Saturday, November 03, 2007

Le Bateleur: Shuckster or the Real Deal?

Recently I watched one of those "magician tricks revealed" programs with a masked magician, masked to hide his identity from the other magicians who would supposedly be extremely pissed at him for giving away their precious secrets. Nevermind that there are all kinds of instructional books and videos that reveal these same "secrets." The irony was profound. The smoke and mirrors were still present even within a context that was supposed to be transparent and revealing. It's funny, though, most of us really don't want to know how the magicians saw women in half or pull a rabbit out of a hat. We don't really want the sense of wonder ruined. We want to believe what we see the magician doing, even if we know we have to suspend our disbelief in order to see it.

Recently, we've seen a "new" kind of magician come on the scene but which is really a throwback to magician tradition: the street magician. These guys are good. They have to be. They have no special stage effects, no curtains, no tarted up assistants. It's just them, their own props, and you.

The tarot's own Le Bateleur, or "the street performer" means literally, "one who uses a wand," hence...a magician. Wands are a point of focus for the magic practitioner and for the audience. A magician may use it to distract, to point, to focus your attention on something, or something else. It is a tool and therefore not particularly imbued with any power of its own. Just like the wands in Ollivander's Wand Shop could only be wielded well by a particular person, so a magician's wand is his own tool and subject to his own bidding. The wand is the most consistent element in any Magician card from the earliest to the present, whether he is pictured more as a shuckster or a sort of wizard, the wand is usually clearly visible in the card most often in the subject's hand. Most of all, what we need to remember about this guy is that, historically, he was seen as a cheat, a shuckster who swindled people out of their coins by pulling the wool over their eyes. He's the guy who offers a chance to play a "fair game" with loaded dice and a stacked deck.

The Magician is the instigator. Numbered one in the Major Arcana, he's the guy who gets things started, who makes something from nothing, or so it appears. Is he for real? Or is he pulling the wool over our eyes? Does it matter? I don't think so. Some focus on this guy's shell game and others focus on his charisma and still others believe he has real power to magically manipulate the essences of life.



Tom Tadfor Little, in his essay about The Magician, shows how the use of The Magician in the game of tarocchi offers a great analogy to his meaning in tarot:

The tarot dates from times when the ancient feudal system had been intruded on and transformed by an ever more important middle class of artisans, merchants, and others "out for themselves" in the world. Such people were not well respected. The great artists of the Renaissance, whose paintings and sculptures are now seen as priceless masterpieces of what is highest in the human spirit, were in their own time lumped together with the cobblers, housepainters, tailors, and others who worked with their hands to provide purely utilitarian goods and services. So both the juggler/magician and the artisan/craftsman were "nobodies" operating outside the formal hierarchical world of the nobility, yet neither were they serfs or slaves; indeed they might be wealthy enough (or clever enough) to carry influence out of proportion to their social status...

In the game, the court cards are all worth points, but the trumps are generally not. The only exceptions are the World, the Magician, and the Fool, which are each worth as much as kings, making them among the most valuable cards in the game. Now if you are dealt the Fool or World, those points are guaranteed to you, because neither of those cards can be captured during play. The Magician, on the other hand, is extremely vulnerable to being captured, because it is outranked by all the other trumps. So to win a trick with the Magician, the other players must all play suit cards, not trumps. This is not an easy thing to arrange. It can happen only if (a) you are out of a particular suit that everyone else still has, or (b) everyone else is completely out of trumps. If neither of those conditions occur, you will likely lose the Magician (and all its points) to some other player. So arranging an opportunity to play the Magician card without losing it is a major component of tarot strategy.

One can generally not count on the lucky opportunity of running out of a suit that others still have, although it is easy enough to take advantage of the opportunity if you are the last one to play in a given trick. More challenging and fun is saving the Magician until everyone else has run out of trumps. (For this to work, you must be dealt many of the trumps to begin with--if not, you are likely to run out early yourself.) You hold the Magician card until the end of the game, when you hope all the other players will be defenseless against it. Furthermore, the way the game works, players are often caught holding court cards through the middle of the game, because it is too risky to play them when they might be captured by a trump. So at the end of the game, players are finally forced to play their valuable court cards. There is no greater glee in the game than taking a handful of royalty by playing the Magician in the last trick. This feature is so prominent that in most versions of the game, a player who pulls this maneuver off gets a hefty point bonus!

The Magician is a coward, a swindler, and a cheat. He lives by his wits. All the other cards of the major arcana depict high earthly rulers (Pope and Emperor, for example) or archetypal powers (like Love, Death, and Time), which are unambiguously superior to the kings, queens, and knights of the court. Only the Magician, as an ignoble commoner, cannot "logically" triumph over royalty. By his powers of illusion, dexterity, and fast talk, though, he can capture them! As if his portrayal on the card were not enough to make the point clear, the rules of the game are contrived so that the Magician lurks secretively throughout the entire hand, waiting for the great powers of the cosmos to play themselves out; he appears by surprise at the end to capture a veritable hoard of royalty who were too cautious or inept to enter the fray of the early part of the game. I think the game of tarot is full of wry social and metaphysical ironies of this type. The Magician is the ultimate manipulator. Although without nobility or rank, he rakes in his victory by unabashedly exploiting the rules of the game of life.


And here's another cool thing about the Magician card: if you add the value of the letters for Le Bateleur, the sum is 78, the number of cards in a traditional tarot deck; however, if one takes into consideration how the letter U was often represented as the letter V (whose value is 22) then the total becomes 100 which reduces to 1 which is the placement of the Magician in the Major Arcana sequence. Wow! How'd he do that?

When this card appears in a reading, you really have to be careful. He's not bad news, but he's not always good news either. With him, there's always more than what meets the eye, and even just knowing that can be helpful. He can represent someone who is just simply charismatic and charming, who naturally brings attention to himself, who shines in the spotlight. He has a bit of a Midas touch, too, in that he has the ability to transform any situation to his benefit. He is endowed with a creative energy and spark that creates something from nothing, or so it may seem. He's entertaining and, like celebrities tend to be, also a bit self-centered and yes, manipulative. On the negative side, he is narcissistic and uses his considerable powers of persuasion and deception to his own, selfish ends.

As advice, I often see this card urging me to start something, and encouraging me that I have what it takes within me already to accomplish something to make something I want to happen. See, in most tarot decks the Magician is shown with all the symbols of all four suits laid out on a table at hand. You have the tools, you have the knowledge, you might have to shuck and jive a bit to make it happen, but you can do it.
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