1. The Magician
Nowadays a magician has a certain prestige. Whether it is a quick-fingered entertainer, or a talented “energy worker”, his or her showmanship evokes awe and admiration. In the 15th century, however, when the first tarot cards were born, a magician did not have much more status than the Fool; the wanderer on the first card of the major arcana. A magician was a street artist and he was associated with deception and scamming.
The Visconti-Sforza deck is the oldest known tarot deck. It depicts the Magician with the four symbols of the minor arcana: a staff, a knife (sword), a cup and coins. In the centuries that follow we sometimes see other objects on the Magician’s table. Oswald Wirth (1890) re-esthablishes the Magician as the keeper of the four minor arcana symbols. This will remain the standard for almost all decks after Wirth’s.
On the table of the Visconti card also lies an enigmatic white cloth with something underneath. Some tarot researchers have opted this is a so-called velum that covers the consecrated hosts in the Catholic Church. During the height of Catholic mass, ordinary bread (the host) changes to “the Body of Christ” (called the transubstantiation). The transubstantiation is indeed a beautiful metaphor for the process of spiritual transformation that the entire major arcana stands for.
The Magician of the Etteilla Tarot (1890) is dressed as a Jewish priest, a reference to the high priest Aaron, the brother of the prophet Moses, from the Old Testament. Moses and Aaron both had a special staff that could turn into a serpent; a biblical metaphor for a kundalini awakening.
When a priest is to be chosen from twelve tribal chiefs, God instructs all candidates to give a stick to Moses. “And the staff of the man whom I choose will blossom,” says God (Numbers 17: 5).
The next day Moses entered the tent of the testimony and saw that Aaron’s staff, representing the house of Levi, had sprouted, formed buds, blossomed, and produced almonds! (Numbers 17: 8)
The blossoming and bearing fruit of the staff is a apt metaphor for a spine in which the awakened kundalini energy is flowing. This “sprouting” of Aaron’s staff is a theme that has found its way into the tarot. In many decks we find staffs with buts and leaves attached to them, something that is not common for a staff that is used for walking or sheep herding.
“Moses and Aaron before the Pharaoh”
(16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Aäron’s staff blossoms
The ten coins, or tokens, on the table of the Magician of the Etteilla deck, are organised in the pattern 1-2-3-4, a reference to the tetraktys of Pythagoras. The philosopher Pythagoras, who lived around 500 BC, saw the tetraktys as the foundation of the cosmos and as an expression of the divine. Ten, the sum of the numbers one, two, three, and four, is a sacred number for the Pythagoreans; symbol for harmony and perfection.
The title Maladie (illness) does not refer to the Magician, but to the meaning that, according to Etteilla, the card has in a tarot reading.
The symbols of the minor arcana
With his tarot deck, in 1909, Arthur E. Waite is the first to also illustrate all the cards of the minor arcana. The cards of pentacles (or coins), cups, rods and swords, were already associated with the four elements – earth, water, fire and air – before this time. Now this connection is made visible in the illustrations of the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck.
The symbolism, however, does not stop with the classical four elements. The four symbols of the minor arcana, on the table in front of the magician, also refer to the divine and various aspects of a kundalini awakening. The four aces of the deck, with the Hand of God holding the symbols, are an example of this. Colman-Smith was inspired by the Tarot of Marseille for these illustrations.
The aces of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot
The sword, the staff, and the cup are ancient symbols that are used in many traditions to refer to a kundalini awakening. Surprisingly enough, even in the 17th century Tarot of Marseille. We see a divine hand and divine (kundalini) fire on the Aces of Swords and Rods.
