The Throne and the World


The World card from the Tarot de Marseille (Jodorowsky-Camoin version)

The card known as Le Monde (The World) is surely one of the most enigmatic in the Tarot de Marseille. It’s certainly not the sort of image most people would come up with if asked to “draw a picture of the world.” A naked woman, holding a small bottle and a wand, dances in the center of an elliptical wreath, surrounded by the four creatures known collectively as the Tetramorph.

I am indebted to Whitley Strieber for drawing my attention to similarities between the World card and an 11th-century sculpture in the ambulatory of the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse. Strieber erroneously referred to the latter as a sculpture “of the 21st card in the Major Arcana, known as the World. . . . complete in every detail . . . not an ‘early’ card, but a fully evolved image” (The Key, p. 21). It certainly is not that, as it differs from the Tarot card in some very important ways, but the connection between the two is undeniable, and following up the lead has proved fruitful. My current understanding of the “genealogy” of the World card is as follows:

  1. Ezekiel’s visions of the Merkabah and the cherubim
  2. John’s vision of the divine throne
  3. The traditional “Maiestas Domini” motif in Christian iconography
  4. The specific Maiestas Domini sculpture found in the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse
  5. The World card of the Tarot de Marseille


An overview of the image’s development

1. The Book of Ezekiel opens (Chapters 1-3) with a vision of four “living creatures,” each with four faces: those of a man, an eagle, a lion, and an ox. The creatures have four wings each and are accompanied by enormous wheels that are “full of eyes.” The creatures are “like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps . . . and out of the fire went forth lightning.” Above their heads is a “firmament” resembling “the terrible crystal,” above which is a man seated on a throne. Both the man and the throne resemble gemstones, and they are surrounded by rainbow-like radiance identified as “the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” The man on the throne (who apparently represents the Lord himself) gives Ezekiel a “roll of a book . . . written within and without,” unrolls it, and has him eat it. Chapter 10 of Ezekiel repeats much of this material, describing again the throne, the firmament, the wheels, and the four creatures, which are here identified as “cherubim.” Because of the combination of throne and wheels, these visions are generally referred to by the Hebrew term Merkabah, meaning “chariot.”

2. In Chapters 4-5 of Revelation, John recounts his own vision of the divine throne, drawing heavily on Ezekiel’s imagery. Again we have the jewel-like man seated on his throne, surrounded by four “beasts” obviously patterned after Ezekiel’s cherubim. They have the same four faces (though they have only face each) and have many wings (six each rather than four, due to the influence of Isaiah). Ezekiel’s wheels do not put in an appearance, so the beasts themselves are “full of eyes.” There are “lamps of fire” and lightning. Ezekiel’s crystalline firmament is there (“a sea of glass like unto crystal”), as is his rainbow. The man on the throne also has a scroll or “book, written within and on the backside.” Elsewhere in Revelation, John is even given a book to eat, as Ezekiel was, but this book is not that book. The book held by the man on the throne is sealed with the famous seven seals, and no one can open them but “the lamb that was slain,” who later appears before the throne to do just that.


The Four and Twenty Elders Casting Their Crowns before the Divine Throne, William Blake’s picture of the scene described in Revelation 4-5.

3. One of the very oldest themes in Christian art, supposed to be older even than the crucifix, is the one known as Maiestas Domini, Christ in Majesty, or Christ in Glory. It portrays Jesus Christ, usually with a cruciform halo, sitting on a throne and holding a book in one hand. He is surrounded by what is called a mandorla or “almond”-shaped halo (like the central section of a two-set Venn diagram), around which are arranged John’s four living creatures, usually with wings (one pair each) and halos, often holding books of their own. Although it has been simplified considerably (fewer eyes and flaming lamps and so on), this iconic image is obviously based on Revelation 4-5 — this despite the fact that in John’s vision Christ is represented by the lamb that was slain, not by the one seated on the throne.

codex bruchsal

A typical example of the “Maiestas Domini,” from the 13th-century Codex Bruchsal

4. One Maiestas Domini of particular interest to us is the one found in the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse. While it is a typical example of the genre in most respects, the fact that it portrays a beardless (and thus potentially sexually ambiguous) Christ, and that it had been on display in Occitania for some four centuries when the first Tarot de Marseille appeared, makes it a possible “missing link” between the traditional Maiestas Domini and the female figure portrayed on the World card.


11th-century Romanesque marble sculpture of Christ in Glory, attributed to Bernardus Geluduinus, from the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse

5. With the World card of the Tarot de Marseille, the image has been changed radically. What was once a portrayal of the Lord on his throne now includes neither Lord nor throne, a naked dancer having taken their place. However, the frame — mandorla and tetramorph — remains essentially unchanged, leaving little room for doubt that the World image is a direct descendant of Christ in Glory.


The four living creatures

Commentators on the Tarot almost invariably speak of the four living creatures as being the four constituent animals of the Sphinx, but the fact is that, while we may find two or three of the four creatures combined in such mythical creatures as the sphinx, the griffin, and the lamassu, the complete tetramorph is to be found only in Ezekiel and those influenced by him.  What might that particular combination of creatures have meant to the prophet? For starters, it very like symbolizes, by means of four representative members, both the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve signs of the zodiac. (Ezekiel, as an Israelite living in Babylon, would have been familiar with both.)

As described in Numbers 2-3, the 12 tribes of Israel were arranged around the Tabernacle in four camps, each named for one of its constituent tribes: Ephraim in the west, Reuben in the south, Judah in the east, and Dan in the north. As for Ezekiel’s creatures, “they four had the face of a man [in the front], and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle [in the back]” (Ezekiel 1:10; the words in brackets are implied by the Hebrew and are included in many modern translations). Given that Judah and Ephraim are traditionally symbolized by the lion and the bull, respectively (see Genesis 49:9, Deuteronomy 33:17), we can map the creatures to the tribes as follows.


But why should Reuben and Dan be represented by a man and an eagle? To answer that, it is necessary to add a third foursome to the mapping: the so-called “fixed signs” of the zodiac, representing the four quarters of the sky: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius. Taurus and Leo are self-explanatory. Aquarius (a man pouring water) corresponds to Reuben, of whom it was said, “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel” (Genesis 49:4).

Dan is a bit more complicated. Although the zodiac signs are named for constellations, each is actually a 30° section of the sky containing other constellations in addition to the one  for which it is named. Scorpio covers 210°–240° ecliptic longitude, which means that both Altair and Alpha Serpentis (the chief stars in the constellations of the Eagle and Serpent, respectively) fall within its purview. Thus, the eagle or the serpent can be made to stand in for the scorpion. Of Dan, it was said, “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path” (Genesis 49: 17); therefore Dan = serpent = Scorpio = eagle. The scorpion was apparently considered too obnoxious a creature to be represented among the cherubim, and the same may have been true of the serpent (although etymology suggests that the seraphim of Isaiah were winged serpents). Interestingly, just as Dan’s traditional symbol is excluded from the tetramorph, Dan is also the only tribe not included among the 144,000 sealed in Revelation 7:3-8.

The only problem with this proposed mapping is that, while the arrangement of the tribal camps around the Tabernacle matches the orientation of the cherubim’s faces, neither matches the layout of the zodiac, where Aquarius is opposite Leo and Taurus is opposite Scorpio. However, Revelation lists the creatures in an order consistent with the zodiac (counting clockwise from Leo), and the World card of the Tarot perfectly matches the conventional orientation of the zodiac.


Besides the tribes of Israel and the signs of the zodiac, Christian tradition decided pretty early on that the living creatures represented Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which is why Maiestas Domini art often portrays each creature holding a book representing its respective Gospel. (These books don’t appear on the World card, but they did somehow find their way onto the Rider-Waite version of the Wheel of Fortune!) Ezekiel’s original vision obviously had no reference to the authors of the New Testament, but that is no objection to this interpretation. As discussed in my post on the Magician, we are operating on the assumption that the oldest meaning of a symbol is not necessarily the truest, and that each step in a symbol’s development, including even apparent errors, is potentially meaningful. I myself have nothing very deep to say about the distinguishing characteristics of each Gospel and how they correspond to those of each living creature, but I certainly do not dismiss the idea out of hand.

Correspondences with other foursomes readily suggest themselves, though which mappings are “correct” is often a matter for debate. For example, Valentin Tomberg in his Meditations on the Tarot quotes Paul Carton as follows:

Ancient Wisdom drew from the enigma of the Sphinx [sic] the four fundamental rules of human conduct: to know with the intelligence of the human brain; to will with the strength of the lion; to dare or to elevate oneself with the audacious power of the wings of the eagle; to be silent with the massive and concentrated force of the bull.

However, in Tomberg’s own commentary on the four creatures, he differs from Carton in associating the lion with to dare and the eagle with to will, and both Carton and Tomberg contradict Eliphas Lévi — who was apparently the originator of this list of the “Four Powers of the Sphinx”! After thinking about it, I would propose a different mapping still.


To be silent corresponds to the bull; on this point only I agree with Carton. And Tomberg is right that the lion symbolizes the courage implied by to dare in a way that the eagle simply cannot. (Can you imagine a “Richard Cœur d’Aigle”?) The remaining two rules lead to a quandary, since man is unique both in his power of reason or intelligence and in his free will. However, I think that the eagle, while not in fact a very intelligent animal, can at least symbolize knowledge — due to its “eagle eye”; its objective, detached “bird’s-eye view” of things; and the fact that its astrological alter ego is none other than the classical symbol of knowledge, wisdom, and cunning: the serpent. To will, then, is the power proper to man, a power for which no mere animal can be even an adequate allegory.

The bull and the eagle are situated opposite one another in the zodiac, and Lévi and Tomberg agree in seeing them as contrasting symbols of depth and height. “His the eagle’s wings, in order to scale the heights,” says Lévi, “his the bull’s flanks, in order to furrow the depths.” Tomberg says,

The Bull is the symbol of the instinct of productive concentration. It underlies the propensity to deep meditation. . . . It is the Bull in this sense which has given rise to the cult of the sacred Cow (the female aspect of the Bull) in India. The worship of the cow in India is simply a popular counterpart to the Hindu propensity for meditation.

Regarding to be silent, Tomberg has this to say:

The precept “to be silent” is not, as many authors interpret it, solely a rule of prudence, but it is moreover a practical method of transforming this narrowing and blinkering instinct into a propensity towards depth and, correspondingly, an aversion towards all that is of a superficial nature.

The meaning of the bull — silence, meditation, “furrowing the depths” — is aptly summarized in these lines from Robert Frost.

Build soil. Turn the farm in upon itself
Until it can contain itself no more,
But sweating-full, drips wine and oil a little.
I will go to my run-out social mind
And be as unsocial with it as I can.
The thought I have, and my first impulse is
To take to market I will turn it under.
The thought from that thought I will turn it under
And so on to the limit of my nature.

