From Il Bagatto to the Magician in Tarot
For more than four hundred years, the Italian Bagatto and the French Bateleur cards depicted a traveling conjurer and swindler. In the nineteenth century, occultists created an alternate tradition when they reimagined the conjurer as a Magus controlling universal creative energies. In the twentieth century, the Anglo-American Magician demonstrated his power by manipulating the elemental forces embodied in the Tarot suit symbols.
His Italian name, Il Bagatto (a word derived from bagatelle, a little thing) refers to the card’s role in the game of Tarocchi. It’s the lowest-ranking card in the trump series, vulnerable to being captured by any other trump card. Eventually, the word came to mean sleight-of-hand tricks, deception, fraud and swindling. His French name, Le Bateleur, has the same meaning.
Early Italian and French Cards
The oldest Tarot Bagatto we know of is in the hand-painted, gilded Visconti-Sforza deck commissioned by the Duke of Milan about 1453. We don’t know if this Bagatto resembles the cheaply printed playing card of that time, since none have survived. He seems better dressed than most conjurers, and his extravagant hat indicates he might be an exotic character. The items on his table could be balls and a cup, while his right hand hovers over a round object and the left hand holds a wand. The round object under his right hand has been interpreted as a pile of coins, a covered dish, a traveler’s straw hat, and a wheel of cheese, creating doubt about the figure’s identity.
The itinerant street performer, his folding table strewn with trickster’s tools, entertained crowds in market squares and fairgrounds from the middle ages through the eighteenth century. Cups-and-balls, the world’s oldest magic trick, doubled as a shell game where dupes laid down their money to guess which cup was hiding the ball. The conjuror in the hand painted Estensi card entertains children with his tricks. The conjuror in the block printed card with adults crowded around his table might be in a tavern where the landlord takes his cut from the game.
Astrology permeated all aspects of Medieval and Renaissance society. Popular “Children of the Planets” illustrations showed people performing activities associated with the planet presiding at the top of the page. The travelling conjurer always appeared as a Child of the Moon because he wanders about like the moon in the sky; and he deals in illusion, just as moonlight deceives. This print from a German Hausbuch (household almanack) shows all the attributes of the itinerant conjurer. He stands behind his table with cups and balls. A trumpeter announces his arrival, while painted acrobats draw attention by cavorting on a large curtain behind him. After his magic act, he sets his feathered hat aside to become an itinerant healer, pulling a tooth while a man with a bandaged jaw waits his turn. The conjurer’s delusional customers are lunar types as well, believing they can beat the game and earn some quick money.
Tarot arrived in France about 1500. Sixteenth-century French Tarot decks followed the Italian pattern. In the sixteenth-century block-print French card on the left, a conjurer plays cups and balls in an interior setting with people who seem eager to gamble their money away. The same scene is shown on the early seventeenth-century Parisian card, where for the first time the card is named Le Bateleur. The upper classes saw the conjurer as a disreputable vagabond, no better than the pickpockets who often lurked near his table. The Church took a very dim view of these tricksters who did the work of the Devil — the ultimate deceiver.
Later in the seventeenth century, Vievil portrayed the Bateleur alone, without spectators, as on the early Italian Bagatto cards. Around 1650 to 1660, Le Bateleur’s posture consolidated into what is known as the Tarot de Marseille (TdM) pattern. This standard Bateleur still looks much the same as he did in the seventeenth century. One of the earliest TdM decks in existence, the Noblet, clearly shows the implements a bateleur needs for his act: three cups, three dice, and knives for slicing up a handkerchief which he magically reassembles. He uses his wand (resembling a phallus in this deck) to distract his audience while he palms a coin or a marble with his other hand. Glancing sideways lures onlookers’ attention away from his hands. Le Bateleur wears a traveler’s wide-brimmed hat and sets up his table outdoors on the edge of a fairground or market square.
Frozen in mid-gesture, without a visible audience, the Tarot de MarseilleBateleur is more archetypal and less the fraudulent trickster. Like Bosch’s conjurer, the magician creates an alternate reality then pulls his audience in. His table becomes an in-between zone where ordinary judgment is suspended and anything is possible. Like being lost in a movie, the onlookers willingly enter an alternate reality and allow themselves to believe in it for a time.
The traditional divinatory meanings for the TdM Bateleur describe the attributes needed by a successful travelling prestidigitator. He is skillful, clever, alert, verbal, charismatic and confident. He survives by his wits and creates his own destiny. The flip side is the charlatan, snake oil salesman and fake doctor. His power to bend his audience’s reality and cast a spell of glamour prefigures the supernatural powers of the occultists’ Magician.
The Occult Tradition
Eliphas Levi completed the conjurer’s transformation into a ceremonial magician in his 1856 book Transcendental Magic. Levi assigned the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph, to this card, noting that his body and arms imitate the shape of that letter. The occultist Oswald Wirth designed a modified Tarot de Marseille based on Levi’s descriptions, distorting Le Bateleur’s body to resemble the Aleph in the bottom right corner. His hat now clearly forms the symbol for eternal life, and he’s associated with Mercury and Apollo. He raises his “miraculous rod” toward heaven, while the other tarot suit symbols rest on the table.
