The Magician, Part V: The Magus.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


What does all this stuff mean?

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


A Perpetual Calendar.

The Book of Days is a hard-bound calendar that I picked up recently. It’s very nice, with thick pages that withstand lots of ink, and it’s decorated with full-color and captioned images from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. This book is different than your average one-and-done calendar in another way, too: the days of each month are numbered, but are not assigned a weekday. This means that this particular calendar is not meant for a single year, but rather to keep track of yearly events regardless of what year it actually is. It’s marketed as a perpetual calendar to keep track of all the birthdays, anniversaries, and various other momentous occasions that take place from year to year, but I don’t care about any of that. I got it because I had in mind a better use for it: the Tarot.


I was looking for something like this to replace the crummy old datebook in which I’d previously recorded the suggested dates for each Wildwood Tarot card (if you’re unfamiliar with the Wheel of the Year and how the Wildwood relates, you can check out my post about it here). Using green ink, I went through each page of the calendar and wrote down each card from the WWT on its respective date.

It occurred to me partway through this endeavor that I have at least one other deck with cards that can correspond with dates on a calendar: the Thoth Tarot. Using the astrological attributions for the court and small cards given in DuQuette’s book Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot (which is far more user-friendly than Crowley’s own book and includes handy charts with exactly the information I needed for this project), I sat down and wrote the cards into their respective dates alongside the Wildwood (using black ink this time to more easily differentiate between the two in my calendar). I’ve yet to tackle the issue of the Major Arcana, although I plan on working through them shortly.

The result is now I have a perpetual Tarot calendar, simultaneously keeping track of the Earthly Wheel of the Year and the Heavenly Wheel of the Zodiac, and there’s still plenty of room left over should I find another Tarot that can similarly relate to a calendar.

Now it’s a simple matter for me to look up the date and find the cards of the day. It’s a fantastic way to get to know my cards on a more intimate level, or to focus my thoughts for each day. With the Wildwood, I’ve experienced great spiritual insight already by using it like a calendar, albeit sporadically, and this will only better facilitate that. I’m interested to begin to use the Thoth in this fashion, as well. And I haven’t tried this yet, but I think it would be interesting to draw a card from a third deck at random (a daily draw) and see how it relates to the WWT and the CHT cards of its day.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share this on here in case anyone else found the idea of a Tarot calendar interesting. Fair warning, though: it’s meticulous work, and it can be somewhat tedious flipping through pages and writing down each card on its date. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing, because it’s very easy to screw up. Trust me, I know from experience.

I found masking tape to be an adequate solution for my blunders. There’s enough showing through to remind the jackass writing to PAY ATTENTION to what he’s doing in the future.


The Basics: History of the Tarot.

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.

French, Italian, and German suit symbols. I’ve chosen Diamonds as equivalent to Wands based on Huson’s book, but the argument can be made that Clubs work here as well.


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.

Mr. Crowley’s Thoth Tarot

This is a cool deck. Whether you like Mr. Crowley or not, it’s tough to deny the power of his Thoth Tarot (CHT – for Crowley-Harris-Thoth). The art (courtesy of Lady Frieda Harris) is, simply put, amazing. More than any other deck I own, this Tarot brings to light the subconscious machinations of the psyche, with a style that is striking in its use of color and abstraction.

An example of the Major Arcana, a court card, and a small card from the CHT

Of course, when I say “bring to light”, it should be understood that this version of the Tarot isn’t exactly forthcoming with its secrets. The systems underlying this artwork are a testament to the dizzying mental capacity of its creator. There are levels upon levels (upon levels upon levels) of depth to these cards. I couldn’t even begin to delve into the myriad of symbols and correspondences without getting absolutely lost down the rabbit hole. I’ll keep this post on the short side (I won’t lie – there is a substantial amount of this Tarot deck that I still do not understand). All that being said, however, this is still a Tarot deck at its core, and it can be used like any other, though there are some who would balk at such a suggestion (Crowley included).

The Aeon – CHT

There is one significant change in the fundamental system from that of more traditional decks that I think it worth the time to point out. This is illustrated in Major Arcana key number 20, which in most Tarot decks is called Judgement. The rest of the CHT is familiar, although the artwork has of course been reworked in Harris’s distinct style to accommodate Crowley’s ideas, and there is an occasional title change. But the card which is normally Judgement has been totally redesigned, and the title changed to “the Aeon”. This is because Crowley believed that humanity progressed by ages of approximately 2,000 years in duration. According to him, each age is characterized by a certain theme, which is reflected in the religious myths from each era. First came the age of the Mother, during which people did not fully understand the miracle of birth, and believed it was the result of only the mother. This was when mankind worshiped the great Mother Earth above all else, from whose womb all life sprang. Crowley, who was particularly fond of Egyptian mythology, called this the Aeon of Isis.

Next came the age of the Father, also called the age of the Dying God. By this time, humanity realized that the father also played a role in creating offspring. Now the focus of worship shifted from the Mother Earth to the Father Sun, whose rays of light and heat were needed in order for the Earth to produce life. But the Sun was not constant like the Earth. It went away every night, and it’s power diminished every winter. This was a source of great anxiety to ancient people, who considered it a miracle that the Sun would return at the end of its daily and yearly cycles. Their myths told stories of the god who would die and descend into the Underworld, eventually to be miraculously resurrected. Crowley called this the Aeon of Osiris, and this was the aeon during which he (and of course, countless other people over about 2,000 years) lived. Like the Aeon of Isis before it, the religious traditions of the Aeon of Osiris lasted much longer than the amount of time it took people to understand the science behind what they observed.

Signal for the End of an Age – RWS

But Crowley believed that the Aeon of Osiris was coming to a close, and that humanity was/is on the verge of a new age. He called this the age of the Child, when mankind will collectively experience a shift in consciousness towards enlightenment (meaning, rather than feeling that we are at the mercy of the whims of Earth or Sun (or deities that represent them), we will realize that our souls are eternal despite superficial change, and our potential is infinite). This is the Aeon of Horus, and it is the birth* of this new age that is pictured on Crowley’s Aeon card. The typical Judgement card depicts the end of days for the Aeon of the Dying God, using Christian imagery. It was Crowley’s belief that a new vision was required for his deck to ring in the new age. The entire CHT is subtly affected by this new perspective on the Tarot.


Personally, I question some of the specifics of Crowley’s theories,** but on the whole, I do believe he was correct in suggesting it is time for the dawn of a new era of consciousness for humanity. His treatment of mythic cycles is interesting to say the least, and perhaps there is something to it (I will be exploring the myth of the Dying God in a future post).

Knowing about the new aeon is just scratching the surface, and the best way to learn more about this deck is by reading either Crowley’s own book on it, or the far more accessible book by DuQuette. I don’t wish to get any further into the depths of these cards here, at least for now. The artwork is very crowded, and each detail is significant (every time I look at them, I discover something new – and that’s not an exaggeration). Each card is connected to the others, and the deck itself is a web of intricacy, weaving together alchemy, astrology, the Kabbalah, and various esoteric and mythological systems that span the globe. To begin to further explore that here would be futile. I strongly recommend this deck, but not for the faint of heart.


*Unfortunately for us, he also predicted that about 500 years of dark ages would first have to be endured before we enter the full swing of the enlightened Aeon of Horus. Given the nature of current events, I fear he may have been correct.

**Sometimes I read Crowley’s work, or about Crowley’s work, and am tempted to be totally convinced by everything he says. But I would be a slave to the convictions of others if I didn’t have the capacity for critical thinking. Nobody is ever 100% right about anything, no matter how great their rhetorical skill (in fact, history suggests that the greatest rhetoricians are the ones to be most wary of).