An Evil Magician


One of the things we've discussed here from time to time is the universal picture language that was such an important aspect of European culture in the centuries before and during the appearance of Tarot. The painter Hieronymous Bosch drew on this vocabulary to produce a picture that gives us a striking contrast to the benign images of the various Bateleurs and Bagattos of the early Tarot decks. He painted it early in his career, probably between 1480 and 1485, and you can see it at It's a wonderful picture, even though the color transfer isn't top drawer.

We see a sinister-looking magician with narrow, piggish eyes and a beaky profile holding up a brass ball. He's causing a very tall, very well-dressed elderly gentleman to spit up live frogs onto a deal table which looks suspiciously like the altar in a Catholic Church. The victim looks like a person of substance, almost like a doge or a cardinal. He doesn't realize he's being robbed at the same time he's being made to look foolish. Only the little boy at his feet seems to be aware of the true state of affairs. Possibly, the cutpurse is the Conjurer's partner, and Bosch might be making a very harsh commentary on what he feels is the true purpose of this scene, a deception which is foisted on the superstitious by cynical and dishonest manipulators.

The magician appears misshapen, and like the Bagatto of the Visconti-Sforza deck he is dressed all in red and wearing a preposterous hat. An owl peeps out of his basket of tricks. For the Greeks, the owl was a symbol of wisdom, but in Bosch's pictorial language it's an emblem of the evil that flies by night. No good for the human race can come from the magician's basket. The Fool makes an appearance here too, or at least his little dog does, dressed in ass's ears and a bell-studded belt. He's hiding under the table, hidden from the crowd, a symbol of their foolishness and credulity of which they, of course, are entirely unaware. The Conjurer, on the other hand, is always aware of the vulnerability of the mob. The dog is the most vital item in his inventory of gear, since the naivete of the general run of humanity is the stock in trade that makes his dishonest and duplicitous livelihood possible.

Bosch painted this picture early in his career, and had not yet attained the mastery of composition he achieved in his later work. Parts of this scene are handled clumsily, particularly the perspective of the deal table that anchors the composition. However, much of the repertoire of the faces we usually see in Bosch's crowds is already present here, from the fat stupidity of the man on the far right to the lust of the fellow who's not even paying attention to the scene in front of him, because he's totally absorbed in the young woman who is the object of his desire.

This picture is a highly moralistic, pessemistic, and puritanical sermon. Its point of departure is one of the elements drawn from the universal pictorial vocabulary of the time which was a major, or more correctly, the major constituent of the Tarot trumps. But I think what we're looking at is the same sort of sentiment that's expressed today by Christians who condemn Tarot and all other forms of divination. Bosch's condemnation was a bit more sophisticated than what we're used to hearing today. His nefarious traveling charlatan presents a startling contrast to the essential dignity of the Tarot magicians.


The man of wealth is also getting is purse snatched, by the man looking towards the heavens, is he a cohort? Or an opportunist?

Bosch was wonderful, also in this picture are two of the ‘mainstays’ of conjuring, the “Cups and Balls” (there are pictures somewhere in Egypt showing what many suppose to be a performer with Cups and Balls placing the trick at four thousand years BCE), and the solid ring (perhaps a forerunner to the “Chinese Linking Rings”).

It has been supposed, by many ‘historians’ of prestidigitation that many tricks came from Asia, along the Silk Road (Which other Historians state did not exist until thousands or hundreds of years later).

The table being used by the Conjurer is quite out of place – it is not highly mobile, as is the man using it.

This is a morality play in still, a wonder and important work of art…I thank you Catboxer…


I see, Umbrae means, he should have brought a folding chair instead of a table :D :D

I love this image Catboxer. What an exciting discovery. Did you just find this? I read your description and analysis carefully, and Umbrae's too. Without these, I would not have seen any of that in the card. I wouldn't even have seen the owl, certainly not the frog in the man's mouth. Yuck!

Thank you for sharing this fascinating evil magician!