The aces of the Tarot of Marseille (17th century)
The castle-like top of the chalice on the Ace of Cups refers to the Kingdom of God. The mysterious liquid that flows over the rim of the chalice in three small waves represents the divine energy that flows to body, heart (feeling) and head (thinking); a classical tripartite division of man, which we also see in Biblical symbolism.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Cups Seven from the RWS deck is also very interesting in terms of symbolism. Each cup on this card shows a characteristic of the kundalini energy:
- A serpent => a classic symbol of the kundalini energy
- A dragon => if the kundalini energy is used to feed the animal instincts, it is a dragon that must be conquered
- The head of an angel => an angel is a metaphor for the (divine) kundalini energy
- A castle on a mountain => the Kingdom of God
- Jewels => the inner wealth / abundance that the divine brings
- Someone under a cloth => the purifying effect of the kundalini energy makes one invisible (ego-less)
- A laurel wreath with a skull (on the chalice itself) => victory over death
Like the staff, the sword is also a metaphor for the spine with the kundalini energy flowing in it. The image of a sword refers to the inner battle and the cleansing – the “cutting away” of everything that prevents a connection with God – that are part of the process of awakening.
From: Aurora consurgens, 15th century
On this illustration from alchemy we see the kundalini energy personified by a winged woman (angel / Sophia), standing on the moon (symbol for the feminine), with a sword in her opened belly. Her black skin color refers to the hidden / locked up (in the pelvis) character of the kundalini (the theme of the “Black Madonna”).
The pentagram is a symbol that is almost as old as humanity itself. In many traditions it is a highly valued esoteric sign. Among other things because of its special mathematical properties, the five-pointed star stands for the perfect human being; for the person who has realized the divine.
Over time, the inverted pentagram, pointing downwards, acquired the meaning of satanism. Nowadays, with one point up, the star stands for the divine dominating over matter (the four elements). With two points up it is the lower, animal drives (satan) that rule.
From: ‘The Alchemy of the Freemason’, by François-Nicolas Noël, early 19th century.
From: “Le Barbier Medecin ou les Fleurs d’Hyppocrate”, by Jean Michault, 1672.
The Greek goddess Hygieia with pentagram, staff and serpent.
On the illustration from Jean Michault’s book the letters YGEIA are added to the pentram. This refers to the Greek hugieia which means wholeness / health, and to Hygieia , the goddess of health and purity (hygiene). As an attribute, Hygieia, like her father Asclepius, the god of medicine, has a staff with a serpent. The deeper meaning of this is that a kundalini awakening leads to (spiritual) wholeness and purity.
We also see a dragon depicted on Michault’s illustration. This represents the animal drives that pose a threat to God-realization (‘hugieia‘).
The staff of Hermes
Tarot decks that originate from, or are inspired by, the 19th century occult grouping The Golden Dawn often relate the Magician to the Greek god Hermes (Mercury to the Romans). By touching them with his serpent staff, the caduceus, Hermes could put people to sleep and wake them up. In other words: he could awaken spiritually unconscious people.
On the Classic Golden Dawn card , the Magician has a caduceus on his chest. With his hands he makes the figure of a triangle with one point upwards – the symbol for the element fire – at the height of his pelvis. This is a reference to the “kundalini fire” at the sacrum. This card is without color. Traditionally, members of the Golden Dawn were supposed to color their own tarot cards. On the table are not the four symbols of the minor arcana, but objects that refer to the Grail legend: the Holy Lance of Longinus, with which Jesus was pierced on the cross; Excalibur, the sword of King Arthur; and the Holy Grail itself, in which, supposedly, the blood of Jesus was collected. The cube represents the divine. The four objects are placed in the form of a pentagram.
On the Knapp-Hall Tarot card, the Magician’s staff is a caduceus. Geoffrey Dowson (Hermetic Tarot) has chosen to depict the entire figure of Hermes / Mercury. The Magus of the Thoth Tarot is, as it were, a caduceus himself. Behind him a long staff is placed and at the height of his head spiral two serpents. The wings of the god Hermes are connected to his feet. At the top of the card we see a small, descending dove.
The Rider-Waite-Smith Magician
The RWS Tarot makes a link between the Magician and an alchemist. Red and white – the Magician’s clothing – are the colors that represent in alchemy the two poles of duality, which must be fused into a (divine) unity. On an energetic level, these colors refer to the two energy channels, running along the spine, which in the yoga tradition are called ida-nadi (the feminine, white) and pingala-nadi (the masculine, red). They are also the two serpents that spiral upwards on the staff of the god Hermes.
