I’ve been sitting on this one for a while, playing with it in secret. It is the most recent addition to my Tarot collection, and I’ve been savoring getting to know it. It’s name, the Mystical Tarot (MT), is certainly a bit generic, and yet I think it’s an apt enough title for this deck of cards.
These cards are basically an artistically-enhanced RWS Tarot.
I like PC Smith’s artwork, which graces the original RWS. I don’t know. It’s nothing fancy, but it works. Tarot wouldn’t be what it is today without this classic rendition to set the tone. The Mystical Tarot, in its turn, pays homage to this landmark. When I look at Smith’s cards, I am looking at drawings of an idealized medieval-Renaissance-esque world. They could serve as illustrations for a quintessential fantasy story, with hints of magic and the divine seeping through.
When I look at the Mystical Tarot, I feel like I’m actually looking into the world that Smith was trying to capture with her cards. Well, I don’t know what was in her mind’s eye when she produced her iconic drawings. But I like to imagine.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, the Mystical Tarot strikes me as an especially imaginative RWS Tarot. It’s detailed and embellished in a way that goes beyond the original, and it transcends time and place. Sure, it evokes a romanticized past, as does its predecessor, but simultaneously, it exudes an aura of futurism. It’s a stark contrast that is expertly blended, and the result is a surreal, otherworldly vibe. It’s familiar and totally new all at once. I like it.
These cards are strange, sometimes, but I found that the quirks grew on me as I continued to use them. All in all, I really enjoy this Tarot. It works as a utilitarian Tarot, easy to read with its RWS symbolism and structure, but it’s also incredibly beautiful as an art piece. Each card is a world unto itself. It’s a good one for the collection.
It seems like every day I find more and more opinions that disagree with mine, but I still maintain that the Rider-Waite-Smith is the best deck with which to learn Tarot. Of course, if someone has a specific deck in mind that he or she connects with, by all means, my opinion (or anyone else’s) doesn’t matter a bit – always go with your own gut. But if a person wants to get into the Tarot, and they have no prior knowledge, and they have no opinion about which deck they’d like to start with, then I think the Rider is the way to go.
I feel this way for many reasons, not least of which is that there are more books published about the RWS than probably any other version of the Tarot. Someone who wants to learn with a Marseille or a Thoth has far fewer resources at their disposal than one who studies with the RWS or one of its derivatives, and fewer still if they want to go in a different direction.
Which brings me to my next recommendation: Assuming the RWS was selected as the learning deck, which is the book to study alongside it? There are countless options out there, and I’ve admittedly read only a very small number of them. However, without a doubt, the best book I have read on the RWS (one of the best Tarot books in general, really), and one that I’ve referenced many times on this blog, is Rachel Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom.
This book was originally published in two volumes, one for the Major Arcana, and one for the Minor, but now you can purchase them as a single book. At 354 pages, 78 Degrees is sizable for Tarot literature, although not remotely the heftiest on the market. Even so, the first thing I should clarify is that this is a book, not a cheat-sheet. I heartily recommend it, but it’s certainly better suited for my fellow readers than it would be for someone looking for a quick RWS reference.
78 Degrees is generally considered a classic in the world of Tarot literature these days, and I’d have to agree. Along with two or three other Tarot books in my library, this one forms part of the bedrock of my understanding of the cards.* It is well-written, fun to read and educational, showing a broad understanding of psychology, mythology, the occult and symbolism as they relate to the Tarot.
The book is split into three parts, the first of which is about the Major Arcana. It begins with an introduction, in which we are introduced to the Tarot, its origins, some occult elements, and the theory of archetypes, and then Waite’s version of the cards, which constitute the focus of the remainder of the book, all rounded up with a discussion about divination and what it means in relation to the Tarot. We are then given an overview of the basic patterns underlying the Major Arcana, before diving into the cards themselves. Each card is allocated several pages, in which its meaning is thoroughly discussed according to the themes set out in the intro.
The section on the Major Arcana is divided into three parts of seven cards each (the three septenaries). Pollack puts a lot of emphasis on these groupings, suggesting that each represents a stage of personal development. Cards I through VII are under the heading The Worldly Sequence, the following seven under Turning Inwards, and the final cards under The Great Journey. These titles are indicative of the sorts of trials and triumphs to be found within each septenary.
