The Chariot: Waite’s Symbols

We return to our series of posts regarding the symbols in the Waite Colman Smith tarot deck. We compare Waite’s descriptions in the Pictorial Key, the textual descriptions by predecessors and contemporaries such as the Boot T and Mathers, as well as any “undocumented” symbolism in the illustrations, which may represent enhancements to Waite’s instructions by Colman Smith, or the latter’s own ideas.

For other posts in the series, click here or on “symbol” in the tag cloud.

7: The Chariot

ID symbol meaning
CHR pauldron Waite: “On the shoulders… are supposed to be the Urim and Thummim.” Yes, those moon shaped shoulder plates are called pauldrons. They were a standard part of medieval armor. More importantly, though they seem to directly tie the Chariot to the High Priestess (recall the moon symbol there), Waite takes great pains to distinguish the prince in his chariot from the priestess in her temple. He further states “that if he came to the pillars of that Temple between which the High Priestess is seated, he could not open the scroll called Tora, nor if she questioned him could he answer.” As to the Urim and Thummim, they were previously referred to by Mathers: “on his shoulders the Urim and Thummim symbolised by the two crescents of the Moon in increase and decrease.” Wikipedia states that in the Hebrew Bible the Urim and Thummim are “elements of the hoshen, the breastplate worn by the High Priest attached to the ephod. They are connected with divination in general, and cleromancy in particular. Most scholars suspect that the phrase refers to a set of two objects used by the high priest to answer a question or reveal the will of God.” Clearly, Waite refers to Urim and Thummim to draw attention to the role of the question as related to the sphinxes, below. But rather than a spiritual question such as Aaron’s jeweled breastplate might help answer (Exodus 25:15), this prince’s breastplate just has a funny little square on it, probably an alchemical symbol, which Waite doesn’t address.
CHR prince Waite: “the victorious hero… he has thus replied to the sphinx, and it is on this account… two sphinxes thus draw his chariot. He is above all things triumph in the mind. the question of the sphinx is concerned with a Mystery of Nature… He is not hereditary royalty and he is not priesthood.” Suffice it to say, based on Urim, Thummim and sphinxes, that Waite’s instructions to Colman Smith must have been to draw a parallel between the prince in the Chariot, and the High Priestess, but to emphasize that the prince’s realm, and his victories, are of this Earth.
CHR sphinx Waite: “in certain trials of initiation, he has thus replied to the sphinx, and it is on this account that… two sphinxes thus draw his chariot.” Waite thus notes the prince isn’t just the man with the answers, he is triumphant victor in that he has suborned the sphinxes to draw his chariot after his victory. We note that Mathers describes the sphinxes in a way that mirrors the prince. “The sphinx which turns its head towards the other is black and menacing, the other is white and calm,” while the charioteer’s “attitude is proud and tranquil.”
CHR sword Waite: “An erect and princely figure carrying a drawn sword… the planes of his conquest are manifest or external and not within himself.” Note that the sword mentioned by Waite in the Pictorial Key looks more like a wand in Colman Smith’s illustration. The Chariot is certainly an example of Waite’s sometimes self-contradictory writings (though perhaps some would prefer to call it paradoxical”). If ever a card was loaded with mystical symbols yet described as the opposite of mystical, this is it. It seems to me that Waite has a fundamental disagreement with the Book T concerning the Chariot, but couldn’t bring himself to refute his predecessors’ completely, instead maintaining their symbols but arguing with their meanings “outside” the card. The Boot T stated of the Chariot: “a symbol of the spirit of man controlling the lower principles, soul and body, and thus passing triumphantly through the astral plane, rising above the clouds of illusion and penetrating to the higher spheres.”

We’ve thus noted that Waite seems to be spending quite a bit of energy on distinguishing the Chariot from the High Priestess. Why has he done this? My theory is that it’s a further step away from the kabbalah-leaning early interpretations of the Golden Dawn to the his Christian/Celtic re-interpretations.

I do want to note one more symbol, unmentioned by Waite. Mathers noted “On the square which forms the front of the Chariot we see the Indian lingam surmounted by the flying globe of the Egyptians.” This is actually the lingam and yoni. The lingam is the phallic looking part (Hindus would argue it is not phallic, but since we’re looking for the meanings inserted by westerners, we should regard it as phallic). The yoni is the female part. Together they symbolize the merging of macro and micro-cosmos, the masculine and feminine, creation and regeneration. As such, we may draw a further connection between the prince in his chariot and the High Priestess. Rather than the parallels that never meet that Waite would portray, they are complements in the same processes, touching at the edges.

The Chariot

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John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot?