The Magician, Part IV.

Read Part III here.

 

The trickster can be considered the point of origin of the story because he generates the conflict which drives it. It follows that the tricksy Juggler is the appropriate card to kick off the chain of events that is the Major Arcana. But with the Magician, another way of looking at it becomes a bit more obvious (to me) than with the Juggler: he is at the start of the sequence, because he is the creator of the world.

Now, before I continue, I need to make mention of another card which received a wardrobe change and new name with the RWS: the High Priestess.

 

When the Magician was a Juggler, the High Priestess was called the Popess, the Female Pope, or Pope Joan, which essentially established her as the female counterpart to the Pope (the Hierophant in the RWS),* and leaving the Juggler to stand alone. The High Priestess introduces a certain level of ambiguity into these relationships – she can still be partnered with the Hierophant, or she can court another card (such as the Hermit), or she can stand alone as a symbol of unfettered femininity. Or, she can pair with the Magician, a pairing with some significance, as I shall attempt to explain.

In fact, I have already explained their relationship to some degree in my post about the High Priestess, and I urge any who are reading this post to please read that one, as well. It is a relationship of binary opposites, the fundamental relationship between the numbers One and Two.

Basically, One (the Magician) and Two (the Priestess) are the primordial creative forces of the Universe, progenitors of all that ever was and will be – everything boils down to them. From a psychological perspective, this makes total sense, because we experience consciousness only through constant subliminal comparison of hypothetical opposites. Certainly everything ultimately reduces to one, but one is meaningless without two as a point of reference. They complete each other, give meaning to each other, like the yin and the yang. It’s probably also partially rooted in biology: there can be no offspring without both a father and a mother. The Magician is the Cosmic Father, and the High Priestess is the Cosmic Mother.** They are the personifications of the purely abstract notions of male and female, which are themselves symbolic of all other binary opposites.

Now, all this is technically by virtue of their numbers, and not necessarily of the characters themselves, so it could be argued that the Juggler and Popess represent these very same concepts as the Magician and Priestess. From a numerology standpoint, they absolutely do; but I think the artistic differences between the old and new help to highlight certain ideas that would otherwise have remained obscure.

The Magician is generative, and the High Priestess is receptive. The Magician may be the initial spark, but the Priestess is the incubator. We tend to think the gift must precede the receipt, but in the grand scheme of things, it really comes down to the classic conundrum of the chicken or the egg. One simply does not exist without the other.

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Having established that the Magician is actually an equal, though opposite, creative force as the Priestess, the question of his position as first is raised once again. From a purely symbolic perspective, as explained in the High Priestess post linked above, his very masculinity is the answer. One precedes two, and one is considered masculine while two is feminine. Men come first, unfair though it certainly is,*** and we have been conditioned to think that way for an age. Look at any of the three Abrahamic religions which prevail in the Western world: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all bow to (the same) God the Father. They’re not the first. And whether you’re an adherent to any of these religions or not, your cultural heritage is imbued with the indelible imprint of at least one of them. Their message is not wrong; their specifics are not always right; but right or wrong, they are. It’s inescapable. We think the way we do in large part because of the people who thought before us.

It is only because the Tarot was conceived in this atmosphere that such a bias is reflected in the cards. This is true of the Marseilles just as it is of Waite’s cards. It could easily have been reversed along an alternate timeline, and it could easily be reversed now, without really upsetting the intrinsic meanings that either of these cards hold (symbolic attributions to the physical characteristics of genitalia aside, these associations of sex with numbers, or with any form of opposites for that matter, are totally arbitrary constructs). By all rights, they should both be in the first spot. But unfortunately our temporal limitations insist that one or the other has to be first, and the simple fact remains that the Magician just, well, is.

~~~

This is a perfect opportunity to make an essential point: “God” is not truly confined by gender or sex. Or rather, maybe “God”, as the Christians define him, is confined to his masculinity. But one of the reasons I continually find myself frustrated with this sort of religion is that “God” is used primarily as a name, a contrived denoting device with a capital “G”. This causes great confusion, because the word is not a proper noun in and of itself. There have been many gods and goddesses (lower-case “g”) since the dawn of time (that is, the awakening of consciousness). It becomes a question of whether or not any god by any name, be it God or Allah or Zeus, is really the top dog on the divine hierarchy.

When I say the Magician is God the Father, what I’m really saying is that the Magician is the demiurge. He does indeed create and manipulate the physical world, which is represented on the card by the aces upon the altar. He set up the table, he put the items in their places on it, and he moves them into their proper positions to effect the results he desires.

And yet, he still holds his wand above him, as if anything could be above him.

Your average demiurge refuses to acknowledge that he (or she) is not actually the supreme power in the Universe.**** Most of them probably honestly do not even realize it; it’s an awareness beyond their capacity, and indeed, beyond the capacity of many mortals far below them.

But the Magician knows. He knows that what he perceives as his own will is in truth the will of the Universe; that for every feat he accomplishes through his magic, he is merely a conduit for something greater; that desire and decision for him are ultimately illusions. He knows that, though earth-bound mortals may call him God, he is really only a hand of the supreme godhead.

The Magician is remarkably humble for his esteemed position. Most gods are jealous, and some are even vengeful, when their vaulted status is called into question. But though the Magician is receptive to divine influence, he is not receptive by temperament as the Priestess is. He is an active agent. It is why so many creator types do seem supreme. They harness divine energy, and they do stuff with it. The Magician may not be any more impressive than the Priestess is, but his actions certainly draw more attention than her meditations.

I liken it all to a pencil sketch: the Magician is the pencil, the Priestess is the paper, the drawing is Creation, and the artist is the higher power. Imagine for a moment that the drawing somehow developed consciousness. Doesn’t it make sense that, from its limited stance, it might view the pencil as its creator?

~~~

By himself, the Magician might remain a mere trickster, even with his new ritual attire (you didn’t really think the trickster only wears clown clothes, did you? That would be too obvious). It is only because of his relationship with the High Priestess – a relationship the Juggler does not openly share with the Popess – that he is able to ascend to the level of Creator, because man cannot become father without a mother to bear child. The potential is really there either way – the Magician does not have to be defined by the Priestess, any more than she is defined by him. But the concepts represented by her go a very long way in refining what exactly it is he stands for. It is a perfect illustration of the idea mentioned above, that One is incomprehensible without Two.

It is also a good example of the true nature of the demiurge: he may appear all-powerful, but he is not the sole power in the Universe. He just makes the flashiest show of it.