Next is the Minor Arcana. As with Part One, we are started off with an introduction expounding upon the themes and patterns to be covered in the following pages. These are by and large very similar to what is covered in the first part, with a little more emphasis given to things like Kabbalah and the elements, as well as a discussion on the nature of Smith’s renditions of the Minor Arcana versus those of historical or (overtly) occult packs. We then move along to the cards themselves, this time divided into four sections according to suit: Wands, Cups, Swords, and then Pentacles. Each section begins with the King and descends to the Ace. Substantially less space is given to each card in this section compared to the Major Arcana (usually about a page or two), but everything is still adequately covered. At the very least, it surpasses anything else I’ve read on the Minor Arcana.**
The final part is about reading with the cards. We are once again given an introduction, this time about the psychology of divination and Tarot, with a lengthy discussion about “common sense” and the value of lessons learned with the cards.
The bulk of Part Three is in the section about types of readings. In particular, Pollack presents us with the Celtic Cross spread, which is the best explanation of the spread that I’ve yet read; the “Work Cycle” spread, which is Pollack’s own invention and riffs on some of the patterns learned in the Cross; and a Kabbalistic Tree of Life spread. The entire book is wrapped up with a chapter on how to use readings and a chapter on what we learn from readings, both of which are fascinating and insightful.
*78 Degrees is the best RWS book. Lon Milo DuQuette’s Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot is my go-to CHT reference, and Paul Huson’s Mystical Origins of the Tarot is an excellent resource on historical Tarots. Hajo Banzhaf’s Tarot and the Journey of the Hero is another phenomenal book, and I think the title says it all. Of course, I have read many other very fine books on the Tarot, but if I had to name what I consider to be my “essential reading” list, it would probably be these four.
**Such a shame. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about the Major Arcana, and this blog absolutely has more material by far about it; but the Majors cast quite a shadow, and the Minors are certainly worth an entire book in their own right.
Before there was the Magician, there was the Juggler. The Juggler was a character of potentially ill repute, yet simultaneously one which could delight onlookers with his tricks as he pleased. The dual nature of the Juggler’s character, combined with his divinitory associations with incredible mental dexterity – not to mention his almost clownish clothes – suggests the Trickster archetype of myth, which was the subject of the previous post in this series.
However, in the modern English-speaking Tarot community, the Juggler has effectively become the Magician, thanks largely to occultist Arthur Waite and the artist commissioned to illustrate his Tarot, Pamela Smith.
The two versions of the card incorporate similar elements, especially the table upon which are set various implements, but there nonetheless appears to be some discrepancy between them. While the traditional Juggler** wears motley performance attire, the RWS Magician is dressed in the robes of a ceremonial magus. Especially striking is the Juggler’s hat; it is so conspicuous in its size and shape, that its absence gives the Magician an air of seriousness by comparison. We know the Juggler must possess a high degree of focus to carry out his whims, but a major part of his trickery is his ability to divert our attention from his true purpose, and his hat helps to disguise this purpose. The Magician cares not for such distractions, and instead an ethereal lemniscate, symbol of infinity, floats above his head. It is the same shape as the brim of the Jugglers hat.
The Juggler appears fluid and at ease as he performs. The Magician’s stance is poised and deliberate. He holds his wand to the sky in one hand, and with the other he points to the earth. This pose is a reference to the Hermetic maxim, “As above, so below.”*** This essentially states that what is true of the macrocosm is also true of the microcosm, an idea which is central to magic theory. The Magician works his will on earth and the greater Universe unerringly conforms. The pose also suggests that the Magician has the ability to take abstract or spiritual energies from the Universe “above”, and make them manifest on earth. Either way you look at it, micro to macro or macro to micro (in truth, it’s a constant back-and-forth rather than just one or the other), the Magician clearly wields awesome power.
