Tarot Deep Dive - The Wheel of Fortune

Every card represents an aspect of humanity that has echoed through time. In this series we are going to dive into the history of the imagery found within the tarot, the meaning of the cards and how that meaning changed over time, and the symbols present within the images of what is arguably the most well known tarot deck of all time - the Rider-Waite (Smith) Tarot Deck. So grab your favorite RWS deck, a cup of tea or coffee, and join me live on Sunday mornings over on YouTube as we Deep Dive into each one of the 21 Major Arcana cards continuing now with ever spinning Wheel of Fortune.

 
The Wheel of Fortune, Rota Fortunae, Lady Fortune, Fortune
Bhavacakra (Wheel of Becoming)

The Wheel of Fortune, or Rota Fortunae, is deeply engrained in western occultism and society. It has appeared in several different religious, philosophical, allegorical, and even fictional contexts since the days of ancients. Many scholars today cite that this enigmatic symbol has its origins in the Ancient Astrology of the Babylonians and the Zodiacal Wheel - which was later adopted by the Greeks and the Romans; hence the reference to Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune and luck. This was based on their perception of the universe as the zodiac being a wheel with the signs constantly revolving around the earth throughout the year dictating and influencing the fortune of the world.


Petroglyphs at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

However this symbol may have deeper symbolic roots can be traced even further back in time to more ancient symbols such

as the Bhavacakra, or Wheel of Becoming, depicted throughout Ancient Indian and Buddhist art and literature. Or even the Sun Cross that goes back into prehistory and is one of the most ancient symbols we have, though the origin and meaning of this particular symbol is still highly debated amongst scholars and occultists alike. The idea of The Wheel of Fortune and symbol took root deeply in western culture and rapidly became a trope (or a meme by today's standards).


Codex Buranus (Carmina Burana) Clm 4660; fol. 1r with the Wheel of Fortune

The imagery of this symbol that maybe more familiar to Tarot readers is one that was popularized during the during the middle ages. It was extensively used by the church as an allegorical symbol used to explain the social stratification present throughout Europe during this time. It depicted God at the centre of the wheel, in control. Around the wheel we see figures depicting different social stratifications with the Nobility at the top and the common man at the bottom. In the example we see here we also see the idea presented that even kings may fall and rise as the figure on the right clearly depicts a king losing his crown. This kind of symbolic allegory was employed at great length by the Catholic Church during this time to help teach the largely illiterate populace. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Interestingly enough during this time we also see several depictions of Lady Fortune or Fortune spinning her wheel depicting similar allegorical stories.

The Wheel of Fortune, like many other cards in the Major Arcana are deeply rooted in Renaissance allegory and symbolism, and thus is equally depicted in the Tarot in a variety of ways.


Visual Evolution

Though details may change the depiction of this card has remained relatively consistent through the history of the tarot. We can see the heavy influence of the medieval and renaissance depictions of The Wheel of Fortune early in this cards visual history. As occultism crept in we begin to see a highly symbolic wheel that transcends the Christian idealistic allegory of olde.


Evolution of Meaning

  • De Mellet (1781): The Wheel of Fortune. The injustice of the fickle goddess.

  • Levi (1855): The Hebrew Letter Yod, the Wheel of Fortune. Principle, manifestation, praise, manly honor, phallus, fire fecundity, paternal sceptre.

  • Mathers (1888): The Wheel of Fortune. Good fortune, success, unexpected luck.

  • Golden Dawn (1896): The Lord of the Forces of Life. Wheel of Fortune. Good fortune and qualified happiness.

  • Waite (1910): Wheel of Fortune. Fortune, success, elevation, luck, happiness.

  • Crowley (1944): This card thus represents the Universe in its aspect as a continual change of state. Above, the firmament of stars. These appear distorted in shape, although they are balanced, some being brilliant and some dark. From them, through the firmament, issue lightnings; they churn it into a mass of blue and violet plumes. In the midst of all this is suspended a wheel of ten spokes, according to the number of the Sephiroth, and of the sphere of Malkuth, indicating governance of physical affairs.

The Symbols

Sphinx

The Sphinx is a long standing symbol of the keeper of knowledge. As Waite himself says is the "equilibrium therein." Similar to the role of the sphinx we see in The Chariot card, this represents the perpetual movement of the wheel.


 

Dog Figure

Hermanubis or Anubis - Waite gives no details here but it is thought to represent the idea of ascension, transition, and change as he is the god that accompanies the souls of the deceases through the underworld.


 

Serpent

The Serpent or Typhon here represents the descent into darkness or sin. Much in the same way the Serpent in the Garden of Eden leads man unto temptation. Though it can also represent knowledge, and a descent into deeper understanding.



 

Four Winged Creatures


The four living creatures of Ezekiel. The Cherubim. The Four Elements. The Four Evangelists: Luke the Bull, Mark the Lion, John the Eagle, Matthew the Angel.





 

T-A-R-O & Hebrew Letters

Per Waite, the design was influenced from Levi as a "hypothetical reconstruction". The wheel is taken from the vision of Ezekiel. Inscribed on the wheel are the letters TARO which can represent TARO(T) or when read the the other way ROTA or wheel. The four Hebrew letters represent the Tetragrammaton: Yod, Heh, Vau, Heh, or the name of God.


 

Alchemical Symbols

Inscribed in the very center of the wheel we see a number of Alchemical symbols representing the four main elements of the great work: Mercury, Sulphur, Fire, Salt. We also have the sign of Aquarius for the Aquarian Age.



 

As always be sure to check out our live discussion on this very topic over on YouTube:



 
References
  • Butler, B. Dictionary of the Tarot. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

  • Chang, T. Susan. Tarot Correspondences: Ancient Secrets for Everyday Readers. Llewellyn Pulbications, 2018.

  • Crowley, Aleister (aleister Crowley). Book of Thoth - (Egyptian Tarot). Red Wheel/Weiser, 2017.

  • Dean, Liz. The Ultimate Guide to Tarot: a Beginners Guide to the Cards, Spreads, and Revealing the Mystery of the Tarot. Fair Winds Press, 2015.

  • Decker, Ronald; Dummett, Michael. A History of the Occult Tarot. London: Duckworth, 2019.

  • Fiebig, Johannes, and Evelin Burger. The Ultimate Guide to the Rider Waite Tarot. Llewellyn, 2013.

  • Huson, Paul. Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage. Destiny Books, 2004.

  • Katz, Marcus. Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot: the True Story of the Worlds Most Popular Tarot: with Previously Unseen Photography & Text from Waite & Smith. Llewellyn Publications, 2015.

  • Waite, A. E. Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Dover Publications Inc, 2005.

  • Wen, Benebell. Holistic Tarot. North Atlantic Books, 2015.

Images Sourced From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Public_domain_image_resources

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