The geocentric order of the planets

And now for something completely different . . .

In the geocentric Ptolemaic model, the planets occupy concentric spheres around the Earth. The order, from nearest-Earth to farthest-from-Earth, is as follows:

  1. Moon
  2. Mercury
  3. Venus
  4. Sun
  5. Mars
  6. Jupiter
  7. Saturn

This is obviously very similar to the heliocentric Copernican order. In fact the only difference is that the Sun and Moon have switched places. (If the Moon is modeled as orbiting the Sun, its basic orbit, or “deferent” in Ptolemaic terms, would be the same as the Earth’s, with an Ptolemaic-style “epicycle” added to model its motion around the Earth. At any rate, its Copernican location is between Venus and Mars.)

My first thought was that this made perfect sense: the Sun and the Earth swap places, and everything else stays the same. But then I immediately realized that it didn’t actually make any sense at all. The superior planets (Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) are no problem. But by what logic does the Ptolemaic order Earth-Mercury-Venus-Sun correspond to the Copernican Sun-Mercury-Venus-Earth? To try to figure this out, I made this simplified model of the Sun and the first three (Copernican) planets.


To make the math simpler, the model has circular rather than elliptical orbits, and the orbits are regularly spaced in terms of distance from the Sun.

An arbitrary point on Earth’s orbit, marked E, is selected as a point of reference. In the model, the distance from the Earth to the Sun (S) is always precisely 3 units (a “unit” being the distance indicated by the grid squares, corresponding to one-third of an AU). How far, on average, is Venus from the Earth on this model? Closer than the Sun, or farther? To ask this is to ask the average distance from E of all the (infinitely many) points constituting the circle of Venus’s orbit. Since I lack the mathematical ability to make such a calculation (I never took calculus, which I assume is what is called for), I selected eight easily-calculable and hopefully-representative points on each orbit.

The simplest calculation is to look at two points only: the point on Venus’s orbit which is closest to E (namely, V1), and the one farthest from E (V5). Trivially, the distance from V1 to E is 1 unit, and that from V5 to E is 5 units — for an average of 3, exactly the same distance as the Sun. Doing the same calculation for Mercury yields the same result. Based on this simplest of calculations, Venus, Mercury, and the Sun are all, on average, equidistant from the Earth.

Although counterintuitive in some ways, that result makes a sort of sense. After all, if you averaged the coordinates of every point on a circle, wouldn’t the result be the coordinates of its center? And doesn’t that mean that the average position of each planet is simply the position of the Sun, and that its average distance from the Earth is therefore the same as the Sun’s?

But a little reflection shows that that can’t possibly be right. After all, the orbit of a hypothetical planet 10,000 units from the sun is also (in this model) a circle with the Sun at its center, but its average distance from the Earth can’t possibly be 3 units. Nor, in fact, does the two-point calculation suggest that it would be. If “Mars” is added to the model, at a distance of 4 units from the Sun, its average distance from the Earth would be 4 units, not 3. Two-point calculations tell us that for any two planets, A and B, such that A is closer to the Sun, the average distance between A and B is equal to the distance between B and the Sun. Can that be right?

Instead of looking at only two points on each orbit, what if we looked at four? Basic math (the Pythagorean theorem) tells us that both V3 and V7 are √13 units from the Sun, while the corresponding figure for M3 and M7 is √10 units. Averaging the four points for each planet gives us an average distance of 3.3028 units for Venus and 3.0811 units for Mercury. If we look at all eight of the points marked on each orbit, it yields an average distance of 3.3414 units for Venus and 3.0839 units for Mercury.


In other words, as the number of points included in the sample increases, the average distance-from-Earth figures for Mercury and Venus diverge from one another and from the Sun’s. This suggests that if we were to calculate the average distance-from-Earth of all the points on each orbit, we would find that Mercury is (on average) farther from the Earth than the Sun is, and that Venus is farther still. I still can’t understand intuitively why that should be the case, but it seems to be what the math indicates.


Why, you are asking, did I not save myself some trouble and just look up the average distance of each planet from the Earth? Actually, I tried that, but all I could find was garbage produced by someone even less mathematically gifted than myself! This page, from the authoritative-sounding site and promisingly titled “Distances Between the Planets of the Solar System,” says that Mercury and Venus average 0.61 and 0.28 AU from the Earth, respectively. The Sun of course averages 1 AU, so these numbers completely contradict mine, saying that Venus is closer than Mercury, and Mercury is closer than the Sun. In fact, it even says Mars is closer than the Sun, which is obviously ridiculous!

It turns out that whoever made the site calculated the numbers this way: Earth averages 1 AU from the Sun, and Mercury averages 0.39. Therefore, the average distance between the Earth and Mercury is 1 – 0.39 = 0.61 AU! This is such obvious hogwash that I wonder how someone who thinks that way had the chutzpah to set up an astronomical reference site. Applying the same logic to my simplified model, Mercury is 1 unit from the Sun and the Earth is 3, so Mercury should average 2 units from Earth. Looking at the diagram, you can see that 2 units is the distance between E and M1 — and M1 represents Mercury’s closest approach to Earth, not its average distance.