Now we’ll turn our attention to the table. The Juggler plays with various objects that can usually be likened to the suit symbols of the Minor Arcana, although they can just as easily be random knick-knacks;**** but the items upon the Magician’s table can be mistaken for nothing else. There are four of them, and they are very clearly implements of the same sorts as are pictured on each of the aces. This implies that the Magician has the raw forces of the elements at his disposal. The combination of his Hermetic stance and the elemental aces on his table serves to underscore that his will is all powerful. He can manipulate the physical elements of this world with ease, but his true influence stretches far beyond the realms of crude matter.
In short: the Juggler performs tricks and illusions. The Magician performs magic.
For this post, my aim was to examine the basic elements of the Magician card versus those of the Juggler. It is a digression from the overarching theme of mythic archetypes that is the purpose of this series, but I think it’s a necessary one to make in order to more fully appreciate what’s coming next as compared to what came previously. The Magician can still be associated with the Trickster, by virtue of his being a reincarnation of the Juggler (by the same token, the Juggler can be associated with all that I will claim for the Magician in the upcoming installments). But there is another archetype the Magician represents that is different than the Juggler’s trickster: God the Father, Creator of the Universe. It might seem like quite a leap, but I assure you, it’s all there in the cards.
*Interestingly, these two cards appear to be mirrors of each other. Is there significance in this? Perhaps, and I may or may not return to this thought in a future post.
**For the purposes of this post, “traditional Juggler” refers to the Marseille-pattern Juggler.
***Might not the Juggler also be considered to be making the same statement through his gesture? It can certainly be read that way. The Juggler may very well be hiding all manner of secret hermetic and occult wisdom, but if this is true, the many anonymous hands that contributed to his appearance left no indication that it was intentional. We just can’t know. One of the things that made Waite’s Tarot so revolutionary (aside from Smith’s Minor Arcana illustrations) was that he published a book detailing the cards and their symbolism. The Marseille Tarots are occult only because they were interpreted that way long after their creation; the RWS, on the other hand, is occult because its creator made it so, and we do know that, beyond a shadow of a doubt.
****The items on the Juggler’s table often vary from card to card. For example, the early versions, such as the Visconti and the source material for Huson’s Dame Fortune’s Wheel Tarot, show stock items of the street performer’s trade. While this might include a wand or a cup, it also might include balls or spinners or other random, non-Tarot-related items. Oswald Wirth’s Juggler, on the other hand, has objects on his table which very obviously correspond to the minor suit symbols (ironic, considering he never made a Minor Arcana). The Marseille Juggler typically falls somewhere in the middle: the items on his table appear to include a couple coins, a small cup or two, and a knife, and he holds a baton in his hand. These are very similar to the suit symbols, but they admittedly look nothing like any of their respective aces, so the similarities could therefore possibly be only coincidence.
I was once perusing the forums on Aeclectic when I came across a thread that was asking which of the above versions of the RWS was the better. With almost no exception, every response was in favor of the Universal Waite, and a few of them were downright trashing the Radiant. Now, when I was reading these responses, I assumed “Universal” was referring to the Lo Scarabeo version of the RWS, which, in my opinion, is an awful rendition of these classic cards.* I was wrong, of course. They were referring to the much superior – yet similarly named – deck from US Games, but at the time, I was unaware of the existence of this version. I couldn’t understand why anyone would prefer the LS Universal RWS over the Radiant (also a US Games deck, by the way).
So I spoke up and defended the Radiant. Not long afterward, I realized my mistake, and felt a little foolish for jumping to conclusions and speaking out against a deck I’d never even seen. I didn’t really regret it, though, because I did (and still do) genuinely like the Radiant RWS.
But I can’t deny it: the Universal Waite is, overall, a nicer pack of cards.
After I figured out the difference between the Lo Scarabeo and US Games Universal decks, I decided to buy myself a copy of the latter, even though I already had one RWS in the form of the Radiant (I also have the mini rws, as well, but that’s neither here nor there). After all, the RWS is my favorite version of the Tarot, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to have an extra (normal-sized) copy in my library.
Now that I have both of them, I can compare and contrast and share my honest opinions here. They are both perfectly good RWS decks, but the Universal does ultimately beat the Radiant. That’s not to say the Radiant doesn’t have its merits, though, and I’ve made a list of some pros and cons for each below in case anyone reading this, like that poster on Aeclectic, is on the fence about which to buy.
~ More vibrant colors (kind of tough to tell with the Fool, in retrospect, but I don’t feel like taking pictures of different cards, so you’ll have to take my word for it)
~ Laminated cardstock is very sturdy, yet not too stiff
~ Not the original Smith artwork, but a (faithful enough) re-drawing
~ Some of the faces look kind of weird, almost like drawings of wax figures (not that Smith’s drawings are very realistic, but some of them do look a little more natural)
~ Laminated cardstock is high-gloss and doesn’t look quite as nice
~ Original Smith artwork (the only thing different about this one compared to the original RWS is the colors)
~ No glossy finish looks nicer, more organic
~ The backs of the cards are better (actually, they both have very cool starry-night designs, but of the two, the Universal is better done, I think, with the background being a darker shade and the stars having a metallic gold sheen, while the Radiant’s stars are just yellow)
~ Colors look a bit washed-out (although they are still nice, and the color is really a matter of personal preference, anyway)
~ Cardstock is less sturdy (although not terrible by any means), and no gloss means less protection
Here is my justification for having both in my own collection: the Universal, because it is nicer and has the original linework, is the pack I go to for studying and appreciating the art. I do read with it sometimes, but it never leaves my apartment. The Radiant, because it is sturdier, is my travel deck, and the one I can pass around among my friends without worry. They can be riffle-shuffled and will withstand at least some light beer-spillage (I can say so from experience), neither of which are things I would be comfortable doing with my Universal. In other words, the Radiant is my beater-pack, while I keep the Universal pretty and pristine for my collection.
Of course, if you’re still not sure which one you really want, you can always resort to the original Rider-Waite from US Games. There is really nothing wrong with that at all (although the backs of that one don’t have the stars which I find so appealing – it has the same boring pattern as the miniature version – see above photo).
In case you’re wondering, I never did go back to that forum to update my opinion on this matter. Since the Radiant was so overwhelmingly the least liked of the two, I figured I’d play Devil’s advocate and leave my positive review of it up there.
*Not to bash Lo Scarabeo as a brand. Many of their decks are beautiful (and I possess a few of them), but in my humble opinion, their “Universal” RWS is an eyesore.
Contrary to popular belief,* a regular pack of 52 playing cards is not a simplified form of the Tarot; rather, the Tarot is a more complex form of the 52 card pack. The Tarot did not come first, and it really isn’t all that ancient, at least, not as ancient as is often claimed.
Playing cards with four suits have been around for ages, since at least 1000 AD, although it is true that they didn’t show up in Europe until a bit closer to the time of the first Tarots.** These (the Tarot, that is) inexplicably popped up in Italy midway through the 1400s. The oldest surviving cards from this period were specially commissioned by noble families and hand painted by skilled artists, and no two of them are the same. It wasn’t until the Tarot had spread to other parts of Europe over the course of a couple centuries that a more or less standard pattern began to emerge.
Today, this pattern is referred to as the Tarot de Marseille, after the French city in which they were originally made. Instead of unique hand painted cards, these packs were mass-produced with woodblock prints, making them accessible to the masses (we don’t know that the Tarot wasn’t available to common folk at the same time the nobles were commissioning their packs, but if they were, they didn’t survive).
There is no single version of the Marseille Tarot; it is a pattern, with several variations, and no one can say with even remote certainty who (if any sole individual) invented it. But, ever since this pattern emerged in France, there has been relatively little alteration in the basic structure of the pack. Even the most outrageously avant-garde decks published today can be traced back to these cards.
In other words, the Tarot de Marseille is the closest we can get to the original modern Tarot. For this reason, there are many, many folks out there who prefer this version of the cards over the multitudes of others currently available (especially in Europe – we’ll get to the preferred deck in America shortly).
The biggest difference between the Marseille Tarot and a typical 52 card pack is, not surprisingly, the 22 Major Arcana. These picture cards are an addition to the Minor Arcana, functioning as trumps for gaming purposes, although it’s difficult to believe these suggestive pictures aren’t meant to hold some deeper significance (even if we do know they aren’t “occult”). In Marseille packs, the Minor Arcana are nothing more than pip cards – cards that are illustrated only by the suit symbols – and while the suits are somewhat different than regular playing cards depending on the country of origin (for example, Wands are the Italian version of the suit, and the version which remained with the Tarot, as opposed to the French Diamonds or the German Acorns), they are still the same in essence. For example, the 10 of Wands shows only ten wands arranged on the card, and nothing else, except perhaps some decorative foliage.
