Did Lazarus write the Fourth Gospel?

Readers of Bruce Charlton’s Notions (and I think my readers are pretty much a subset of his) will be familiar with his rather unorthodox beliefs about some of the key figures in the Fourth Gospel (“John”). Briefly, Bruce maintains that the unnamed “beloved disciple” who wrote the Fourth Gospel is Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raised from the dead, and that Lazarus’s sister Mary of Bethany is the same person as Mary Magdalene. He also believes that this Mary was Jesus’ wife, and that the marriage at Cana (at which Jesus turned water into wine) was in fact Jesus and Mary’s own wedding. Later they had a second, “mystical,” wedding, and Mary’s anointing of Jesus with spikenard ointment was part of this second ceremony. All the details are available in Bruce’s online mini-book Lazarus Writes.

In this post I will outline some of the textual evidence for and against Bruce’s theory. Of course Bruce himself would be the first to admit that he cannot prove his ideas, that it is rather a matter of making assumptions. My purpose in examining the evidence is to determine how plausible an assumption it is, and, supposing it is made, what special problems it raises that have to be dealt with.


Lazarus as the beloved disciple

The first thing to establish is that Lazarus and the beloved disciple have never been seen in the same room together, so to speak, and could therefore conceivably be the same person. And as a matter of fact, we find Lazarus mentioned only in Chapters 11 and 12, while the beloved disciple appears in Chapters 13, 19, 20, and 21. In other words, the beloved disciple appears in the narrative only after Lazarus has been raised from the dead and the chief priests have begun plotting to put him to death. So far, so plausible.

Another point in favor of identifying Lazarus as the beloved disciple is that the Gospel makes a point of saying that Lazarus was particularly beloved of the Lord. When Lazarus falls ill, his sisters inform Jesus that “he whom thou lovest is sick” (John 11:3), and the Evangelist adds, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus” (John 11:5). When Jesus weeps at the death of Lazarus, the Jews say, “Behold how he loved him!” (John 11:36). Aside from Lazarus and his two sisters (and, of course, the anonymous beloved disciple), no other individual is singled out by the Gospels as being specially beloved of Jesus.

If the beloved disciple is Lazarus, light is also shed on the ending of the Fourth Gospel (John 21:19-23). Jesus has just spoken to Peter about his (Peter’s) future death.

This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me.

Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee?

Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do?

Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.

Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?

If the beloved disciple had already died once and been restored to life, it makes perfect sense that Peter would ask what was going to happen to him. Would he die a second time, this time permanently? Would he live forever? Jesus’ answer (“If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?”) implies that the possibility of the beloved disciple’s living forever was something that had already occurred to Peter — which, again, makes sense if the beloved disciple was already known to be someone whose status with regard to death was unique and therefore uncertain. I find this point very convincing.

Bruce interprets the “Follow me” in this passage as meaning not “Be my disciple” (which Peter already was) but “Follow me through death into life eternal.” This makes sense coming right after the reference to Peter’s death, and it makes sense that Peter would reply with “And what shall this man do?” (Will he follow you through death as well?)

Incidentally, it is interesting to note that the disciple’s tarrying “till I come” — i.e., till the second coming of Christ — was interpreted as meaning that he would not die. This implies that even at this early date it was understood that the second coming was a long way off in the future, so long that no ordinary mortal could be expected to live to see it. If a prophet I trusted told me that I would live to see the second coming, I would naturally interpret it to mean that the second coming would be relatively soon, within my natural lifetime. That Peter and the other disciples did not so interpret Christ’s comment implies that they clearly understood that they did not live in the “last days.” This contradicts the Synoptic Gospels and the epistles of Paul, where early Christians (and sometimes Jesus himself) are portrayed as thinking of their own time as the last days and expecting Christ to return very soon. This is, in my judgment, a point against the authenticity of the Fourth Gospel and for the view of mainstream “scholars” that it is a late and unreliable work. It’s easy to imagine that early Christians originally expected Christ to return very soon and then, when he didn’t, revised their expectations and placed the second coming in the distant future, and that the author of the Fourth Gospel retroactively (and either ignorantly or dishonestly) attributed this revised expectation to Peter and the other original disciples. It’s much less plausible that the original disciples knew the second coming was a long way off but that this view was very quickly replaced with the expectation that he would return almost immediately.

