The more I remind myself how important it is not to get “lost” in symbol reading while considering the tarot, the more the symbols seem to organize themselves in coherent patterns. In this post we will concentrate on the rich symbolic content of the Wheel of Fortune card. It may be the most symbol-laden of any single card. Moreover, the symbols are about Tarot and divination as a whole, not just aspects of them. For the Wheel of Fortune, Rota Fortunae, is the Wheel of the Zodiac. And the study of the Zodiac, Astrology, is one of the three foundations, along with Qabalah and Alchemy, of divinatory tarot.
Perhaps naively, I expected this to the be first of three posts concerning the Zodiac Wheel. Instead it’s the last of the three, and the longest. The Zodiac/Tarot wheels made by others that I had looked at while drafting this post weren’t satisfactory. I therefore devoted time in creating a “clean room” wheel for use by all who wish to use it. You can see the progress (almost done) here.
Importantly, making that wheel caused me to look at the Wheel of Fortune very differently.
When I read Waite’s description to the Wheel of Fortune card in the Pictorial Key, I was struck by how he spent the entire section commenting on others’ interpretations of it. He had nothing original to contribute, something quite rare. As for his divinatory meanings, he had little new to say there, either. This was quite unlike him.
To put the cart before the horse, for once, I have arrived at the conclusion that this card is like the compass point legend that we see on a map. It tells us which way are North, South, East and West. The compass is not a real place on the map. It is different than all other shapes on a map. I believe the Wheel of Fortune is different than all other Tarot cards.
Today, in the computer age, we call certain keys on the keyboard “modifier keys.” These are CAPS LOCK, Shift, Ctrl, Alt, Windows, Pillow, and any similar keys that don’t produce a character on your screen. They write nothing by themselves, but instead modify every other key. You might even say that like the CAPS LOCK, the Wheel of Fortune card MAKES THE OTHER CARDS SHOUT. or whisper.
This idea that the card has no innate qualities but instead “modifies” all the other cards would not be inconsistent with Waite’s lack of description. After all, Waite said nothing, but instead “modified” other writers’ words.
Thus far, then, the Wheel of Fortune card is a conundrum. Perhaps it even symbolizes the Sphinx’s conundrum, seeing as how the Sphinx is present. It is a closed circle shape. It cannot be accessed from without; only from within.
The Rota Fortunae Before it Was a Card
In its mythical basis, the wheel is a spinning wheel. The Goddess Fortune spins the thread. Oddly, she doesn’t spin the way normal spinners spin. She is said to spin first one way then another. Not with a consistent direction of revolution (as in worldy spinning wheels used by non-goddesses). Instead, she spins back, forth, back, forth, and so on in a maddeningly random way. Hence, the “fickleness” of Dame Fortune.
At its grandest scale, Rota Fortunae was said to be part of what was understood, prior to Galileo, to be a representation of the universe as a set of concentric spheres. From Wikipedia:
The origin of the word (Rota Fortunae) is from the “wheel of fortune” – the zodiac, referring to the Celestial spheres of which the 8th holds the stars, and the 9th is where the signs of the zodiac are placed. The concept was first invented in Babylon and later developed by the ancient Greeks. This ninth wheel became the Wheel of Fortune that we know. The original, the zodiac, only moves in one direction.
We would be in a great deal of trouble if the constellations rapidly moved back and forth, back and forth, indeed!
The medieval use of Rota Fortunae as a theme (also noted by Wikipedia) was that its purpose was to emphasize the temporary state of life in this worldly plane. It was an exhortation to do good, else your life in the next plane would be quite unpleasant. A very important sub-theme of this was “the rich laid low.” There is one explanation which states that this was to prove that only God was perfect, that even great figures like kings could be brought low. I suspect that schadenfreude had something to do with the popularity of that idea, but no matter.
In any case, if we the keep the spinning wheel in mind, we can understand the two “perspectives” of the cycle. The first and most obvious is the movement of a given point in the wheel itself, similar to the path of the hands of a clock, though in this case, sometimes forward, sometimes reverse. If we were affixed to the wheel, we would perceive an up or down motion. The second perspective is progress or dissolution—the production end of the spinning wheel. Progress makes a finished product (yarn or thread) out of raw material (unspun wool or cotton). If the Wheel spins forward, reverse, forward, the stress upon the material would result in yarn or thread in a very poor state. It would be unusable. So concept of the wheel represents not just the up or down state of someone’s fortune, but the quality of that person… their soul.
Its Meaning and Context for Tarot
Mathers said of this card “This very complicated symbol is much disfigured, and has been well restored by Levi.” We must therefore understand that the view of this card underwent profound changes among the 19th century groups that created the framework for Tarot divination that we still use today. Turning to Levi, he described a “Hieroglyph, The Wheel of Fortune, that is, the cosmic wheel of Ezekiel, with a Hermanubis ascending on the right, a Typhon descending on the left, and a Sphinx equilibrating both, and holding a sword in its lion-like claws-admirable symbol.”
