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.

The Rider-Waite Magician


Following on from my previous post on the Magician card of the Tarot, this post will look at some of the specific features of the Rider-Waite version of the card, by far the most influential in the English-speaking world.


The sign of the Holy Spirit

halobendersFour of the Rider-Waite cards (the Magician, Strength, the World, and the Two of Pentacles) feature the lemniscate or infinity sign — derived, in every case, from features suggestive of that shape in the corresponding Tarot de Marseille cards. In the case of the Magician and Strength, the central figures in the Marseille cards are wearing wide-brimmed hats with a lemniscate-like shape. Waite got rid of the hats and replaced them with floating infinity signs.

In his book The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Waite has this to say about the Magician’s bent halo.

Above his head is the mysterious sign of the Holy Spirit, the sign of life, like an endless cord, forming the figure 8 in a horizontal position. [. . .] With further reference to what I have called the sign of life and its connexion with the number 8, it may be remembered that Christian Gnosticism speaks of rebirth in Christ as a change “unto the Ogdoad.” The mystic number is termed Jerusalem above, the Land flowing with Milk and Honey, the Holy Spirit and the Land of the Lord. According to Martinism, 8 is the number of Christ.

The implication that the sideways figure-eight has a traditional religious significance outside its use in mathematical notation has been hard for me to confirm. The Wikipedia article “Infinity symbol” (qv) asserts that “The shape of a sideways figure eight has a long pedigree; for instance, it appears in the cross of Saint Boniface, wrapped around the bars of a Latin cross.” The source cited for this is John D. Barrow’s Cosmic Imagery, which has the following on page 339.

The infinity sign has a dual resonance. It combines the mystic attraction of the great unknown and unknowable with the cold precision of mathematics and the desire to describe the unimaginable. The ribbon like figure-eight on its side is an ancient symbol, a shadow of the ancient ourobos [sic] symbol of the snake eating its tail.

It provided the mysterious cross of St Boniface in early Christian tradition, but its entrance into the symbolic world of mathematics did not occur until 1655. That distinction fell to the Oxford mathematician John Wallis. . . .

Barrow’s endnote for this passage cites only Wallis’s treatise De sectionibus conicis, which says nothing about St. Boniface or about the symbol’s alleged antiquity. (Wallis says nothing at all about the symbol he has introduced, beyond the parenthetical explanation that “esto enim ∞ nota numeri infiniti.”)

I have scoured the Internet in vain for any image of the “cross of Saint Boniface.” (That saint’s special symbol appears to be a sword stuck through a book, not a cross of any description.) Whoever wrote the Wikipedia article added details (“wrapped around the bars of a Latin cross”) not mentioned by Barrow, suggesting some independent knowledge of this cross. However, all I’ve been able to find is a novel by Robert Waters called The Cross of St. Boniface, the cover of which shows an icon of that saint holding an ordinary, lemniscate-free cross. I’ve even tried contacting Barrow himself, but he wrote the book 10 years ago and understandably no longer has all his references at his fingertips. As for the ouroboros symbol, it has traditionally always been circular, with the lemniscate-shaped variant appearing only after that shape had been established as the mathematical sign for infinity. For now, based on what I have (not) been able to find, my tentative conclusion is that the sideways figure-eight is not an ancient symbol, that Wallis introduced a new symbol rather than repurposing an old one, and that the use of it to represent “life” or the “Holy Spirit” is an innovation of Waite’s own.

[UPDATE: I have since discovered that Waite got the idea from Éliphas Lévi, as shown here.]

The number eight (which was not at that time represented by a figure eight) was indeed associated by the Gnostics with their idea of Holy Spirit, as Waite says. According to Irenaeus (Against Heresies I. v. 2-3), they believed that the Demiurge had created the “seven heavens” — meaning geocentric cosmology’s seven concentric “planetary” spheres of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; each ruled by a planetary intelligence called an Archon — “and on this account they term him Hebdomas” (meaning a group of seven, or something with seven parts).  This Demiurge is the son of the goddess Sophia or Achamoth, who occupies the next higher sphere — the eighth, that of the fixed stars — and who on that account is called Ogdoad (meaning a group of eight). Sophia was the Gnostic version of the Holy Ghost, a member of their Trinity, and was seen as Christ’s female counterpart. Irenaeus reports that “this mother they also call Ogdoad, Sophia, Terra, Jerusalem, Holy Spirit, and, with a masculine reference, Lord.”

(Waite also mentions that 8 is the number of Christ “according to Martinism” — that is, the Hermetic system of Louis Claude de Saint-Martin — but the logic behind this identification is opaque. In his book The Life of Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, the Unknown Philosopher, and the Substance of his Transcendental Doctrine, Waite explains that Christ’s “soul invests him with the number 4, his divine being bears the number 1, his body the number 3,” from which it follows that “in his essential elements his number is 8.”)

