The Magician’s Tools: An Inspirational Look at the History of Tarot’s Wise Old Wizard
Of all the major arcana, the Magician has the biggest impact in a divination reading and a tarot game. Today we’re revealing his bewitching backstory!
“Logic only gives man what he needs. Magic gives him what he wants.” ― Tom Robbins
“Be honest with yourself and put your cards on the table – but maybe not all of them, because a 79-card tarot reading will take a while.” — The Little White Book
When playing the tarot game for fun – which we at Curio always encourage! – the points rack up slowly, and therein lies the challenge. So, it’s something of a moment when you flip the card and find a high-scorer to put you over the top, and one of our favorites is the showstopping Magician Card. Within his bag of tricks is something you really need: four huge points on the scoreboard, and a bonus ten if he’s played in the last trick. That’s worth high-fiving the Mage all by itself, but there’s much more to his story. In tarot divination, the Magician Card is all business, and his appearance heralds the start of some big things!
THE SECRET MAGIC OF KNOWLEDGE
The history of this all-important trump card, or major arcana, goes all the way back to the very first tarot decks in 15th century northern Italy. In the Visconti-Sforza traditional tarot cards – recognized today as the earliest version of what we would consider to be proper tarot – the Magician was the Mountebank, dressed in splendid finery and seated at a table set with some cups, a knife, and what the scholar Michael Pearce has compellingly identified as a sea sponge. All of these things, Pearce points out, were items used by academics: the stick is a reed pen, the cups hold its ink, the sponge sops up the spillage, and the knife is used to prepare tablets for work. The attributes of a magician – a wizened practitioner of arcane knowledge and tools, employing the immaterial gains of education to make an impact on the material world – are all traits we would apply to an academic, especially in the context of 500 years ago when education was rare. The Mountebank is using his tools to transcribe thoughts and discern meaning and order from the jumbled world around him.
AN ICONIC, ETERNAL DESIGN
Over the following years, the character’s pen became a magic wand (still pointed at the sky), and the tools on the table became the objects found in that particular deck’s four pip suits: swords, cups, hearts, etc. And once that basic formation settled into place, the Magician’s appearance remained remarkably consistent ever since! While other major arcana feature wildly divergent interpretations depending on the artist, most seem content to leave the Magician alone after a little cosmetic adjustment to the figure itself (our favorite is when he’s a cat, because magic cats are cool). This is most notable, and has to derive from the rich symbology in the original design that needs little to no updating.
MAKING MAGIC IN EVERYDAY LIFE
In all versions, the Magician’s wand is pointed skyward, signifying a direct connection to the celestial bodies and the immaterial world beyond our everyday perceptions; the world of thoughts, feelings, intuition, inspiration, and all the other things we must access to motivate us every day. The presence of all four pip objects suggests complete balance, an alchemical mastery over the elements. And at the center of it all is the Mage, corralling the energies or at least serving as their conduit. All these things combined are a strength of will to take action in the world, so the card has come to mean self-actualization and realizing potential. The Magician Card is the “you go girl” of a tarot spread; it’s time to collect all of your preparation, research, and practice and go do the thing. If you’ve had designs on opening a bakery and the Magician shows up, it’s time to fire up the ovens.
In the Musterberg Tarot, our friendly Magician sticks to these core principles of the original Mountebank, with a few twists that make it extra special. You may notice the table full of objects is actually divided in two, meaning they aren’t equally important. The Magician is leaning towards the sword and chalice, indicating a preference for the powers of the mind in intellect and feelings. And crucially, like all the best sleight-of-hand performers, he’s showing you that there’s nothing hiding up his sleeve. No matter what amazing occurrence comes next, you can be assured the conjurer is being completely honest; the time to turn your fanciful dreams into reality and make your own magic happen is decidedly now, and no trickery is needed!
Ready to learn more about some of your favorite tarot cards? Have a look at our article on the surprisingly upbeat Death Card here:
Want to dive further into the history of tarot decks? Check out the other articles in our history series here: