Meaning: Producing wonders through study and practice. The usefulness of amusement, artistry and deception in public life. Make it entertaining and people will accept what you have to say easier.
Reversed: Poor use or recognition of an opportunity. Ungracious, disorganized, insolent or hostile towards admirers or friends. Ignoring the ways of natural law.
Among the earliest Tarot decks, only a few exhibit the orchestrated association with the four suits that has become standard, or putting the coin, sword, cup and stave on the table. As though to say, the Magician’s tools are the four elements, this is what new decks usually display. But in a different reading, consider the card’s original title, the Juggler, and in the French tradition, we have the Le Bateleur, which in some slightly differently spelled way I don’t recall also means The Fool. The Magician is a street performer, gifted with sleight of hand, capturing attention and using distractions to create the illusion of invisibility.
It is in a Magician’s domain to perform tricks and wonders for the public. To make the ordinary surprising, the make it happen as though from nothing. Pulling things out of the air is normal fare, and it is with modest tools that the Magician is able to extract from the world the wonder and lessons hidden all around. The kind of knowledge that makes such a student of great use to others, a magical presence.
In any case, the card is traditionally read as a version of the self, along with the beggar Fool, and the Hermit. Perhaps there is something telling in all this. As it happens the first three cards are the ones the occult interpretations of Tarot most frequently get right. The Tarot is composed of cards that are both relevant in their day, and contain elements of the most enduring and popular Classical gods and goddesses. There is a selectiveness about which ones that is compelling, as you will discover.
The Magician card is correctly identified as Mercury, or Hermes. The Roman and Greek gods were different but associated. The comic book version is that he’s the ultimate conductor, of messages from the gods, and especially, of dead souls to their new home wherever that may be. This fast conducting would revive the Roman vision as a neoclassical icon of the postal and electricity industry, cars, and space travel.
And we’re getting closer to the significance of Mercury, after all plenty of other gods doing double duty as a way to picture ancestors. At the root of the messenger identity is the real reason for this character’s distinction – in all forms Hermes is the god of language, of the first letters, or writing. This is why the occult named it the Book of Thoth, also the giver of letters. Hermes in his various forms is also the god then of codes, ciphers, diplomacy, barter and haggling. He is also a master of disguise. A common form, whether among the Germans as Odin or in Rome as Mercury, is that of an old traveling man, or anyone he wishes really. So in the card just before the Magician, we have the Fool, a perfectly typical Hermes disguise, and in Chronos we see his Old Man routine, a favorite in Greek vase painting, in the Hanged Man we see the shamanic origin story of letters, and it is the Northern one spent dangling from a tree. In the South the origin of letters is more typically associated with birds, the tracks they leave in wet sand or their flying formations, and so are sometimes said to have been seen in the air, and of course Thoth has the head of an Ibis. In the caduceus we see another, the snakes of creation wrapped around a stylus, their movements suggesting the first letters, the emblem of genesis. Similarly, Hermes has wings on his cap, on his shoes, and on his wand, suggesting a flock of birds, again a legendary origin of the alphabet.
The logical leap to the Magician being a symbol of invention, and so technology, is easily made. The Book of Thoth is I think a fair and appropriate title then, despite the Tarot’s distance from Egyptian ideas, because the Humanist Tarot is loaded with comparative genesis stories and symbols that taken together seem quite interested in the question of origins.
A final clarification should be made. As Mercury, Hermes and Thoth are all similar, they are linked with another character that may have been known to our Humanist inventors, namely that Hermes Trimestigus, the Thrice Great author of the fabled Emerald Tablets which contained the secrets of alchemy, including changing lead into gold. There is nothing found yet that matches this sort of artifact, from Egypt. The text is generally though to be written in Arabic before the 8th Century. It could be that illegible engraved gem stones worn by Persians and other armies the Crusades met led to its believability, or even that such an object once was made, but fine Emerald by nature doesn’t tend to appear in large slices useful for writing tablets, and no such real tablets have been found.