The Wheel and the Mise-en-scène

Two days ago we posted the first version of a Zodiac Wheel with tarot, astrological, qabalistic and elemental divinatory meanings based upon writings of the Golden Dawn. We linked to articles by Mary K. Greer and Bill Heidrick, respectively, which gave examples of how the astro-alpha-numeric correspondences came to be formulated, and how in turn they contributed to the design of the Waite Colman Smith deck. The wheel graphic “located” the sources for each card. Today we will take twelve of the minor arcana—those in the center of each deccan, having an exalted and failed (opposite of exalted) planet indicated—and see what visual links we can find between their position within the graphic and Colman Smith’s designs.

The ultimate purpose of such an exploration is to be a better reader. At the end of the day, we can list every symbol, count every esoteric number, chart every symbol on every card… but still not properly relate that information to the querent’s question. But if we ask instead “how did the Golden Dawn, Waite, Crowley and everyone after them compose the divinatory meanings which for the most case we still follow today?, we may understand many cards’ meanings better. And we will hopefully be able to recognize the astrological, qabalistic or elemental traits that contributed to those meanings so as to better relate an answer that the querent can understand.

This exercise will be limited to looking for the correspondences in the Colman Waite illustrations, Taking twelve cards at once, we can only go so deep. The idea is to test the utility of the graphic in identifying the correspondences on a superficial or visual level first. Perhaps we can look at individual cards in depth in future posts.

I don’t pretend to be authoriatative in this matter. I started looking into the Qabalistic meanings only recently, for example. But I am pretty good at organizing information, and have a fair eye for recognizing and interpreting the graphical side. As mentioned the other day, I hope that with comments and suggestions from all who view the chart we can improve it. It’s a work in progress.

Links Between GD and the RWS Cards

In the table below, in addition to the astrological, qabalistic and elemental qualities for the cards at the center of each deccan, you’ll find my notes regarding how these qualities are incorporated (or not) in Colman Smith’s designs. Most of the citations on the right column are to cards in the center column. My conclusions appear below the table.

Card Hints Colman Smith Implementation
3 Wands (MAR 31-APR 10)

Three of Wands
  • Zodiac: Aries
  • Major: The Emperor
  • Planetary Ruler: Mars
  • Planetary Major: The Tower
  • Exalted Planet: Sun
  • Failed Planet: Saturn
  • Elemental: Fire
  • Elemental Major: Judgement
  • Qabalah: Binah (intuitive understanding, or contemplation)
This is an easy one as far as the visual cues go. In fact, it was the example noted by Heidrick. An emperor-like man (note the bulge in his right sleeve not unlike the armor worn by Colman Smith’s Emperor) stands on a rampart that may be part of a tower. Note the yellow sky Colman Smith often uses to depict the bright of day (the Sun is exalted). The man contemplates the boats which appear to be going out to sea. Note also the orange (sun) tones in both sea (!) and land, and the color association (dark red with black shading) of the man’s toga and the Emperor’s clothes. As far as the textual divinatory meanings go, it is difficult to see how the Colman Smith illustration matches the Qabalistic meaning defined by the Golden Dawn (pride, arrogance). though the other meanings could be seen as possibly linking the illustrations.
6 Pentacles (MAY 1-10)

Six of Pentacles
  • Zodiac: Taurus
  • Major: The Hierophant
  • Planetary Ruler: Venus
  • Planetary Major: The Empress
  • Exalted Planet: Moon
  • Failed Planet: Sun
  • Elemental: Earth
  • Qabalah: Tifferet (compassion, strength and judgement)
The rich man judging which beggars deserve alms (note the scale) combines the generosity of the Hierophant and the Qabalistic Tifferet. Note also the funny hat the rich man wears, covering his ears and the scarf falling below his waist… they form a visual parallel to the Hierophant’s costume. The two towers in the background, with high windows, could possibly link to the Moon illustration, the Moon being exalted. The mise en scene of the illustration successfully reflects part of the divinatory meanings of the Golden Dawn document: the “material success” portion of it. In some ways what we have seen so far is that Colman Smith leveraged both the symbols and text of the Golden Dawn for a “rethink” to make these fresh illustrations. This is exactly what would seem the most likely course for the first popular deck to illustrate all the minor arcana.
9 Swords (JUN 1-10)