So, we can now view the first numbered card of the Major Arcana as the Trickster and the Demiurge. Could there possibly be more? You betcha.

~~~

*It’s interesting to note that the Empress and Emperor are side by side, and the Popess and Pope are on either side of them. I think that this was supposed to make a point about worldly authority versus spiritual authority during the Renaissance – the worldly being contained within the jurisdiction of the spiritual. By the time Waite was designing the RWS, this notion about the relationships between Emperors and Popes was outdated, or had at least lost much of its practical significance.

**Hajo Banzhaf refers to the Magician and the Priestess as the Heavenly Father and Mother in his book about the Tarot and the Hero’s Journey. They are not necessarily literal persons, just concepts, and they are followed by the Earthly Father and Mother, a.k.a. the Emperor and Empress.

***Institutionalized oppression is real, it takes on many forms including sexism, and it is unfair. I know this, so please don’t castrate me for stating my observations about the world around me. And, even in a patriarchal society, those who are enlightened know that true femininity cannot be extinguished. The High Priestess is a shining example of the sublime feminine power, even from her place among the shadows.

****So, if not God, then what is the supreme power in the Universe? This post is not the place for such a discussion, so let it suffice to say that, whatever it is, it’s probably beyond our ability to define with our primitive languages. If there was a Tarot card to represent this supreme power, I would say it’s the World, although, truth be told, I don’t fully believe such a concept can be limited to a single card. If anything, the entire Tarot deck is itself the closest representation of this Universal force, and every single card is but a minute aspect of it, even the seemingly comprehensive World and the powerful demiurge Magician (and, I might add, the much maligned Devil).

The Juggler, Part II.

The last time I wrote about this card, I briefly discussed the evolution of the Juggler to the Magician. Today I am here to talk about the Juggler again, keeping that superficial distinction between him and the Magician in mind (I will follow up this post with one on the Magician).

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CBD-TdM

Despite prefacing the Major Arcana, the Juggler is a lowly character. He is a street performer, probably dishonest and operating in a seedy part of town. He amuses passersby with sleight of hand tricks, even possibly stealing from or cheating those who are not as intellectually sharp as he is (and he is very sharp).

Not to paint a picture of a bad guy; on the contrary, I find the Juggler to be very likeable. He represents focus and skill, excellent even if they are occasionally applied to dubious ends. I’ve equated the Juggler to the mythic Trickster a few times on this blog, and now is the time, I think, to explain why.

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Tricksters are often associated with the myths of tribal cultures, especially African or Native American myths, but the trickster character exists everywhere. In the mythic realms of gods and demi-gods the world over, where might is right and magic generally abounds, the trickster relies on his wiles to get by. If the gods and giants are forces of nature, the trickster is mankind, at the mercy of and yet able to outsmart these forces. The trickster does not always come out on top, and oftentimes he must endure punishment even when he does. But his mind is his most powerful attribute, and he knows how to use it.

The questionable character of the trickster stems from his ability to outsmart. Even if he is not bad, he is almost always antagonistic in some way. Sometimes, this is necessary for his survival. Oftentimes, however, it seems like the trickster is just antagonizing for the sheer joy of generating conflict, or even just out of boredom. He certainly has some very human qualities, even if they aren’t always flattering ones.

With a few exceptions, though (Odysseus), the trickster as a character is not a mere mortal. He is often not quite a god, either. The trickster is usually in between, not quite mortal, not quite divine, not welcome here, not welcome there, but showing up anywhere he pleases all the same. One of the interesting qualities about the trickster is how generally disliked he is by the other characters in his stories, and yet how beloved he is by those who tell the stories.

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The Visconti and Medieval Scapini Tarots: two renditions of the earliest known Juggler.

The Juggler is no exception. Despite his seediness, there are few out there who don’t consider him to be a favorable card. But why is this so? The trickster is often identifiable as a “culture hero”, which basically means he is responsible, in a mythic sense, for somehow making life better for people through his trickery. Prometheus tricked the gods into allowing humans to eat the meat from sacrificial animals, and then he stole the fire for them to cook it, too.* Loki invented the fishing net and Hermes invented the lyre. Anansi the spider is responsible for all storytelling. Is Anansi a good guy? Not always, but it would be a bleak existence for mankind if it weren’t for his contribution to culture.

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From the Deviant Moon. Despite his title, this guy is certainly a Juggler type. Perhaps it’s the extra arms, but this Juggler in particular reminds me of Anansi more than any other.

In some versions of the Anansi myths, he is not only the god of stories, but of all wisdom, as well. Indeed, in much of the world’s mythology, the distinction between the trickster and the god of wisdom is a blurry one, although I’ve already written about that. The point is that there is much more to the trickster than meets the eye.

Such is the case with the Juggler. He appears to be nothing more than a performer with a comically floppy hat, but is he, really? Is he hiding something? Is he not also a conman, with more than just tricks for entertainment up his sleeve? He very well may be, but even that is just part of the whole picture. He’s the great manipulator personified, playing with gods and men as effortlessly as he plays with the implements on his table. His goofy hat symbolizes the vastness of his intellect, and his blonde curls and youthful countenance provide a seductive mask to hide a truly mischievous nature.

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Oswald Wirth

Just as the trickster is the spark that generates conflict in every story of which he is a part, so is the Juggler the spark that generates the progression of the Major Arcana. I don’t believe this is the only reason he stands at the front of the pack, though. I think his position also has something to do with that connection I spoke of earlier with the gods of wisdom – sky gods – – creator gods, even. You see, sometimes the Juggler is merely a trickster; sometimes, though, he transcends mischief and becomes something much greater.

That, however, will be the subject of another post.

Part III

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From Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot. The monkey is an interesting detail with some importance, but we won’t get to that for another post or so.

*The name “Prometheus” means fore-thought, which is an apt moniker for a trickster type.

A Choice of Lovers.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve done what I used to enjoy so much on this blog: analyze a specific card of the Major Arcana. I don’t know why it’s been so long; either I’ve written about something else or I’ve written nothing at all. One of my eventual goals for this blog is to write about each of the Major Arcana at least once, and I think it’s high time I got back on that train.

I’ve chosen the Lovers as my subject today, because its changes over time are a little more apparent than many of the other cards, providing me with ample fodder for discussion. This card has a couple possible meanings depending on the deck used, and I’m going to focus on four particular versions of it in this post.

I’ll begin with the most straightforward version, which happens also to be the first, chronologically speaking. You can pretty much take the Visconti Lovers at face value.* It depicts a marriage, and can be interpreted to mean what it says: love, especially a romantic or everlasting love that joins two people. Pretty simple, right?

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Visconti-Sforza

Interestingly, this early version of the card is not what many would consider the most traditional – that distinction goes to the Marseilles Lovers, which is more correctly referred to as the singular “Lover.” The central figure is a young man. On either side of him is a woman, and hovering above them is a Cupid-like cherub. Rather than actual love, this card is typically interpreted to mean a choice, as the man must choose which woman to take as his lover. The choice of lovers pictured on the card is symbolic of choice in general – but not your run-of-the-mill, what-do-I-eat-for-breakfast sort of choice. This is the sort of choice that presents itself at pivotal moments in life, the sort of choice that defines who you are.

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CBD-TdM

There seems to be two prevailing ways to interpret the women. Probably the more common of the two is that one woman represents Virtue, and the other is Vice. The Lover must choose what sort of man he will be; will he live a righteous life, or will he succumb to baser temptations?

Alternatively, one woman can be the man’s mother, and the other is his, well, lover, and he must choose between them. You can get Freudian with that if you like, but what this generally symbolizes is the choice to grow up, essentially. Will the Lover choose to leave the past behind and face the future and its responsibilities head-on, or will he falter and regress back into the metaphorical arms of his mother?

Of course, this card can also be taken at face value, in which case it could be interpreted similarly to the love in the Visconti version (although the sole partnership implied in the Visconti is absent).

~~~

The Golden Dawn tweaked much of the Major Arcana to better jive with their occult philosophies, and the Lovers are no exception. Now, I don’t know what the actual Golden Dawn Lovers looked like, but apparently they depicted it as the climactic scene of the Perseus myth, when Andromeda is about to be devoured by a sea monster and Perseus flies in like Superman to save her.

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Hermetic Tarot

Why does this Tarot card deviate so much from its source? What reasons did the Golden Dawn have for using such an oddly specific story to illustrate this one card? Unfortunately, I don’t really know. Certainly Perseus took Andromeda as his lover after the rescue, but there are so many love stories out there from which to choose.

In a nutshell, the Perseus myth is a Hero’s Journey story, like so many other stories before and since. So far, we’ve seen the Lovers represent Love and Choice. Both of these are important themes in the great human drama, but only the latter is really a prerequisite of the Hero’s Journey. The Hero always must make the difficult decision to embark on his (or her) journey. It is a common trope for the Hero to find true love, for sure, but it’s not required, and anyway, if it does happen, it normally happens towards the end of the journey, not chapter six. When taken as a whole, the progression of the Major Arcana symbolically depicts the Hero’s Journey, and in this context, the Lovers card stands at that turning point, that choice, to embark.

And yet, this is not the moment of the Perseus story pictured on the Lovers card. Some traditions hold that the Lovers should neither be interpreted as love nor as choice, but rather as a test or trial to be surmounted, and this view is mentioned in a pamphlet written by Mathers, who was at the head of the Golden Dawn. Where and when this tradition originated, I do not know, but it seems likely that the Lovers Perseus and Andromeda against the sea monster are meant to be a representation of it.

In the very same pamphlet, though, Mathers wrote that he actually preferred to think of this card in Kabbalistic terms,** as the path descending from Binah to Tiphareth – or in layman’s words, divine-feminine energy descending towards balance, much like Perseus (guided in the story by Athena) flying down in Hermes’ sandals to restore the peace that reigned in Ethiopia before Andromeda’s parents pissed off Poseidon. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I am not a Kabbalist, and therefore cannot speak to the validity of the reasoning behind this. However, there is an element of the divine in every version of the Lovers that might attest to this idea, whether its a Cupid or an Angel (or a monster sent by an angry Lord of the Sea). This supernatural third party is a staple of the Lovers card (even the mundane Visconti-Sforza wedding shows a blindfolded angel), and I’m sure there are endless possibilities for interpreting it, although I won’t get into that here.

~~~

Of course, for all the influence the Golden Dawn has had on the way we view the Tarot today, their version of the Lovers remains obscure. A.E. Waite, creator of the most popular Tarot deck ever published, was a member of the Golden Dawn, but he ultimately rejected their mythic version of the Lovers in favor of his own.

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Universal Waite

The RWS shows imagery taken from Genesis. Eve and Adam are standing beneath the Trees of Knowledge and Life, respectively. In Cupid’s place, an angel of God watches over them. These biblical motifs, whether intended by Waite or not, actually quite ingeniously combine all three traditional meanings covered above. Adam and Eve were literally created for each other, the epitome of Lovers.*** These lovers are then given the mother of all choices – whether to remain obedient and in Paradise, or to commit the original sin and be cast out. Now, we all know how these Lovers chose in the end, but they are pictured in the card as having not yet made this choice. And finally, the choice presented them is a temptation, a trial of faith.

The RWS Lovers is fascinating with all its subtle nuances, and it truly deserves its own post, which I will certainly write (someday). For now, I’m just going to leave it with the conclusion that it does manage to combine all three traditional interpretations.