The four cardinal virtues, first listed in Plato’s Republic and later elaborated by later Stoic and Christian thinkers, can also be mapped to the living creatures. Fortitude or courage, the special virtue of the warrior class, corresponds to the lion. Prudence or wisdom, the virtue proper to the rulers, is represented by the eagle or serpent. (The eagle appears on the Empress and Emperor cards as a symbol of rule.) Temperance or self-control, of which being silent is an instance, belongs to the bull. Justice, as the virtue transcending and ruling the others, corresponds to the man.

Prolonged meditation on the four living creatures attracts the attention of the synchronicity fairies. While thus absorbed, I looked up and happened to notice something that familiarity had long since rendered effectively invisible: an Indian wall hanging depicting the god Shiva seated on a tiger pelt, the serpent king Vasuki draped around his neck, Nandi the bull standing behind him, and the Ganges issuing as a spout of water from the top of his head. Accepting the tiger as a reasonable proxy for the lion, and the serpent as the alter ego of the eagle (and further noting the connection between Vasuki and the eagle Garuda), are these not the four living creatures? Shiva himself appears not only as a man, but specifically as Aquarius: a man pouring forth a stream of water! And of course, one of the most familiar depictions of Shiva is as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer surrounded by a ring of flames, an image whose similarity to the World card should have been obvious, though I had not made the connection before.


Shiva as part of a tetramorph-like image, and as the cosmic dancer

Further meditation brought to mind the legend of the madness of Nebuchadnezzar, as told in the Book of Daniel. It was said of the king, “Let his heart be changed from man’s, and let a beast’s heart be given unto him” (Daniel 4:16), upon which he “was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, . . . till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws” (Daniel 4:33). A later vision by Daniel apparently represents the king’s subsequent return to sanity: “The first [beast I saw] was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it” (Daniel 7:4). Here again are the four living creatures. Immediately after checking these references in the Bible, I happened to open up Colin Wilson’s book The Occult, which I was reading for the first time, and found: “The Chaldeans were traditionally the founders of astronomy and astrology; Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar were Chaldean kings.” Any sort of reference to Nebuchadnezzar would have been an impressive enough coincidence, but here he is mentioned specifically in connection with the origins of the zodiac, the ultimate source of the tetramorph!


An illustration from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, depicting Nebuchadnezzar

Incidentally, Wilson mentions the Chaldeans by way of introducing the Epic of Gilgamesh — in which (though Wilson doesn’t mention it) we also find the four living creatures, combined in the person of the monster Humbaba (a humanoid giant with a lion’s face, bull’s horns, and vulture’s talons).


The rainbow, the mandorla, and the wreath

In Ezekiel’s vision, he describes rainbow-like radiance around the enthroned figure.

And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord (Ezekiel 1:27-28).

In John’s vision, “there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald” (Revelation 4:3), a rather confusing description. The only way in which something could be specifically “like unto an emerald” (as opposed to any other precious stone) would be in its bright green color, so it must be “a rainbow” by virtue of its shape — not a spectrum, but an arc.

For the biblical significance of the rainbow, the obvious place to start is the story of Noah.

And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth (Genesis 9:8-13).

What immediately jumps out at me about this passage is that God establishes his covenant not only with Noah, but with four classes of creatures: men, birds, livestock, and wild beasts — precisely the four classes represented by the man, eagle, bull, and lion. Somehow I had never noticed this before, nor the arresting idea that birds, beasts, and livestock are capable of entering into a covenant with God! This is consistent with the anti-anthropocentric message implied by the tetramorph: man, special as he may be, is still but one living creature among others, all of which are known and loved by God. Joseph Smith commented on some parts of John’s Revelation in Doctrine & Covenants 77, the chapter heading of which summarizes his commentary on the four living creatures as follows: “Beasts have spirits and will dwell in eternal felicity.”

In Maiestas Domini iconography, the figure of Christ is surrounded by what is called a mandorla or “almond”-shaped halo, which I suggest is derived from the smaragdine “rainbow” of Revelation (although it could also be a nod to Ezekiel’s wheels, I suppose). The mandorla is the intersection of two circles — the central portion of a two-set Venn diagram — and one obvious interpretation is that it represents Christ as the intersection of the divine and human worlds. Its connection with the “Jesus fish,” another ancient Christian symbol, is also obvious. Many have also interpreted the mandorla as a yonic symbol, so Christ in a mandorla could represent his birth into the world — either his first or, more likely given the Apocalyptic context, second coming.

In the World card, we find the mandorla — a sharply defined geometric shape — replaced with a wreath of leaves of the same general shape. This wreath of vegetation is perhaps prefigured by the green rainbow of Revelation — though, in point of fact, traditional tarot decks rarely make the wreath green; it is typically azure, azure-and-gold, or red-yellow-and-blue (this last color scheme perhaps harking back to its original character as a rainbow).

(I perhaps have personal reasons for wanting to find an implicit rainbow in the World card. In my very early childhood my thinking was mostly visual, and abstract words generally each had a specific mental picture associated with them. I remember that I often used to pray “Thank you for the world,” and that the image that always accompanied the word world was a rainbow.)

The main difference between a wreath and a rainbow or mandorla is that a wreath is organic, alive — and indeed is a conventional symbol of eternal life. Wreaths are also traditional decorations associated with Advent and Christmas and so could, like the yonic mandorla, represent the birth of Christ — except that on the World card Christ is conspicuously absent, having been replaced by a naked woman! This brings us to the central question of the World card: What is to be made of the changing identity of the central figure?


