The Magician – The Tarot: Major Arcana
As we mentioned in the previous post on the Fool, the tarot has origins as a playing card deck and in that iteration the first numbered card in the deck is the Magician (not to be confused with the technical first card in the deck which is the Fool, which is unnumbered). This article will be talking about the Magician in depth, from its history in card games to its modern day use in divination, as well as go over differences in how the archetype has been portrayed across various decks over time.
Let’s start with the original version. According to the rules of most tarot games, the Magician is the lowest ranking trump card and most players will take tricks (numbered cards with suits) over the Magician to accrue more points. He is depicted standing behind a table with various tools strewn about, including cups, pellets, and a knife, implying this is a person who deals in sleight-of-hand. He is also wearing ornate clothing and holding a wand, a universal symbol of magical ability.
(pictured: Tarot de Marseille by Jean Dodal)
For divination purposes, the Magician can be thought of as the first character the Fool meets on their journey through the major arcana. He represents the connection between man and spirit, and in some sense the performance of spirituality. In modern culture we think of magicians as experts at illusion. We know that what they show us is not real – the true magic in being a magician after all is creating the impression that one has supernatural gifts. This isn’t to say that the Magician is to be universally read as a deceiver. In fact, as the card’s imagery has evolved overtime, more esoteric symbolism has been added by various artists, perhaps to make the reader question whether the Magician is a trickster or in fact a sorcerer. This tension can be used as a way to think of the card’s energy – have you ever noticed that when you see someone wearing a uniform or a costume, you respond to them differently? For example, when your doctor wears a white jacket, you are more likely to recognize their authority as a medical professional and may be more open to listening to recommendations they make about your personal health. The Magician reminds us that creating conditions to support our belief in magic (such as dressing up, lighting candles, setting up an altar) can make the magic more powerful.
(pictured: Rider-Waite Tarot)
In the Rider-Waite deck (which is one of the first tarot decks specifically designed with divination in mind) we see him wearing a robe and a headband, common garments worn in many traditions to denote spiritual authority. The four items on his table are a wand, a cup, a pentacle, and a sword – the four suits of the Tarot’s minor arcana – each with their own elemental correspondences of fire, air, earth, and water. His belt is the iconic ouroboros symbol (a snake eating its own tail) and above his head is an infinity sign, both symbols of eternity. The garden surrounding the magician is made up of roses and lilies of the valley to point to the magician’s ability to cultivate potential. We haven’t even mentioned the obvious double-ended wand he holds in the air, borrowed from the original playing card versions. This symbol is widely interpreted as a stand-in for the tenet “as above, so below” which means that the events of the physical world mirror that of the ethereal. It can also be thought of as a phallic symbol. While cisnormative in its approach, the presence of a phallus in many traditions symbolizes masculinity and its principle of action (as opposed to femininity’s principle of receptivity). This is to remind us that the Magician is an individual who seeks knowledge, not understanding, and their magic is expressed through their action.
The legacy of the Rider-Waite’s interpretation can be seen in the Morgan Greer, Druidcraft, Mucha Tarot decks, albeit with slight stylistic differences:
(Pictured top to bottom: Morgan-Greer Tarot, Druidcraft Tarot, Mucha Tarot)
With most Rider-Waite-based decks sharing common tropes from that deck as well as the original playing card decks, you might be wondering how the energies of the Magician could be portrayed in more unconventional ways. To demonstrate this, let’s look at the Wildwood Tarot, which has renamed its version of the Magician to “The Shaman”:
(pictured: The Wildwood Tarot)
Here we see elements from the Rider-Waite and playing card versions – the magician himself wearing elaborate garments, a staff pointed to the sky, standing beside a table strewn with various tools.
The expression on this Shaman’s face though is one of intimidation and defensiveness, as if to say “those who approach this table, beware”. The bear skin headpiece and bones on his altar imply a connection to the animal kingdom, something not touched upon in the aforementioned versions, but is completely appropriate in the context of the Wildwood, which is set in a world based on Pre-Celtic mythology and shamanism. In this deck, emphasis is placed on the connection between the divine and nature, and here we see that connection depicted through the immersion of the Shaman within the animal and plant domains. We are to infer from his long white beard that he is older and presumably more versed in spiritual knowledge. The smoke rising from a pile of rags to the sky above stands in for the “as above so below” principle along with the traditional staff.
The Wildwood version of the Magician plays with some of the tropes we are already familiar with but adds new ones that still apply to the card’s general meaning and make it work in a new setting. Now let’s compare this to the imagery depicted in the Orisha Tarot.
(Pictured: The Orisha Tarot)
Here, a priest can be seen creating something for a godchild as a service to their godparents, a practice associated with the Path of the Orisha. We see the table and infinity elements present in the Rider-Waite version, but the four tools representing the four suits have been replaced with elements intended to successfully birth a godchild. In the guidebook of this deck, it is explained that these elements are chosen through divination by the priests, who do this to ensure that the right things are offered at the right time. The book also mentions however that priests can take on the trickster quality of the magician when using their authority to exploit others for profit. The way the energy of the card appears for the querent depends on the situation being asked about in the reading. In this example we see that the artist has taken the core principles of the card and has depicted them through the lens of a tradition that doesn’t find itself represented in most tarot decks, making it more accessible to another potential segment of readers.
Finally, let’s take a look at a Magician that is not depicted as human at all, but as a wildcat:
(Pictured: The Wild Unknown Tarot)
While the familiar tropes of the four suits and the infinity symbol are represented, the energy of the card is mostly symbolized by what we associate with this animal itself: action and speed, qualities expressed in other versions through a phallic staff, but here depicted in a much more literal way. Additionally wildcats are considered predators which echoes what we know about Magicians being tricksters.
As we can see, there are many ways to connect with the Magician’s energy, whether it be through a practiced sorcerer using their knowledge to create something new, a con-artist looking to find their next mark, or a predator utilizing their skills to stay at the top of the food chain. The common thread is using the resources available to you to make things happen, regardless of the big picture.
The decks pictured above can all be found at our brick-and-mortar store in Northampton, MA as well as online at inspiritcrystals.com/shop!
- Tarot Heritage
- Tarot Wisdom by Rachel Pollack
- Tarot Deciphered by T. Susan Chang and M.M. Meleen