The next big step in the evolution of the Tarot didn’t come until the late 1700s,with a French chap known to posterity as Etteilla. His actual name was Alliette (what a clever pseudonym, I know), and, believe it or not, he was the first person recorded to have used the Tarot exclusively for divination and the occult. He even designed his own pack of Tarot cards specifically for this purpose, with all new Major Arcana (which did not catch on), and a system of divinatory meanings for the Minor Arcana (which did catch on). Prior to him, the cards were only documented in the annals of history as devices for gaming and gambling (although fortune-telling with regular playing cards was not uncommon in his day, so it’s not unthinkable that the Tarot may also have been casually used for this as well, even before Etteilla). Regardless of what future Tarot masters would eventually say about him,*** his work represents a pivotal moment in the history of Tarot.
Within the next century after Etteilla, there emerged a whirlwind of occult theories attempting to connect the Tarot to various esoteric doctrines such as Kabbalah, alchemy, and astrology (it was during this time that the erroneous “history” which remains popular to Tarot users today was first established by another Frenchman and contemporary of Etteilla named Court de Gebelin – there are some who claim he actually beat Etteilla to the punch with the idea of occult Tarot). Despite the fact that everyone seemed, all of the sudden, to agree that the Tarot must be the direct descendant of a great and secret magical tradition, no one could seem to agree on the correct way to associate the cards with this secret tradition.****
And so there was de Gebelin, there was Papus, there was Levi, and there was Wirth, among others; but it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the English Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn‘s occult system of Tarot correspondences – which remains to this day the most widely accepted system – was established. Founded by S.L.M. MacGregor Mathers (another pseudonym, by the way – and his isn’t the only in this paragraph), this secret order was home to both of the next two integral characters in our drama of the history of Tarot.
The first of these two characters is Arthur Edward Waite. In 1910, he, with the help of artist and fellow Golden Dawn-er Pamela Coleman Smith, published a new and revolutionary Tarot deck, called the Rider deck, after the British company which first published it. The Rider-Waite pack was revolutionary primarily because Smith did not use typical pips for her Minor Arcana, but rather illustrated every single one of these 56 cards with a scene depicting either her or Waite’s (it’s not clear which) interpretation of the divinatory meaning of each card. The Major Arcana were re-designed, as well, although for the most part, these are still reminiscent of their Marseille counterparts. This pack of cards is easily the most prevalent in North America today, if not the world, and I would go so far as to say that maybe seven or eight out of ten decks now available are nothing more than elaborately themed Rider packs.
The second of these two Golden Dawn characters is Aleister Crowley (his first name wasn’t really Aleister – something about the Tarot seems to inspire its students to take on false monikers…). Aleister Crowley is probably the most infamous occultist of the 20th century, dubbed “the wickedest man alive” by the media of his time.***** There are certainly reasons for this, but that should not get in the way of an honest appreciation for his version of the Tarot.
Mr. Crowley designed his cards with the help of painter Lady Frieda Harris during the 1940s, but they were not published until 1969, after both of their deaths. The artwork is stunning, and Crowley incorporated a dizzying amount of esoteric knowledge into his Tarot. Unlike Waite, who did his best to disguise the Golden Dawn’s secret symbolism in his cards, Crowley had no reservations about creating a blatantly occult pack. What is perhaps most notable about it, though, is that it deviated somewhat from the Golden Dawn’s theories to match Crowley’s own, and was designed with this in mind to be the harbinger of a new age of spiritual enlightenment for humanity. The Thoth Tarot, as Crowley called his deck, has since become one of the most popular Tarot decks ever created – truly a new deck for a new era.
