Revision History: updated to add addendum section Sep 8, 2019.
Is it about money or sex? Everything is about money or sex, and the RWS Nine of Pentacles in particular is about both. The main astrological influence on the Nine of Pentacles is Virgo. Its symbol is said to represent the sexual organs—though the bottom of that symbol is closed off, hence the virginity. And as for the qabalistic influence, Yesod: it is associated with the sexual organs, too. Yet the illustration, a rich, possibly noble lady in her garden at first glance appears to be solely about wealth. We must look for hidden symbolism; for hidden (repressed) sexuality. How Victorian!
That A.E. Waite was a Victorian is self evident. The first 44 of the 75 years of his life were spent in her reign. What were the two aspects of Victorian England we read about most today? The wealth of the British Empire, and the deep denial of sexuality.
As usual, these introductory posts convey additional analysis, as well as a link to the PDF version at bottom, which is better to print from. This is number twelve in the series.
Lie Back and Think of England
First, let us note an odd difference between the Golden Dawn and Waite concerning the Nine of Pentacles. Waite places “prudence” first in his list of divinatory meanings for it. Yet the GD named the Eight of Pentacles, not the Nine, as the “Lord of Prudence.” One could say that the GD had a somewhat “hippie” point of view, i.e., a negative view of wealth. They ascribe petty avarice to the Eight, and covetousness to the Nine, whereas Waite was positive, ascribing “hard work” to the Eight, and enjoying the fruits of it (“accomplishment”) to the Nine.
For good or bad, then, the Nine of Pentacles illustrates wealth. In Egypt, Virgo signaled the beginning of the wheat harvest. This straightforwardly explains the card’s connection both to wealth and Earth. I think it is safe to say that Waite considers wealth a positive quality. Perhaps that is another reason his deck has been popular in the United States! Virgo is also associated with Astraea, reputedly last of the goddesses to leave the Earth at the end of the Golden Age. Waite seems to have a fascination for Astraea, naming her as the figure on the Justice card (though there is some overlap with another virgin goddess, Dike; they may in fact be the same). Everything was said to be pleasanter in the Golden Age, so Waite’s positive spin on Wealth in both the Eight and Nine of Pentacles is consistent.
Concentrating on the Nine, Waite draws our attention to the “bird upon her wrist” in his very first sentence regarding the Nine of Pentacles. Why? It appears Waite wants us to look for a meaning in something related to falconry. If we look for further clues in Colman Smith’s illustration, we notice one other animal present: the snail. So we have the fastest animal (the falcon) and the slowest (the snail). Either Colman Smith is teasing Waite, or they’re metaphors.
Falconry has a long history as a royal sport. It wasn’t just a man’s sport: in historical England, for example, female nobles were known to participate. Thus we may infer that the lady of the Nine is not only rich, but noble. We see the lady, we see her falcon: an outward appearance of nobility. There is one sexual oddity about the falcon, however. Per Wikipedia, “As with hawks and owls, falcons exhibit sexual dimorphism, with the females typically larger than the males, thus allowing a wider range of prey species.” We may also note that Virgo is one of the largest constellations in size.
Let us turn next to our little mollusk, hidden below in Colman Smith’s illustration. Snails have been considered to be a special dish for elites dating back to Roman times, though I don’t think that’s her lunch slithering away. Oddly enough, there is a sea snail called Astraea heliotropium. The snail in the illustration is merely a common garden snail. About which it is said:
One researcher argues that the myth of Cupid’s arrow might come from the mating rituals of Helix aspersa, a garden snail. Some of these snails shoot “love darts” at the object of their affections, containing mucus that increases the chances of their sperm surviving (snails are hermaphrodites, and both individuals receive sperm during mating). However, in earlier times, people believed that these snot rockets were gifts of calcium or were an aphrodisiac, and McGill University’s Ron Chase argues that this might the inspiration behind Cupid’s desire-inducing quiver.
We must also note that the slime of the snail is wet and slippery, and that the shape of the snail, when not in his shell, is phallic. To sum up thus far, we have a rich lady, a bird of prey in which the female of the species is dominant, a lubricated gender-inconclusive mollusk, a Zodiac sign whose symbol represents the sexual organs, and a qabalistic influence represented by the sexual organs. This is beginning to sound like New York in the late 1970’s.
Our lady of the Nine of Pentacles may be rich, but her only friend is a bird, and she spends all her time in a vineyard. That might explain some of Waite’s reversed meanings, which are negative. It might also bring to mind a few more modern explanations for the upright divinatory meanings. If we limit ourselves merely to stating that Waite implies that though the lady has attained the material rewards and accomplishments of the material world, she lacks some aspect of romantic happiness, we might be on “safe” ground. “Safe” happens to be one of Waite’s divinatory meanings here, too. We can view and admire the lady’s wealth and beautiful estate as much as we like, so long as we do not forget that Bacchus/Dionysus, Lord of the Grape Harvest, and Cupid may be hiding in the background. We should also expect to find Venus out there, too—she is the ruler of this decan. In the previous one page guide, the Four of Swords, we addressed the “heavenly” and “common” types of love represented by the goddess Venus/Aphrodite. I think you can guess which type we’re addressing in our discussion of this card.