Wirth’s writings go beyond Levi to say that this card, associated with the number one and the first letter of the alphabet, represents the First Cause and pure Spirit. The card reminds us that the Creator is the original illusionist who dazzles us with his creations until we no longer see the spiritual reality behind the illusion.
Levi’s blend of astrology, ceremonial magic, Qabalah and Tarot travelled to London where it became the foundation of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn assigned Aleph to the Fool and gave the second letter, Beth, to the Magician. Once freed from imitating Aleph with his arms, this figure could become the Magus of Power, an aspect of Hermes-Thoth, pulling energy down from the heavens and grounding it in the physical world. Through an act of will, he unites the three worlds: divine, intellectual and physical. Just as a prestidigitator is the master of his tools, so the Magus, with the symbols of the four elements on his table, is the master of universal forces.
Arthur E. Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, both members of the Golden Dawn, created the most familiar Magician outside the European Tarot tradition. In his book, The Pictorial Key to Tarot, Waite says the Magician’s arms imitate the gestures of an initiate into the higher grades of a magical lodge. The Magician pulls light from the heavens and grounds it in the material world. Levi’s lemniscate, an infinity sign mirrored in the Magician’s ourobos belt, becomes “….the mysterious sign of the Holy Spirit” in Waite’s interpretation. The abundant lilies and roses represent spiritual aspiration. Waite’s divinatory meanings for the card refer back to the conjurer: skill, diplomacy, subtlety, self-confidence and will.
Most contemporary Magicians have abandoned his trickster-conjurer attributes and emphasize the powerful Magus of the occultists.
The Mary El Magician stands at the portal to a spiritual world holding the cube of Metatron, an archangel who was once a man. His power lies in the ability to hold a vision in his mind until it manifests physically.
Blake’s Magician is the dog-headed god Anubis channeling celestial energies from the Dog Star Sirius, while straddling the Nile. His characteristics are will, creativity, the ability to channel energy, and his magical powers.
Robin Wood’s Magician is a Wiccan priest of the Horned God demonstrating his magical abilities with quiet confidence. A lemniscate floats above his raised hand while the other arm is lowered to the earth. He has mastered the four elements and all other powers embodied in the suit symbols.
Over the centuries, Il Bagatto’s significance became increasingly spiritual and supernatural. He started in Italy as a street performer, living by his wits, equipped with cups and balls, loaded dice and a wand. In the French Tarot de Marseille, he seems more archetypal, mirroring the trickster within ourselves. As a ceremonial magician in the Anglo-American tradition, he bends reality with his focused will. Drawing down light from heaven gives him power over the elemental energies embodied in the four suit symbols on his table.
Through all these changes, one attribute remains constant: By manipulating the items on his table, whether cups and balls or symbols of the four Tarot suits, the Bagatto/Magician manipulates reality itself. He has the power to enchant the world and to compel us to believe in his illusions.
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Images in order from the top
Tarot de Paris, early 17th century. Andre Dimanche, Grimaud @1980.
Tarot of the Spirit. Pamela and Joyce Eakins. US Games 2011.
Tarocchi Visconti-Sforza, Milan @1450. Reproduced by Il Meneghello, 2002.
Golden Tarot of the Renaissance (Estensi Tarot) @1470. Lo Scarabeo, 2004.
Budapest Tarot, @1500. Sullivan Hismans, Tarot Sheet Revival, 2017.
Children of the Moon. Das Mittelalterliches Hausbuch von Schloss Wolfegg
(The Medieval Housebook Wolfegg) by the Hausbuch Master, @1470. Private Collection.
Catelin Geoffroy Tarot, @1557. Museum fur Kunsthandwerk, Offenbach, Germany.
Tarot de Paris, early 17th century. Andre Dimanche, Grimaud @1980.
Tarot Jacques Vievil, Paris @1660. Reproduced and hand painted by Sullivan Hismans,
Tarot Sheet Revival, 2019. Collection of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France
Jean Noblet Tarot, Paris, 1650. Restored by Jean-Claude Flornoy, 2007.
Hieronymus Bosch. The Conjurer, 1505. Collection of Musée Municipal, St.-Germain-en-Laye.
Ancien Tarot de Marseille, Grimaud, 1930.
Oswald Wirth Tarot, 1889.
Golden Dawn Magical Tarot. Sandra and Chic Cicero. Lewellyn, 2000.
Radiant Rider-Waite. Based on Pamela Colman Smith, 1909. US Games, Inc., 2003.
Mary-El Tarot. Marie White. Schiffer, 2012.
The William Blake Tarot. Ed Buryn. Thorsons, 1995.
Robin Wood Tarot. Living Tree, 1998.
Faivre, Antoine. The Eternal Hermes: From Greek God to Alchemical Magus. Phanes Press, 1995.
Gambaccini, Piero. Mountebanks and Medicasters: A History of Italian Charlatans from the Middle Ages to the Present. McFarland & Co. N. Carolina, 2004.