Anyway, I’m no closer than before to understanding why the Ptolemaic spheres are arranged as they are. Based on my rough-and-ready math, the “correct” geocentric order of the planets should be

  1. Moon
  2. Sun
  3. Mercury
  4. Venus
  5. Mars
  6. Jupiter
  7. Saturn

with many of the “spheres” overlapping rather more than not. I’m still trying to figure out what observations led to the actual Ptolemaic model, with its bizarre Mercury-Venus-Sun order.



After thinking about it a bit more, I now understand the mathematical results I got. In the diagram below, the red arc consists of points that are exactly 3 units away from E (i.e., the same distance as S).


For any given orbit, such as Mercury’s or Venus’s, the portion “north” of the red arc is closer to the Earth than the Sun is, and the portion “south” of the arc is farther. If the planets and Sun were all on average equidistant from the Earth, the red arc would be a horizontal line. Because it is in fact an arc, not a horizontal line, the “northern” part of each orbit is smaller than the “southern” and the difference increases as the orbit increases in distance from the Sun. (If I had been a bit quicker on the uptake, I would have drawn this arc to start with instead of making all those calculations!)

I am now absolutely certain that no planet orbiting the Sun is, on average, closer to the Earth than the Sun itself is, and that the Ptolemaic placing of the Sun in the fourth sphere is simply wrong, even by geocentric standards. The question remains as to why such an extreme error was made and what data it was based on.



Synchronicity alert!

The day after posting this, while in middle of composing a follow-up post also about the “correct” arrangement of the Ptolemaic spheres, I took a break from writing to prepare for an English class I teach. I was using a textbook I had never taught from before, intended to prepare students for a standardized English test administered by the Taiwanese government. For one part of the test, they have to look at a picture, listen to a recorded question and several possible answers, and choose the correct answer based on the picture. The book included this picture as part of a practice exercise for this part of the test.


And here’s the transcript of the audio that goes with the picture.


That’s right. It shows students using calculators to make calculations regarding the orbits of planets, which is precisely what I did in preparing this post. The correct answer for Question 15 is “They are doing calculations.”

Question 14 is poorly designed. Are they learning “physics” or “natural science,” and in any case isn’t the former a subset of the latter? “Ancient history” is clearly not the right answer — but it would be if they were learning geocentric Ptolemaic astronomy!

The Travail of Passion — and oranges


Agony in the Garden, attributed to Lo Spagna, one of the few paintings on this subject to show “the flowers by Kidron stream” — including, I believe, lilies and roses

Thinking about the roses and lilies on the Magician card in the Rider-Waite Tarot deck brought Yeats’s poem The Travail of Passion to my attention. It’s short and easily memorized, and for several days I kept repeating it in my mind and brooding over it.

When the flaming lute-thronged angelic door is wide;
When an immortal passion breathes in mortal clay;
Our hearts endure the scourge, the plaited thorns, the way
Crowded with bitter faces, the wounds in palm and side,
The hyssop-heavy sponge, the flowers by Kidron stream:
We will bend down and loosen our hair over you,
That it may drop faint perfume, and be heavy with dew,
Lilies of death-pale hope, roses of passionate dream.

Besides the lilies and roses that brought it to mind, the poem also features the sponge that was raised to Christ’s lips on the cross — a sponge which I recently had reason to consider in this post because of its relation to the Visconti-Sforza version of the Magician card. This seemed like a potentially significant synchronicity.

Since the bulk of the Yeats poem is about being willing to suffer in precisely the same way that Christ did, it brought to mind a half-remembered fragment of scripture: “… if it so be that ye suffer with him, that ye may be also glorified together.” I couldn’t remember where that passage was from, not even whether it was from the Bible proper (and therefore accessible to Yeats) or from the Mormon scriptures. I half-suspected the latter because the mention of suffering with Christ didn’t sound like orthodox Christianity to me. Isn’t the idea that he suffered in our place, so that we would not have to? (I turned out to be wrong about that. The passage in question is from St. Paul, whereas “I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent” is Joseph Smith.) At any rate, I made a mental note to look it up later.

Later, having not yet gotten around to looking up the passage mentioned, I was reading Valentin Tomberg’s letter on the Star in Meditations on the Tarot and found the following.

The ancients drew hope for life and death in the mysteries of the Mother. I have in mind not only the mysteries of Eleusis but also a number of others, including those of Isis in Egypt. But one finds the essence of all these mysteries of the Mother expressed in the Epistle to the Romans of the apostle Paul:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility — not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it — in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been suffering the pangs of child-birth until now . . . (Romans viii, 19-23)

Paul was quoted in an unfamiliar translation, but my immediate thought was that the King James probably used the word “travail” — the same word used by Yeats in the title of his poem. I looked up the reference given and found that this was indeed the case. (“For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.”)

Looking up that passage reminded me that there was another passage of scripture I had been meaning to look up — the one about suffering with Christ and being glorified with him — so I did so. I was shocked to find that it was from Romans 8:17 — just two verses before the passage quoted by Tomberg!

The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:

And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.

For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,

Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now (Romans 8:16-22).

I think we can assume Yeats had this passage from Romans in mind when he wrote his poem.