Let’s turn to the other influences to see how they affect the divinatory meanings and the illustration. The Hermit, we may recall, carries a star within his lantern in the RWS deck. Astraea means star. The Hermit also shares “prudence” as a divinatory meaning. But the most important parallel is the idea of “occult isolation” which many ascribe to the Hermit, which is noted by Waite in the Pictorial Key (though he rejects it). Isolation appears to be a quality of the lady portrayed in the Nine of Pentacles.
Mercury, among the Romans, was the god of commerce, which aligns with the commercial success implied in the RWS Nine of Pentacles design. He is also the quickest of the gods, just as the falcon is quickest of the animals. Oddly, many depictions of Mercury also show him with a bird; a rooster, though, not a bird of prey. He was the god with authority over the grain trade, thus providing another link to Virgo.
The Magician may have influenced some of Waite’s negative divinatory meanings for this card.
Finally we arrive to the already mentioned Yesod, to which the GD group ascribed “increase of goods.” Yesod is also associated with the sexual organs. One might suppose that the GD’s “increase of goods” may be related to that. The “odd” thing is that WIkipedia states that Yesod is masculine. I must say that I’m glad that I live in times in which commercial artists don’t have to place snails in their designs in order to sell me shaving cream that will make me sexually attractive to the opposite sex of my choice.
Pamela Coleman Smith was 21 years younger than A.E. Waite, and an American. She was not a Victorian. How much of the specifics above—snails as Cupid, Grapes as Bacchus, etc.—we can accept as the true meaning behind the Nine of Pentacles can never be proved. But I think it fair to say that a reasonable person would agree that some degree of repressed sexuality, hidden in these symbols, and derived from Virgo and Yesod, is present in the RWS card.
So… is our lady of the Nine of Pentacles just a horny but emotionally suppressed rich Brit? Perhaps the flower decorations on her dress, which look like the symbol of Venus (I told you she was hiding there), are meant to be an aspirational hint. Further, can we describe A.E. Waite’s assignment of “prudence” to this card as a compensatory mechanism? Prudence was said to be the greatest of the virtues, a form of wisdom; but it was also known to be cautious (over cautious in the case of the GD Eight of Pentacles). And it shares the same root as “prude.” I conclude that the Nine of Pentacles is a representation of repressed sexuality sublimated into wealth and power. Nowadays we might call that a summary of Victorian times in general. Whether the repressed sexuality is a factor for this card in a small or to a large degree, Waite’s divinatory meanings for it appear to be deliberately blind to half the story.
For myself, I think I shall re-interpret the divinatory meanings for this card into something along the lines of “successful and accomplished in the material world, but lacking something in romantic happiness.”
A Sort of Addendum
As part of the process of thinking through these one-page-guides, I’ve purposely tried not to be influenced by any modern work, and have lately limited my reading material on the subject of tarot only to the works of authors contemporary with Waite. It’s sort of a “clean room” process that I hope keeps me as much as possible within the framework of Waite’s thinking, plus it keeps things strictly public domain, which is important to me for this series. (This limitation is a nuisance, really, in that the reading is stacking up. For instance, I’ve read the first few chapters of Robert M. Place’s Tarot:History, Symbolism and Divination, and it’s fabulous, so it’s killing me to put it down after just the general history, and before the specifics of the cards.) In any case, for the cards that I’ve done, I do feel free to do a bit more research with modern works, and for this particular card I want to comment upon and perhaps offer an additional idea regarding Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin’s suggestions regarding the Nine of Pentacles in their excellent book, Secrets of the Waite Smith Tarot (2015).
I’m sure the illustration is indeed based on the American actress Ada Rehan, as per his account. But I can tell you something, having had some personal experience with theatrical designers: they tape previous sketches to the wall and freely draw upon them for inspiration for whatever the current project might be. That the illustration looks like Ada Rehan does not mean that either Waite or Colman Smith focused on her. But there is someone whom they both knew that could have been the real role model, and for whom a visual piece of evidence may indicate her identity. Florence Farr was not only a famous actress, but she was a prominent member of the Golden Dawn group–in a leadership role, in fact. She was also a prominent women’s rights activist. The first paragraph of her Wikipedia biography notes her friendships with both Waite and Colman Smith, though perhaps William Butler Yeats may have had the closest relationship with her as far as the GD goes. Moreover, she wrote a play in 1901 called The Shrine of the Golden Hawk, as well as various texts for the GD that carried the name of “Flying Rolls.” So there’s quite a strong correspondence with the bird of prey.
The Wikipedia article also notes in the first paragraph that Florence Farr was “a bohemian’s bohemian.” This also would align with the underlying sexual imagery–the falcon as strong, aggressive female, snail as aphrodisiac/Cupid and grapes as Bacchus/Dionysus. Thus she was a strong woman (famous, leadership role in the GD) and sexual. For a Victorian like Waite, her strength might have seemed to exhibit a masculine side, which would put it in line with Yesod, which we noted is said to be masculine. I think both Waite and Colman Smith might have thought of her if Waite indicated he wanted a strong female to represent the Virgo influence, but with masculine tendencies for Yesod, as the centerpiece of the Nine of Pentacles.
Rosalind, the character that Ada Rehan played is one of Shakespeare’s stronger female protagonists, so this may have also suggested itself to Colman Smith. (She was also disguised as a man for part of the play). There’s no reason to preclude one or the other: it may be a mix. Or perhaps even Colman Smith was making a bit of fun at Waite’s expense by adding a sexual innuendo below Waite’s text. Who knows? It certainly is fun to speculate.
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