At this point, then, we’ve established the underlying layout. Ezekiel’s Wheel, which is the Zodiac, rotating counter-clockwise (when in a state of progress), plus a smattering of Egyptian symbols. (Note that the “default” counter clockwise direction of the revolution of the Wheel is the same direction of time as an astrological chart). The Book T adds another divinatory source:
In the Tree of Life, the Wheel is placed on the Pillar of Mercy, where it forms the principal column linking Netzach to Chesed, Victory to Mercy. It is the revolution of experience and progress, the steps of the Zodiac, the revolving staircase, held in place by the counter-changing influence of Light and Darkness, Time and Eternity – presided over by the Plutonian cynocephalus below, and the Sphinx of Egypt above, the eternal Riddle which can only be solved when we attain liberation.
Between Levi and the Book T, we now have the combination of influences we see in Waite and Colman Smith’s card. Colman Smith depicts this with the Hebrew and alchemical symbols. Waite noted the Egyptian symbols in the Pictorial Key, though he did not mention the alchemical ones. Let’s focus on the other symbols incorporated into Colman Smith’s illustration but not mentioned by Waite (though given the importance of this particular card, I’m sure the ideas were not Colman Smith’s alone).
- Letters within the Wheel: they spell Rota, as in Rota Fortunae or Taro as in tarot, or Tora as in Torah. This at once links Tarot to both the Astrological (Rota Fortunae) and Qabalistic (Torah).
- Hebrew letters within the Wheel: they spell the Tetragrammaton, i.e., YHWH, the name of God.
- Alchemical symbols for Mercury, Sulphur, Salt and Aquarius (water) within the Wheel: Sulfur and mercury correspond to male and female natures, respectively. Salt is a physical substance purified by interaction with Sulphur and Mercury. This may be an analogy referring to the purification of the soul through knowledge, which is one of the central pursuits of alchemy. Water, of course, is essential for life.
- Books held by the four figures (who shall be explained in the next point) in the corners: they are reading the Torah, by the way.
- Zodiac and Planetary Symbols: we have already noted Mercury and Aquarius. There is also Leo, the lion in the lower right, Taurus, the bull in the lower left, and the Eagle for Scorpio (in one of its forms; it has several). The man at the upper left is said to represent Aquarius. These are at once the four fixed signs of the Zodiac, Ezekiel’s creatures, and the symbols for the evangelists.
Note that the Book T also assigns the Wheel to Jupiter. It is my contention that all these Zodiac, planetary and elemental symbols, like the map’s compass, represent a reference point. And since the “map” is the wheel of the Zodiac, which measures time, they therefore are reference points in time. Granted, some of the symbols are part of the Zodiac, while others are part of the Planetary Sphere (one level below), and still others are the classical elements (e.g., Mercury—yet it shares the same symbol as the planet!). All these symbols are present in the Tarot wheel. All these symbols are present in the tables of the Book T, which then assign them to the decans of the calendar. Therefore, we should look at the astrological chart and see where these Zodiac, planetary and alchemical symbols fall upon the calendar. We find the symbols cover the following periods:
- Mercury: Apr. 21-30; May 21 to Jun. 20; Jul. 2 to Jul. 11; Aug. 23 to Sept. 22; Nov. 23 to Dec. 2; Jan. 30 to Feb. 8;
- Leo, Taurus, Scorpio and Aquarius: Jul. 22 to Aug. 22; Apr. 21 to May 20; Oct. 23 to Nov. 22; Jan. 20 to Feb. 18
- Jupiter: May 21 to May 31; Aug. 2 to Aug. 11; Oct. 13 to Oct. 22; Nov. 23 to Dec. 21; Dec. 22 to Dec. 30; Feb. 19 to March 20;
- Water: Jun. 21 – Jul 21; Oct. 23 – Nov. 22; Dec. 22 – Jan. 19; Feb. 19 – Mar. 20
That means no less than 31 of 36 decans, are “included” under one or more of the symbols found on the Wheel of Fortune illustration! (Obviously if we replace the duplicate planets of the nineteenth century assignments with the planets discovered later, i.e., Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, this wouldn’t be the case, but since they didn’t see all the planets at the time, that is not an issue).
The Wheel as “Meta-card”
Because we know that all the cards are assigned to zodiac signs, planets or decans, we can easily see that these selected periods of the wheel could encompass most, but not all, tarot cards. It depends on whether you think the meaning of any given outer symbol extends to the card(s) below it.
If, and I think this is the whole lesson of this exercise I’ve undertaken with the Zodiac Wheel, you believe that the Golden Dawn assigned the divinatory meaning of every “inner” card, (the minor arcana) based upon their location “inside” a given Zodiac, planetary, elemental sign; that they then set a “sequence” based upon Qabalah, then the Wheel of Fortune could represent almost every card. We’ve already seen that many, including myself, believe that Colman Smith based her illustrations for the minors upon this method. To recall that method, we go back to our example of the 3 of Wands. It represents Aries (strong energy and proactive nature) plus The Emperor (power and authority), plus the Tower (as seen in Colman Smith’s illustration) plus the Sun (the ruling planet of the decan; ego and masculinity). If your deck utilizes this illustration; or if you agree or subscribe to a variant of Waite’s divinatory meanings for the 3 Wands (“established strength, enterprise, effort, trade, commerce, discovery”, upright, “end of troubles, suspension or cessation of adversity, toil and disappointment”, reversed), then you, at a minimum, “use” the “map” that the Golden Dawn set as its basis for interpreting the Tarot.