Sometime during the 1970s, the Tarot began to experience a popular revival that continues strong to this day. A simple google search will reveal that there are now many, many variations of the cards out there. Virtually anybody can find a pack with a theme that suits his or her tastes, and the amount of sources now available on the Tarot is unprecedented. While there are some new original packs (and old ones, too – Waite certainly wasn’t the first to publish his own cards, only the most popular), the vast majority of these new decks are essentially just re-drawn Rider packs. A few variations of the Marseille and Thoth decks are also out there, but the Rider is definitely the most popular version of the Tarot to be re-fitted with new themes (almost undoubtedly because of the illustrated pips, which so many people take for granted without realizing that, historically speaking, are an anomaly). And, thanks to modern research, we no longer have to rely entirely on the speculations of 18th and 19th century occultists about the history of these cards.
In some ways, the actual story is less interesting than the fabricated one. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Tarot really was handed down through the generations by ancient Egyptian mystics? Personally, I enjoy the flavor this false history adds to the aura of the Tarot, because it illustrates the power these cards have over the imagination, but I am a firm believer in the importance of real, researched history. After all, the fact that we now know that the cards were originally created for gaming rather than magic or fortune-telling has done absolutely nothing to diminish its allure. Nor should it.
So there you have it: my brief overview of the history of the Tarot. I have tried to keep my digressions to a minimum, which is difficult for me with a post like this one. Obviously, I’ve been less than thorough (this is just the basics, after all), and have resorted to some broad generalizations to get the main points across; and I admit to focusing more on certain things rather than some other, equally interesting things, namely the three versions of the cards that represent the cornerstones of my personal collection. I have consciously chosen these three patterns – the Marseille, Rider, and Thoth – as the cornerstones for my collection, however, precisely because they represent what are generally considered to be the “classics” among the Tarot community, and so I think the extra attention is justified.
For those of you interested in professional and detailed treatments of Tarot history, you can find the books which influenced this post here.
History is all well and good, but what does it mean if you can’t use the cards?
*Actually, there are several misconceptions that I want to address in this post that I don’t think are as prevalent now as they seemed to have been 50 years or so ago, but a Tarot novice can still find these misconceptions presented more or less as fact in an astonishing number of sources. Many of these sources are still valuable for their interpretations of the cards, which is why I believe they are still circulating, but what passes for “history” in them is sometimes laughable.
**Which, by the way, were not called “Tarot” at the time. The word Tarot was first used in France as a name for the game played with the cards. Before then, the name depended on where the cards were – for example, Tarocchi in Italy. Now of course, at least in the English-speaking world, Tarot is the universal term used regardless of where or when the specific cards originated. The etymology of words like Tarot and Tarocchi remains obscure, although theories abound.
***Wirth, Waite, and Crowley would all come to deride Etteilla as a misguided goof (at best), and not one of them would admit the undeniable influence he had on the evolution of the Tarot. Etteilla’s presumptions about the Major Arcana notwithstanding, not a single one of these “Tarot masters” could be remembered as such without his preliminary contributions.
****Despite remarkable (and I mean remarkable) coincidences, there is no actual evidence whatsoever that the Tarot is the result of anything other than the natural evolution of a Renaissance-era card game that just happened to catch on. But it can be argued that “coincidence” is only another term for what Jung dubbed “synchronicity”, a concept that is essential to the current understanding of the Tarot as a tool for divination and spiritual development. All’s well that ends well, right?
*****Yes, Mr. Crowley was in many ways an appalling character. However, it should be noted that for all his “wickedness”, he did put his occult energies to use during WWII antagonizing Hitler (who also reportedly believed in the occult). Whether his efforts were actually effective or not is irrelevant. The dude rooted against the Nazis, and that’s gotta count for something.
I recently wrote quite a bit on the Hermit, which is one of my favorite cards in the Tarot. There are of course many cards that also hold my fancy, but in fact only one other card rivals the Hermit as my true favorite. Overall, however, this card is conspicuously absent from my writing, especially in comparison to the amount of attention I tend to pay his elderly compatriot. Beginning with this post, I hope to rectify this glaring omission.
I almost always refer to the first numbered card of the Major Arcana as the “Magician” without so much as a second thought. I suspect most Tarot-ers whose study or practice is rooted in the RWS do the same. There is certainly nothing wrong with this, but before I begin to delve into studying this card in any depth, I want to address the fact that the esteemed Magician is not his original title at all; he was formerly a lowly street performer, most often called simply the “Juggler”.
