The first figure we encounter in our journey through the Tarot de Marseille is not, primarily, a magician or juggler, though he possesses skills common to both; he is a street performer, a one-man carnival who delights children and their parents with magic tricks and other forms of entertainment, but the dice and cups on his odd-looking three-legged table and the pea or coin half-hidden in his right hand suggest a seedier trade: he makes his real money gambling. The game is simple enough, just guess under which cup the pea resides after a bit of shuffling (“the hand is quicker than the eye”), and you walk away a winner! Or who can resist a game of pure chance, a toss of the dice? He is Le Bateleur, a street conjurer,[i] and this is the name that fits him best. He is a deceptionist who lives by his wits. He arrives in town, sets up his table, gives the people a show, but he knows when to get out as well; he can only work an area for so long before the people become wise to his act, and there are, undoubtedly, scattered throughout the countryside, a score of former marks who would like nothing better than to skin him alive after realizing he has cheated them of the few hard-earned coins they possessed.
In his left (“sinister”) hand,[ii] Le Bateleur holds… We cannot say for certain from this card of Jean Noblet, 1659, for the upper halves of both his hand and what he holds are missing. Perhaps this was Noblet’s intent – I like to think so, for the bateleur’s skill is misdirection, and his success depends upon never letting us see just what he is up to. But it is more likely that the woodblock from which this card came was damaged. Either way, it does not really matter: enough time has passed, and this is the image we have; in this deck, the bateleur prevails in his efforts to keep hidden from us what he does not want us to see. We can surmise, however, from other Marseille-type decks that what he holds aloft is a wand, though in Noblet’s, it is distinctly more phallic than in any of the others I have seen.[iii]
Everything about Le Bateleur seems designed to provide maximum distraction, from his multicolored clothes, which follow no discernible pattern, to the variety of items on his table. Even his feet are pointing in opposite directions. And which hand should we be watching at any given moment? They are both engaged in some activity only he knows; but he, himself, looks away, as though he were utterly disinterested in his own actions, and in spite of ourselves (and just for a moment) our eyes follow his gaze… But with him, a momentary lapse of concentration undoes us completely; and when we fall under his spell, he can make the trifles on his table appear and disappear right before our eyes, or relieve us of whatever valuables we might be carrying about our persons, for this is also how he earns his living, and in order to survive, he has become very good at it.
[i] The word “bateleur” comes from the Old French “bastelleur,” which refers to a juggler, an acrobat, or puppet player.
[ii] In Latin the word “sinister” referred to the left hand or left-hand side, but in the Medieval Europe, the left came to be thought of as inauspicious, ominous, and even wicked. Thus, the “magic” of Le Bateleur is not to be trusted, nor can it be deemed harmless. In contrast the Magician of the Waite-Smith Tarot holds his wand in his right hand and appears a much more respectable (and authentic) fellow.
[iii] I mention this detail because in many contemporary decks the Magician or Magus is likened to Hermes, the Greek trickster god who was also the patron deity of thieves. In myth, soon after Hermes was born, the infant god traveled to Pieria where he stole fifty of Apollo’s cattle, and to confuse his elder half-brother, he forced them to walk backward, while he, himself, fastened leaves and branches to his feet to erase his own tracks. When confronted first by his mother and then by a furious Apollo, Hermes acted the part of a helpless newborn and declared his innocence, a lie he repeated to his father Zeus, who was not fooled for a moment by his son’s performance and commanded him to lead Apollo to where he had hidden the livestock.
Hermes is also a psychopomp, in Jungian psychology a mediator between the conscious and unconscious realms, so it is Hermes who is guide to dreams and the underworld. He is a liminal being, as is Le Bateleur, in a sense, for he is the first character we meet when we open a new deck of cards, and the way we respond to him will greatly influence how we enter the mysterious world of the Tarot. He is also the one at the threshold between reality and magic, cynicism and true belief.
Hermes was a fertility god. In the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, people would set up Herms, stone columns with the head of Hermes on top and an erect phallus below, to mark boundaries (Hermes was the god of transitions and boundaries as well as a god of fertility). It was also thought that Herms brought luck, and the destruction of Herms brought misfortune. Hermes was also the father of Pan, the nature god who had the hindquarters, hoofs and horns of a goat and was famous (or infamous) for his sexual prowess. It was Pan who taught masturbation to the shepherds (an activity, it is said, he learned from his father); thus, if there is a connection between Hermes and Le Bateleur, it would make sense that the latter’s wand should be distinctly phallic.
Aleister Crowley states in The Book of Thoth that the French name Le Bâteleur means “the Bearer of the Bâton,” (which can be taken as a euphemism for the membrum virile) and writes, “Mercury is pre-eminently the bearer of the Wand: Energy sent forth. . . . He is the messenger of the gods [and] represents precisely that Lingam, the Word of creation whose speech is silence.” In his Thoth deck, the Magus is a Greek-Egyptian Hermes.
Robert M. Place designed two Tarot decks, The Alchemical Tarot and the Sevenfold Tarot, in which the magician is clearly Hermes, and in John Opsopaus’ Pythagorean Tarot, the Magus, Hermes, wears a tunic but has a noticeable erection underneath.
All this being said, the only connection I credit between the character in the Marseille-type decks and Hermes is that Le Bateleur is a charlatan who lives by his wits, steals when he can, and lies when it suits him; Hermes understands him very well and looks out for him, for the bateleur is a kindred spirit. As for the “phallic” wand-end, it is possible Noblet was pointing out an association he knew of or sensed intuitively, but without the missing element, it would be impossible to say for certain, and I make no more of it than as an interesting mention.