Christ on his Father’s throne

In Ezekiel, it is strongly implied that the figure is the Lord (or, rather, represents the Lord; Ezekiel is careful to describe everything he sees as mere “likeness” and “appearance”). He is seated on a throne which is traditionally referred to as a chariot (merkabah) because it has wheels. He gives Ezekiel a “book” (scroll), but it is not clear that he actually holds it in his hand. (The enthroned figure says to Ezekiel, “Eat that I give thee,” and then Ezekiel reports “And when I looked, behold, an hand was sent unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein.” This implies a disembodied hand “sent” by the Lord, not one of his own hands.) The enthroned figure unrolls the scroll, and “it was written within and without: and there was written therein lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

In Revelation, the figure still sits on a throne, though there are no longer any wheels. The enthroned figure is definitely not Christ (because Christ later appears before the throne as a separate figure, “the lamb that was slain”) and so presumably represents the Father. He holds a “book” (still a scroll) in his right hand but does not unroll it because it is sealed. Much is made of the Lamb’s gradually unsealing the scroll, one seal at a time — but when the last seal is opened, we are never told that anyone unrolls the scroll or reads it, or what is written in it. Instead, the opening of each seal is accompanied by visions; if these visions represent the contents of the book, we can conclude that it, too, contains “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

In the Maiestas Domini, the enthroned figure is now Christ rather than the Father, and, unlike the figure in revelation, he invariably holds the book in his left hand and raises his right hand in benediction. The book is now a codex rather than a scroll, and it is most often shown open, with something written in it. What is written in the book varies, but it is no longer a message of woe. The book might read, for example, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” “I am the first and the last and he that liveth,” or simply the two letters alpha and omega — but perhaps the most relevant variant for our purposes is: “I am the light of the world.”


12th-century Maiestas Domini mural in Sant Climent de Taüll, Catalonia. Christ’s book reads “Ego sum lux mundi” — “I am the light of the world.” Note also that the mandorla here is pretty clearly a rainbow.


Detail of a mural in the 12th-century Duomo di Monreale, Sicily. The left page reads, with lots of scribal abbreviations, “Ego sum lux mundi qui sequitur me non ambulat in tenebris” (“I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness”), and the right has the same text in the original Greek.

“I am the light of the world” — this is perhaps a hint as to how “the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezekiel) came to develop into an image called simply “The World.”

The question remains: Why was this standard image of “Christ in Majesty” so closely based on John’s vision of God the Father — a vision in which Christ appears as a seven-eyed, seven-horned sacrificial lamb rather than as the one on the throne?

In Revelation 3:22, Christ says, “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.” The implication is that God’s throne is not the exclusive property of God himself. Christ overcame, and we see him seated there in majesty. Nor should we necessarily think it blasphemous to see other figures in the same position — a position open to all who “overcome.” While Christ did say “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), it is interesting to note that he is also on record as saying “Ye are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).


The beardless Christ

I have mentioned the beardless Christ portrayed in the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse as a possible intermediary step in the evolution from the traditional Maiestas Domini to the World card of the Tarot. Caravaggio also portrayed a beardless Christ in the 1601 version of his Supper at Emmaus. In fact, mutatis mutandis, Caravaggio’s Christ looks almost exactly like the one in Toulouse. Even the position of his hands, while portrayed naturalistically, echoes the iconic mano pantea gesture of benediction.


Christ as portrayed by Bernardus Geluduinus in the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse (left) and by Caravaggio in the 1601 version of Supper at Emmaus (right).

Of course Caravaggio’s work is too late to have been an influence on the Tarot de Marseille, but his painting’s striking similarity to the Toulouse sculpture may give us a clue as to how to interpret the latter.

Supper at Emmaus represents a scene from Luke 24. After Christ’s resurrection, two of his disciples meet him on the road, “But their eyes were holden that they should not know him” (Luke 24:16). They walk along, discussing the scriptures, and invite him to stay for dinner. Finally, “as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight” (Luke 24:30-31). The two disciples immediately go to Jerusalem to report this manifestation to the eleven apostles. “And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread. And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you” (Luke 24:35-36).

“Peace be unto you” (“Pax vobis,” the phrase used in the Vulgate translation of Luke 24:36) is precisely what is written in the book held by Christ in the Toulouse sculpture. Having looked at dozens of different examples of the Maiestas Domini motif, I have not found any others that put that particular phrase in the book. It appears that in this, as in Christ’s beardlessness, the Toulouse sculpture is, if probably not unique, at least very unusual.

Other elements of the Luke 24 story also tie into the Maiestas Domini theme. On the road to Emmaus, Christ, still incognito, says to the two disciples, “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). The standard French term for the Maiestas Domini is le Christ en gloire. Later, after appearing and saying “Peace be unto you,” “he lifted up his hands, and blessed them” (Luke 24:50), recalling the gesture of benediction seen in the Maiestas Domini.

Why did the disciples on the road to Emmaus not recognize their Master at once? Valentin Tomberg offers what strikes me as a plausible explanation.