Why a street juggler would hold the first spot in the incredible sequence of the Major Arcana is a conundrum faced by many Tarot masters, including Oswald Wirth and the anonymous composer of the spiritual Meditations on the Tarot. Personally, I believe that the Tarot begins as it does because the first card happens to be akin to the thesis of an essay – it should concisely present the purpose of the subsequent body of work. Based on the nature of the Tarot, the Juggler is ideal for this position for two reasons. First, because the Tarot is ultimately a pack of cards intended for gaming, and more specifically, gambling. No matter what these cards eventually evolved to represent, there is little doubt that, during the time the Magician was only a Juggler, they were simple playing cards. And so it is fitting that a street performer, a mere entertainer who is not above stealing from you while your attention is diverted, would preface the pack.
The second reason is in the details of the card: on the Juggler’s table are laid out various items that are in fact the symbols of the suits of the Minor Arcana. In other words, the Juggler symbolically represents the entire Tarot on a single card.
In contrast to the Hermit, who has managed to remain more or less consistent over the years, the Juggler changed quite significantly when he was initiated into the occult sciences and dubbed the Magician. This transition is analogous to the change of the Tarot from a game to a conduit for esoteric knowledge, and it is therefore fitting that the first card should also change.
Now, instead of a dubious street juggler, we see (at least in the RWS) a man garbed in ceremonial magician’s robes. He retains the four suit symbols on a table, but now, rather than play sleight of hand tricks with them, he uses them as implements of serious elemental magic.
The change from Juggler to Magician does make sense considering the evolution of the Tarot’s uses. But was it really necessary? Are the Juggler and the Magician mutually exclusive? I think not; they remain the same fellow, just in different dress for different occasion.
I happen to like the Juggler and all that he implies. He is the Trickster archetype of myth, and he is humble compared to the Magician, which I like. He may operate in the gray areas of morality, but who’s to say the Magician doesn’t, as well? At least the Juggler doesn’t make pretenses about his ambiguous ethics. He’s almost honest in his dishonesty.
But that’s not to say I dislike the Magician; in fact, the contrary is true. He is not a con artist, but a man with genuine power. There’s a supernatural quality to him – he is a wizard, simply put, and he demands respect in a way a juggler never can.
I like to imagine that the Juggler is just how the Magician looks to those who think magic and such things are not real. Perhaps it is how the Magician publicly presents himself. How better to subtly exercise magic in broad daylight for a profit than to perform on the streets? Who would ever suspect him of being an adept initiated into the secrets of the elements? Yes, I believe that the Juggler was the Magician all along, and it just took us mere mortals a few centuries to pick up on it and adjust our cards accordingly.
Read Part IX, on the Hermit’s common divinatory meanings, his connection with Quintessence, and his place within the greater context of the Major Arcana, here.
I finished my last post rather abruptly when I realized after more than 2,000 words that I still had some points to make. The purpose of this post, as I’d intended to fulfill by the close of the previous one, is to return to examine the Rider-Waite-Smith Hermit in light of all I have learned.
I think the thing that strikes me the most about the RWS card, despite all the symbolism and secret wisdom that I’ve been trying to unravel, is its simplicity. It is a simple picture of a simple man, and yet somehow, this only adds to all the mystique. It seems to beckon: no matter how much you think you know about me, I’ll always be hiding secrets.
Waite provided divinatory meanings for his Hermit that are much like those for any other version of this card; there is one notable deviation, however, when he adds “treason, corruption, dissimulation, and roguery”* after the typical stuff about seclusion and introspection. It’s probable that Waite drew from Etteilla for this odd interpretation. Etteilla’s deck has no card by the name of the Hermit, but it does have a card which pictures a Hermit-like figure, complete with lantern, cloak, and cane, titled “False Devotee” or “Traitor”. This character is clearly a monk, and he is pictured as he leaves his monastery, chased by a dog. He is an apostate.