Assuming the validity of the Fourth Gospel, one possible explanation is that Christ’s comment about the beloved disciple was itself what gave rise to the idea that the second coming would be soon. As the story was told and retold, the fact that it had to do with the resurrected Lazarus was forgotten, and it became a general rumor to the effect that “Jesus told some of his disciples that they would live to see him come again.” It would then be these rumors that made their way into the Synoptics in the form of Jesus’ alleged statement, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1; see also Matthew 16:28, Luke 9:27).

The main argument against Lazarus being the beloved disciple is that the Fourth Gospel seems to make a point of never mentioning the beloved disciple by name, but Lazarus is mentioned by name. In fact Lazarus, like the beloved disciple, is mentioned only in the Fourth Gospel. What we would more naturally expect would be that the beloved disciple would never be mentioned by name in his own gospel but might appear as a prominent disciple in the other gospels. The mainstream view that the beloved disciple is John the son of Zebedee fits this expectation. John and his brother James appear in the Synoptics as part of Jesus’ inner circle, but neither is mentioned by name in the Fourth Gospel (though there is one reference to unnamed “sons of Zebedee,” in John 21:2). James was executed by Herod Agrippa around AD 44, too early for him to have written the Fourth Gospel; therefore (so the conventional reasoning goes) the beloved disciple must be John.

The theory that John is the beloved disciple will be discussed in due course. Here I am concerned only with the expectation that something like that must be true — that the beloved disciple should be a prominent disciple of Jesus who (presumably out of modesty) is not mentioned by name in his own gospel. Supposing the beloved disciple is indeed Lazarus, is there any reason why he should be openly referred to by name in Chapters 11-12 and then suddenly become an anonymous “beloved disciple” thereafter? We know that after Lazarus was raised from the dead, “the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus” (John 12:10-11), so perhaps he had to go incognito after his resurrection for his own protection. We know that Jesus was not immediately recognizable after his resurrection, not even by his own disciples, so we can infer that Lazarus, too, looked somehow different after being raised from the dead. No disguise would have been necessary, nor would he have had to go into hiding. He simply stopped using the name Lazarus, and his true identity became a carefully guarded secret known only to Jesus’ inner circle.

If Lazarus is the beloved disciple — presented in the Fourth Gospel as Jesus’ closest friend and one of his most important disciples — why is he not mentioned at all outside that gospel? The epistles know nothing of him, and neither do the Synoptic Gospels. (Mary and Martha appear in Luke 10, but their brother is not mentioned.) It seems incredible that so central a figure could be completely omitted from the gospel narrative, and thus attempts have been made to solve this problem by identifying the beloved disciple with John the son of Zebedee.


John as the beloved disciple

There are no very strong reasons for identifying the beloved disciple as John. It is assumed that he must be one of the Twelve, since he was present at the Last Supper, and John seems the most likely choice.

The biggest problem with the John identification is that John in the Synoptics is virtually inseparable from his elder brother James. (Someone has even made the case that the author of Mark patterned these two “Sons of Thunder” after Castor and Pollux!) Except for two passages in Luke (9:49 and 22:8), he is never mentioned without his brother. There is no indication in the Fourth Gospel that the beloved disciple even has a brother.

Could the beloved disciple be both Lazarus and John — having perhaps changed his name after his resurrection, for security reasons or because he was a “new man”? This seems highly unlikely, mainly because John worked as a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, while Lazarus lived in Bethany.

holy land

A map showing how far Bethany is from the Sea of Galilee (and from Magdala, as will be discussed below)

As the map above shows, Bethany is located just outside Jerusalem, a long way from the Sea of Galilee. The nearest body of water is the Dead Sea — so called because it has no fish or any other macroscopic life in it. It just doesn’t make any sense for a fisherman to live in Bethany.

If the beloved disciple was Lazarus, he was not John. If he was John, he was not Lazarus. All things considered, I find the Lazarus identification more compelling.


An excursus for Mormons

Those who accept the revelations of Joseph Smith will want to take into account two passages in Mormon scripture that identify the beloved disciple as John. In 3 Nephi, Jesus promises three of his Nephite disciples the same thing that John was given:

And he said unto them: Behold, I know your thoughts, and ye have desired the thing which John, my beloved, who was with me in my ministry, before that I was lifted up by the Jews, desired of me. Therefore, . . . ye shall never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven (3 Nephi 28:6-7).

Besides identifying the beloved as John, this passage also implies that he will live until the second coming because he asked Christ for that specific gift, not because such immortality was natural to him as a resurrected being. This is confirmed in Doctrine & Covenants 7, which purports to be translation of a lost record written by John himself.

