Saturday, March 13, 2010

Magician as Shaman

When considering the role of The Magician in the Tarot, what’s the first thing we think of? Right away we think about The Magician’s tools: paintings of enigmatic art on cards representing the four suits: Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles or Coins. What magical association and function do we assign to these symbolic accoutrements? The Wands indicate the element Fire, symbolizing growth, power, force, drive, action, and the creative impulsion to life. In contemplating Cup cards, we think about Water, implying containers, liquids, food, nourishment, and cleansing. In general readings, Cups can also indicate our watery emotions, the feelings of love, hate, sadness, and joy. Swords represent the transcendent qualities of Air: thought processes, dealing with duality and our ability to separate truth from lies. Certain Sword cards in a reading can help us come face to face with ourselves in dealing with enemies, discrimination and warfare. In the Pentacles or Coins—Earth—we see Nature’s laws as unforeseen forces taking concrete expression in our daily experiences of life on earth. These cards urge us to consider earth’s flora and fauna, our dealings with people, and our relationship to the landscape. Here, we endeavor to conduct our life’s work, which can take many forms as in labor, commerce, business, barter and trade.

I like to think of these qualities as four conditions of action we express in trying to make our lives better. By invoking the divine or higher powers in ourselves we work on influencing our environment. In ancient times, people invoked supernatural powers from an invisible realm. When folks were overwhelmed by events they couldn’t control such as storms, floods, fires, crop failure, drought, wars, death and destruction, they turned to familiar and comforting powers—the spirits of the land.

In the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, magic was centered on the practice of evoking creative energies of Nature. Veneration of Mother Earth was immanent in their daily lives. Amulets and talisman-like images have been found by the thousands in archeological digs in Eastern Europe and thoroughly explored by Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994) professor of European Archeology at UCLA, in her book, The Language of the Goddess, HarperCollins, 1989.

We can get an even better sense of the magical practices of those ancient times by looking at the Hopi Kachina cults of the US Southwest, where some rituals and dances are still practiced today. Painted and decorated Kachina doll effigies are made representing the spirits of rain, clouds, thunder, and snow. They make spirit-images of corn, squash, animals, and awful ogres, in the hope of seeking protection and promoting growth of crops. Gimbutas argues that the marked sculpted figures of the European Goddess were magical signs imploring the creative energies of nature signifying conception, birth, death, and regeneration of both human and animal forms. These were hand-hewn clay or rock symbols of female and male body parts carved with symbols of water, rain, eggs, snakes, triangles, chevrons, whorls and concentric circles. Shamans carried out rituals using these figures. This brings us back to some of the same similar characteristics we see in the talisman cards of the Tarot Magician’s tools, even though we use them in more modern, mass-produced forms. It seems some of us still want a little magic in our lives.