Nine of Swords
  • Zodiac: Gemini
  • Major: The Lovers
  • Planetary Ruler: Mercury
  • Planetary Major: The Magician
  • Exalted Planet: Mars
  • Failed Planet: Moon
  • Elemental: Air
  • Elemental Major: The Fool
  • Qabalah: Yesed (the foundation upon which God has built the world… the sexual organs)
That there is a link to the Zodiac in this illustration is clear: note the Zodiac signs in the blue squares of the bedspread. It is possible that the exalted planet, Mars, conveys the violence of the nightmare and nine swords poised above the man, and the Moon, the failed planet, denotes sleep interrupted. But this card may provide only weak evidence of the hypothesis that these sets of symbols formed the starting point for Colman Smith’s illustration. (Note, however, the resemblance of the night shirt to the Magician’s shirt.) On the other hand, Colman Smith’s illustration captures perfectly the words that the Golden Dawn group used to illustrate the Nine of Swords. This appears to be a case in which the Qabalistic meaning (“Ruled by cruelty and despair”) overrode all others; but that meaning isn’t necessarily reflected in the astrological or planetary signs.
3 Cups (JUL 2-11)

Three of Cups
  • Zodiac: Cancer
  • Major: The Chariot
  • Planetary Ruler: Moon
  • Planetary Major: The High Priestess
  • Exalted Planet: Mercury
  • Failed Planet: Mars
  • Elemental: Water
  • Elemental Major: The Hanged Man
  • Qabalah: Binah (intuitive understanding, or contemplation)
This is another case in which the words of the Golden Dawn (specifically, abundance, or “eating and drinking” as seen in the Qabalistic interpretation, form the basis for the illustration. Most notably, the “dance” in “abundance” is realized. One can also cite the High Priestess as the source for the female characters. One other interesting note is that the woman on the left appears to be bending her leg in a similar manner to the way the Hanged Man bends one of his legs.
6 Wands (AUG 2-11)

Six of Wands
  • Zodiac: Leo
  • Major: Strength
  • Planetary Ruler: Sun
  • Planetary Major: The Sun
  • Exalted Planet: Jupiter
  • Failed Planet: Mercury
  • Elemental: Fire
  • Elemental Major: Judgement
  • Qabalah: Tifferet (compassion, strength and judgement)
Victory, gain, energy, industry… the words of the Golden Dawn definitely contribute to the illustration by Colman Smith. There seem to be visual links, but they’re not that easy to find. Note the wreath above the soldier’s head, and the other wreath on his head. Though separated, they form a visual reminder of the infinite loop of the lemniscate in the Strength card. The man gently dominates his horse, and the horse looks back at him in a seemingly affectionate way, much like the lion looks at the woman in Strength.
9 Pentacles (SEP 2-11)

Nine of Pentacles
  • Zodiac: Virgo
  • Major: The Hermit
  • Planetary Ruler: Mercury
  • Planetary Major: The Magician
  • Exalted Planet: Venus
  • Failed Planet: Jupiter
  • Elemental: Earth
  • Qabalah: Yesed (the foundation upon which God has built the world… the sexual organs)
The rich lady of the Nine of Pentacles holds her hooded falcon much like the Hermit holds his lantern; a definite link between the two cards. Note the flowers in her gown: they’re shaped like symbols of Venus, the exalted planet for this deccan! The card also appears to hold a sexual component, like Yesed. It is the snail at her feet: snails are hermaphroditic. In this case, the symbolic cues may have more to do with the scene than the actual text of the Golden Dawn, but it’s not very far off.
The Wheel and the Mise-en-scène
3 Swords (OCT 3-12)

Three of Swords
  • Zodiac: Libra
  • Major: Justice
  • Planetary Ruler: Venus
  • Planetary Major: The Empress
  • Exalted Planet: Saturn
  • Failed Planet: Sun
  • Elemental: Air
  • Elemental Major: The Fool
  • Qabalah: Binah (intuitive understanding, or contemplation)
The rainy day, broken hearted card is not exactly everyone’s favorite card to receive, but we can all relate to it. That the card is about Venus is evident. That the Sun has failed, is illustrated. And the saturnine—dark, dour and morose—nature of this card cannot be denied. Here the Qabalistic divinatory nature (“Unhappiness, sorrow, tears”) is given precedence, but the astrological associations contribute to the illustration.
6 Cups (NOV 2-11)

Six of Cups
  • Zodiac: Scorpio
  • Major: Death
  • Planetary Ruler: Mars
  • Planetary Major: The Tower
  • Exalted Planet: Sun
  • Failed Planet: Moon
  • Elemental: Water
  • Elemental Major: The Hanged Man
  • Qabalah: Tifferet (compassion, strength and judgement)
The textual meanings—beginning, commencement, pleasure, enjoyment—provide the full meaning for the illustration. The Sun exalted may play a role, and the slightly seedy but still large manor house may be meant to visually associate with the Tower.
9 Wands (DEC 3-12)

Nine of Wands
  • Zodiac: Sagittarius
  • Major: Temperance
  • Planetary Ruler: Jupiter
  • Planetary Major: The Wheel of Fortune
  • Exalted Planet: Moon
  • Failed Planet: Mars
  • Elemental: Fire
  • Elemental Major: Judgement
  • Qabalah: Yesed (the foundation upon which God has built the world… the sexual organs)
There are visual clues linking Temperance and the Nine of Wands: the straight stance of each character with diagonal (wand and the pouring water) opposed, the vertically oriented leaves to the right of the Angel and the Wands planted in the ground, and the headbands, though of very different natures, that each character wears. I presume that the bandage around the head of the character in the Nine of Wands refers to both the failed position of Mars and to the Qabalistic reference to health. But apart from that, the Nine of Wands in RWS has always been a bit opaque to me. This analysis helps slightly, but I think I still have a ways to go to properly understand this card.
3 Pentacles (DEC 31-JAN 9)

Three of Pentacles
  • Zodiac: Capricorn
  • Major: The Devil
  • Planetary Ruler: Saturn
  • Planetary Major: The World
  • Exalted Planet: Mars
  • Failed Planet: Mercury
  • Elemental: Earth
  • Qabalah: Binah (intuitive understanding, or contemplation)
I suppose that there is a link between the work portrayed in the Three of Pentacles and the Devil, the link being the saying “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Perhaps the architect’s funny hat is supposed to remind us of the Devil. And it may be that there are visual links in the dark areas, and arches if you turn one card upside down next to the other. But overall, it seems the RWS illustration is not about advertising the benefits of “paid employment,” as the Golden Dawn’s Qabalistic meaning puts it. The worker with the hammer does not look particularly happy. I feel that Waite and Colman Smith had some other idea regarding this card, but it seems to have gotten lost along the way. Or perhaps I just don’t see it.
6 Swords (JAN 30-FEB 8)

Six of Swords
  • Zodiac: Aquarius
  • Major: The Star
  • Planetary Ruler: Saturn
  • Planetary Major: The World
  • Exalted Planet: Mercury
  • Failed Planet: Jupiter
  • Elemental: Air
  • Elemental Major: The Fool
  • Qabalah: Tifferet (compassion, strength and judgement)
Water seems to be the link between the Six of Swords and the Star, as they both fall under Aquarius. I might also link the slow progress of the boat with Saturn, and the somewhat glum atmosphere of the card with it as well. Colman Smith appears to concentrate on the “labor work and journey” aspect of the Golden Dawn’s Qabalistic meaning.
9 Cups (MAR 1 – 10)

Nine of Cups
  • Zodiac: Pisces
  • Major: The Moon
  • Planetary Ruler: Jupiter
  • Planetary Major: The Wheel of Fortune
  • Exalted Planet: Jupiter
  • Failed Planet: Venus
  • Elemental: Water
  • Elemental Major: The Hanged Man
  • Yesed (the foundation upon which God has built the world… the sexual organs)
The Nine of Cups is one of my favorite Colman Smith illustrations. I find it to be welcoming, and far beyond the material-only aspect that some give it. The abundance certainly links to the Wheel, at its “upper” part… visually connecting to the semi-circular table which makes the same shape. It’s also a fitting illustration for the last deccan with an exalted planet… Colman Smith may be raising her glass in toast to us! With a nickname like “Pixie” I bet she knew how to have a good time.

Conclusions

    IsleVue Tarot-Zodiac-Element-Sephiroth Wheel of the Golden Dawn
  • There are significant, clear repetitions of graphical motifs related to the qualities (or citations to cards) in the second column of the table and Colman Smith’s illustrations for the minors.
  • There are significant links between the textual content of the Golden Dawn’s meanings for the minor arcana and graphical elements of Colman Smith’s illustrations. But that’s hardly a surprise.
  • Whereas a number of Tarot historians have conjectured that Waite concentrated his attention on the illustrations of the major arcana, and pretty much left Colman Smith to her own devices for the illustration of the minors, I think these correspondences indicate that Colman Smith used her familiarity with the Golden Dawn’s divinatory meanings for the minor arcana as the starting point in almost all, if in in every case.
  • I think that we as students and readers of Tarot would do very well to better familiarize ourselves with all the influences listed here. For instance, and as I pointed out, the Nine of Wands has often been a card of unclear meaning to me. This is the first time I’ve considered the failed position of Mars. Now it says to me “Vietnam Vet.” I’m not sure that’s much better, but it relates something personal to me, and it may relate something to a querent in a future reading.

And needless to say, I hope to hear the views and opinions of others as far as this chart and this analysis of the intentions behind the divinatory meanings go.

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? 😉

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