There are three things to know about the Ten of Wands:
- It’s about endings. The ends of ages, and the ends of humans (in the bodily sense).
- Waite’s divinatory meanings are mostly, but not completely, pessimistic. The Golden Dawn group took a wholly pessimistic view in its divinatory meanings. Waite, however, faced with the conflicting natures in the very mixed astrological, alchemical and qabalist influences, seemingly threw his hands up in the air, complained that it “cannot be harmonized,” and seems to have adopted a mostly pessimistic view.
- The Colman Smith illustration is unrelenting. It drives home the oppressive nature of the pessimistic interpretation. One can imagine Maynard G. Krebs, the TV beatnik who was “allergic” to work receiving this card in a draw and saying “Work? Me?,” then fainting. Though that’s meant as a humorous commentary on the card, it does underline that there is an economic commentary in the Ten of Wands that shouldn’t be ignored.
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 twenty-one 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.
The Monster Who Devoured Cleveland
The Ten of Wands is not a pleasant card to receive or interpret, whether or not you’re Maynard G. Krebs. It is said to be about the oppression of work. But why depict a serf, who by definition is tied to his little plot of Earth? After all, Wands is the suit of fire; shouldn’t work upon the land be more concerned with the earth suit, Pentacles? If it were a blacksmith sweating away at the forge, it might make better sense for Wands. Besides, when we think of serfdom, we think of a type of slavery or indenture. So clearly, Waite and Colman Smith want us to think of the work being really, truly oppressive.
The Ten of Wands’ planetary influences include Saturn and Jupiter, the greatest of the gods, the rulers of the golden and silver ages, respectively. In the former age, humans did not work at all, and lived off the bounty of the earth. In the latter age, work was necessary, but the world was a richer and more comprehensible place due to the presence of the gods.
As for the stars, Sagittarius is the representation of Chiron, the wise archer/centaur whose teachings (like Prometheus’) gave humankind many gifts. Though we do find an odd connection: Chiron took Prometheus’ place as a “side story” to the labors of Hercules. So… more work! Note also that we discussed one of Hercules’ labors in the analysis of the Seven of Wands.
We’ll leave the qabalistic influence aside for the moment.
The golden and silver ages certainly weren’t oppressive. Else classical man would not have looked back upon those ages with nostalgia. The Ten of Wands appears to be commenting upon what came after Saturn’s and Jupiter’s reigns, after the ends of the golden and silver ages.
In any case, at the simplest level, the “Tens” are the end of the cycles. Notice where this decan lies on the Zodiac wheel: December 13 to 21. The absolute depth of autumn, as the days shorten to their absolute minimum. It is the bottom of the Zodiac wheel (recall that astrologers say their charts are upside down because our viewpoint is from Earth). This accounts for the pessismism. We also find the Wheel of Fortune is the major arcana card associated with Sagittarius. Another associated major (through fire) is Judgment. But that is the highest trump but one. To Waite, Judgment most likely represented the beginning of the heavenly kingdom on Earth, a card of light and life. But, importantly, to others it represents the end of the world.
The planetary influences, therefore, are somewhat confusing (which probably led to Waite’s statement that the Ten of Wands is “a card of many significances, and some of the readings cannot be harmonized.” I think it might have been clearer had he just said “this card is mixed up!”
As mentioned, Saturn was the reigning god of the golden age. Zeus/Jupiter displaced him, and ushered in the silver age. Zeus sent the great flood at the end of the Silver Age, at which time the gods left Earth, and the bronze age began. With the bronze age arrived the invention of slavery. In this card we see multiple levels of the story. We can see the “plenty” of the golden age, as represented by the many wands, the “authority” (of the gods) of the silver age, as represented by the fact of this poor man seeming to do this back breaking work though he clearly would like to rest, and the “slavery” of the bronze age—the Duke or Lord in the town stealing the fruits of his serfs’ labor. Note, by the way, that there’s also a link between the great flood that ended the golden age to Chiron/Sagittarius via Prometheus, who was father to Deucalion, the “Noah” of the Greek version of the flood myth. I have elsewhere stated that one of the strengths of Tarot is its encapsulation of stories that are thousands of years old; and noted that the story a tarot reader weaves when interpreting a series of cards can be strengthened tremdously when incorporating story elements that have delighted mankind in their retelling over those thousands of years.