Waite says that his lemniscate is intended as “the mysterious sign of the Holy Spirit” — but of course the universal sign of the Holy Spirit is the dove, and the question arises as to why Waite did not use it, preferring instead the serpent-like lemniscate. (The connection with the ouroboros has already been mentioned, and indeed an ouroboros also appears explicitly on the card. In LaVeyan Satanism, the lemniscate represents the serpent Leviathan.) Tomberg in his Meditations comments on the unfortunate tendency of occultists, even Christian occultists, to emphasize the serpent at the expense of the dove, and Waite, his Ace of Cups notwithstanding, would appear to be no exception.

Or perhaps things, are not so simple. Close inspection reveals that the Magician card does feature the dove, though in a tiny, barely-noticeable detail.


Clockwise from top left: (1) detail of the Magician’s table, (2) Ace of Cups, (3) the M in “Magician,” (4) the W in “World.”

The front edge of the Magician’s table features a series of three carvings. The first appears to be ocean waves, the second is unrecognizable, and the third is a bird in flight. Comparing it with the bird on the Ace of Cups, which clearly represents the dove of the Holy Spirit, we see that they are almost identical in shape. The cup-shaped capital of the table leg just below the Magician’s bird reinforces the connection. While the dove on the Ace of Cups is white and flies downward, the Magician’s dove is red and flies upward. An additional detail from the Ace of Cups seems to confirm that this inversion is intentional and significant. The cup bears the letter W, which I had always assumed stood for Waite (in keeping with the common practice of cardmakers including their initials on one of the cards, though the Chariot is the more usual choice), or perhaps for Water (the element represented by the suit of Cups). Comparing the W on the cup with the lettering on the other cards, though, we can see that it is not actually a W at all, but an inverted M as in “Magician.” I have to assume that these parallels and contrasts are intentional, and are perhaps echoed in the contrasting red and white of the roses and lilies, and indeed of the Magician’s clothing. A red bird flying upwards (from a capital that is as flame-like as cup-like in its design) suggest the phoenix — a bird paired with the dove in Shakespeare’s poem The Phoenix and the Turtle.

The Holy Spirit is associated with the dove because of its descent upon Christ in that form on the occasion of his baptism — echoing two Old Testament events. In the first chapter of Genesis, at the beginning of Creation, the Spirit of God hovers over the face of the waters. Later, in Genesis 8:8, Noah releases from the ark a dove, which flies about over the waters of the flooded earth and, finding nowhere to rest, returns to the ark. In the Gospels, the Spirit of God in the form of a dove again hovers over the waters — this time, the baptismal waters of the Jordan — alluding to the Flood as the symbolic baptism of the earth, and to baptism as a new Creation. The First Epistle of Peter ties together the Flood, baptism — and, interestingly, the number eight — mentioning Noah’s ark “wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water — the like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us” (1 Peter 3:20-21). The word translated as figure here is more properly “antitype” — not a numerical figure, much less a shape (as in “figure-eight”) — but the writer still seems to be associating the number eight with both the Flood and baptism — and thus, implicitly, with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. Mormons sometimes cite this passage in support of their practice of baptizing children at the age of eight, but baptism on the eighth day (as later advocated in the time of St. Cyprian) seems likelier to me, since baptism replaced circumcision, which was performed on the eighth day. At any rate, the number eight must have had some obvious connection to baptism in the author’s mind.

As mentioned above, several other Rider-Waite cards besides the Magician bear the lemniscate. All of these have their less-explicit precursors in the Tarot de Marseille, but the most striking is the Two of Coins (whence Waite’s Pentacles were derived). The open figure-eight with the two coins is suggestive of the Chinese yin-yang symbol.


The Two of Coins from a Tarot de Marseille, left; and a Chinese Tai Chi Bagua symbol (太極八卦圖), right.

The yin-yang symbol is typically shown surrounded by the eight trigrams, so here we have another link, developed without the influence of Arabic numerals, between a lemniscate-like shape and the number eight.


Roses and lilies

The roses and lilies with which the Magician is surrounded are another innovation of Waite’s. The Pictorial Key explains, “Beneath are roses and lilies, the flos campi and lilium convallium, changed into garden flowers, to shew the culture of aspiration.”

The reference is to the Song of Solomon 2:1 — “Ego flos campi, et lilium convallium”  (“I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys”). Although he quotes the Vulgate, Waite must have had the English version in mind, since there are no roses in the Latin. “Flos campi” simply means “flower of the field,” and scholars agree that the original Hebrew refers to some other flower than the rose, with “crocus” being a popular alternative translation.