But there is one thing, a specific feature, which the Gospel account mentions several times: that the risen Christ was difficult to recognise — that he hardly resembled the Master that the disciples and women knew so well. Thus, Mary Magdalena took him to be the gardener; the two disciples on the way to Emmaus only recognised him at the moment that he broke the bread; the disciples did not recognise his appearance by the sea of Tiberias — and it was only after he had spoken that John, initially alone, recognised him and said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” . . . Why was the risen Jesus Christ difficult to recognise? Because he was without age. . . . Just as he was transfigured on Mt. Tabor, where he conversed with Moses and Elijah, so was he transfigured at his resurrection. The resurrected One was not only the synthesis of life and death, but also the synthesis of youth and old age. For this reason it was difficult for those who knew him between the ages of thirty and thirty-three to recognise him: at one time he appeared older to them, at another time younger than when they had known him.

The Toulouse sculpture, like the Caravaggio painting, portrays the resurrected Christ. As Christ’s beard serves both to make him instantly recognizable and to mark him as a man of mature years, omitting it is an effective way of depicting the different-looking, ageless Christ described in the Gospels.


From Christ to the World

Toulouse is not that far from Marseille, and it seems likely to me that the long-haired, beardless Christ displayed there had some influence on the development of the Tarot image, with its female figure in the place of Christ. It seems extremely unlikely that any medieval European could simply have mistaken it for a sculpture of a woman. It so obviously represents Christ, and no one could possibly be ignorant of the fact that Christ is male. But perhaps it stimulated the thought that, just as the resurrected Christ is ageless, “he” should perhaps be sexless as well. Had he not said that “in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30)? Some Tarot de Marseille decks, such as that of Jean-Pierre Payen (Avignon, 1713), do show a sexually ambiguous figure, which may have evolved into the pretty clearly female one seen in most Marseille decks. (Sexual ambiguity would have been easier to maintain if the figure were not portrayed as naked, and possible meanings of this nudity will be discussed in due course.)

An interesting parallel case, in which a male religious figure evolved into a female one, can be seen in the case of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, an important Buddhist figure whom I first encountered in his original masculine form when I was studying Central Asian art.


1st-century Afghan sculpture of a mustached Avalokiteshvara. He is more often depicted as clean-shaven.

My Buddhist education having been pretty much limited to that course in Central Asian art, I had no idea until I moved to Taiwan that this same Avalokiteshvara is widely revered in Chinese culture — where “he” is known as Guanyin (a Chinese translation of the Sanskrit name), the Goddess of Mercy, having been thought of as female since the 12th century or so. (The male version of Avalokiteshvara is still very much alive, supposedly incarnate in the Dalai Lama.) Guanyin is typically portrayed holding a willow branch (柳枝) and a vase of pure water (淨瓶).


Chinese depiction of Guanyin with a willow branch and a vase of water

The willow wand and the vase are what really caught my attention, because they correspond so closely to the wand and phial held by the figure in the World card. They belong specifically to the female Guanyin; such objects never feature in masculine depictions of Avalokiteshvara. Similarly, the male Christ in Majesty invariably holds a book in one hand and raises the other in benediction; it is only his female relative in the Tarot that bears the wand and phial.

My attempts to discover the deeper meaning of Guanyin’s wand and vase have so far been less than satisfying. This site (in Chinese) offers the rather uninspiring explanation that they represent the tools early Buddhists used for brushing their teeth (!), attention to personal hygiene being one of things that set them apart from the adherents of various non-Buddhist ascetic movements. The imagination rebels at the idea of the Goddess of Mercy holding the equivalent of a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, but there it is. (As I have mentioned elsewhere, many of the symbols of the Tarot have similarly prosaic origins, having evolved only gradually into something deeper. The Tarot suit of wands evolved from the Mamluk suit of polo sticks, for example; is a toothbrush wand any worse?) A typical modern interpretation is that the vase contains the water of life, and that the willow branch is used for sprinkling it.

Direct Chinese Buddhist influence in medieval Occitania would seem to be out of the question, so the parallels between Gaunyin and the World figure can only be considered a remarkable case of convergent evolution or “reincarnation” (like that which led the rebirth among British magicians of the Chinese Wenchang pen, as described here). It is as if some occult force were causing such Eastern figures as Guanyin and Shiva Nataraja to “come through” into the Tarot without the conscious intention of the medieval Christians who designed the cards.


But, to come back to the point, what exactly is to be made of a naked dancing woman taking the place traditionally occupied by God or Christ? One possibility is to see it as a blasphemy pure and simple, and the woman as the whore of Babylon, the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not. The image is called “The World” — a term which is often used in scripture in reference to human wickedness. “The world” hates Jesus, and its works are evil (John 7:7). Pure religion is to keep oneself “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4) The destruction of the wicked at Christ’s second coming is “the end of the world.”

I find this interpretation unlikely for several reasons. For one thing, the World card occurs in the Tarot immediately after the last judgment which is “the end of the world,” so it can hardly represent the world in that sense — or if it did, we would expect it to show its punishment or destruction. More importantly, though, the imagery of the card simply has nothing of the demonic about it. The woman, though naked, does not look at all whorish, and the living creatures around her appear genuinely angelic and not at all outraged by her presence. This is not some Satanic parody of the divine glory; it is the genuine article.

In John’s vision of the throne, the four living creatures have six wings (rather than four as in Ezekiel) and say, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty” — a clear allusion to the seraphim of Isaiah, who also have six wings and stand before the throne of God, and who say “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). The World in Glory, then, would appear to be as legitimate a subject as Christ in Glory. Nor is this limited to the physical earth or Nature. Christ said, “God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17), with clear reference to the world of human beings. Elsewhere in the same Gospel, he says to his disciples, “Where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:3), and I have already quoted the passage from Revelation to the effect that those who overcome may sit on God’s own throne just as Christ has done — may enter heaven not as subjects, but as kings, with the same glory that Christ himself enjoys.