As mentioned above, I had been repeating Yeats’s poem again and again in my mind, and I soon found that a very bizarre error kept occurring as I did so. Time and again I would come to the last line — featuring the lilies and roses which first drew the poem to my attention in the first place — only to find myself mentally reciting “oranges” in place of one or the other of those flowers, the most common error being to begin the line with “Oranges of passionate hope.” The error made no sense at all, which piqued my curiosity. I examined the poem closely, in search of anything that might have primed my mind to think of oranges of all things. While I was doing this, this came to my mind unbidden: “Oh, won’t you buy my something something oranges, my something oranges . . .” (not a partial memory; I actually remembered the words “something something”) — lines which I recognized as coming from a P. G. Wodehouse story I had read once or twice, most recently about six months ago. The next phrase to be dredged up by associative memory was “pips and mildew,” and I knew I had my culprit. A quick Google search turned up the following passage from Wodehouse’s “The Metropolitan Touch.”

I take it you know that Orange number at the Palace? It goes—

Oh, won’t you something something oranges,
My something oranges,
My something oranges;
Oh, won’t you something something something I forget,
Something something something tumty tumty yet:

or words to that effect. It’s a dashed clever lyric, and the tune’s good, too; but the thing that made the number was the business where the girls take oranges out of their baskets, you know, and toss them lightly to the audience. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, but it always seems to tickle an audience to bits when they get things thrown at them from the stage. Every time I’ve been to the Palace the customers have simply gone wild over this number. But at the Palace, of course, the oranges are made of yellow wool and the girls don’t so much chuck them as drop them limply into the first and second rows. I began to gather that the business was going to be treated rather differently to-night, when a dashed great chunk of pips and mildew sailed past my ear and burst on the wall behind me. Another landed with a squelch on the neck of one of the Nibs in the third row. And then a third took me right on the tip of the nose, and I kind of lost interest in the proceedings for awhile.

This episode was, I believe, evoked by the penultimate line of The Travail of Passion: “That it may drop faint perfume, and be heavy with dew.” Faint and limp are semantic cousins, dew suggests mildew, and the whole point of the Wodehouse episode is that the the oranges being tossed are unexpectedly heavy (the nefarious Steggles having replaced the wool oranges with real ones).

It seems incredible that the high poesy of Yeats should have subconsciously called up, on the strength of some trifling similarities in wording, a completely unrelated slapstick scene from a Jeeves and Wooster story, and that the latter should then have insinuated its irrelevant oranges into the poem — but that nevertheless appears to be what happened. Mysterious indeed are the ways of the mind!

And dare I interpret this whole orange thing as meaningful? Dare I say that, skimming poems for references to lilies and roses, I had expected to be lightly tossed a bit of diverting fluff and had instead been unexpectedly smacked in the face with the genuine article? “A dashed great chunk of pips and mildew” — a bit old and musty, but no less full of seeds for that. “The sower soweth the word,” indeed!

The Magician: preliminary thoughts

As the first Tarot trump (a position he invariably holds in all known historical orderings of the trumps), the Magician serves as our introduction to the whole series of 21 trumps (or 22, if the Fool is counted). And, at least in English, his name implies that he represents the key to the whole system, insofar as the Tarot is conceived as having something to do with magic. Any interpretation of the Tarot as a whole must begin by coming to terms with this rather slippery character.

Matters are complicated by the fact that “the” Magician card is actually a family of more-or-less related images appearing in the various versions of the Tarot, but the three specimens below — the Three Magi, shall we call them? — cover the main currents of the tradition. Since they represent the Italian, French, and English schools of the Tarot, respectively, it will be convenient to refer to each by the title given him in his native country: the Bagatto, the Bateleur, and the Magician.


From left to right: Il Bagatto, Visconti-Sforza deck (Italy, 15th century, oldest surviving Tarot); Le Bateleur, Tarot de Marseille (France, 17th century, “classic” Tarot); and The Magician, Rider-Waite deck (England, 20th century, extremely popular)

Looking at these three images, several common threads are immediately obvious:

  • a young man, colorfully dressed (in red or motley), with a more-or-less lemniscate-shaped hat or halo, holding a rod or wand
  • a rectangular table set with an assortment of items, among which are invariably included a yellow cup, a knife or sword, and a circular yellow object or two
  • the presence of some sort of vegetation (unless, in the Bagatto’s case, it’s only a green floor)

Despite these surface similarities, a closer look reveals that these three cards represent three entirely different conceptions of who the central figure is and what he is doing. Let us examine each in turn.


Il Bagatto

The first thing one notices about the Bagatto is the strange way he is holding his magic wand, almost as if it were a pen — and in fact, closer inspection reveals that that is exactly what it is: something along the lines of an Egyptian reed pen, but rather longer than was customary, and with nibs at both ends. In his excellent and well-researched post The First Tarot Magician, Dr. Michael Pearce argues that all the items on the Bagatto’s table are tools for writing. The knife is a pen knife, for cutting nibs; the cup is for ink, as are the small yellow objects (“seashells or little cups for ink”). As for the strange white object under the Bagatto’s right hand, Dr. Pearce identifies it conclusively as a sea sponge, used by writers of the period for cleaning pens and erasing. It may not look much like a sponge, but Bonifacio Bembo, the artist who painted this deck, also did some pictures of grail knights retrieving holy relics, among which was the sponge with which Jesus was given vinegar to drink on the cross, and the sponge in those pictures looks exactly like the Bagatto’s white object.


