The Magician: Waite’s Symbolism

We continue our series of posts regarding the symbols in the Waite Colman Smith tarot deck. We compare Waite’s descriptions in the Pictorial Key, the textual descriptions by predecessors and contemporaries such as the Boot T and Mathers, as well as any “undocumented” symbolism in the illustrations, which may represent enhancements to Waite’s instructions by Colman Smith, or the latter’s own ideas.

For other posts in the series, click here or on “symbol” in the tag cloud.

1: The Magician

ID symbol meaning
MAG four suits Waite: “The elements of natural life.” Mathers, on the other hand, states that the magician stands before “a table covered with the appliances of his art,” The wand in his hand could certainly be said to be such an appliance, but it is hardly likely that one would call the four suits as such. Here, Waite appears to be moving beyond his contemporaries.
MAG gesture Waite: “The Magician’s right hand is a wand raised towards heaven, while the left hand is pointing to the earth. This dual sign is known in very high grades of the Instituted Mysteries; it shews the descent of grace, virtue and light, drawn from things above and derived to things below. The suggestion throughout is therefore the possession and communication of the Powers and Gifts of the Spirit.” Mathers appears to be the source: “His body and arms form the shape of the Hebrew letter Aleph, to which this card corresponds.” There are two notes in Wikipedia of further interest: “Aleph, in Jewish mysticism, represents the oneness of God.” “In set theory, the Hebrew aleph glyph is used as the symbol to denote the aleph numbers, which represent the cardinality of infinite sets.” Final note—an aleph: ℵ
MAG lemniscate Waite: “The mysterious sign of the Holy Spirit, the sign of life, like an endless cord, forming the figure 8 in a horizontal position… the mystic number is termed Jerusalem above, the Land flowing with Milk and Honey, the Holy Spirit and the Land of the Lord.” This appears to be a refinement of contemporaneous thought. Per Mathers: “He wears a cap of maintenance like that of the kings, whose wide brim forms a sort of aureole round his head.”
MAG ouroboros Waite: “About his waist is a serpent—cincture, the serpent appearing to devour its own tail. This is familiar to most as a conventional symbol of eternity, but here it indicates more especially the eternity of attainment in the spirit.”
MAG roses and lilies Waite: “The flos campi and lilium convallium (flowers of the field, lillies of the valley), changed into garden flowers, to shew the culture of aspiration.” Note that aleph, mentioned earlier also represents the breath.

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John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot?