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Why Is the Magician the Key Principle That Underlies the Twenty-Two Major Arcana?

Updated: May 17

The Magician. Visconti-Sforza Deck, Bonifacio Bembo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Spiritus ubi vult spirat: et vocem 

ejus audis, sed nescis unde veniat, 

aut quo vadat: sic est omnis, 

qui natus est ex spiritu.

(John iii, 8) 

The wind blows where it wills, and

you hear the sound of it, but you do

not know whence it comes or whither

it goes; so it is with every one

who is born of the Spirit.

(John iii, 8) 

Into this happy night

In secret, seen of none.

Nor saw I aught,

Without other light or guide.

Save that which in my heart did burn.

(St. John of the Cross)

“Dear Unknown Friend” begins the anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot in Letter I: The Magician: 


The words of the Master [the author of the Gospel of John] cited above have served me the key for opening the door to comprehension of the first Major Arcanum of the Tarot, ‘The Magician,’ which is, in turn, the key to all the other Major Arcana. This is why I have put [the above verses] as an epigraph to this Letter. And then I have cited a verse from the ‘Songs of the Soul’ of St. John of the Cross, because it has the virtue of awakening the deeper layers of the soul, which one has to appeal to when the concern is the first Arcanum of the Tarot and, consequently, all the Major Arcana of the Tarot. (3)


The unknown author continues:


For the Major Arcana of the Tarot are authentic symbols, i.e. they are ‘magic, mental, psychic and moral operations’ awakening new notions, ideas, sentiments and aspirations, which means to say that they require an activity more profound than that of study and intellectual explanation. It is therefore in a state of deep contemplation—and always ever deeper—that they should be approached. And it is the deep and intimate layers of the soul which become active and bear fruit when one meditates on the Arcana of the Tarot. Therefore this ‘night,’ of which St. John of the Cross speaks, is necessary, where one withdraws oneself ‘in secret’ and into which one has to immerse oneself each time that one meditates on the Arcana of the Tarot. (4)


The tarot invites us into the mysteries of the darkness (this ‘night’) and beseeches us to trust the holy dark while resting in its sacredness (‘in secret’) too. This requires the use of our own agency and autonomy—the masterful application of our will-forces—while simultaneously navigating life’s terrain through an archetypal and symbolic eye, utilizing metaphoric language while drawing on and feeling into both a mythic consciousness and a poetic imagination. (Is that all???)



One of the goals of initiation in the mystery religions is to introduce the individual, through a spiritual journey, to the grounds of existence, that source of consciousness and energy of which we are all manifestations. So the aim is to guide us to the knowledge of this power, and the cornucopia that is symbolic of the course of our life. (191)


The tarot, then, is a form of initiation, the art of learning how matter, energy, and consciousness interweave. Though if it’s a conscious initiation, we need not become totally lost in the darkness. The tarot is a tool to translate unconscious data to the higher mind, and it all begins with the Magician, which is why, according to Meditations on the Tarot, the Magician is Letter I and the Fool is Letter XXI. The Magician is the fundamental precept for engaging all other Major Arcana cards. But why?


According to the unknown author,


The first Arcanum—the principle underlying all the other twenty-one Major Arcana of the Tarot—is that of the rapport of personal effort and of spiritual reality. It occupies the first place in the series because if one does not understand it (i.e. take hold of it in cognitive and actual practice), one would not know what to do with all the other Arcana. (Meditations on the Tarot, 7)


In my younger years I, mistakenly, thought that I could simply engage the initiation process (or archetypes, mythology, or any other topic) through academic reading, verbose discussions of theories, and engaging in abstract thinking. I preferred secondhand knowledge to firsthand experience—and if truth be told, I still often do!


But as the unknown author continues,


For it is the Magician who is called to reveal the practical method relating to all the Arcana. He is the ‘Arcanum of the Arcana,’ in the sense that he reveals that which it is necessary to know and to will in order to enter the school of spiritual exercises whose totality comprises the game of Tarot, in order to be able to derive some benefit therefrom. (7)


This is why the Magician is the ‘Arcanum of the Arcana,’ because no amount of explanation can make a blind person see. Transformation occurs when it’s action oriented. And it must be untrammeled and decisive action, of which the Magician is begging me … you … us. The Magician’s power comes from practice—cognitive and actual—in the physical world, not only through connecting to the astral plane. And the results come from both knowing and willing. Otherwise, we’ll prove Leonardo da Vinci’s words, “the supreme misfortune is when theory outstrips performance,” to be true. (The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci)


It’s so easy to get high on the possibility and aspirations of alchemy and magic in theory, but fail to value the grunt work of transmuting the lead to gold within ourselves or a situation. Avoiding the hard work leaves alchemy and magic in the realm of make believe, or just another hypothesis, not an actual theory-in-use, one that informs and directs a theory-of-action. The book is called Meditations on the Tarot for a reason. The text is to be meditated upon, not read, so that a shift in consciousness may occur. 


In the final analysis, we’re awakened not by nature but by our own efforts. And, unfortunately, the lower mind can easily paralyze the higher mind’s spiritual perception at the expense of any embodied wisdom. If we find a particular esoteric teaching intriguing, the Magician asks us to examine its purpose and usefulness in our own lives instead of blindly taking a third party’s word for it. Carl Jung stated that “magic is a way of living” (The Red Book, 314) and this tarot card is an invitation to become the Magician of your own life. And in doing so, through both knowing and willing, there’s the possibility to integrate all the other twenty-one Major Arcana, so that “as above” really is “so below.”


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