The Magician is a card with two distinct personalities. Before the early 20th century resurgence of interest in the occult the Magician existed humbly as Le Bateleur, which Wikipedia defines as ‘the Mountebank.’ A mountebank, for those of you less interested in 19th century jargon than I am, is simply a cheat. The Magician wasn’t much more than a street hustler, his cards and his shells laid out to draw in simple marks for easy money in confidence games like 3 Card Monte. But with the onset of the 20th century and a revived interest into the mystic and the occult, folks like Waite, Crowley and Oswald Wirth significantly altered the status of the Magician from humble street hustler to all-powerful mage. Even given the card’s astrological and planetary attributions the Magician’s promotion has never sat well with me because I can’t see the reason for it. Thus, as I am examining the Magician and his motivations for the deck, a simple question arises: What brought about his change?
A section from the Paris Working makes it plain why Crowley, at least, has elevated the Magician: The card’s astrological planet is Mercury, and Mercury, according to Crowley, is easily conflated with Christ.
In the Beginning was the Word, the Logos, who is Mercury; and is therefore to be identified with Christ. Both are messengers; their birth mysteries are similar; the pranks of their childhood are similar.
Crowley uses a piece of John 1:1 as his anchor in identifying Christ with Mercury, and via the transitive property, the Magician. The full text of the quote from John is: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God." I am, to say the least, uneasy with the comparison of Mercury to Christ, especially when used to elevate our humble tarot card, street magician, to the level Magus most high. In order to make this comparison Crowley conveniently ignores the rest of the first chapter of John, which goes on to describe Christ: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." This does not, to me, sound anything like the Mercury I am accustomed to hearing about.
As usual Crowley’s attributions in this section of the Paris Working are full of off-handed allusions and poetic comparisons that fly fast and furious, inundating the student with biblical and mythological allusion without any supporting exegesis, leaving it to the reader to draw her own conclusions that his tone, confident as always, implies should be clear to even the most simple reader. Do I really believe, for instance, that "The Crucifixion represents the Caduceus; the two thieves, the two serpents…"? Further, Crowley asks us to note, "Christ’s relations with the money changers…" which, if I recall correctly, involved a furious Jesus scattering them from the temple steps for (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleansing_of_the_Temple)“turning the Temple to a den of thieves through their commercial activities.” Again, this sounds like Christ the radical, and nothing like Mercury, the amoral god of trade.
As always I am wary of wading in too deeply in contradicting Crowley. His depth of experience and study I think far outstrips mine, but a concrete study of selected passages from The Book of Thoth and The Paris Working seems to point to an inconsistent theology surrounding the newly powerful Magus. It seems more probable that Crowley used convenient, albeit superficial, similarities of the two in order to justify his vision of (or more maliciously his agenda for) the tarot, and elevates the first card from hustler to saviour.
Interestingly, Crowley can’t abandon the origins of the card completely. In the penultimate paragraph of his chapter on the Magician discussing the symbolism of the Egyptian god Thoth as a god of writing and communication Crowley says, "…but it was seen from very early times that the use of speech, or writing, meant the introduction of ambiguity at the best, and falsehood at the worst…In philosophical language one may say: Manifestation implies illusion," and goes on to imply that this aspect of the Magician might be compared to the Buddhist concept of Maya, or the "Lord of Illusion". My feeling is that this is the Magician’s core and original aspect and its most important.
The Magician’s associated Hebrew letter is Beth, translated as House, and I think the combination of this association with its planetary trump Mercury, the trickster, symbolizes the card’s true spirit. As Logos, as the Word, as the messenger, Mercury is the physical embodiment of an idea, the empty vessel filled with outside influence, the carrier of someone else’s contents. Ideas exist in our minds free of the trappings of language or manifestation, pure and completely understandable to us. But humans inevitably want to share ideas, and to share them we must make them manifest, we must house them in a vessel of some kind, and the most efficient, though not necessarily the best, houses for ideas have proven to be words, written or spoken. The trouble is that the physical embodiment of anything, as Crowley notes, is riddled with risk, as this physical form can be misheard, misread misinterpreted, or flat out misleading.
Beth, Logos or Word, the houses we build for our ideas always have back doors, unanticipated access points and unforeseen consequences, all of which a trickster like Mercury can’t resist taking advantage of. In the Magician Mercury is at his best, manipulating apparently obvious information to mislead the audience. As Crowley notes the Magician is amoral in his approach to things: "He has no conscience, being creative. If he cannot attain his ends by fair means, he does it by foul". Thus the magician may be the con man, hustling 3 card monte on the street for quick cash or he may be the genteel entertainer, using illusion to dazzle and amuse at birthday parties or in Vegas.
Either way, mastery of the tools is a necessary aspect of this card. The street hustler can’t cheat a mark if he drops a trick, and the illusionist won’t graduate from backyards if the rabbit keeps falling out of the hat before she’s supposed to. Mercury is a master trickster since birth, stealing his brother’s cattle just hours after he was born and cleverly creating the lyre in the process. What this mastery reveals is that the Magician cannot create of his own accord, and this is a key difference between the tarot’s original Bateleur and Crowley’s Magus: The Magus can create, but the Bateleur must use other people’s things in order to be a success. Hermes uses his wits to steal from others, but cannot create of his own accord. He is the god of thieves and messengers, those who thrive from carrying other people’s goods. He does "represent the Will" as Crowley says, by carrying it him for a time, for good or for ill, but we must not then conflate Mercury with the Will he carries, as I think Crowley seems to imply, meaning not that the Magus represents the Will, but that he is the Will. As we must not to shoot the messenger for bad news, nor should we crown her for good, and it seems to me that this is the mistake Crowley has made in his rush to promote the Master of Illusion to the rank of Magus.
There is of course a back door in my Beth, an alternate entry to the house I have created for this idea, and that is that Crowley was, in fact, playing the role of the Magician in his description of the Magician. Perhaps this is why he describes a card called the Juggler in The Book of Thoth, while including a card called The Magus in the Thoth Tarot; hinting to us that something doesn’t quite add up, that something is amiss. The greatest weapon of the illusionist is of course illusion. If he can convince us that he is not merely a street magician but something grander, if he can convince us that his works are real and not illusion then he is a much more powerful figure than he would be otherwise. This camouflage allows the illusionist a level of respect and intimidation that he would otherwise lack without it. The trick is based on his skill and abilities, but is carried off by his sense of grandeur and bravado, and there is no one better at this than our friend Mr. Crowley. It is appealing, then, to say that Crowley saw something of himself in the card, though it would be lazy of me to push the autobiographical elements of my theory that far. But, oh, what a tempting analogy to draw between the card and the man, that the magic of transforming the Magician from Le Bateleur to Magus did the same thing for Crowley himself.