At first I read Waite’s explanation as meaning that the (mystical) Rose of Sharon and Lily of the Valleys had been changed into (common) garden flowers, but on second thought I think a more likely reading is that (wild) flowers of the field have been changed into (carefully cultivated) garden flowers. (This is evident from his reference to “the culture of aspiration,” which refers to horticulture rather than to “culture” in the sociological sense.) The original meaning of Song 2:1 seems to be that the bride, having been praised for her beauty, is modestly protesting, “I’m just a common wildflower, of no special beauty,” to which the groom, taking her reference to lilies and turning it into another compliment, replies, “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.”

What did the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys mean to Waite? I could have sworn that they appeared in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin as symbolical titles of that personage, but that turns out to have been a hallucination of memory. (The Litany does say “Mystical rose, pray for us,” which is probably where I got that idea.) A cursory search of Bible commentaries shows that most older commentaries identify the two flowers as symbols of Christ himself, while more recent ones generally begin by saying that, contrary to popular belief, they are nothing of the kind — either (depending on how traditional the commentator is) because it is the groom who represents Christ, while the bride stands for the Church; or because the Song of Solomon is simply a love poem with no hidden theological meaning. At any rate, while the specifics may be rather unclear, we can assume that Waite meant by the biblical quotation to invest the Magician’s flowers with sacred significance.

Besides the Song of Solomon, another biblical passage that seems relevant is Matthew 6:28-30, which also mentions lilies as flowers of the field and even refers to Solomon.

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

The emphasis here is on how the lilies just grow, by the grace of God, without any effort on their part. The Magician, with his “garden flowers” and “culture of aspiration,” represents the addition of conscious will to that process. The Magician has accepted the Adamic task of “dressing the garden and keeping it” — neither passively accepting the situation in which he finds himself, nor replacing it with something wholly artificial, but rather adding conscious direction to a natural process, working as a co-creator with Nature or God.

“Rose” is, as mentioned above, a mistranslation of Waite’s biblical source (as he himself seems to recognize by quoting the rose-less Vulgate), but the error is, as so often, an inspired one. No other pair of flowers would have been as apt as the white lily and the red rose. Occult “correspondences” readily suggest themselves — Moon and Sun, silver and gold (red is, confusingly, the color of gold in alchemy), albedo and rubedo, Chesed and Gevurah (see below) — and the two flowers have often been paired by poets, including Waite’s associate Yeats, whose poem “The Travail of Passion” ends with “Lilies of death-pale hope, roses of passionate dream.”


The lower part of the Rider-Waite Ace of Pentacles. Above is a floating hand bearing the pentacle.

A garden with roses and lilies also appears on the Rider-Waite Ace of Pentacles, though I’m not sure what light that sheds on their meaning in the Magician, except perhaps to suggest that the Magician is standing in an arch or doorway made of roses, through which runs a path leading from the garden to the mountains. Again I am reminded of Yeats’s “The Travail of Passion,” which begins with the lines, “When the flaming lute-thronged angelic door is wide; / When an immortal passion breathes in mortal clay; . . .” The arch of roses could be this flaming door.

Given the presence of the dove from the Ace of Cups and the flowers from the Ace of Pentacles, I searched the Magician for allusions to the other two aces but found nothing — aside from the obvious suit-symbols on the table, of course!


The sower soweth the word

About a week after writing my previous post on the Magician, in which I noted the similarity of the Rider-Waite Magician’s wand to the “Fire Wand” of Yeats and to the Chinese “Wenchang pen” (a stylized wooden sculpture of a calligraphy brush, a common feng-shui accessory), I had a dream clearly inspired by it. In the dream, I was walking around out-of-doors, carrying a very long Wenchang pen — perhaps four or five feet in length — and trying to find a suitable place to use it. (I had no very clear idea of what “using” it would involve, but vaguely pictured myself prancing around sort of brandishing it like a Maenad’s thyrsus.) After passing over various plots of land as too rocky, too overgrown, etc., I finally found the perfect place — a room-sized patch of pure, clean sand with no trace of stones, vegetation, or organic material. Having thought to myself, This is the perfect place, I awoke.

I woke up with a line from the Gospel of Mark in my head: “The sower soweth the word” — hence the otherwise bizarre search for appropriate ground on which to use a pen. Interestingly, there is no sandy ground in the parable of the sower. He sows by the roadside, on stony ground, and among thorns — all places I carefully avoided in the dream. But I didn’t choose “good ground” either. All in all, I took the dream as being a negative appraisal of the post on the Magician itself. I had deliberately sown my words in a field (the unpromising, seemingly “sterile” field of commentary on card-game iconography!) in which they would be sure not to bring forth fruit.

This interpretation turned out not to be correct. Shortly after the dream, I began reading (on the strength of a recommendation from Bruce Charlton) the Miscellaneous Remarks of Novalis and found that he opens with this motto: “Friends, the soil is poor, we must scatter seed abundantly for even a modest harvest.” This struck me as a pretty explicit riposte to my interpretation of my dream. Where I had thought that perhaps I shouldn’t be wasting my time sowing in such poor soil, Novalis (and the synchronicity fairies) came back with, “the soil is poor, we must scatter seed abundantly.

It also occurred to me that at the end of the dream I had all but quoted Brigham Young, who famously declared “This is the place” upon finding the patch of barren desert that would later become Salt Lake City. Latter-day Saints are fond of quoting Isaiah with reference to that transformation: “the desert shall blossom as the rose.” I looked up the source of that quotation.

The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing: the glory of Lebanon shall be given unto it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon, they shall see the glory of the Lord, and the excellency of our God (Isaiah 35:1-2).

It will not only blossom “as the rose” but be given “the excellency of . . . Sharon” — alluding to the same biblical flower referenced by Waite in his notes on his Magician. This verse and the one in the Song of Solomon are the only two uses of rose as a noun in the whole Bible, translating the same Hebrew word in each case. (Note also the use of the word abundantly, echoing Novalis.) On the Rider-Waite Magician card, too, roses blossom against a yellow background suggestive of a desert. (The bright yellow background is one of this card’s most striking features, and is surely part of what makes it so iconic.)

“The sower soweth the word.” To write is to sow. Only in his Rider-Waite incarnation does the Magician appear as both writer and sower. In my comments on the Italian Bagatto in the previous post I speculated about the possible meaning of his double-headed pen. Did it imply that he was “writing” on earth and heaven simultaneously? (“That in all your recordings it may be recorded in heaven.”) Waite’s Magician also bears a wand in the form of a double-headed pen. He holds it with one end pointing down to the earth, where roses spring forth, and the other pointing up to heaven, where roses also spring forth. (Roses appear both above and below the Magician, but lilies only below, suggesting that they have a different origin — “for the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself,” and “he knoweth not how.”)


Din and the sephirothic pillars

The capital of the visible table leg, which I described above as being both cup-like and flame-like, also seems to have the letters “DIN” written on it. It doesn’t exactly jump out at the viewer, but — based on the parallel case of the Temperance card, where the Tetragrammaton is hidden in the folds of the angel’s robe — I think we can assume it is deliberate.

In Kabbalah, Din (“judgment” or “severity”) is an alternative name for the fifth Sephirah, more commonly known as Gevurah (“strength”). Besides being an individual sephirahDin characterizes the whole left pillar of the Sephirothic tree, the pillar of Severity. The right pillar, in contrast, has the character of Chesed, or mercy. Din is associated with the color red, and Chesed with white. (At least, that is what George Robinson’s Essential Judaism says; many alternative color schemes seem to exist.)

The red dove flies upward from a red pillar labeled Din. By implication, the corresponding white dove which flies downward (on the Ace of Cups) has to do with the pillar of Chesed. This fits remarkably well with Valentin Tomberg’s comments on the two pillars, in his letter on “The Pope” in Meditations on the Tarot.

The two sides of the Cabbala — the “right” side and the “left” side — and the two columns of the Sephiroth Tree, the pillar of Mercy and that of Severity, and similarly the two pillars of the Temple of Solomon, Jachin and Boaz, correspond exactly to the two columns of prayer and benediction on this Card. Because it is Severity which stimulates prayer and it is Mercy which blesses. [. . .] These two elements [prayer and benediction] manifest themselves in all domains of the inner life — mind, heart and will. Thus a relevant problem for the mind, which is not due to curiosity or intellectual collectionism, but rather to the thirst for truth, is fundamentally a prayer. And the illumination by which it may be followed is the corresponding benediction or grace. True suffering, also, is fundamentally always a prayer. And the consolation, peace and joy which can follow are the effects of the benediction corresponding to it.

True effort of the will, i.e. one hundred percent effort, true work, is also a prayer. When it is intellectual work, it is prayer: Hallowed by thy name. When it is creative effort, it is prayer: Thy kingdom come. When it is work with a view to supplying for the material needs of life, it is prayer: Give us this day our daily bread. And all these forms of prayer in the language of work have their corresponding benedictions or graces.

Tomberg associates the pillar of Severity (Din, red) with prayers rising from earth to heaven (the dove flying upward) and the pillar of Mercy (Gevurah, white) with blessings descending from heaven to earth (the dove flying downward). The Magician, it would seem, represents both of these — with his red robe and white tunic, red roses and white lilies, one hand raised to heaven and the other pointing to the earth. (This dual hand sign, according to Waite, “shews the descent of grace, virtue and light, drawn from things above and derived to things below.”) But the explicit presence of the red pillar of Din would seem to identify the Magician more closely with that side of things. If we accept Tomberg’s analysis, that the pillar of Severity corresponds to prayer — and that problems, suffering, and work are all forms of prayer — this is appropriate, since the Magician certainly represents work or activity.

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.