Assuming, then, that the central figure of the World card may represent redeemed Nature, redeemed Man, or both, the questions remain: Why is she specifically represented as a naked woman, dancing, and holding a wand and phial?


If the figure represents Nature or Earth, then the portrayal as female is conventional and needs no explanation. This thought led me to search for Classical depictions of Gaia to see whether or not she was conventionally portrayed in the nude, and serendipity threw this my way:


3rd-century Roman floor mosaic from Sentinum, depicting Aion and Tellus, with children representing the four seasons

The reclining woman is indeed Gaia’s Roman counterpart Tellus, and she is indeed portrayed mostly nude — but what really caught my attention was the male figure, with the zodiac around him (in the form, apparently, of what we would now call a Möbius strip!). Aquarius and Scorpio are even in same positions here as in the World card, though the other signs are not.

(This is a very strange zodiac, in fact. On the left we can clearly see the sequence Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo (?), Virgo (?) — skipping Aries! On the right, only Scorpio is clearly identifiable, but it certainly looks like the sequence is Scorpio, Libra, Sagittarius, and then a second Leo. Scorpio should be between Libra and Sagittarius, of course. Presumably one of these 12 signs is meant to be Aries, but I can’t say which; all of the quadrupeds have long tails, so none of them looks like it might be a ram.)

This male figure represents, I am told, Aion — a deity summarized by Wikipedia thus:

Aion (Greek: Αἰών) is a Hellenistic deity associated with time, the orb or circle encompassing the universe, and the zodiac. The “time” represented by Aion is unbounded, in contrast to Chronos as empirical time divided into past, present, and future. He is thus a god of the ages, associated with mystery religions concerned with the afterlife, such as the mysteries of Cybele, Dionysus, Orpheus, and Mithras. In Latin the concept of the deity may appear as Aevum or Saeculum.

Of course, both αἰών and saeculum may represent the world or cosmos as well as eternity, as in the familiar translation of “in saecula saeculorum” as “world without end.” (The biblical phrase “the end of the world” also uses αἰών in the original, and modern translations often prefer “the end of the age”; even the English world is etymologically wer-old, “age of man.”) French Bibles translate αἰών sometimes as siècle (“world without end” is “aux siècles des siècles“) and sometimes as monde (as in “la fin du monde“). A nude figure, with a name that could be translated as “World,” standing in the center of the zodiac — this obviously bears some relation to our Tarot card.

The connection between God or Christ on his throne and a figure called Aion calls to mind the Ancient of Days described in Daniel 7 — a vision which, like Ezekiel’s, is much alluded to in John’s throne scene. The Ancient of Days is typically identified with God the Father, but he is identified as the Son in Eastern Orthodoxy and as Adam in Mormonism. Though it must surely be a “coincidence,” the Roman mosaic of Aion — featuring a naked man and woman, two trees, and a serpent — is also suggestive of Adam and Eve. Adam/Eve as “the World” suggests the Kabbalistic concept of Adam Kadmon.

Besides Aion, another possibly relevant Graeco-Roman deity is the Orphic god Phanes.


Phanes surrounded by the zodiac, a drawing, from A. B. Cook’s Zeus, of a 2nd-century Roman marble relief

The above representation of Phanes has the same basic layout as the World card: a central figure in an ellipse, with figures in the four corners. The ellipse is the zodiac with its 12 signs (represented in the World card by the tetramorph), and the four faces in the corners presumably represent the four winds. The central figure, Phanes, is male, but is nude like the World figure, and the serpent wrapped around his body suggests the flowing scarf worn by the World figure. He holds a staff in his left hand and a keraunos or stylized thunderbolt in his right — recalling the wand and phial of the World. Beyond this, there is a confusing congeries of attributes: wings, horns, cloven hooves, flames, an egg, and the heads of a goat, lion, and ram. What it all means is anyone’s guess — Orphism is a sealed book — but some connection with the World card seems likely.


The World is one of three Tarot de Marseille cards to feature a figure with crossed legs, the other two being the Emperor and the Hanged Man.

crossed legs

The Emperor, Hanged Man (reversed) and World cards from the Tarot de Marseille (Grimaud version)

The Emperor sits on a throne, and as we have seen, the World image is closely related to images of God and Christ on their thrones. The Hanged Man, like Aion in the Roman mosaic, is between two trees. All three figures approximate with their bodies the alchemical symbol for sulfur (a triangle above a cross: 🜍), which is the active, masculine, solar principle in alchemy.


Overall, I would say this idea of activity is what most distinguishes the World card from its throne-based predecessors. To sit on a throne is to be at rest, and I have commented elsewhere on the “sea of glass” in John’s throne vision as a symbol of perfect stasis and the cessation of all change. The figure in the World is not seated on a throne but dancing. One is reminded of the last verse of the old Christmas carol “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.” (The one speaking in the song is Christ.)

Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, that man
May come unto the general dance.

This alludes to Christ sitting down on his Father’s throne — but the purpose is “that man may come unto the general dance.” It is this final goal that is depicted on the World card.