Actually, I've known this picture for a long time (I'm a big Bosch fan), but for years I thought it was just an amusing genre piece. Then a couple years ago the similarities between this Conjurer and the Visconti-Sforza Magician struck me. They're both dressed all in red and wearing ridiculous hats. At that point I began looking at details, and the truly sinister nature of this scene started to unravel.

Bosch's paintings are often similar to Tarot cards in that there is usually a lot of very significant detail in them, so much so that you can't understand the picture without decoding the symbol language of the details.


Your statement is worth a thousand pictures, catboxer:
  • 'you can't understand the picture without decoding the symbol language of the details.'
Of course, this aspect is precisely where the 'game-only' theory breaks down: the symbolism is meaningful, and requires a rich background to begin to understand its nuances...



I've never subscribed to the idea that the Tarot deck is "only" a game. The trump sequence seems fairly obviously to express a philosophical statement in pictorial form. The question is really whether the pre-1781 Tarot had other uses than gaming. There's a distinction, often overlooked by tarotists, that needs to be made between the content of the cards and the uses to which they were put.

The probability that the trumps are a philosophical exposition (Neoplatonic, it would seem, with a gnostic flavoring) causes occultists to leap to the unwarranted conclusion that the deck also had philosophical uses. This goes hand in hand with the belief in a "secret doctrine" supposedly transmitted by the cards.
But just as we can document that the pictorial vocabulary embedded in the trumps was, far from being secret, public, ubiquitous, and universal (and we've talked about that a lot in this forum), it's also a matter of record that no evidence exists that the deck had any other use than gaming prior to the advent of occultic approaches in the late 18th century. In other words, the probability that the deck possesses content that supersedes the bare requirements of gaming tokens doesn't support the conclusion that it was designed for purposes more significant and important than play. An artistic production doesn't have to have a use.

This is similar to a comment Jackson Pollock, the abstract expressionist made when people kept pestering him about what his paintings "mean." "Nobody ever looks at a rose garden," Pollock said, "and asks, 'What does it mean?'" Likewise, people don't look at the Mona Lisa and say, "What a great picture; what did they use it for?" or "It's such a pretty picture. What a shame they couldn't put it to good use."


catboxer said:
" people don't look at the Mona Lisa and say, "What a great picture; what did they use it for?" or "It's such a pretty picture. What a shame they couldn't put it to good use."

That was hilarious catboxer, and very convincing. It sort of goes along with the question, did dinosaurs evolve wings so they could fly? or did the learn to fly because they evolved wings.


I did not mean to any way imply that catboxer subscribed to the 'game-only' theory, rather, that the comment made which I re-quoted encapsulates so well why it is not merely game.

It seems to me that the excesses of certain occultist orientations have created a hoodwink for the other extremists - and for many on both sides of these extremes, I have great respect, even if I do think that some of their interpretations leaves (much) to be desired.

As to whether the pre-1781 Tarot had other uses than gaming, again, as has been previously discussed, the milieu of the times, and certainly some individuals having access to the cards within that milieu, would, seemingly more likely than not, reflect on the symbolic images: ie, use them for more than a game.

Were they created with a game in mind? This is a question which, unlike any Bosch painting, needs to be considered not only in terms of semiotic considerations, but as a whole portable set of images.

Firemaiden worded it beautifully. Is it possible that someone who either designs or uses these symbolic pictures use them only for point-scoring in what has also evolved to be a game. Certainly 'Boule/Petanque' is a game, and the modern balls are created for the purpose... yet there was undoubtedly a time when bored soldiers were creative in their recreational use of canon balls whilst awaiting battle. That a Tarot game also developed is normal and healthy: if a deck (or a variety of various decks - images, courts, pips) are around, games will develop.


You sure that's a frog coming out of his mouth? I mean, it's so small it could be anything really... a snake, a pea, or heck even a jolly rancher. Does it say frog somewhere or something, or can I just not see it?


If you saw a good quality reproduction of the picture you'd see it for sure. They're very small, but definitely frogs. One is coming out of his mouth and another is already sitting on the table.