By Christine Payne-Towler
March 28, 2006
Despite the fact that Trump #1 did not receive the name "The Magus" before the writings of Eliphas Levi, the connection between the Bagatto and "magic" of various types goes very far back in time...
It was the ancient Greeks who long ago linked the concept of bewitchment and enchantment to the older image of a Magus as a wondering astrologer, ritualist, and prophet. Hence the image of a common Juggler or Mountebank has in many periods held the promise of esoteric attributes hidden within a rough and simplistic exterior. The early Renaissance ideal of the Magus, as avowed and lived by Ficino, Pico, Reuchlin, Lazzarelli, Agrippa, Trithemius, and Paracelsus (to name a few), was a person whose empowered acts of consciousness complete the circuit between heaven and earth, therefore fulfilling a priestly as well as an alchemical role.
Dr. Robert V. O'Neill, in his excellent series of articles in the Tarot.com Library (at http://www.tarot.com//about-tarot/library/boneill/bagatto ) relates the earliest Trump I images to contemporary depictions of artisans, alchemists, occultists and diviners, even possibly a dentist (or alternately, that other broad medical and personal-care professional, the barber/blood letter). He settles on the idea that as a street entertainer, the Bagatto could both play a trick and render other possible services as well. O'Neill reminds us that the Juggler is also likely to have sparked associations with banned Pagan Magic within the very Catholic environment that spawned the Trumps. It is pretty revealing that in his extensive research O'Neill was unable to find a single Christian tradition or legend that explains this character's appearance in the ostensibly Christian trajectory covered by the progression of the Trumps.
Dr. O'Neill also points out a sort of blurring of qualities and functions between the Fool and the Magus in some early decks. A prime example of this can be seen in the Rosenwald images from the early sixteenth century. An interesting detail of the Magus in this sequence is his rabbit-eared hat, which first appeared in the 1470s on the Charles VI and d’Este Fool. This begs the question of whether the reference is to the historical character Zyto, who was both court jester and court magician of King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia (enthroned from 1378 to 1419).
In The Myth of the Magus, E. M. Butler relates Zyto's story by way of commenting on the precarious position of a person who was simultaneously entertainer and scapegoat, diviner and illusionist. Zyto's legend does not conform perfectly to the Magus archetype as Butler defines it, but he was rumored to possess a familiar spirit, and to have been carried off by the devil at the end of his life. It is totally possible that this legend conflated in the popular mind with other notorious personalities suspected in their times for dabbling with magic, most especially that of Friar Roger Bacon, an unquestionable scholar of whom the Church suspected questionable practices (1214-1292), and that of the later, but apparently historical Dr. Faust (c. ~1500). Butler puts these three biographies together with those of Joan of Arc and Jiles de Rais, two other stand-out characters linked by their time and circumstances (but of opposite destinies), who were each quite famously and notoriously sacrificed to the Church's fear of magic (see Butler's chapter 'Under the Black Sun' ["... of magic which darkened the Christian skies." p. 116 ff]). The qualities of these diverse individuals, each accused of magic in their different contexts, could easily have merged together in the fearful and awestruck collective consciousness to produce a kind of composite black/white practitioner, capable of both divine and degenerate acts.
Let us also note what Butler says about the environments where one was most likely find the historical Dr. Faust:
"It was emphatically to [the] every day world that the real Faust belonged, and to a very low stratum of it, since he affected by preference those German inns of which Erasmus painted such a vivid picture. Crowded to suffocation, noisome and filthy, they were frequented for the most part by a society the reverse of polite: sullen and morose before food, brawling and indulging in horseplay when the wine had made its rounds. Jugglers, charlatans and quacks of all kinds thrived in this atmosphere, the ideal breeding-ground for those crass deceptions and those knavish tricks associated with the real Faust, whose fame would probably have moldered [sp] away where it sprang up if he had not been such an unconscionable braggart. For the future hero of Marlowe, Goethe and countless other poets was a big name in magic only in his own estimation. There, however he reigned supreme, and must be given the credit of being the first begetter of the Faust legend. ... Tritheim, popularly supposed to be a necromancer, spoke of Faust almost with venom; ... Rufus, Camerarius and Melanchthon, who had some slight personal contact with Faust, despised him utterly. Yet he continued to publicize himself as the fount of necromancy and chief of astrologers, as the most learned alchemist of all times, as the second magus, palmist, water-diviner and crystal-gazer; as the philosopher of philosophers." (p. 121, The Myth of the Magus, 1st paperback ed., 1979)
This is exactly the scene illustrated in many of the early Juggler cards and images -- the inn, the crowds, the dogs, the cups and balls, even the misdirection of the viewer's attention that allows the Juggler to confuse and con his audience members. Butler has unwittingly described the very historical milieu that the Magus card represents! But let us remember, the golden age of Faust legends is the later half of the 1500's, so in all probability, the expanding aura of Faustian necromancy added another layer of patina, another charismatic personality to the list of earlier magical personalities who had made enough of an impression on the collective mind to merit a card for their archetype in the Trump series.
