The Magician and Identity

Since the Fool is numbered zero, the Magician is numbered one. One is the identity element for multiplication. In math, an identity element is the number that doesn’t change other numbers (when multiplied, in this case). This is why it is called the identity element: other numbers keep their identity, their same value, when multiplied by one. Their nature remains unchanged by the operation. So what is it that one is doing when it interacts with other numbers?

At the same time, every number keeps coming back to the identity element. In multiplication, every number except zero has a counterpart, and when you multiply a number times its counterpart (also called its multiplicative inverse) you get 1. So you can always come back to this identity element. In some sense, it contains the seeds of all the other numbers, or the potential to take on the identity of any other number multiplied by it.

I think there’s a resonance between the nature of the identity element and the symbolism of the Magician card. The Magician works with the natural forces represented by the tools shown in the card, but she doesn’t fundamentally change those forces; she uses them as tools to accomplish her own goals. She doesn’t change the nature of Air or Water, or restrict the burning passion of the flame she lights, but by working with them she creates change around herself. Or perhaps she creates the change within herself…

And so we are brought back to the paradoxical heart of magic. We create change by starting that change within ourselves. And yet, somehow, we retain a coherent identity. In fact, for many of us, the kinds of change that we create are a lynchpin of our identities. Think about it this way: our skills and abilities are one of the major components of our identities. What are those skills and abilities besides the ability to create change in particular ways? I go to work, and I change the world. It’s only a tiny bit, but I think it matters. Tomorrow I’ll do it again. The changes we make are something we depend on for our very sense of self.

In this sense the Magician is very much about identity because the Magician is one who makes change possible and thus creates identity, and who really has an independent identity, as opposed to the kind of blank canvas that the Fool represents. The Magician has her tools to hand: she is holding all the aces of the Tarot deck, the potential power of each suit, and beginning to use them to create something new, something that could be almost anything.

At the same time, she must balance the opposites within herself, both the opposites contained in the different qualities of the suits and natural powers and the contrasts between what is and what might be. These inverses keep looping back to her, as the infinity symbol on her card keeps crossing through its own center. Out of that central point, out of her identity as an element of change, comes a realm of nearly infinite possibility, with the potential for so many different outcomes that points to the rest of the deck as an unfolding exploration.

NB: For those who are interested, zero is the additive identity – and zero also “breaks” multiplication by not having a multiplicative inverse. In many ways everything I say here about one is also true about zero under addition, but with much stranger overtones because of the way it behaves under multiplication. I chose to emphasize the properties of the numbers this way because I think it teaches more about the meanings of the cards.

Costumes, identity, and love

I’ve been debating about it for a while, but I give up: I’m going to blog about social issues, and maybe even (gasp!) politics. I’m already writing about religion. I might as well include the other untouchable subject. And then mix them, just for fun!

Seriously, though, I believe that my religion affects my everyday life. My awareness of and relationship with Deity, especially my belief that Deity is immanent in every one of us, has serious implications for how I live. I think we, as Pagans and Wiccans, need to be having conversations about that, although far be it from me to exclude or snub someone based on disagreeing with me over politics! I’ll also try, hard, not to let this space get bogged down with too much politics, or rants.

We just passed Samhain, a Sabbat for Wiccans but also a time that the population in general likes to dress up and have fun. One mother wrote about how her young son dressed as Daphne, from Scooby Doo, for Halloween, and how other mothers at his preschool pitched fits over it. First, I have to say that even if you believe crossdressing erodes a person’s moral fiber in a way that can’t be fixed with a few muffins from Trader Joe’s, that’s no excuse for being cruel to children. But more than that, I think the idea of costumes and malleable identity is something that Paganism, especially at Samhain, has to offer to the world.

Masks and costumes let us assume another identity for a while; they also help us understand that how we present ourselves every day is full of choices. There’s some great academic work about how clothing and fashion are a form of theater – the theater of the body. It’s an interface through which we interact with others. And yes, that interface is a place where we perform our gender, where we conform, or not, to the constructed gender norms of our culture. (I’ll skip the intro to the theory of gender as a performance – if anybody wants it, let me know.)

One of the major tasks of childhood ought to be trying on identity in order to find the right fit, and the Goddess knows that many aspects of this continue throughout life. Costume is one of the wonderful ways to explore that precisely because it’s not “real.” It’s assumed by everybody to be outside the realms of normal behavior, so it’s a safer space to experiment. There’s a long history of things like this, including the Feast of Fools and other ways that “unallowable” behavior gets allowed. Renaissance Faires are one of the great examples of this today, I’d argue – but that’s another post. I will say that I agree with some of the Feri practitioners who see it as part of their role to inhabit the boundary spaces, to play with paradox, and to explore those bounds. Not because all boundaries are bad, but because we ought to be using the right ones – and we won’t know what the right ones are, individually or culturally, unless we explore, and examine them.

In particular, we as Wiccans do identity exploration a lot! Taking part in ritual drama, especially one where the power alluded to is invoked into the individual, is a common act in Wicca. We also often engage in trance experiences or other kinds of “possession,” even if it’s usually not as full-fledged as a practitioner of, say, Santeria might experience. (Note I am not saying that this kid was channeling the imaginary spirit of a cartoon character.) The ability to share in or temporarily take on another identity is a common way that we interact with Deity and spirits. This process of being someone else for a while has important social and religious functions, and that’s why it’s gotten carried along in secular Halloween. Understanding that process deeply is one of the things Wicca has to offer to the larger culture.

More than that, though, it’s important ethically. I believe in an immanent Deity, manifest in all of us. You, me, the boy wearing the orange wig, his mom, and yes, the other mothers who were so weirded out by the whole thing that they said unkind things to his mother. If you and I are connected, on some spiritual level, then what happens to you happens, in some sense, to me. Therefore it’s important – no, I’ll go further – it’s vital that I am able to imagine what being you is like, because if what I do hurts you, I am, in a significant sense, hurting myself. An immanent Deity connecting all of us implies that empathy – or at the very, very least a strong sympathy – is at the very heart of ethical thought and action. If I don’t know or can’t imagine even a tiny bit what it’s like to wear a dress, or worse, I don’t care, then my ability to act ethically is going to be impaired. As, obviously, the people who made this kid uncomfortable were impaired.

And for the record, that kid totally rocked the orange wig in a way that I never could. I’m impressed!