Waite’s Pictorial Key and the Golden Dawn’s divinatory meanings for the Three of Wands are generally in agreement except for tone and context. Both focus on established strength; but the GD’s “enterprise” is a bit farther along than Waite’s. The most curious difference is that Waite adds a specific setting of sea based commerce—even though Wands should be associated with fire, an enemy of water. A look at the astrological influence readily explains this. Chrysomallos, the winged ram that symbolizes the sign of Aries was the sire of Poseidon and a hero in his own ovine right. More importantly, he is the ram whose wool inspired the story of Jason and the Argonauts’ quest for the golden fleece. There apparently wasn’t anything in that story which Waite could use as a device to insert his Christian mysticism symbolism into this card; though wait a bit, for we just might find some “Celtic pride.”
The Three of Wands is not just a nice card, it’s a good, understated design. In my opinion, some of the RWS cards are a bit over-the-top, but this one is a marvelous representation of the divinatory meanings with just the right touch of transparency that reveals the story and influences that Waite and Colman Smith chose as a setting.
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 seventeen in the series.
The story of Jason and the Argonauts was immensely popular in ancient Greece. It is still somewhat popular through today, periodically retold in films. I’m not sure that everyone knows it, so will retell it as briefly as possible. Poseidon, god of the sea, took a fancy to a young princess and abducted her. Her father and others pursued. To evade them. Poseidon turned himself into a ram, and the princess to a ewe. While they were in this state, he impregnated her. Their offspring was a ram with golden wool and wings. Some years later, in another part of Greece, a king had married a cloud nymph had two children with her, but grew tired of the marriage. The cloud nymph left, and the king kept custody of the two children, a boy and a girl. The king took a second wife, but she was an evil stepmother. She plotted to kill the children. Fortunately the birth mother learned of the plot and dispatched the winged ram to save them. The ram, Chrysomallos, flew them to what would have been for the Greeks the farthest reaches of the east: the Dardanelles. It was a very long flight without seat belts. The girl lost her grip on the ram, fell into the sea, and drowned. Upon arrival, the boy sacrificed the ram to Zeus. (Notice that “gratitude” is not present in the divinatory meanings!) His golden fleece was then hung up in a tree at a site sacred to Mars and guarded by a dragon each of whose many teeth could be sown into the ground to sprout a soldier, and bulls with hooves of brass and breath of fire. In other words, the golden fleece was pretty important; not just because of the gold, but because it was also a symbol of kingship.
Meanwhile, back in Greece, Jason was a prince who was disinherited by his uncle who had usurped the throne. As a young man, he disguised himself and went to his uncle’s court. The uncle recognized him and asked him what he would do if an oracle had said that he, Jason, was destined to kill him, the uncle. Not knowing what he was saying, and inspired by Hera, the mother of the gods, Jason said he should be sent to obtain the golden fleece. The uncle immediately made a deal that he would give up the throne if he returned with the fleece, expecting Jason to be killed.
Thereupon the Argonauts, named after their ship, were assembled. These included the famous Hercules, though he was only present for the first adventures. Many of them were heroes of their own tales; had they been a rock and roll band, they would have been called a super group. There were several adventures en route to the island where the fleece was guarded; the best known were the Harpies; a couple of clashing rocks which crushed ships that passed between them; the brazen footed bulls with breaths of fire already mentioned; the help Jason received from Medea (she drugged the dragon and stole the fleece while he slept); the dragon’s teeth which when sown in the earth sprouted soldiers; the island of the Sirens, and the Talos, who some say was the first robot to ever appear in a story. For the Greeks, Jason and the Argonauts was the Avengers, Star Wars and Suicide Squad, all rolled into one.
The facets of the story of the Golden Fleece that most affect Waite’s divinatory meanings are the gold, of course, as seen in the phrases having to do with commerce, and the sea voyage which becomes the background story as well as source for phrases such as “discovery” in those meanings. There are smaller touches; the grove in which the fleece was kept was sacred to Mars, the planetary influence for the card. Hercules had been part of the crew, and we see that “strength” is one of the divinatory meanings. Helios, the Sun, plays a part in the story at several junctions including having been the great-grandfather of the ram, and is the exaltation for the decan. Note also that the Sun as influence is probably the reason for the dreadful yellow that Colman Smith usually applies to indicate high noon. One interpretation of the story states that the fleece represented the wealth of the east, which ties in to trade. We also note that fleece (regular, not golden) was used by the Greeks as a filter, for use in panning gold from the rivers. And finally, the golden fleece was a symbol of authority and kingship, important for this card since the Emperor is also under Aries.
There is one very odd thing about Colman Smith’s depiction of the man in the RWS card. Notice his right foot. The “shoe” seems to be two different colors. Or is that a rock next to it, and we just see the back of the foot? If the latter, he’s barefoot. And that would be a clincher as far as the Jason story goes. Jason went to court to see his uncle, but lost one sandal helping an old woman (Hera in disguise) across a muddy creek. His uncle had been advised by an oracle to look for a man with one shoe. But I think it may be too much of a stretch to read that image as a man with one shoe missing.
We can’t help but notice a common theme between the story of Jason and one of Waite’s obsessions, English history, which drove the “Celtic” theme of the RWS deck. That Celtic romanticism is a manifestation of Waite’s British nationalism: the Celts were the original Brits. Waite designed the deck at the very height of the British empire, just a few short years before it began its rapid decline; his nationalism was natural, though it sometimes distracts from the messages we expect in the tarot. In the case of the Three of Wands, that nationalism is there, but hidden. What type of commerce was Britain best known for? Its textiles, particularly those based on wool. And what was the British empire best known for? Its navy. Perhaps in our opening remarks, when we noted that the GD seemed “further along” in its divinatory meanings, perhaps we had it the wrong way around. Perhaps Waite “rolled back the odometer” so as to portray the British Empire as more young and vibrant.
Focusing again on the question of the differences between Waite’s and the GD’s divinatory meanings, one can ask a further question: are Colman Smith’s ships coming or going? If we look at the GD’s phrases, such as “completion of labor, success of the struggle,” it’s clear that for them the ships would be returning, had they had ships. But if we look at the upright vs. reversed nature of Waite’s divinatory meanings: “effort” for upright, “end of troubles, suspension or cessation of adversity” for reversed it seems likely that he means that upright is that they’re going… whether out to Colchis and the golden fleece, or to the east to bring back spice or whatever cargo doesn’t matter, and reversed, that the ship returns with the fleece or exotic goods.
For a modern reader, the story of the Golden Fleece and the “coming or going” question may suggest a couple of nuances in interpreting the Three of Wands in a layout. First, that the business may involve government or a very large corporation (equivalent to the gold and the symbol of authority of the golden fleece, as well as the British Empire’s trade and stature). Secondly, (though this is not new), that on the one hand, the upright interpretation is that the business looks like it will be successful, if it’s still in its early phases, or just entering into execution. On the other hand, if reversed, that your ship is about to come in!
Base collage image by Julius Silver Now that’s some ship comin’ in!