To strengthen our understanding of what the concept of Magic meant in the earliest century of Tarot, we need to understand how magical studies and/or practice would have been viewed in context. Unfortunately, this study has been long held up due to certain reluctance on the part of research professionals in the 20th century. Eugenio Garin made some remarks in his Medioevo e Rinascimento (1954) that highlight the problem:
"Magic was important in medieval culture, and even more important in Renaissance culture. That fact in itself necessitates careful, unblushing study of magic as a historical phenomenon in its own right, whether or not it led western mankind towards the great scientific advances of the seventeenth and later centuries. Forgetting that medieval and Renaissance magic involved not just witchcraft and sorcerers' pacts with devils, but also a whole concept of the world and of the relation of man to the world, those historians of thought who have not judged magic solely as the threshold of modern science have engaged in a virtual conspiracy of silence about its existence. It is as if the religious taboos which frightened most medieval and Renaissance men away from open consideration of magic still weighed on the consciences of present-day historians." (Quoted from Yates, op. cit.)
Garin was not exaggerating in his remarks, the general 20th century lack of zeal for studying magic on its own merits is everywhere evident. Luckily for us, scholars are beginning to re-discover the importance of magic, that banned and marginalized stepchild of religion, and are really gathering steam since about the early 1990's. To judge just from the recently published books that currently stand on my library shelves, we are having a renaissance in Renaissance Magic studies. Two excellent encyclopedias have emerged from scholars in the state of Pennsylvania -- the Magic In History series from Pennsylvania State Press, and the Witchcraft and Magic in Europe series from University of Pennsylvania. In addition, the interested researcher can now take up an exemplary English translation of Agrippa's masterwork Three Books on Occult Philosophy, another one of De arte cabalistica by Johann Ruechlin, lay those next to Trithemius and Magical Theology by Noel Brann and Alchemy of the Word by Philip Beitchman, pile on The Language of Demons and Angels by Christopher Lehrich, jump over to Andrew Weeks' Paracelsus, and have copious resources to juggle and draw philosophical sparks from for our re-envisionment of the magical world of the Renaissance.
What was Magic for the Magicians themselves?
We can now begin to quote the authorities of the day in their own words. For example, in his autobiographical Nepiachus, Trithemius defines magical illusion (praestigium) in four forms, according to Learich (p. 54, his translation). Those are:
1) Demonic conjuration,
2) Implicit conjuration through such things as "words, charms, incantations and objects"
3) "such deception as those wanderers employ who are known as jugglers", and
4) Natural magic, "under whose auspices marvelous effects (the causes of which those who admire them do not understand) are produced by proficients through the occult application of natural virtue" (all quotes from Trithemius)
Right in line with his times, Trithemius viewed the first three forms of magical illusion as demonic, leaving the entire social group and class of prestidigitators under a dark cloud of suspicion unless they could demonstrate that their operations fell under the fourth category only. Learich concludes from the bulk of Trithemius' writings that "natural magic” as a category embraces Pythagorean numerology, alchemy, astrology, Cabbala, and the subsidiary arts/sciences associated therewith. So what Trithemius is classing as demonic is sorcery, the implicit or explicit conjuration of demons assumed to be involved in the production of magical illusions (the bulk of which are, therefore, deceptions). Reinforcing this assertion by Learich, we read in Huson's Mystical Origins of the Tarot that as a prestidigitators or master of sleight-of-hand (also known as legerdemain), the power available to the operator on Trump I would have been assumed to emanate from private study of nigremance (necromancy), or "real" magic.