Until now, I have by and large assumed a positive stance while studying the Hermit. I believe most people would agree that this card of wisdom is a positive card. But like every other Tarot card, there is a negative side, and I think Waite’s mention of roguery and such begins to scratch that surface. I am reminded again of Diogenes, who was as anti-social as they come, spreading a message of cynicism and being all around a poster-boy of counter-culture. I’m sure the keepers of the peace in his day were so fond of him. Not that the Hermit isn’t a peaceful character, because he is, but he marches to the beat of his own drum, and he encourages others to do the same, much to the chagrin of the Powers That Be. As much as I encourage individuality, it is undeniably true that society would not stand if the Hermit had his way. Not only that, but the Hermit shuns his fellow man. He is a loner, and in a sense, has betrayed his kind by opting out of participating in their system. Individuals always benefit from the lessons of the Hermit, but they cannot be applied to humanity as a whole. We would descend into anarchy. And if the world was burning, the Hermit would just hide behind closed doors. The suffering of mankind is not his concern. Few cards in the Major Arcana are as selfish as the Hermit.
It is fitting that the Hermit should be selfish. I spent a great deal of time discussing his place in the process of the development of the Self in the last post. The Hermit marks the moment of the discovery of the Self, the final piece of the puzzle of the ego, just before it’s all dismantled once again. And the very definition of a hermit means to be alone, with no one but your self. In spite of the selfless nature of his “enlightenment”, the Hermit as a person is incredibly selfish. He understands that all is one, and yet he chooses to live life separate from all others.
And of course, I’ve already written about the DMT Hermit. This is a great example of the negative sides of Hermit-dom, as well. This Hermit seems to have literally driven himself insane from lack of human contact. The truth is, we are not meant to be lonely beings. We need the contact of others to live fulfilling lives, and we need the influence of others to shape ourselves. If we leave that to only ourselves, we lose sight of what it really means to be human. And think about it. No real-life hermit is ever taken very seriously. They are just crazy shut-ins to most people.
In other words, there are risks attached to the Hermit. He is neither accepted nor respected by society, and he is liable to all the drawbacks of exile and pure loneliness. Not exactly an appealing lifestyle to most.
But even Waite, with all his talk of treason and the like, seems to think of this card in largely positive terms. He says that, above all else, this card is one of “attainment”.** While the traitor aspect embraces the negative side of the discovery of Self, the attainment aspect embraces the positive. After all, no matter what society deems, individuality is generally considered in good terms. We humans seem to be driven by conflicting needs both to be accepted and to be unique, and the Hermit represents giving up the former in order to follow the path of the latter. And to truly “know thyself” is no easy task, and is a respectable quality in anyone who has achieved such a thing.
This is what I think Waite was referring to when he said “attainment”. The Hermit has climbed to spiritual and intellectual heights, and his lantern serves as a beacon for those few who wish to follow him. This is the Hermit as sage, as the mentor in the Hero’s Journey. It might not be prudent for us mere mortals to fully submerge ourselves into the life of the Hermit, but the archetype nonetheless embodies qualities that, when embraced in moderation, lead to a better, more spiritually fulfilling existence. For the layperson, that’s what the Hermit is really all about: guidance and advice, before moving on to grander things. I mean, for all his potentially negative qualities, the Hermit is enlightened. He is master of himself, and as I’ve said before, to be a master of yourself is to be a master of the Universe. In this way, the Hermit is indeed a wizard. He has valuable lessons to impart on the wise who listen.
If I had to sum up everything I’ve written thus far, I’d say this: the Hermit represents the paradox of enlightened existence; the defining of the self as separate from the world; the realization that separateness is an illusion. Everything else – the different lanterns, wands, cloaks, etc. – are just details. And yet, there is importance in the details, and they should not be overlooked. Keep the lantern shining bright, follow its glow, and take in all of the small things the world has to show you.
And of all the advice the Hermit has to give, I’d say this is most important: Listen, rather than speak. The world would be a better place if more people did that.
On that note, I think it’s finally time I drew this series to a close. I’ve said all I can think to say about my favorite Tarot card, the Hermit.
At least for now.
*Waite’s Pictorial Key, p. 197.
**Waite details his Hermit on pages 8-9 and 52 of the same book. I find issue with some of the things he says, but that’s not important for this post.