~~~

The fact that all three ideas can be combined in a single picture is significant, because it shows that, while divergent, they don’t have to be exclusive. Every significant choice in life is really a trial of sorts. And every trial is a result of a choice, and is probably a precursor to another choice. And the decision to take a lover can be among the most important choices one makes in life, and no love affair is without its trials and tribulations. So in a roundabout way, these different meanings are rooted in similar ideas. The main point here is that the Lovers, in some way, is essentially a metaphor for a crossroads. Think about it: a crossroads symbolizes both the convergence of two paths on a single point (a wedding), as well as the choice of which of those paths to follow. Also, consider the legend of Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in exchange for sick guitar skillz. It’s the classic story of a test of character after the fashion of Dr. Faustus (Faust may have made the wrong decision, but I can’t begrudge Robert Johnson for his).

In every instance, the crossroads represents a pivotal moment, and it is on the querent to step up and do what’s right in that moment, whether that’s to be faithful to your partner, or faithful to the Creator that commands you not eat of the Tree. Regardless of how you choose, God or Devil, it’s your choice.

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Mr. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot. This card combines many traditional elements with Crowley’s own ideas about the Lovers.

~~~

*Actually, since the Visconti Tarots were left untitled, some prefer to name it simply “Love,” and I kind of like that.

**One of the very few times that there is a hint of occult influence in Mather’s pamphlet – despite being Mister Golden Dawn, he evidently aimed this little book at the general populace rather than the select few who would have been familiar with such things as the Kabbalah.

***Yeah, I’ve conveniently forgotten to mention Lilith, but if you think about it, Adam choosing between Lilith and Eve is right on point with the meaning of the Lovers presented in the Marseilles pattern. In the Thoth, these two primordial women are pictured in the top corners of the card.

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.