As for the items in the dancer’s hands, the wand resembles that of the Magician — which, we have learned, is originally and most fundamentally a pen. Might not the phial, then, be a bottle of ink? God and Christ, seated on their thrones, hold books that have already been written — symbols of fate, of the unalterable. The Dancer of the World, representing redeemed Humanity, holds a pen and ink, ready to write her own destiny.

Nebuchadnezzar, Casanova, Cagliostro: Precognition in connection with Colin Wilson’s The Occult

I’ve been reading Colin Wilson’s book The Occult recently, having never read it or anything else by Wilson before. I’m reading the Kindle version, too, so I can be very sure that I haven’t casually flipped through it and subconsciously registered any of its contents in advance of actually reading it. I’m about halfway through it at the moment, and so far have noticed three times when random thoughts occurred to me which turned out to anticipate what I was about to read.


In addition to reading The Occult, I have also been working on a very long post about the World card of the Tarot (to be posted soon, perhaps, if it ever stops growing). One day, while I was meditating on the meaning of the four living creatures featured on that card — the man, eagle, lion, and bull, a foursome of astrological origins — it suddenly occurred to me out of the blue that all four are associated with Nebuchadnezzar as described in the biblical Book of Daniel. (A vision of Daniel’s portrays him as a winged lion with a human heart; and in his madness he is described as having hair like eagle’s feathers and eating grass like an ox.) Immediately after checking the Bible to confirm that, I opened up The Occult and read: “The Chaldeans were traditionally the founders of astronomy and astrology; Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar were Chaldean kings.”


A day or two later, still thinking about the World card, I suddenly remembered that years ago I had seen advertised a Tarot deck with a Casanova theme, all of the cards being illustrations from the life of Giacomo Casanova, and I tried unsuccessfully to find on the Internet an image of the World card from that deck. This was utterly uncharacteristic; I have no interest in novelty decks of that kind, and I can’t imagine that any light would have been shed on the meaning of the World card by some vaguely related picture of Casanova doing his thing! At any rate, a few hours later I opened up The Occult and found that Wilson had rather unaccountably devoted a section to the life of Casanova, hardly a key figure in the history of magic.


After Casanova, the next “magician” Wilson deals with is Cagliostro. Here is how he describes Cagliostro’s entry into Strasbourg, where his reputation had preceded him.

He was already a rich man, and he entered Strasbourg on September 19, 1780, preceded by six liveried servants on black horses, and driving in his black japanned coach covered with magic symbols. Crowds lines the route; they had been waiting all day.

Reading this, I began to imagine what it would be like to have such a reputation. People would undoubtedly try to “test” you all the time, expecting specific occult phenomena on demand — which presumably even a genuine magician would not always be able to produce. How would one deal with that? By saying, I thought, “We do not gratify men’s curiosity in this manner” — this being a misremembered line from a now-obsolete Mormon temple ceremony. After looking it up, I see that the actual line is, “We do not satisfy men’s curiosity in that manner.” (I quoted it correctly in a 2013 post; the uncharacteristic error turned out to be precognitive.)

After thinking this, I turned to the next “page” (Kindle is designed to simulate a codex rather than a scroll) and found this:

Perhaps because he was so often snubbed by the aristocracy as a charlatan, he was inclined to refuse to treat them, or even to meet them if they came to his door. This is understandable. He felt he was working for the regeneration of mankind; he was an idealist; why should he gratify the idle curiosity of self-opinionated aristocrats?

The reference to “regeneration” also ties in with my misremembered temple line, which in the ceremony is spoken in reply to a request that an apostle “cut off an arm or some other member of the body and then restore it” as proof of his power.


As Wilson himself mentions, reading and thinking about strange phenomena seems to cause them to occur more frequently. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for more of the same as I read the second half of the book.


UPDATE: Further synchronicities have indeed occurred in connection with my reading of this book, as documented in the comments to this post.

The mysteries of traditional prayer

I have been reading through Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot for a second time and recently finished the letter on the Moon card. In it, Tomberg touches on the Rosary and the benefits of repetitious, rhythmic prayer.

Rhythm in prayer makes it pass from the psychological domain to that of life, from the domain of personal tendencies and moods to that of the fundamental and universal impulses of life itself. Speaking in occult terms, here it is a matter of carrying prayer over from the “astral body” (or “soul body”) to the “etheric body” (or “vital body”), i.e. of making prayer employ the language of life instead of the language personal feelings and desires. And just as life is like a river which flows unceasingly, so does the rosary prayer. [. . .] The one hundred and fifty Ave Marias and the fifteen Pater Nosters of the rosary prayer introduce one to the universal river of spiritual life — which is the proof of a universal prayer — and thus lead one to joyous serenity.

[. . .]

Do not be scandalised, dear Unknown Friend, by the fact that you find yourself confronted with the rosary prayer in a Hermetic meditation on the eighteenth Arcanum of the Tarot — the Arcanum which teaches how to surmount “eclipsed lunar intelligence”. Esotericism is not a collection of extraordinary and unknown things, but rather it is above all a less ordinary and less known way of seeing ordinary and known things — of seeing their profundity. And the rosary prayer, wholly “exoteric” and “known to satiety” as it is, reveals profound truths of spiritual life, including that of the union of prayer of the soul and spiritual prayer. It is, moreover, closely related to the theme of the eighteenth Arcanum of the Tarot: the Arcanum of knowing how to pass from intelligence eclipsed by terrestrial “technicality” to intelligence illumined by the spiritual sun — i.e. to intuition. In other words, the leap to which Henri Bergson invites our intelligence can be made by saying the rosary prayer. The opinion of a Capuchin friar? It could be, but why can’t a Capuchin friar be right, sometimes at least?