In fact, below you’ll see we’ve taken our Zodiac/Tarot/Planetary/Qabalah wheel and for every card/shape which carries a Zodiac or planetary symbol above, colored it green; then added light green for every card falling “under” one of the “green” shapes. (Click to enlarge; BackSpace to return. Ctrl-Plus, Ctrl-Minus to zoom in/out.)
Is there anything significant about the missing decans? Notice the periods just after the start and the midpoint of the wheel’s revolution (when citing Aries at 9:00 as the first sign, and 3:00 as the midpoint). In other words, the first period following the vernal equinox and the first period following the autumnal equinox. So the symbols within the Wheel of Fortune illustration act “special” at the point where you go into free-fall, on the down side of the Wheel and at the point where the “climb” becomes easier, on the up side. This may or may not be a coincidence. Is this a deliberate “message” inserted by Waite and/or Colman Smith when they added all the symbols they added? I don’t know.
In any case, looking at this graphic, one might say the Wheel of Fortune is the Kevin Bacon of Tarot cards! It is the “meta-card…” a card which “touches” or “locates” almost all the other cards much as the map compass locates the map shapes.
Conclusions and Takeaway for Readings
As a “meta-card,” the Wheel of Fortune is a tarot-card-about-tarot-cards. As the bearer of the symbols of divination, it symbolizes fortune telling. As a “map compass” it provides context for the other cards in the drawing.
In practical terms for the reader, I think that what that means is that we need to add, for whatever cards appear in a draw with it, the historical context of the Wheel of Fortune to the divinatory meanings passed down for those cards to us by Golden Dawn, Waite, et al. After all, the Wheel was probably one of the most recognizable symbols in pre-modern times. It was very common to find it amongst the art in gothic cathedrals. Some say the rose window is even a manifestation of it. Absolutely everyone knew what the Wheel of Fortune was; nowadays, probably very few do.
Let’s look at Waite’s divinatory meanings for the Wheel of Fortune: they are overwhelmingly positive whether upright or reversed: “Destiny, fortune, success, elevation, luck, felicity. Reversed: Increase, abundance, superfluity.” This is in line with the assignment to Jupiter, whose astrological meaning can be summarized as expansion, good fortune, wealth and philosophy. But it’s not consistent with the Wheel’s historical meaning. Where’s the down side of Rota Fortunae?
Perhaps there’s a clue in the historical metaphor of the quality of the yarn or thread produced… the quality of the “soul” that we mentioned earlier. Consider the six decans situated under Jupiter as planet, and hence, also under the Wheel of Fortune in the Zodiac/Tarot chart. They are the 8.9,10 Cups, and 8,9,10 Wands. What do they share in common, according to Waite and Colman Smith? We see, respectively: the dejected man leaving behind his eight cups, the man with nine cups, but only having “the material side,” the family with ten cups, a rainbow, and the “perfection of happiness,” eight wands drawing toward “the term of their course,” the worried man with nine wands awaiting his enemy, and the man oppressed by the weight of his ten wands, with presumably some distance more to carry them. Thus, five of six have a “down” side. All six have elements of time (one might even place them in a clock face). All six are illustrations pertaining to the (mixed) character of the soul at that moment (though 8 Wands may be a stretch in that last one!).
And that, I think is the “meta” message of the Wheel. It is a cue to the reader to modify the overall message conveyed by the divinatory meanings of the other cards. The call is to make sure “the bottom line” is of a dual or mixed nature, up and down, sweet and sour. Just as the historical Wheel of Fortune exhorts all to do good on this plane of existence, whether they are rising or falling on the wheel, I think that when the Wheel of Fortune tarot card appears, it advises that whatever the outcome of the other cards, be it wealth, love, or whatever, it is a sign that very seldom will the soul be wholly happy or wholly unhappy with the outcome.
One thing that I sometimes wondered at until looking closely (see below) before writing this post… a number of older treatises state the Wheel of Fortune is supposed to have seven spokes. But seven makes no sense unless you look at the Tarot de Marseille… where it has six spokes, plus an axle emanating from the center, for turning. So the axle is number seven! Seven also corresponds to the number of beings in most illustrations (but not in TdM!).. the four Living Creatures of Ezekiel, the sphinx, Typhon (the snake), and Hermanubis (the cute little demon).
Sometimes it seems like Tarot decks are like the aftermath of the Tower of Babel… all pieces of a greater whole, with no Tarot deck able to reconstruct the whole.
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The featured image at top is a “mash up” of Christine de Pizan, Folio 41r ‘Wheel of Fortune’ from Epitre d’Othéa; Les Sept Sacrements de l’Eglise, c. 1455 at Waddesdon Manor. Image at Wikipedia.