Detail of an illustration from a 15th century Decameron, lifted from Dr. Pearce’s post

As further proof of the identity of the Bagatto’s objects, Dr. Pearce compares the card to a roughly contemporaneous picture by another artist depicting a writer, also with his pen, knife, ink pot, and sponge. He also identifies the Bagatto’s clothing as that typical of Italian scholars of the 15th century, and particularly of graduates of the University of Bologna. I find Dr. Pearce’s interpretation of the Bagatto card completely convincing. We are clearly looking at a writer or scholar, not a prestidigitator or a ceremonial magician. (This explains, incidentally, why the Bagatto, unlike his French and English cousins, is seated.)

Identifying the Bagatto as a writer is a necessary first step to understanding the card, but several unanswered questions remain — the most obvious being, why hasn’t he got anything to write on? The writer depicted in the Decameron illustration above has a pen, a knife, an inkwell, a sponge, and a book — but you will search the Bagatto card in vain for the tiniest scrap of paper, parchment, vellum or anything of the kind. That’s a pretty big omission, and there must be a reason for it. After all, if the Bagatto had been depicted holding his pen over a book, or at least a piece of paper, it wouldn’t have taken a trained art historian to figure out that the guy is supposed to be a writer! (Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, the conspicuously absent book does show up in the next trump, in the hands of the Papessa, or High Priestess.) Despite the lack of paper, the Bagatto is holding his pen as if in the act of writing and is reaching for his sponge. Is he writing on the table itself? But there are no marks on the table. Come to think of it, there’s no ink visible, either — not on the pen, despite the clearly visible nibs, nor in any of the three items identified as inkwells.

The pen itself is pretty strange, too. Why is it so long (at least three times the length of a normal reed pen), and why does it have nibs at both ends? Is the idea that as he writes on the table he is simultaneously (and equally invisibly) writing in the air? As above, so below? Actually, that makes for a pretty handy symbol of magic. And is there a reason he is depicted with a reed pen rather than the more common and more readily identifiable quill pen? Dr. Pearce’s detective work regarding the sponge reminds me that it was on the end of a reed — and surely one longer than an ordinary pen — that the sponge was lifted to the lips of the Crucified (Mark 15:36, Matt. 27:48); could any such allusion be intended here? It may also be significant that the ancient Egyptians used reed pens, and that Thoth (both the inventor of writing and the patron of magic) is often depicted using one. The tradition that the Tarot is in some sense the “book of Thoth” is well known.

Finally, are those two little yellow things really receptacles for ink? Isn’t one inkwell enough? Isn’t it almost irresistible to identify them instead as coins? One needn’t be as explicit about it as Waite (who, with his characteristic subtlety, went ahead and transformed the pen knife into a honking big sword), but isn’t it hard to avoid seeing the four Tarot suits echoed in the Bagatto’s paraphernalia? It is traditional to interpret the suits of wands, cups, and swords, as representing will, emotion, and intellect, respectively — and considering the Bagatto’s tools in that light yields apparently meaningful mappings: the pen of will, the ink of emotion, and the pen knife of intellect. Where the coins fit into the picture is not clear, but there might not even be any coins in the picture after all. At any rate, three of the four suits are very clearly alluded to.

So, to sum up, the Bagatto represents the magician in his aspect as scholar or writer. Think of thrice-great Thoth inventing his hieroglyphics, John Dee writing his Monas Hieroglyphica, a Taoist magician writing out spells on paper (to be burned, and the ashes mixed with water and drunk), or the post-Renaissance image of the magician as a learned porer-over of dusty tomes. Or perhaps that last example should be scratched from the list; it is the passive, reflective book-clutching Papessa of the second trump who is the reader, whereas our Bagatto is essentially an active, creative writer.


Le Bateleur

The Bateleur clearly seems to have evolved from a Bagatto-style image. His headgear is roughly similar, though the rest of his outfit could certainly no longer be mistaken for the garb of a scholar. The assortment of objects on his table also appears to be based on the Bagatto’s tools, though their original character as writing instruments has been forgotten. The sponge has disappeared (or perhaps morphed into a bag), but everything else is still there. The knife and the yellow cup particularly stand out as being virtually identical to the Bagatto’s. The knife has acquired a sheath, there is now a second cup, and the number of indistinct roundish objects has multiplied considerably. The only really new additions are the bag and a pair of dice.

Dice — and I owe this insight to John Opsopaus, creator of the “Pythagorean Tarot” — very likely have something to do with why the Tarot deck has the precise number of cards it does. Rolling two dice yields one of 21 possible combinations of numbers, and when three are rolled the number of possibilities is 56. That the Tarot is made up of 21 trumps and 56 suit cards (plus the unnumbered joker-card of the Fool), and that the first trump features a pair of dice among the Bataleur’s suit-symbols, can’t be a coincidence.