To be safe on the road, and command the level of respect that would ensure his ability to survive, the Magus in history (whether a synthesizer like Agrippa, a divine like Trithemius, a healer like Paracelsus, or a charismatic impostor like Dr. Faust) was constantly under pressure to assure others that he was operating in the highest sense, and was not just a petty thimble-rigger and rip-off artist. The challenge to functioning as a Magus of the non-demonic type, however, is that every operator needed the assistance of multiple kinds of support. None of the proponents of Natural Magic took the position that an individual using his or her own limited personal power would be able to create the "marvelous effects" to which Trithemius was referring! Therefore, even a practitioner well-schooled and gifted in the calculations of astrology or Pythagorean numerology, the meditations and recitations of Cabbala, or the philosophical/chemical operations of alchemy, would still feel the need to call upon and request the assistance of outside agents of some type. But where were a wholesome and holy, non-controversial collection of non-demonical energies to be found, given the world-view of the 1500's?
This is the point where the operator would take refuge in the Bible -- the Old Testament, which is in fact a collection of holy books from the ancient Hebrew religion, and the New Testament, written in Greek. Whether studying with Christian ecclesiastics or with scholars of Hebrew and Arabic, the practitioner would quickly encounter the number-letter correspondences governing all the sacred Names and many literary structures within both Old and New Testament writings. Eventually the curious student would be introduced to the Sefir Yezirah, that ancient shrine to the alphabet-mysteries underpinning all the Western sacred alphabets. Once the number/letter canon of antiquity is unveiled, it can be seen to exist within Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Coptic, Arabic, and other ancient languages too, including the Old Runes.
At the point that an aspiring Magus (then or now) comprehends the ubiquity of this canon and its richness, s/he is empowered to call upon the holiest, oldest, most religiously sanctioned Names available for help in their workings. Both Testaments came under scrutiny to find the telling words and phrases useful for summoning the various entities, spirits, and angels the Magus aspired to work with. Agrippa dedicates a large section of his Book Three to the Cabalistic technique of deriving angel names from biblical sources, including the venerable and sanctified Shemhamforas angels derived from three specially handled verses of Exodus. These are the same angels that Reuchlin introduced through his De arte cabalistica, and indeed, Lehrich makes it clear that Reuchlin was one of Agrippa's main sources for Cabalistic inspiration.
Extra-Biblical sources were also investigated, as certain ancient writings were believed to be divinely inspired, written by individuals who were classed as prisca theologia -- pre-Christian sources that were thought to prefigure the future Christian revelation. (Never mind that some of these writings were post-Christian in fact! This realization would not dawn for another 150 years.) Some parts of the assembled writings of the prisca theologia (a title invented by D. P. Walker) were actually new to the Catholic world at the time, so there's also an unmistakable element of fad operating in this choice of magical sources. Be that as it may, the catalogue includes the Orphic hymns, various books of the Corpus Hermeticum, the Chaldaean Oracles, fragments from the pre-Socratic Greeks and the Sibylline prophecies, along with the Platonism and Pythagoreanism that was regenerating within Catholicism through its ties with Orthodoxy (strained as they were in those days.)
Due to the core alphanumeric relationship between manuscripts written alphabetically, any spirit whose name (rendered numerically) could be related back to the ancient canon of astronomical numbers, distances and periods could be understood to reference one of the attributes or Names of God, and therefore available for use in the Natural Magic context. As Lehrich explains on p. 182 (op. cit.),
"Thus the use of Orphic hymns and other pagan invocations of the gods is not fundamentally dissimilar to the worship of God in some particular aspect -- God the Father, God who parted the Red Sea, God who spared Isaac, etc. The orthodoxy of any such invocation depends upon the practitioner's faith and understanding: so long as the magician believes in the true faith, and furthermore knows that in his invocation Mercury is simply the divine aspect of understanding, as is the sefirah Binah... his magical practice avoids idolatry."
With this quote Lehrich betrays the one weakness I find in his book -- that he fails to understand the alphabetic basis of the tremendously important Christian trope expressing Christ's Incarnation as the Word of God. After developing a tremendous analysis of Agrippa's magic as primarily an act of writing and reading across the Astral Plane and into the Divine, then bringing those influences back to Earth again, Lehrich fails to make the last step and recognize the transcendental number-letter code standing behind all the Sacred Alphabets which name the Word in every different manner. Lehrich can be forgiven for this lapse -- he openly admits he is not a linguist -- but when our historians of magic can come to the realization of the central importance of the Sacred Astro/Alpha/Numeric (AAN) canon to the semiotics of magic, then we will see a breakthrough indeed in the scholars' appreciation of their subject!
