers’ treatment of Egyptian mythology, will understand that Mercury and Thoth were thought to be two names for the same deity. The implications of all this are staggering. I will not go much more into it here, because I’ve already discussed this subject in great detail in another post, but suffice it to say that the Hermit is not only a very wise man, but he is supposed to be the embodiment of the God of Wisdom of ancient times. As a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (Hermes being yet another incarnation of this god), that Crowley would associate this character with these names suggests that the Hermit is at the very center of his spiritual and magical philosophy.

Before I go any further, I should say that much of the symbolism we see in this card is derived from the Kabbalah. Now, Crowley was not the only person to use the Kabbalah with the Tarot – far from it. There are multiple ways to associate the Kabbalah with the Tarot, and they don’t all agree (for example, Wirth used different attributions than Crowley did). However, my understanding of this branch of Jewish mysticism is elementary at best, and this confusion is only compounded by the disagreements between occultists, so I avoid talking about it when I can. In the case of Crowley’s Thoth, however, it is so firmly entrenched in the imagery that I do not think I can avoid mentioning it this time.

So with that in mind, onto the next point. The Hebrew letter associated with the Hermit (according to Crowley) is Yod. Again, this illustrates to Kabbalistic types just how important the Hermit is. Yod is the first letter of the Tetragrammation, or the unpronounceable name of God (YHVH, to use the English equivalent letters), and the letter from which all other letters are formed. As such it symbolizes the “Father, who is Wisdom”. The Hermit’s body is drawn in such a way as to evoke the shape of the Yod, and because Yod translates to “hand” (“the tool or instrument par excellence”), the Hermit’s hand occupies the central point of the card.

In his hand is, of course, the lantern, which doesn’t just house any old star; it contains the Sun. However, in another streak of cleverness, Harris drew this lantern in a way which, if you look closely, evokes the Star of David in its shape. So we have both the symbolism of the Sun – illumination, creation, Fire, God the Father – combined with a subtle reference to the six-pointed star we’ve encountered already. Geometric beams of light shine from this lantern and seem to bounce around the card, illuminating much, but not all.

Just out of reach of the beams of light, peeking through sheaves of wheat, is an egg with a snake wrapped around it. This is called the “Orphic Egg”, and it turns up in various forms several times throughout Crowley’s Major Arcana, perhaps most notably in the Lovers. It is a symbol of the Universe and the mystery of Life – not entirely unlike the ouroboros we saw twisting around the Scapini Hermit’s staff. The Hermit Thoth seeks it.

The wheat itself is symbolic of fruitfulness and harvest, associated with Persephone. It suggests both life and death, the world of the Living and the world of the Dead, much like Thoth or Mercury himself. This duality is further emphasized by the sperm-homunculus in the foreground on the left, and Cerberus the three-headed hound of Hades on the right. The spermatozoon, as Crowley calls it, stands in for the Hermit’s staff, which is otherwise absent from this image. Like the staff, it represents a drive of sorts, but this one in particular is more primal, embodying the male aspect of reproduction and life. It literally contains within it the potential for a new person. The Cerberus is further representation of the Persephone myth, in that it stands on guard of the realm of the Dead. Two of its heads look forward, and one looks back.

So the Thoth Hermit seeks to reconcile life and death, to shed light on the secrets of the Universe. It is a card of alchemy as well as Kabbalah.

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The Lovers, with the Hermit.

The Orphic Egg sits between the Emperor and the Empress on card VI of the Thoth, who are the titular Lovers of the card. There is a larger-than-life hooded and bearded figure who presides over their marriage. This is the Hermit, again referred to as Mercury by Crowley. Why the Hermit is the officiating minister is something Crowley opted not to explain. But I think that it is because the Hermit is the seeker of truth, of the secrets of life and death and the Universe. Around his arms is a Moebius band-like ribbon, symbolizing unity. Is this what the Hermit is all about? That reconciling of opposites, whether they be man and woman or life and death? Remember the Star of David, with its combination of the opposites Fire and Water. That star is the source of light in the RWS Hermit’s lantern, leading his way towards that which he seeks. Whether or not the Hermit realizes the answers to his questions are already at his disposal is unknown, but it doesn’t matter, because the symbolism of the lantern suggests that, if he stopped searching, he would extinguish his goal. Wisdom is in the search. That is why the Orphic Egg in card IX remains forever just out of reach of the Hermit’s light.

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There are a couple small details I’d like to bring up before I wrap this post up. First of all is the fact that Crowley intended his Hermit to be representative of a certain formula that is tied to both the Ten and the Princess of Disks. This is a Kabbalistic idea regarding the descent of energy into matter and its reintegration into spirit. I want only to bring it up here; to delve into that discussion would take me farther off topic than I’d prefer, and I think there is sufficient material there to deserve a post all its own. So perhaps in the future I’ll tackle that one.

There is some color symbolism here, and again, it’s related to the Kabbalah. The Hermit’s robes are the red of Binah, the Sephirah of Understanding, “in whom he gestates”. This color shows up in connection with the number nine and the letter Yod again in the Moon, which I’ve already mentioned in a post about that card. I only call attention to it here because I think it is absolutely an intentional reference to the Hermit. I also think it is a great example, along with the Lovers, of the amazing cohesiveness of the Thoth Tarot. I’ve found that each individual card plays off of the others more so here than in any other Tarot I’ve used. There are many, many connections, and the Hermit occupies an integral spot among them.

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So yes, this Hermit looks different than many of the others, and yes, the symbolism is probably more complex than that of most Tarots. But the basic underlying themes of wisdom and understanding through unity of opposites is not only here, but it is practically underlined and italicized for us, if we can only sift through all the esoteric mambo-jumbo. The fact that this card is more abstract and extreme than previous, more traditional examples serves as a reminder that, while a real-life hermit can be a very wise man, with the cards we are actually dealing with archetypes and symbols that transcend mortal humanity.

For my next post, I’ll be taking a look at some Hermits who are more traditional in appearance than Crowley’s but come from Tarot packs that, on the whole, are perhaps less traditional that the Thoth.

*The Book of Thoth, page 88. In fact, everything I’ve put in quotations can be found on this or the next page of the book.

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).

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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.

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The Magician is Mercury – CHT

 

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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.

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*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.