Or, rather, it can be a coincidence, but by even thinking and writing about the Tarot we’ve sort of agreed to take the coincidental — better to say the unplanned — seriously. Whether or not the cards of the Tarot deck ever represented particular rolls of the dice, the Tarot’s very character as a deck of cards — designed to be shuffled for “random” selection and combination — implies that chance and serendipity were meant to play a role in its use. More than that, the individual pictures themselves owe quite a bit to serendipity. After all, Le Bateleur is, to every appearance, simply a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation — a corruption — of Il Bagatto. The Italian cards are much older, and while everything on the Bagatto’s table (with the possible exception of the two little yellow things) makes sense in its context, the same cannot be said of the Bateleur. For example, is a pen knife one of the items you would naturally include on a street magician’s table? It’s there because it was there on the Italian card, and it was copied by someone who didn’t understand what it meant. Not every version of Le Bateleur includes dice, either. Grimaud’s deck has two dice, for example, and Noblet’s has three; but Conver’s and Dodal’s just have two more indistinct roundish things. Their transformation into dice, like the interpretation of the card as a whole as depicting a street magician, was likely a mistake pure and simple. Something similar is probably true of nearly every card in the deck. Much ink has been spilled, for example, about the meaning of the enigmatic image on the Temperance card, with its stream of liquid flowing from one cup to another, but it was originally just someone pouring water into wine to dilute it, demonstrating the virtue of temperance in the prosaic sense of “not drinking too much.” The Hermit card, evocative as it is, was just a standard-issue allegory of Time before someone mistook the hourglass for a lantern. Even the four suits are very likely descended from Chinese money-suited cards (coins, wands, and cups being cousins to modern Mahjong’s dots, bamboos, and characters), originally representing nothing deeper than various denominations of money. (Dots were originally coins; bamboos, strings of a hundred coins. Swords and cups likely derive from the Chinese characters for ten and ten thousand, respectively.)

There’s a scene in the Monty Python movie Life of Brian where Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount and people in the crowd are struggling to hear him clearly. “I think it was, ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers,'” says one of them. “What’s so special about cheesemakers?” asks another. “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. . . .” Now, I have not the slightest doubt that, if pressed, I could come up with a very clever interpretation of cheesemaking as a metaphor for something beatitude-worthy, but this would obviously be an exercise in futility, since “cheesemakers” is simply an error and as such has no meaning. Before going any further with our interpretation of the Tarot, we had better make sure that we are engaging in something more meaningful than mere cheesemaker-exegesis.

But the analogy — that of the words of Christ himself being corrupted into nonsense — is a poor one. In the case of the Tarot, what we have is not a case of some primordial revelation becoming increasingly garbled over time and losing its profundity, but rather precisely the opposite. As shown by several of the examples already mentioned, there is every indication that the Tarot began its career as a set of money-suited cards and stock allegories and has since evolved into something much deeper. The oldest version of the cards is not necessarily the truest, and what are superficially “mistakes” in the transmission of tradition may in fact be successive steps in the orthogenetic development of the deck. Valentin Tomberg addresses this idea in the 10th letter of his Meditations on the Tarot.

From the point of view of iconography [the Wheel of Fortune] is clearly mediaeval (of the late Middle Ages), as all the other Cards are, but intrinsically it is older, notably pre-Christian.

Is it the oldest or is it simply the least evolved of the twenty-two Cards of the Major Arcana of the Tarot?

The twenty-two Cards of the Major Arcana of the Tarot being an organism, a complete whole, it is not a question of diverse and disparate origins of particular Cards, but rather of the degrees of their evolution or transformation. For the Tarot, also, is not a wheel, a closed circle, but rather a spiral, i.e. it evolves through tradition and reincarnation.

The authors who saw in the Tarot the “Sacred Book of Thoth” (Thoth = Hermes Trismegistus) were both right and wrong at the same time. They were right in so far as they traced back the history of the essence of the Tarot to antiquity, notably to ancient Egypt. And they were wrong in so far as they believed that the Tarot had been inherited from ancient Egypt, i.e. that it had been transmitted from generation to generation subject to minor iconographic changes. [. . .]

No, the Tarot is not inherited, it has reincarnated. It has “reincarnated” in conformity with the experience of modern depth psychology of the school of Jung, who ascertained the upsurge of ancient and even archaic mysteries and cults from the depths of the unconscious of people in the twentieth century. The Tarot is the “Sacred Book of Thoth”—not inherited or transmitted—but reborn.

This idea of the Tarot as the “reincarnation,” rather than the lineal descendant, of the Book of Thoth, is an intriguing one. As with a human reincarnate, the lineal ancestors of the Tarot may be ordinary enough, but it “evolves through tradition and reincarnation” — and apparent mistakes from the point of view of tradition may in fact be subject to the secret influence of something along the lines of a Sheldrakean “morphic field.” Not all who wander from tradition are lost.

A recent comment by Bruce Charlton in a discussion on the meanings of dreams (qv) also seems relevant here.

By analogy consider a myth: what is The myth of King Arthur, or Robin Hood or Merlin? The answer is that there is no canonical or definitive myth, but only many different versions; yet somehow we feel that behind all the versions is a true myth, which operates without words or pictures but at a level of feelings.

So the idea would be that that is the true meaning of a dream: the myth behind the dream – the same deep myth might lead to many different surface dreams.