~~~

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.

~~~

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 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 Serpent and the World.

The concept of the Ouroboros is central to much of the world’s mythology. This universal symbol denotes the paradox of our existence.

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Although not, strictly speaking, the World, this card uses similar imagery, complete with an Ouroboros serpent around the man in the center – GE

Also called the Pleroma, the Great Round, the Cosmic Egg, or any number of related things, the Ouroboros is most often pictured as a snake or dragon biting or eating its own tail, thus sustaining itself through its own destruction. It first appeared (I think) in ancient Egypt, and has been integral to various mythic, religious, and esoteric traditions ever since.

Its meaning is twofold: on one hand, its devouring of itself symbolizes the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth; the snake thrives on its own demise. In order for there to be life, there must also be death, and vice-versa. On the other hand, the circular enclosure created by the snake symbolizes one-ness. A perfect unity with and of the Universe. On a collective level, this most often represents the Universe prior to Creation by splitting of binary opposites. If you imagine the dualistic Yin-Yang symbol to be our world now, the Ouroboros would be a uniformly grey circle. On an individual level, it usually represents the time after death and before birth. Together, these two aspects of the Ouroboros can be combined in an attempt to explain the nature of the singular and cyclical Universe.

Creation occurred when the Ouroboros opened up and split in half (when the Egg hatched, if you will). From a cosmic, fifth-dimension sort of perspective, though, the Ouroboros is still intact. The opposites through which we perceive our existence are just an illusion that is a result of our inability to experience the world on anything other than a moment-by-moment basis.

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The World – TdM

I’ve written before about how the Tarot itself is akin to a wheel, making it a veritable model of the Ouroboros. Each card represents a single point upon the wheel, but together they make a unified whole. This is representative of how we experience the Tarot and life in general. There are several cards which specifically evoke the Ouroboros; there are two which, to me, are direct representations of it, and fittingly enough, they are located at either end of the Major Arcana. I’ve already written about the Fool. He is like the soul which has not yet departed from the enclosure of the Ouroboros. The woman dancing in the center of the World card is like the soul which has rejoined it (apotheosis is the term). More than showing the enlightened soul, though, the World (or Universe, as Mr. Crowley dubbed it – which pleases me very much) shows the Great Round itself. This card shows the entire universe as we understand it on a symbolic level. The Ouroboros itself is represented here by a huge wreath (which also shows up on the head of the Fool in the RWS – ahem). The wreath is held together by ribbons that remind one of the infinity sign.* Inside, we see the eternal soul of mankind. She is a woman, but she embraces her male aspect by holding a wand in either hand. Only a person who has embraced his or her entire self, including the anima/animus, and his or her shadow self (the Devil), can reach this state of being in life. Outside, we see the four worldly elements symbolized as four animals. These are outside of the circle because within we would not recognize them as separate from each other.

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The Universe. Notice that the woman dances with a snake, and that their form is that of the infinity sign – CHT

If any single card contained within itself all of the other cards, it would be the World. The dancer is the Fool as he completes his journey. Everything he’s learned can be boiled down to four elements (the suits of the Minor Arcana), but ultimately he must reconcile their differences and incorporate them all in his life. That the figure is a dancer is not accidental. The World illustrates a fluid state of being. The correct mixture of the four elements is ever-changing. This is the nature of the Universe. Stasis is an illusion of the human condition, just as opposition is.

The Wheel of Fortune (card 10) is similar to the World. Located about half way through the Majors, the Wheel is the Ouroboros as the Fool gazes upon it from the outside. Having been taught by the Hermit, he begins to understand the true nature of the world. But he has more tests to complete. When he finally reaches the World, he is no longer on the outside looking in. He is on the inside, or rather, he is one with the Great Round. There are ups and downs, but he understands that rather than being subject to the arbitrary whims of Lady Fortune, these ups and downs are equal and eternal. The serpent lives as it dies.

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This is such a cool version of this card – SaM

From the World springs the Fool, and the cycle begins again. Myths and stories would have us believe that, after one tumultuous journey through the symbolic Underworld, we are complete, and remain forever in the state of ecstasy that is the World. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true in real life. After successfully undergoing trials and tribulations, we do indeed feel like the World Dancer. But what good would the lessons learned during our own personal “Hero’s Journey” be if we didn’t get a chance to incorporate them into the next chapter? So we emerge from our revelry, more experienced but newly Foolish, to begin again and learn how to better ourselves even further. In this way, the Tarot is more like a spiral than a wheel, always circling around, but ever-rising. And so we continue, on and on, until we eventually die and rejoin the Great Round for real. Until you’re born again, that is, and the World keeps on spinning.

 

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The World Serpent, biting its own tail – DMT

*You could imagine the wreath to be the cycle of the Major Arcana, and these two infinity ribbons that tie the wreath together represent two specific cards. They could be the Fool and the World itself, as the two points at which the circle is joined together. Or, they could be the Magician and Strength, cards 1 and 11, respectively, located at the start and midpoint of the cycle. Each of the figures in these cards usually has an implied infinity sign over his or her head. These infinities are especially apparent in the RWS, but of course in that deck, the position of Strength is no longer at the midpoint.

 

 

 

 

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.

The Tarot and Spirituality: or, Why I Do What I Do – Part II