Alchemy often uses images from nature, such as flowers. On the illustration from the manuscript of Basilius Valentinus we see a king – symbol for the alchemist who has realized the divine – standing wide-legged between a rose (red) and a lily (white). These are the same flowers that we also see on the RWS card of the Magician.
He is holding a sun and a moon in his hands. These are also symbols that express duality. The alchemical emblem with the mythical figure Hermes Trismegistus illustrates that the fusion of these poles takes place through the action of (the kundalini) fire.
From an alchemical manuscript by Basilius Valentinus, 1613.
Hermes Trismegistus, from: Viridarium Chymicum, of D. Stolz von Stolzenberg, 1624
The lemniscate, above the head of the RWS Magician, is a universal symbol that expresses this fusion. Around the Magician’s waist we see a so-called ouroboros; a serpent that eats its own tail. The ouroboros is an ancient symbol, also from alchemy, that with its circular shape stands for the cyclical nature of creation, and its underlying divine unity. This ouroboros as a belt symbolizes that the animal drives (the lower abdomen) must be mastered in order to experience the divine.
With his arms, one pointing up and one pointing down, the Magician expresses the connection of heaven and earth. The raised staff must tell us how this connection is established: by raising the kundalini. The staff has two small buttons, a subtle reference to the fusion of the polarities that must be achieved.
Colman-Smith has added an additional clue for tarot researchers to clarify the deeper meaning of this card. On the rim of the table, on the right, we see a rising bird. This is the dove of the Holy Spirit, which is also depicted on the Ace of Cups. However, we read in the Bible that the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends on Jesus:
Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, (Luke 3:21-22)
Blood of the Redeemer, by Bartolomeo Passarotti, 16th century, Museum of Fine Art, Boston
In Christianity the kundalini energy is called The Holy Spirit. The Bible is written in the language of symbolism. Inner processes are explained by using images that the masses could understand. A dove that descends represents the kundalini energy that rises. Colman-Smith knew this and hid this esoteric knowledge in the card of the Magician.
This is also explains the inverted M on the Ace of Cups (see above); a mysterious detail that has kept tarot analysts wondering and guessing for over a century. What does it mean? The M stands for the god Mercury and refers to the water that flows from the cup. In alchemy, the kundalini energy is called Mercurial Water.
The inverted M indicates that we have to turn over the card, to understand its meaning. The water that flows from the cup and the dove both represent the rising kundalini energy. The five streams of water refer to the pentagram (the perfected man).
We can also find this deeper meaning of Bible stories in paintings. Always subtle, because esoteric knowledge could not be dispayed, or spoken about, openly. The painting of Bartolomeo Passarotti, from the 16th century, creativily connects the dove of the Holy Spirit, the rising kundalini serpent, the resurrection of Jesus, and the Holy Grail. An in-depth analysis of this subject can be found in my book: John the baptist who became Jesus the Christ.
The staff of Moses
The Magician in mosaic of the French castle Château des Avenières contains a number of new elements, in comparison to the decks discussed above. On the table is a dish with a hexagram on it. This six-pointed star, also a classical symbol, represents the fusion of the opposites (the merging of two triangles). The handle of the sword is decorated with appropriate lunar symbolism, a reference to the ‘goddess energy’ that the sword stands for. The kundalini energy is seen in many traditions as a feminine aspect of God.
An intriguing detail is the small stream of water that meanders between the feet of the Magician. This, also, is a metaphor for the kundalini-energy, derived from the Old Testament. As the people of Moses roam the wilderness looking for the Promised Land, they get thirsty and start to complain. Moses then hits a rock with his staff – the one that can also turn into a serpent – and water starts pouring out (Exodus 17: 6). Jesus calls this “living water” in the New Testament. Water that will quench your (spiritual) thirst forever:
But whosoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life (John 4:14)
The Magician of Château des Avenières
Moses hits a rock with his staff and water pours out.
Tarot card The Magician stands for connecting heaven and earth. For transformation and self-realization. The Magician is an alchemist. His Magnum Opus is creating the inner (spiritual) gold. His staff, with which he works magic, is the staff of Hermes / Mercury: his spine with flowing in it the Holy Spirit of God.