A Tarot card like the Magician may also be considered analogous to a legendary figure like Arthur or Robin Hood. It exists in many different versions, some of which constitute a more serious contribution to the myth than others. (The Marseille deck is to Tarot what Malory is to the Arthur legend; the recent spate of mostly lightweight “theme” decks has its parallel in the succession of Hollywood Arthurs and Oo-de-lally Robin Hoods.) With the Tarot, as with Arthur and company, the “original” or “historical” version is a matter of speculation but may well have been rather more prosaic than the multifarious myth that has since grown up. Yet, as Bruce says, behind all the versions lies a single myth — and, despite its unhistorical nature, a true one. Anyone who takes any sort of myths or traditional lore seriously must believe something like that. The mechanism by which such “true myths” materialize is an open question, but for now Tomberg’s metaphor of stepwise “reincarnation” will do as well as any. At any rate, we will proceed under the working hypothesis that the various Magician cards represent successive, and perhaps progressive, instantiations of a single underlying symbol, and that even apparent “errors” in the development of the cards are as likely as not to be fortuitous ones and should be accepted and contemplated on their own terms.

Back to our Bateleur. He would appear to be performing some sort of cups-and-balls trick of the sort portrayed in Hieronymus Bosch’s remarkable painting The Conjurer.


Hieronymus Bosch, The Conjurer, c. 1502

Bosch’s conjurer, like the Bateleur, has two cups, several little balls, and a magic wand. He’s even holding a little ball between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. Based on these parallels, we should probably assume that the Bateleur’s round objects are balls, not coins. The three little yellow things in front of the yellow cup could well be coins, though, so the four suits are still represented. It’s not clear what role the knife and the dice have to play in the Bateleur’s trick, but perhaps the details are not important. The main idea is that he has an assortment of objects with which to perform conjuring tricks, and that included among them are allusions to the four suits and perhaps (via the dice) to the 21 trumps as well. What about the remaining card, the Fool? One popular interpretation, based on the Bateleur’s motley attire and his bag, is that he is himself the Fool, having opened his bag and spread out its contents on the table. Or perhaps the Fool is implicitly present as the Bateleur’s audience, those “fooled” by his tricks.

(Incidentally, though Bosch’s painting predates the earliest known Tarot de Marseille, it seems to draw on a similar set of images, and not only Le Bateleur. Take, for instance, the little dog with the strange costume and the tufted tail. Isn’t that the creature we see ascending the Wheel of Fortune on the card of that name? And isn’t the nearby hoop a clear allusion to said wheel? One can surmise that part of the conjurer’s shtick involves having the little dog jump through the hoop — an action which takes on symbolic meaning once the connection with the Wheel of Fortune has been made.)

In the Bateleur we see the Bagatto — the university-educated writer with nothing to write on — transformed into a prestidigitator, performing on the street works of “magic” which are not what they appear to be, and perhaps — if Bosch’s painting can be taken as reflecting how street magicians were viewed in his day — working in cahoots with pickpockets who relieve his distracted audience of their purses.


The Magician

Compared with his Continental predecessors, the Magician of the English (i.e., Golden Dawn) tradition is portrayed in a less realistic, more explicitly symbolic manner. Where the Bateleur for example, wears a hat with a shape suggestive of the infinity symbol, the Magician simply has a mathematical symbol floating in the air above his head. Where the Continental magicians have on their tables items that allude to the four suits, the Magician’s table bears the four suit symbols in their standardized “mass-produced” form, precisely as they appear on the pip cards.

The presence of a wand on the Magician’s table is a bit surprising. It seems redundant, since he is already holding a wand in his hand. I can only surmise that the extra wand was necessary because Waite wanted the suit symbols in their “standard” pip-style form, which in the case of his suit of Wands meant a stick about eight or nine feet long. A magician’s magic wand obviously has to be a good deal shorter than that, so Waite put the quarterstaff on the table and gave the Magician a second, much shorter, wand to hold in his hand.

The handheld wand is quite unusual-looking, too — not at all what anyone would come up with if asked to “draw a magic wand.” (You can confirm this by doing a Google image search for “magic wand” and scrolling through as many pages of results as you please. Nothing remotely like this Magician’s implement will turn up.) It’s white, and each end features a shape suggestive of a paintbrush or a candle flame. Similar wands also appear on the Rider-Waite World card.


Golden Dawn “Fire Wand,” made and consecrated by W. B. Yeats (from Yeats the Initiate by Kathleen Raine)

On a hunch, I tried looking up Golden Dawn magic wands, and the results were quite intriguing. Though I had of course known of the poet Yeats’s involvement in magic and the Golden Dawn, it’s a little weird to think of him actually owning and using a magic wand! Nevertheless, he did, and it bears more than a passing resemblance to our Magician’s. Yeats’s wand, representing the element of Fire, was red and yellow and only had the candle-flame shape at one end. It also had Hebrew words painted on it, though they’re barely visible in the photo. The Magician’s wand seems to be a white, double-ended version of the same thing — double-ended, just like the Bagatto’s reed pen.

While the shape of the Golden Dawn “Fire Wand” is presumably intended to resemble a flame, that’s not the first connection I made when I saw it. It reminded me of a decorative object that is fairly common in Taiwan, where I live: a wooden carving of a traditional Chinese ink brush. (Actually, “decorative” is not quite right. It has feng shui significance.) Actual ink brushes, used in Chinese calligraphy, don’t look that much like Yeats’s wand, but stylized wooden carvings of them (called 文昌筆, “Wenchang pen,” after the god of culture and literature) do.


