by Raven Grimassi
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There is a certain degree of debate today over whether the Magician of the Tarot as we now know him, is the same figure as depicted on the early Tarot decks. In the Tarot, the traditional placement of the Magician follows the Fool card. Two of the earliest images appearing on Tarot cards in this position within the Major Arcana depict either a cobbler (shoemaker,) a juggler, or a curious figure sitting at a table with a variety of objects spread out before him. This latter figure is often referred to as the slight-of-hand-artist or the swindler. The most common image of this is the shell game where a pea is hidden under one of three walnut shells, which are quickly mixed while the performer talks to distract the onlooker.
Some modern commentators feel that these early characters were not of an occult nature and represent a different figure from the Magician altogether. In exploring the origins of the Magician card, we will examine the early character of the cobbler/shoemaker and look at the other characters as well. The word "cobbler" comes from the Middle English word cobeler. The archaic meaning of the word is a bungler or one who is clumsy. This seems at first glance to be an odd association with the shoemaker. The word clumsy is ultimately derived from the Scandinavian clomsen and the Icelandic klunni. Interestingly, these are the roots words of the clown, buffoon, and jester as well. The word jester is ultimately derived from the Latin gestusus which means to gesticulate. Gesticulation is to make gestures especially while speaking. This is the art employed by the slight-of-hand expert.
But why was the cobbler associated with the concept of being clumsy? The answer may lie in an ancient magical tradition that features the sandal. From the ancient writings of Empedocles, and from those written about him, we enter into the cult of Hecate. Here we find the bronze sandal as a symbol of the magician of Hecate, possibly linked to silver sandals appearing in 6th century Babylonian practices associated with the god Adad and his wife Shala. In Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic by Peter Kingsley (Oxford University Press, 1995) we read:
Legends surrounding Empedocles as an initiate of the cult of Hecate insist that he wore a bronze sandal. To move about in a bronze sandal would indeed at the very least give the appearance of being clumsy, if not define the concept of clumsy itself. It is interesting to note that in Norse lore we find a legendary blacksmith known as Wayland the Smith. He was lamed by command of King Nidud of Sweden so that he could not escape, and he was compelled into his service. In his earlier tales Wayland is actually King of the Gnomes and produced metal amulets and magical swords. The association of Gnomes with earthen caverns, and the association of Hecate's magician with the underworld is equally noteworthy in our discussion. On a side note, it is curious that the Latin and Scandinavian words for clumsy, are both from cultures in which we find figures whose feet are encumbered due to their office, who make shoes, and who are connected to metal in a magical way.
By the end of the 6th century BC we find writings by Heraclitus of Ephesus that attack magicians as swindlers and tricksters who use deception to persuade people into believing they have magical power. Despite this, magic continued to thrive over the centuries and magicians were viewed as theurgists. A theurgist is one who performs divine actions chiefly with the aid of magical symbols. This is the image of the Neoplatonic magician who was considered to possess the ability to make rain, stop plagues, and to both extract and replace the soul of an individual at will. According to Kingsley, Neoplatonic theurgists also had "visionary encounters" with Hecate.
Now that we have seen evidence of an occult tradition associated with the shoe, what of the slight-of-hand artist? One of the earliest images of this Tarot figure depicts a table set with a cup and several round balls. Commentators are unsure what the balls are, but most suggest something akin to bread. It is quite likely that these balls are the type used in aleuronmancy. Aleuronmancy is a form of divination in which various outcomes/situations are written on small strips of paper. This form of divination was popular in the temples of Apollo who, as Patron of this art, was known as Aleuromantis. In aleuronmancy each strip is then folded and rolled up in a small ball of dough (very much like a Chinese fortune cookie). Each ball of dough is then covered with a walnut shell. Walnuts were attributed by the Greeks and Romans with oracle properties. The shells are mixed nine times and then people pick a shell and retrieve the strip of paper to learn of their fortune. So here we see a possible connection of the early Tarot image of the slight-of-hand artist as an oracle of the god Apollo, an association with divination. Divination itself has long been the providence of underworld deities, which brings us back to Hecate and the magician/priest.
One of the sacred cult objects of Hecate was a triangular plaque with a rod rising up from the center. Mounted on the rod was a flat disk laying horizontally. This tool was actually the standard design in ancient times for the working surface of the cobbler. On the disk, leather was placed to be worked; the rod allowed height so that sandal straps could hang down and be laced around the disk to the other side of the sandal. Since, in the cult of Hecate, the sandal was the sign of the magician's ability to descend into the underworld at will, it may be that the polished disk also doubled as a type of scrying mirror for divination. Professor Kingsley depicts the tradition of Empedocles, and the Neoplatonist theurgists, as heirs of the mystical sect of Hecate and the associations discussed in this article. With the renewed interest in Hermetics during the rise of the Renaissance era in Italy, it is likely that the theurgist recognized the symbolism of the cobbler in the Tarot symbolism, the secret revealed only in symbolism and not in name. Within a short period, the Tarot symbolism would change to rightly reflect the cobbler and the slight-of-hand artist as representative of the theurgist/magician.