I ended part one of this post with an explanation of why I do not subscribe to any religion. Here, in part two, I will bring together the themes of symbolism, mythology, religion, and spirituality that were previously introduced, and in doing so I hope to begin to illustrate the role the Tarot plays in my personal spiritual life.

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I’ve established that I do not follow a religion, at least not in the way a devotee would. I do, however, voraciously study literature from many world religions, as well as their mythologies (I actually prefer mythic to religious literature, but as they are interconnected, I believe it’s necessary to study both when possible in order to understand the big picture. Of course, many cultures are survived only by their mythic literature, such as that of pre-Christian Scandinavia. Religions such as Christianity, on the other hand, can have both available. For example, the Book of Common Prayer is religious in nature; Milton’s Paradise Lost is mythic; the Bible has elements of both. But I digress..). I feel compelled to try and hold as comprehensive a worldview as possible, and I think this is one way to work towards that end. I think of it as a never-ending quest for wisdom of Odinic proportions.

For a long time, I’d yearned for a different sort of “Holy Book” which could somehow synthesize the notions of the universal truth hinted at throughout the spiritual writings of mankind.

It is my personal belief that such a book does in fact exist.

This is where the Tarot comes in.

The Tarot – or, more specifically, the Major Arcana – has within it the mythic archetypes. Granted, it does not have all of them. Even if all 78 cards of the deck consisted only of Major Arcana, it would surely not cover every possible mythic archetype. What it does cover is the so-called “Journey of the Hero”. The Journey of the Hero was first made accessible by comparative mythologist and Jungian disciple Joseph Campbell, and is essentially a phrase encompassing a vast body of myths which are usually interpreted to represent, at their fundamental level, the subconscious spiritual development of the psyche. This means a story which serves as a metaphor for a guidebook on living spiritually. To use Christianity again as an example, the Gospels are four versions of the Hero’s Journey in which Jesus Christ is the hero.

If you’re interested in reading more on the Journey of the Hero, I recommend Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. For further reading on how this is reflected in the Major Arcana, I recommend Hajo Banzhaf’s Tarot and the Journey of the Hero. There may come a time when I will write a post elaborating on all of this archetype stuff, but for now I must try to keep my digressions brief.

The point is that the Major Arcana contains the archetypes that make up the story told, in one form or another, by every religion’s myths.

The Tarot is also immune to the effects of dogma which plague written books of faith, and for three reasons. Firstly, aside from the titles of the cards, there is no written language in the Tarot. The language of the Tarot is symbolism, as Eden Gray wrote. Pictures. Words have the tendency to be taken out of context and twisted for selfish ends by selfish people until even the original author would fail to recognize his intent behind loaded rhetoric. Or, perhaps less sinister, the language barrier between cultures can also twist and distort meanings. A symbol on a Tarot card, though, can not be taken out of context, because to see one symbol is to see the entire card, and there is no language barrier between pictures. Furthermore, words can and will be interpreted in numerous ways, regardless of the single meaning intended by the author. The symbols on the Tarot, by contrast, also have infinite possible interpretations – and that’s the point. People will argue tooth and nail over what a word means, but it is a given that no two people will see a Tarot symbol exactly the same way, and that’s ok.

Secondly, although I’ve been referring to the Tarot as a book, it is a deck of cards, and the “pages” can therefore be rearranged in any order. Unlike other books, the Tarot interacts with each reader differently, and to each situation differently. It’s as if your spiritual guidebook re-writes itself for you every time you read it. It is totally individualized, and cannot be susceptible to corruption over time the same way a fixed doctrine is.

Thirdly, the Tarot lacks a feature prevalent in other books of faith, and that is a code of ethics. It is ironically the moral ideals in a Holy Book which are most often bastardized. There are no fixed morals in the Tarot. Which is just as well, because I believe morals and ethics are highly subjective and entirely situational. All of this is not to say that you can’t go to the Tarot with an ethical dilemma; on the contrary, the impartial Tarot can be a valuable guide through these shadowy realms.

As I’ve stated before, I don’t mean to tell anyone how to live their spiritual lives, and I don’t mean to question the validity of anyone’s religion. I enjoy studying the religions, and I value their messages. This post is rather intended to show that the Tarot can stand up as a spiritual guide comparable to any religious book. In addition, the Tarot is designed to work for divination. It can be used for magic and meditation. Being a deck of cards, it can also be used for gaming, and is thus a reminder to never take life too seriously. It deals with the spiritual realm through the Major Arcana, and connects the spiritual to the worldly realm through the Minor Arcana. We as humans are aware of nothing else. Mr. Crowley said the Tarot works as a model of the Universe, and I tend to agree with him. By “Universe”, Crowley was referring both to the Macrocosm and the Microcosm. We are all a part of one Universe, and we each contain the Universe within ourselves.

We are all powerless in the midst of this vast and seemingly uncaring Universe. By the same token, however, we are a part of that Universe, made of and from it, and therefore have all the potential that comes with it. We are each the masters of our own Universes, but can only truly be in control of the Micro by relinquishing our futile attempts at controlling the Macro. The Tarot helps to understand this as well, because in order to successfully use it, one must accept that he or she is simultaneously in and without control.

It’s seemingly paradoxical concepts like this that make the universal truth so difficult to describe with words. This is the purpose mythology serves: to illustrate with symbolic language those truths – not facts – which cannot be communicated overtly. This too is the role the Tarot plays, using symbols which are interpreted differently by everyone yet subconsciously understood by all, and it is why I’ve dedicated this blog to a better understanding of this mystical and magical pack of cards.