Chinese “Wenchang pen” (wooden carving of an ink brush); Google “文昌筆” for more examples

The similarities are striking, right down to the segmented (bamboo-style) shaft with characters painted on it. Can they possibly be coincidental? Certainly the Golden Dawn borrowed freely from “the East” — mostly from the Hebrews and Egyptians, with a few nods to India — but I know of no other examples of Chinese influence and in fact would assume that they had only a very shallow knowledge of Chinese culture. If the Fire Wand was not consciously patterned after the Wenchang pen, it’s certainly a remarkable example of convergent evolution — or perhaps of the type of “reincarnation” Tomberg discusses. Remember that the original Bagatto had a double-headed reed pen, but that this was later misinterpreted as a magic wand and its original character as a pen forgotten. Centuries later, the Golden Dawn, in an attempt to design a “fiery”-looking magic wand, unwittingly (I assume) duplicated the Chinese Wenchang pen and then put a double-headed version of that pen-wand in the hand of the Bagatto’s lineal descendant, the Magician!

While the Wenchang pen is typically made of wood and looks almost exactly like the Golden Dawn Fire Wand, miniature Wenchang pens made of jade or crystal are also common ornaments, and these tend to bear a much closer resemblance, in both shape and color, to the Magician’s wand as it appears on the card.


Jade ornaments in the form of miniature Wenchang pens

As another example of the “reincarnation” of the Bagatto’s tools, consider that the Fire Wand was just one of a set of four Tarot-inspired “elemental weapons” used by the Golden Dawn. The others were the Water Cup, the Earth “Pentacle” (a term used very loosely; Yeats’s featured a six-pointed star), and the Air Dagger. Although Waite’s Magician has a full-sized sword, and although Yeats himself owned a consecrated sword in addition to an Air Dagger, it was nevertheless the dagger that became the standard magical implement representing the Tarot suit of Swords. When Gerald Gardner created the Wiccan religion, he imported the Golden Dawn’s four elemental weapons but called the dagger an athame. Wikipedia has this to say about the etymology of that word.

The term athame derives, via a series of corruptions, from the late Latin artavus (“quill knife”), which is well attested in the oldest manuscripts of the Key of Solomon. It means “a small knife used for sharpening the pens of scribes” (“Cultellus acuendis calamis scriptorii”). Artavus is well-attested in medieval Latin, although it is not a common word. This explains why it was left untranslated in some French and Italian manuscripts, and ultimately became garbled in various manuscripts as artavo, artavus, arthana, artanus, arthany or arthame.

So the Bagatto’s pen knife evolved into a sword, and the sword into a dagger, which dagger was later given a new name which turns out to be a corruption of the Latin word for “pen knife.” Wikipedia says “quill knife,” implying that it was used for feather pens, but the Latin quotation given uses the word calamus, which properly refers to a reed pen. The parallel with the double-headed reed pen itself, which evolved into an ordinary magic wand and then back into the form of a double-headed pen, is striking. In both cases, the scribal tool evolved into a magical implement, temporarily losing its scribal identity and then fortuitously recovering it while still maintaining the magical character it had since acquired. While each step along the way seems to be driven by coincidence and error, the overall trajectory of the Tarot Magician is anything but random. Tomberg’s concept of the progressive “reincarnation” of the Book of Thoth seems to be right on the money. In particular, the Magician seems to be assiduously asserting his identity as Thoth himself, the reed-pen-wielding god of both magic and writing.


Well, that’s about enough for one post. Having taken a broad, diachronic look at the Magician, the next step will be to examine some of his specific instantiations in greater depth.

The influence of adjacent lines of text

I recently posted on how, when I read while on the point of falling asleep, words sometimes “slip out of their place into an adjacent line.” I just caught my brain doing this again today — this time while I was fully awake, alert, and well-rested. This is the passage I was reading.


For a split-second I misread this as “now covered with a disgusting snow.” This seems pretty clearly to be a case of interference from the following line, with the string “is” interpolating itself between the “d” and the “us” as in the word disused.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the misreading occurred at the beginning of a line. When the eyes reach the rightmost end of one line and have to jump back to the left side of the page to continue, they presumably have to cast around a bit for the right place (which is why skipping or repeating a line is such a common error) and should be particularly susceptible to interference from adjacent lines.

I also think there was likely a priming effect involved. Before opening this book, I had just been reading the letter on “The Pope” in Meditations on the Tarot and had spent several minutes contemplating this passage: “Because virtue is boring and vice is disgusting. But that which lives at the foundation of the heart is neither boring nor disgusting.” After that, my mind was presumably more prepared to see the word disgusting than the word dusting — and in a horror novel, it would not have been out of place if the heroine had found her car covered with something disgusting rather than with a dusting of snow.


In this case, the misreading was almost immediately corrected, lingering just barely long enough to register consciously. I wonder how many similar mistakes we make, just below the threshold of consciousness, every time we read, and what subliminal psychological effects they might sometimes have. I wonder if such errors could be anticipated and even consciously designed and exploited — either as a poetic technique or for more sinister purposes.


Update, October 3, 2018:

I just experienced another instance of this phenomenon, this time while reading on the screen. Here is the passage in question.