The question then becomes, what decided the perspective with which the Ten of Wands views these influences? Two things. First, as mentioned, is the decan’s place in the calendar at the absolute nadir of the Wheel of Fortune. Secondly: let us now look at the qabalistic influence we put aside before, Malkuth, the ass-end of the Tree of Life. Note that I didn’t just call it that. One of its corresponding body parts is the anus. Let’s look at what Wikipedia says (it’s rather complicated, so we shall have to quote several parts):
Unlike the other nine sephirot, it is an attribute of God which does not emanate from God directly. Rather it emanates from God’s creation—when that creation reflects and evinces God’s glory from within itself. The word can be translated or identified as positive communication, royalty/kingly dynasty, or humility… Malkuth means Kingdom. It is associated with the realm of matter/earth and relates to the physical world, the planets and the solar system… Some occultists have also likened Malkuth to a cosmic filter, as it lies above the world of the Qliphoth, or the Tree of Death. The liphoth, being the world of chaos, is constructed from the imbalance of the original Sephirot in the Tree of Life. For this reason Malkuth is associated with the feet and anus of the human body, the feet connecting the body to Earth, and the anus being the body’s “filter” through which waste is excreted, just as Malkuth excretes unbalanced energy into the Qliphoth. Another way to understand this is that when one is sitting, as in a meditative state, it is the anus that makes physical contact with the Earth, whereas when one is standing or walking, it is the feet that come in contact with the Earth… Malkuth is the main influence. Malkuth is also associated with the World of Assiah, the material plane, and the “densest” of the Four Worlds of the Kabbalah. Because of this relation to Assiah, it is also related to the suit of Pentacles or Coins of the Tarot.
Returning to the other “endings,” we note that the Romans gave Saturn the attributes of the Greek god Cronus, the god of time. It is conjectured that the reason we depict Saturn devouring his offspring is that it is a metaphor for the advance of time. The births and deaths of each successive child of Saturn represents the birth and death cycle of the seasons.
This, then, is the reason that the Four of Wands seems so problemmatical in its significance. Its influences include both beginnings and endings, birth and death, plenty and slavery; yet only the negatives of these pairs are depicted because we’re looking “up” at it from down here on Earth. There is a visual “hole” or circle in the illustration’s design just below center in Colman Smith’s card; I don’t think I need to remind the reader of what body part it might represent. And if you never look at this card in quite the same way again, my apologies.
We have surmised that the influence of Malkuth (and the fact that this is the ten) persuaded Waite to emphasize endings, the negatives. Yet though Waite “sets them aside,” the “good” parts, the echoes of the golden age, the silver age and the kingdom of heaven on Earth following Judgment day are still present. I am not convinced that the Ten of Wands should be so pessimistic. For my interpretation, I prefer to see it as something like “work can be oppressive, and the CEO can make in an hour what you make in a year, but, sometimes it is fulfilling and rewards you.” Mind you, for millenials trapped in student debt and the gig economy, I may be showing my age.
Certain other cards, mostly among the suit of Pentacles, show the positive nature of work. The Ten of Wands does actually show the energy of Fire/Wands, as expressed in work: the man has seemingly managed to carry the staves a long way, and we expect him to go the distance. But it is cast in the negative light of serfdom and slavery. In that respect, it is a very modern card. For many people today, work is not a positive. There is not much hope of finding a “vocation” in a world of globalism and militarism. But perhaps we are at the end of a cycle. Waite and Colman Smith ushered in modern tarot at the end of the age they lived in. It was just a few short years before the end of the British Empire. Globalism, which may be the real “Monster That Devoured Cleveland” (Maynard G. Krebs’ favorite movie), is serfdom and slavery to most, but like the Ten of Wands, it may predict its own ending. As Waite noted, “the place which the figure is approaching may suffer from the rods that he carries.”