The Four of Wands – A One Page Guide

Four of Wands - IsleVue One Page Guide to Card Derivations

The Four of Wands is pleasant but visually confusing. What is its most important part? Is it only the elements on Colman Smith’s “stage,” the staves and large garland? Is it the figures with the nosegays and indistinct faces just behind the far edge of the stage? Or is it the huge manor house… far in the backdrop? This unusual lack of focus renders what appears to be a festival empty and distant. . Fortunately, by studying Waite’s divinatory meanings and a couple of online encyclopedias, we can reach closer to the joy. We’ve been invited to a party with an an open bar.

And what a bar! This is not just any country fête—it is one sacred to Venus. The Four of Wands provides an insight into Waite’s use of British/Celtic imagery to translate ancient astrological and mythological connections. The purpose was to make the deck more accessible to Waite’s 20th century British audience.

Before we get too far, let us call attention a few lines by John Dryden, first poet laureate of England. He wrote “We’ll toss off our ale till we cannot stand,/And heigh for the honour of England.” Now that’s a party!

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 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.

Allegory of Spring

IsleVue Tarot-Zodiac-Element-Sephiroth Wheel of the Golden Dawn

First things first. Let’s look at the astrology and the qabalistic influences. Aries is the sign, and Venus is the ruler of the decan. Aries is the constellation which honors Chrysomallus, whom we’ve written about previously. He was the flying ram known for saving the life of a child prince and for abundance (by virtue of his golden fleece), Venus, of course, is the goddess of love. Chesed, the qabalistic influence is the sephirot of loving kindness. The influences for the Four of Wands, therefore, are kindness, love, generosity and abundance.

Four of Wands isolated figures

The illustration has an air of loving and giving. One might be forgiven for thinking the foreground staves and “great garland” form a sort of wedding canopy, and that the two figures are about to be married underneath it. At least, that’s what I thought. Waite states, however, that the two figures are not bride and groom. He goes out of his way to describe them as “two female figures.” I believe this is to emphasize that the feminine influences upon the Four of Wands are the only ones that matter.

We note that the Golden Dawn group described this card as also quite positive; but not 100% positive, as Waite does. Waite doesn’t include a single negative phrase in his divinatory meanings, upright or reversed. This is extremely rare; he always gives even the cards considered the most positive one or more negative alternate meanings. As an example, the Ten of Cups has a reversed divinatory meaning that includes “false heart… violence.”

But by now we expect Waite and Colman Smith to surprise us. In Waite’s phrase “almost on the surface” the word “almost” nearly jumps off the page. He is daring us to look for something unusual in the divinatory meanings.

“Harvest-home” is clearly an unusual phrase. Waite even hyphenated it! The Encyclopedia Britannica states (may be paywalled):

Harvest Home, also called Ingathering, traditional English harvest festival, celebrated from antiquity and surviving to modern times in isolated regions. Participants celebrate the last day of harvest in late September by singing, shouting, and decorating the village with boughs. The cailleac, or last sheaf of corn (grain), which represents the spirit of the field, is made into a harvest doll and drenched with water as a rain charm. This sheaf is saved until spring planting. The ancient festival also included the symbolic murder of the grain spirit, as well as rites for expelling the devil.

Wait, what? That festival is in September! Our decan of the Four of Wands is in April; it includes the first day of Spring, in fact. Ah, but the Brittanica mentioned a connection with the spring planting as well. Now we’re on the right track: we’re looking for an agricultural festival, preferably one that has to do with Venus and the spring. And indeed, there is such a one, which Wikipedia tells us about:

Vinalia urbana (April 23), a wine festival shared by Venus and Jupiter, king of the gods. Venus was patron of “profane” wine, for everyday human use. Jupiter was patron of the strongest, purest, sacrificial grade wine, and controlled the weather on which the autumn grape-harvest would depend. At this festival, men and women alike drank the new vintage of ordinary, non-sacral wine in honour of Venus, whose powers had provided humankind with this gift. Upper-class women gathered at Venus’s Capitoline temple, where a libation of the previous year’s vintage, sacred to Jupiter, was poured into a nearby ditch. Common girls (vulgares puellae) and prostitutes gathered at Venus’ temple just outside the Colline gate, where they offered her myrtle, mint, and rushes concealed in rose-bunches and asked her for “beauty and popular favour”, and to be made “charming and witty”.

The date of Vinalia urbana ties directly into the decan of the Four of Wands. So we have not only the connection to an agricultural festival of Venus, but also to Jupiter. As we have said previously, Waite and Colman Smith sometimes reference (usually by its absence) the ruler of the opposite decan in the layout and divinatory meanings. In this case it is Jupiter. We might also note that one reason that Waite states that the upright and reversed meanings are the same is that they are related to similar festivals at each end of the growing season.

Recall that grain alcohol was an essential part of the English harvest-home celebration. We might also note that John Barleycorn, whom rock and roll fans may recall from the song by the group Traffic, was the king of the Harvest Home celebration. Below are the full lyrics to the Dryden song we mentioned; it is from his work King Arthur (1691). Stevie Winwood has written a great lyric or two in his time, but John Dryden seems to have much more fun as regards this festival!

Your hay it is mow’d and your corn is reap’d,
Your barns will be full your hovels heap’d.
Come, boys, come, come, boys, come,
And merrily roar out our harvest home!

Harvest home, Harvest home,
And merrily roar out our harvest home!
We’ve cheated the parson, we’ll cheat him again,
For why should a blockhead have one in ten?

For prating so long, like a book-learnt sot,
Till pudding and dumpling are burnt to th’ pot;

We’ll toss off our ale till we cannot stand,
And heigh for the honour of England.

As we said, the reference to harvest-home is an example of Waite’s use of British (and also Celtic) imagery to translate the astrological and mythological connections, and to make the deck more accessible to his audience. It is reasonable to assume that a fairly large segment of the British public would have known what harvest-home was in 1910. By substituting an agricultural festival they were familiar with for one they did not, Waite and Colman Smith provided the right setting for the Four of Wands.

Now we must address the sacred and the profane. We have also discussed previously the two aspects of Venus, the higher love which is the sacred aspect, and the common love, which is the physical or profane aspect. (Or should we say, “it’s only profane if you do it right!)” The dual nature of Venus is dramatically manifested in the Roman festival in which the wine is divided into sacred and profane. Likewise, the participants were divided into the upper class who no doubt celebrated at the temple, and the prostitutes and common women gathered at the gates. Note that we see in Colman Smith’s illustration the huge manor house—in the far distance. We are clearly at the gates among the common women. This somewhat explains the layout: we are entering the gates and just arriving at the festival.

Sacred and profane love, its celebration, and the enjoyment of love accompanied by a glass of “sacramental” wine should be a key message for modern tarot readers when they encounter the Four of Wands. In other words, separate yourself from the cares of this world with a drink, and love,. For Venus, the personification of love and fertility gives us, Waite says, “concord, harmony, prosperity, peace… increase, felicity (and) beauty.” The Four of Wands is the non-consecutive successor to the Two and Three of Cups. Considering the three together, it rather looks to me that Waite strongly associated Venus with Bacchus, the god of “the grape-harvest, winemaking and wine, of fertility, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and theatre.” What a guy!

Botticelli Primavera

Botticelli’s allegory of Spring contains the origin story of Venus’ spring festival, though it depicts Venus herself more from the viewpoint of “sacred” love than both. Wikipedia explains that “Zephyrus, the biting wind of March, kidnaps and possesses the nymph Chloris, whom he later marries and transforms into a deity; she becomes the goddess of Spring, eternal bearer of life, and is scattering roses on the ground. Chloris the nymph overlaps Flora, the goddess she transforms into. Of interest in the story of Chloris/Flora is that M.P. Shiel, a popular British writer contemporary to Waite, linked Chloris, Venus and harvest-home in a novel called Lord of the Sea (1901).

No doubt some will focus upon the similarity of Botticelli’s Three Graces to the three maidens of the previously mentioned Three of Cups. The Three Graces, by the way, were the daughters of Venus and Bacchus. It may be that Waite merely used “harvest-home” as a general term to describe an agricultural celebration, leaving it to the reader to fill in the linkage to Vinalia urbanais. After all, the latter contains the root of the word for “city” and Waite’s divinatory meaning stresses the country. But then again, perhaps this accounts for the huge size of the manor house in Colman Smith’s illustration.

We analyzed the Nine of Cups recently. Perhaps it’s ironic that that card, which appears to be about drinking is instead about physical love. And this card, which appears to be about love (if, like me, you interpreted the scene as a wedding), is actually about drinking—it’s a toast to love, both sacred and profane. Whether your drink is Roman wine or English ale, raising a glass to the goddess of love may be a good idea. As for me, I am putting a note on my calendar to celebrate April 23rd. With wine. And the proper music, of course. That John Barleycorn album was a great one.

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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?