And the Lord said unto me: John, my beloved, what desirest thou? For if you shall ask what you will, it shall be granted unto you.

And I said unto him: Lord, give unto me power over death, that I may live and bring souls unto thee.

And the Lord said unto me: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, because thou desirest this thou shalt tarry until I come in my glory, and shalt prophesy before nations, kindreds, tongues and people (D&C 7:1-3).

The content of D&C 7, which was written before the Book of Mormon was published, closely parallels that of 3 Nephi 28, so much so that it invites the skeptical theory that the Three Nephites incident was based more on Smith’s recent speculations regarding the beloved disciple than on anything written on the golden plates. Be that as it may, those who take Smith seriously will have to deal with these passages before accepting the Lazarus theory.

The use of the name John does not necessarily mean that the beloved disciple was Zebedee’s son of that name. Perhaps the incognito Lazarus also used the name John, which was a common enough name in first-century Palestine, or perhaps Smith’s less-than-literal translations use the name John as shorthand for “the author of the book commonly known as the Gospel According to St. John” — much as we might use the name Homer, for example, to refer to whichever person or persons wrote the Homeric epics.

Still, though, Smith’s revelations would seem to weigh in the scale against the Lazarus theory. “Lord give me power over death, that I may live” is not the sort of request we would expect from a man who had been resurrected and thus already possessed the power in question. (Bruce’s position is that Lazarus was resurrected in the fullest sense, not merely restored to mortal life.) However, it is interesting to note that at least one of the Nephite disciples may also have been a resurrected being. The list of disciples in 3 Nephi 19:4 begins with “Nephi and his brother whom he had raised from the dead, whose name was Timothy.”


Mary of Bethany as Mary Magdalene

The identity of Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene is not an unusual theory. A 1910 article by Hugh Pope in the Catholic Encyclopedia, makes the case as follows.

But an examination of St. John’s Gospel makes it almost impossible to deny the identity of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalen. From St. John we learn the name of the “woman” who anointed Christ’s feet previous to the last supper. [. . .] At that supper, then, Mary received the glorious encomium, “she hath wrought a good work upon Me . . . in pouring this ointment upon My body she hath done it for My burial . . . wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached . . . that also which she hath done shall be told for a memory of her.” Is it credible, in view of all this, that this Mary should have no place at the foot of the cross, nor at the tomb of Christ? Yet it is Mary Magdalen who, according to all the Evangelists, stood at the foot of the cross and assisted at the entombment and was the first recorded witness of the Resurrection. And while St. John calls her “Mary Magdalen” in 19:25, 20:1, and 20:18, he calls her simply “Mary” in 20:11 and 20:16.

Against this identification we have the geographic incompatibility of the two titles. As can be seen on the map above, Magdala is on the Sea of Galilee, very far from Bethany. How, then, could Mary Magdalene (meaning “Mary of Magdala”) be the same person as Mary of Bethany?

But perhaps this is not a very serious objection. After all, we know that Helen of Sparta is the same person as Helen of Troy, despite the great distance between those two cities. If Mary originally came from Bethany (as seems to have been the case, since her brother and sister lived there) but later married someone from Magdala and moved there, it would be natural to refer to her as Mary Magdalene.

Of course, Bruce’s position is that the man Mary married was Jesus, which presumably should have made her Mary of Nazareth, since Jesus himself is never described as being from or living in Magdala. The purpose of the surname, though, would have been to distinguish her from other Marys in Jesus’ circle — including his mother, also from Nazareth. Could Jesus, though originally from Nazareth, have made his home in nearby Magdala after his marriage? It’s possible, though the Gospels suggest no such thing. Then again, the Gospels give no indication that Jesus was married at all, to Mary or to anyone else, which is the next issue to discuss.


Mary as the wife of Jesus

There is no direct evidence that Jesus was married, so the case for Mary’s being his wife is a circumstantial one.

First, we have the episode in which Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with spikenard ointment and wipes them with her hair (John 12:3-8), suggesting a degree of intimacy appropriate only to a married couple. And while Judas objected to the waste of money, he didn’t say anything about the inappropriateness of a woman touching Jesus in that way.

Second, there is the scene during the crucifixion when Jesus tells his mother to consider the beloved disciple her son.

When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home (John 19:26-27).

If the beloved disciple was Lazarus, Jesus’ brother-in-law, and thus already family, this would make more sense.

Third, there is Jesus’ appearance to Mary after his resurrection. She is the first person he appears to, and he says, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17). Since just a few verses later he is inviting Thomas to touch his crucifixion wounds, we might infer that “Touch me not” refers to some more intimate form of touching, such as would be appropriate to husband and wife. Bruce also interprets “my Father, and your Father” as suggesting that God was Mary’s Father in a special sense — because, as Jesus’ wife, she was God’s daughter-in-law. This is not a tenable reading, though, since “your” is plural (as it always is in King James English) and thus refers to the “brethren” or disciples as a group, not specifically to Mary.

Against this, we have John 11:5, which reads, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.” This seems like a very strange way of wording things if Martha’s sister (Mary) was Jesus’ own wife!

Bruce also maintains that the marriage at Cana was Jesus and Mary’s own marriage. Here is how the Gospel introduces this event: “And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there: And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage” (John 2:1-2). This is, it must be admitted, a very un-Gricean way of saying “Jesus got married,” if that is indeed what it means! However, when there is no wine, it is Jesus who is informed of the problem, and he tells the servants what to do, his mother telling them, “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it” (John 2:5). Afterwards, “the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now” (John 2:9-10). From this it appears that Mary had authority over the servants at the wedding, suggesting that it was hosted by her own family; and the governor of the feast assumes that it is the bridegroom who makes decisions regarding wine, when in fact this responsibility was given to Jesus. The early Mormon apostle Orson Hyde (who held that Jesus was married to both Mary and Martha, and perhaps others as well), considered these points conclusive:

Gentlemen, that is as plain as the translators, or different councils over this Scripture, dare allow it to go to the world, but the thing is there; it is told; Jesus was the bridegroom at the marriage of Cana of Galilee, and he told them what to do.

Now there was actually a marriage; and if Jesus was not the bridegroom on that occasion, please tell who was. If any man can show this, and prove that it was not the Savior of the world, then I will acknowledge I am in error. We say it was Jesus Christ who was married, to be brought into the relation whereby he could see his seed, before he was crucified (“The Marriage Relations,” Journal of Discourses 2:82).

(I’m sure the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would appreciate my noting that Orson Hyde’s opinions were his own and that the Church has never had any official position regarding the question of Jesus’ marital status.)

All I can say is that if this is indeed a record of Jesus’ own marriage, it must be a deliberately obscure one. Someone, whether the beloved disciple himself or (as Hyde implies) others through whose hands his book has passed on its way down to us, has tried to disguise the true character of this event, dropping only hints for those with ears to hear. Why this should have been thought necessary is unclear. No one thinks it scandalous or embarrassing that Abraham and Moses and St. Peter were married.

As for the spikenard ointment incident being a second, “mystical,” marriage, there is certainly nothing to suggest this in the scriptural account. Jesus’ own comment on the incident connects it with his coming burial, not his marriage.



All in all, I find the Lazarus theory fairly compelling. If the beloved disciple is to be identified with any named biblical figure, Lazarus seems much the best candidate. However, I am also sympathetic to the theories that the beloved disciple is strictly anonymous (i.e., never named anywhere in the Bible and not to be identified with anyone who is) and that he is a fictional character. Only further engagement with the Gospel in question can resolve this issue for me.

Regarding the Magdalene-Bethany theory,  I see no very strong evidence on either side. Perhaps they were one woman, perhaps two. It partly depends on how we judge the evidence of her/their having been married to Jesus, since some of that evidence comes from Bethany passages and some from Magdalene ones — supposing we are not prepared to go as far as Orson Hyde and make Christ a polygamist.

I would tend to assume that Christ was married, barring any special evidence that he wasn’t. Most people do get married, including most religious founders, and Jesus apparently lived a normal life until the age of 30. And if he was married, and if his wife is one of the people mentioned by name in the Bible, then Mary (Magdalene, originally of Bethany) seems the likeliest possibility.

As for the wedding at Cana and the anointing incident, I am so far not at all convinced that they have anything to do with Jesus’ own marriage. He is clearly a guest at the wedding at Cana, invited along with others, and there is no indication that the anointing has anything to do with marriage at all. I am inclined to think that if Jesus was in fact married, to Mary or anyone else, the event itself is not recorded in the Bible.

I may of course end up revising some or all of these judgments after having spent more time reading and thinking about the Fourth Gospel.

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.