Be that as it may: The resulting catalogue of demons and angels, Powers and Principalities, which sometimes put the early Renaissance Magi at risk with the Church authorities, demonstrates the continual paradox of all attempts to suppress learning. The early Christian fathers, in their efforts to describe the heresies they battled (most especially the Gnostics), had managed to enshrine a goodly amount of their enemies' spiritual practices and techniques amidst their denunciations. The Church, being the ultimate in conservative institutions, preserved these lists of Archons, spirits and elemental agents for centuries in their libraries. Having never been lost, they were easily found again by dedicated students of the Book. And of course, once rediscovered, the spellings, numbers, and symbolic interior structures of these Names of Power infected the Renaissance Magi again with the very same heretical impulses that these verbal formulas had originally been catalogued to warn against. Modern historians have arrived at consensus about the ultimate Gnostic and Zoroastrian origin of many of the words of power, angel-names, and magical utterances in Agrippa, the Picatrix, the Book of the Angel Reziel and other grimoires and magical manuals of the times.
Even worse, some of these aspiring Magi were clerics or even ordained clergy, hence ecclesiastical professionals, rather than just self-educated laymen. It is no wonder the Church was restless about this trend towards people seeking direct interaction with angels or spirits (whatever their origin), employed towards their (possibly unsanctioned) private ends. It was a constant problem within the Clergy, that a number of educated nobles would pursue Holy Orders with the Church through the Minor Orders, then would quit once they reached the level where they could hold their own services in their private quarters. There was constant attrition on the ranks of aspiring divines as a significant fraction of them "went native" with their theological educations, refusing further training and continuing their studies outside of the Church.
Further, during this era the very theory of operative magic was mutating in the hands of its practitioners, leaving them struggling to articulate their insights to each other without creating any more of a stir than already existed. There was a constant subtext of shadowboxing, re-defining and apologetics mixed in with every attempt to elucidate the theory and practice of Magic. The challenge became to provide cover for their studies by quoting Church authorities at every possible point, and then to spin those theories out to the fineness of a spider's silk, in search of the individual threads that could stitch together their explanations in a way that would get past the Censor.
Ultimately, the solution that the primary magical practitioners of the early 1500's found was to take refuge in the alphabetic mysteries, especially of the Hebrew language. The alphabet, its correspondences and permutations provided an ancient and integrated system of letters, numbers, and astrological signifiers, which ultimately drew together all the ancient sacred languages. Through the doorway opened by their Cabalistic studies, the entire Alexandrian synthesis (or at least whatever a given Magus wanted of it) was made available to the magical Christians. In this way, the Magus could confine the workings within Christian theology's metaphor of Christ as the true living Word of God (hence emphasizing the core divinity of language itself), while yet invoking the Adamic right of humanity to serve as nomothete for the creation (activator and director of the true names of the things in this world). Thus the Renaissance Magus, no matter what his reputation might have been on the street, felt safe to assume the awesome, sacred and dangerous responsibility of naming out and marshaling the active and powerful 'world of the spirits', with the aim of forcing them to enact the will of God through the purity and intentionality of the Magus.
In future articles we will follow this line of thought even further, into the Mind of the Magician in both the construction and the enactment of the magical situation. Just exactly what was thought to be going on there, both in the mental state of the operator, and in the larger world of effects and results? The answers to these questions could shed new light upon what a 16th century "Magical Illusionist" might conceivably experience in the pack of magical icons which are the Tarot cards, and how such a practitioner might have thought to utilize the archetypes (in the sense that Agrippa used the word) portrayed therein.
Bagpiper, unknown artist: http://www.prydein.com/pipes/paintings5/hungarian.htm
The Magus and the Rabbit-Earred hat: http://www.tarot.com/about-tarot/library/boneill/IC_bagattogallery#01
Bagatto, Figure 1: http://www.tarot.com//about-tarot/library/boneill/bagatto
The Mountebank; Historical Context: http://www.thebookofdays.com/months/april/14.htm
Malermi Bible: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/heavenlycraft/heavenly-15th.html