I at first read this as “the blinding influx of the psychic . . .” — noticing my mistake when I came to “complex.” The error was obviously triggered by the presence of a word-final “x” just below the string “influ-.” And while I did not actually make the reciprocal error of misreading “complex” as “confluence,” I did find that reading the passage invoked the ghost of the word confluence and left it hanging in the air, as it were.

A “Freudian” slip

I read the following passage in Freud just before nodding off on a warm afternoon — read it, that is, in a somewhat compromised state of consciousness.

I misread this as “An attack of gout in the hands caused a patient to believe that he was the cause of the Inquisition, and suffering the pains of torture (Messiah).”

This sort of misreading, where words slip out of their place into an adjacent line, is something I have experienced before, and in this case the results made a strange sort of sense. Pain in the patient’s hands caused him to dream that he was being tortured — implicitly, by being nailed to a cross, since in the dream he was the ultimate “cause of the Inquisition” — Freud’s indirect way of saying “the founder of Christianity,” clarified for his more obtuse readers with the rather un-Jewish parenthesis at the end!

Writing letters backwards

Children who are learning to write frequently make mistakes with left and right, the most common confusion being between b and d (for some reason, the p-q error seems to be less common). The letters j and s are also written backwards particularly often, though I’m not sure what’s special about those two. (Despite what is suggested by the Toys “Я” Us logo, the letter r is rarely reversed.) While up-down errors do occur as well (n-u errors are fairly common in Taiwan, though I don’t remember seeing them much in America), left-right errors are overwhelmingly more frequent.

I had always assumed that this phenomenon was part of a general insensitivity among the untrained to left-right distinctions, probably owing to the fact that in the real world flipping something’s left-right orientation is not normally of any consequence, whereas turning something upside down is.

The strange thing, though, is that while kids often have trouble remembering which components of each individual letter are on the left and which on the right, they virtually never make the error of writing whole words or sentences from right-to-left, Leonardo-style — which is what one would expect if they truly lacked left-right sensitivity. A. A. Milne apparently thought wol for owl was the sort of mistake a child might naturally make, but where such errors occur I think they must be spelling mistakes rather than left-right mistakes; that is, the child forgets that w comes after o in the word, not that after means “to the right of.” When kids try to write a word like do, surely scores write bo for every one that writes od or ob.

Whatever the reason for this difference, it suggests that b-d errors and the like might be corrected by teaching kids to see the letter as consisting of two components, one that comes “after” (i.e., to the right of) the other. Thinking of the word old (or doll) for example, might help kids remember that the letter d looks like o+l, not l+o.


Chinese has in the characters 手 (shǒu, “hand”) and 毛 (máo, “fur, body hair, Mao”) a parallel to b and d, and mistakes by children (and foreigners) are correspondingly frequent. Everyone who teaches Chinese to young children will have a story about a kid whose Mother’s Day poem about “Mother’s hands” went horribly wrong or something of the sort.

I myself used to make that mistake from time to time when I was first learning to write Chinese. I solved the problem by noticing that the very common character 看 (kàn, “look”) is made up of the components 手 and 目 (, “eye”) and represents someone using his hand to shield his eyes from the sun as he looks at something.


Since making that connection, I have never had any trouble with 手 and 毛. I simply remember that the tail of 手 curves down to the left, as in 看, and that 毛 goes the other way. (Actually, now I no longer need the mnemonic. The two characters just look immediately different to me, as b and d do. But the mnemonic was very helpful before I had reached that level of familiarity.)

But why should that be easier to remember? Why is remembering the chirality (if that’s the word I’m after) of 看 easier than remembering that of 手? The fact that 毛 is also a Chinese character, while the mirror image of 看 is not, may have something to do with it, but probably not. After all, 毛 is not a particularly common character (at least not in Taiwan, where nothing is named after Chairman Mao), and many a beginning Chinese learner who has never happened to encounter it nevertheless finds 看 easier than 手.


I guess this is just one aspect of the general mysteriousness of mnemonics. Why is the “Thirty days hath September” thing so easy to remember, when “August, June, and December” would rhyme and scan just as well as the actual second line? Why does “Я живу и не тужу, потому что я жужжу!” (“I live and do not grieve, because I buzz!”) always help me remember how to say “because” in Russian, when “потому что” is at the beginning of a line and doesn’t rhyme with anything? Why does picturing an Israeli in a Gundam suit help me remember that the Korean word for “beer” sounds a bit like “mech Jew” when that image has nothing at all to do with beer?


Note: After writing the first paragraph of this post, with its mention of Toys “Я” Us (a store I haven’t had occasion to mention or think about for a great many years), I stopped and taught an English class. The kids had to write some vocabulary words on the board, and one of the kids said, “Teacher, can I write an extra word, too?” The extra “word” he wrote was, apropos of nothing, “Toy R us” (sic) — with a non-reversed “R,” even, in keeping with what I said about how (Russians excluded) kids don’t actually write “Я” all that often.

I’m not sure whether to consider that just a random coincidence or an instance of subconscious telepathy. It reminds me of the time a kid randomly wrote “applepine” just after I had had a dream about writing a book called Pineapples and Apple Pies. (This was years before Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen.)