When we first look at Pamela Colman Smith’s illustration, there is an apparent lack of excitement in the Eight of Pentacles. It looks like a ho-hum work day. Waite’s divinatory meanings for the upright are downright prosaic: "Work, employment, commission, craftsmanship, skill in craft and business, perhaps in the preparatory stage." But there may be an interesting facet or two below the surface.
Waite expends a lot of effort to make sure we see the laborer of the Eight of Pentacles as one who is learning his craft. In the Pictorial Key, he not only mentions this fact in his divinatory meanings for the Eight, he also points it out in his description of the Three of Pentacles. Why does he draw our attention to this? I suggest that Waite’s message is that tarot, and indeed, magic, can be learned by us in the same way that the apprentice learns: by starting out with the simple tasks; then through long experience at those tasks, over time, he becomes the skilled artisan.
As usual, these introductory posts convey additional analysis, as well as a link to the PDF version below, which is better to print from than the bitmap above. This is number thirty two in the series. The series traces the influences shown in the Zodiac Tarot Wheel, pictured below, to the divinatory meanings and storyboards of the minor arcana cards numbered 2 through 10 of the RWS deck.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Angler
The associated decan is the Sun in Virgo, but the influence of Mercury comes through more strongly than the Sun. Mercury, the god of commerce provides the theme: in a sense, the laborer "prints money" by hammering the coins. Waite suggests he’s new on the job; that may be a bow towards Virgo. His tool, the hammer, seems a bit too long for its short head; its appearance could be meant to recall Mercury’s caduceus (which is basically a wand… the two snakes encircled it later, but that’s another story and doesn’t seem to have anything to do with this card).
So where is the Sun’s influence? Is it just the shininess of the coins? No, the influence is there, just indirect: it was the Sun god, Apollo, who gave the caduceus to Mercury. This is a magical tool. From Wikipedia:
It is said the wand would wake the sleeping and send the awake to sleep. If applied to the dying, their death was gentle; if applied to the dead, they returned to life. By extension of its association with Mercury and Hermes, the caduceus is also a recognized symbol of commerce and negotiation, two realms in which balanced exchange and reciprocity are recognized as ideals. This association is ancient, and consistent from the Classical period to modern times. The caduceus is also used as a symbol representing printing, again by extension of the attributes of Mercury (in this case associated with writing and eloquence).
Recall that we said the laborer was "printing" money. As for his being new on the job, I think we can recall the saying about giving someone tools, as in "give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."
The next question is why Waite felt he had to divulge from the Golden Dawn, which called this card (ironically, it would seem) The Lord of Prudence. (The “prudence,” of course, would be attributed to Virgo). Let us review the GD’s divinatory meanings:
Over-careful in small things at the expense of the great. "Penny-wise and pound-foolish." Gain of ready money in small sums. Mean, avariciousness. Industrious, cultivation of land, hoarding, lacking in enterprise.
Rather negative! Waite, in contrast, accentuated and placed only positive meanings in the upright meanings.The conjunction of Apollo and Mercury mentioned above could be one factor. Another possible explanation is that he may have focused on the qabalistic influence, Hod, as a benign factor, whereas the Golden Dawn saw it as mixed, if not downright negative.
Though the quote from Wikipedia which follows is from much later than Waite’s or the Golden Dawn’s time, it gives us an insight into a quality Waite may have seen in the his view of the laborer on the work bench, and of Hod:
Hod is said to be the sphere in which the magician mostly works. An example is given by Dion Fortune in The Mystical Qabalah: Imagine primitive man is meditating in the wilderness, and comes in contact with, and begins to understand, some energy that surrounds him. So that he can grasp it better, he creates some form, perhaps the form of a god or a symbol, so he has something he can relate to. He then uses that statue or that symbol in future ceremonies to contact that intangible energy once again. This is the role that Hod plays in magic…
Notice—Waite calls the finished product a "trophy," not a coin, not an objet d’arte, not a product. If the hammer can be said to be his wand, the laborer, through a process similar to that described in the paragraph above, imbues magical energy into the symbol of the classical element of Earth, the coin. The result is the trophy, a symbol of something that he has won through his effort. Indeed, there is a visible symbol involved: the worker literally engraves a magic symbol, the pentagram, into the coins. In one sense, the Eight of Pentacles is a tarot card about creating tarot cards; it is art about art. (This is definitely one card where Colman Smith’s use of the stage as a framing element makes sense!). It is an art that nicely illustrates the proverb about teaching a man to fish.
When we see the apprentice learning his craft, we should therefore be reminded of the beginner, learning tarot and practicing its art. It should humble us or encourage us. That the beginner is at the bench with no less than eight pieces of work is an additional message: it will take quite a bit of experience to master this craft!
It’s rather a good bit of advice about life in general, and we should be reminded of it when we draw this card in a reading: with experience, time, and the right tools, we will end up like the master craftsman we see depicted on the Three of Pentacles. This advice has nothing to do with the querent’s question, and everything, at the same time. Eliphas Lévi, in Transcendental Magic (1854) stated that "an imprisoned person with no other book than the Tarot, if he knew how to use it, could in a few years acquire universal knowledge, and would be able to speak on all subjects with unequaled learning and inexhaustible eloquence."
I can’t close without mentioning my favorite thing about the Eight of Pentacles. Querents often ask about work and money. Note that Waite places "usury" in the negative divinatory meanings. Many people hardly even recognize that word today. Yet we probably live in the golden age of usury.
At least two or three times when this card has come up in readings that I have done for others. I ask in a soft voice, "student loan? Credit card debt? Medical debt?" It doesn’t take much insight, nor any degree of intuition to know that in our over-leveraged society, the answer will be "yes" for most people.
Gets ’em every time. Perhaps it’s so obvious, it’s not fair in some way—like fishing with dynamite. Which ties not just to the saying, but right into the card itself: the society of today has sculpted its own magic symbol, the one that looks like this—$—onto the forehead of every laborer, apprentice or craftsman.
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