A day or two after that, I was at a very large travel exhibition at the Taichung World Trade Center. I sometimes get creeped out by very large and seemingly soulless crowds of people, and, as I have had occasion to mention before, it is my custom to deal with that feeling by mentally reciting (from George William Russell’s loose translation of Aratus, mixed with the 23rd Psalm), “Full of Zeus are the cities, full of Zeus are the harbors, full of Zeus are all the ways of men. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

This time, I started out with the Full of Zeus as usual but soon — having no doubt been influenced by Tomberg — found myself silently repeating the Hail Mary instead.

This is strange because I have never been a Catholic, have never prayed a Hail Mary in my life, and indeed have had very limited exposure to the prayer. (It puts in an occasional appearance in the horror movies my wife likes to watch. That’s about it, really.) Nevertheless, I found that I was able to recite it almost perfectly. (My only mistake was that I had somehow, unaccountably, forgotten that a prayer is supposed to end with the word “Amen”!) Anyway, it had the desired effect (via the inclusive “pray for us sinners“) of humanizing a crowd that had begun to feel a bit too much like the one that flowed over London Bridge.

Later the same day, I looked up the Hail Mary online to see if I had been reciting it correctly and followed a link to the Wikipedia article on the Rosary, where I read the following.

The prayers that comprise the Rosary are arranged in sets of ten Hail Marys, called decades. Each decade is preceded by one Lord’s Prayer and followed by one Glory Be. During recitation of each set, thought is given to one of the Mysteries of the Rosary, which recall events in the lives of Jesus and Mary.

The concept of the Mysteries of the Rosary — 15 or (since John Paul II) 20 specific episodes, such as the Annunciation and Crucifixion, that one is suppose to meditate on while praying the Rosary — was a new one to me. I read a bit more about them online.


Later the same evening, I had a few free minutes, so I picked up a book I had been perusing on and off for a month or so, the classic Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism by Gershom Scholem. I just read a few pages, including the following from p. 100-101.

Obscurity still surrounds the question of how far a certain form of magic was also involved in the prayer mysticism of the Hasidim which contemporary authors already regarded as particularly characteristic of their faith. Jacob ben Asher, whose father came to Spain from Germany, says on this subject: “The German Hasidim were in the habit of counting or calculating every word in the prayers, benedictions and hymns, and they sought a reason in the Torah for the number of words in the prayers.” In other words, this mysticism of prayer originates not from the spontaneous prayer of the devotee but from a study of the classical liturgy whose text was largely fixed by tradition.

[. . .]

But while we know a great deal about the external technique of these “mysteries of prayer” as the Hasidim called them, we are in the dark as regards the real meaning, the functional purpose of these mystical numerologies. Were certain meditations meant to go with certain prayers, or does the emphasis lie on the magical influence of prayer? In the former case we should be dealing with what the Kabbalah since 1200 referred to as Kawwanah, literally “intention,” i.e. mystical meditation on the words of prayer while they are being spoken. Kawwanah, in other words, is something to be realized in the act of prayer itself.

The post was originally going to end there, noting the coincidence of “mysteries” associated with fixed, traditional prayers, and the idea of certain meditations going with those prayers. Instead I decided to leave the draft and come back to it.

The mention of the “mystical numerologies” of the German Hasidim reawakened my sometime interest in English gematria, and I checked the gematria of the Hail Mary to see if anything interesting would turn up, which it didn’t. (The first part of the prayer, “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus” adds up to the significant-looking number 1111, but that’s about it.)

I lost interest and moved on to other things (namely, my recent interest in Ptolemaic astronomy). Before going to bed, I read a few more pages of Tomberg and finished the letter on the Moon. Imagine my surprise at finding this.

[Materialistic intelligence] does something with regard to the world which would be absurd with regard to a work of art, namely to explain it through the qualities — and quantities — of the materials of which it consists, instead of the style, the context, the meaning and the intention which the work of art reveals. Wouldn’t it be absurd to want to understand one of Victor Hugo’s poems, for example, by chemically analysing the ink with which it had been written and the paper on which it was written, or by counting the number of words and letters? Nevertheless, this is precisely what the intelligence under consideration does with regard to the world — the world in which Victor Hugo’s poem makes up only a part and is only a single special case of the manifestation of the great process of the creation.

The bit about Hasidic mysticism had synched with my Tomberg-inspired reading about the Rosary but had also introduced the red herring of gematria, by which I had allowed myself to be distracted. Then Tomberg comes back with a statement of the absurdity of the Hasidic practice of “counting words”– as if that could be the mystery of prayer! All very neat. The synchronicity fairies have really outdone themselves this time.


The upshot of all this is that I will be exploring traditional, fixed prayers a bit. I’m already in the habit of using fixed, non-traditional prayers (besides the Full of Zeus, I also often repeat Alma’s prayer from the Book of Mormon: “O Lord, pour out thy Spirit upon thy servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart”), so why not give the actual Rosary a try?

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.

Perfect names

Homer — who wrote the quintessential story of homecoming.

Skinner — who deliberately ignored the inner workings of human beings and focused on the observable surface.

Kant — who showed what our minds can’t know.

Later additions to the list:

Colón — who set the stage for the colonizing of the New World, and for the age of colonialism in general.

Bolt — the greatest sprinter of all time.

Caesar — who seized Gaul, seized control of Rome, and was an epileptic to boot.