In the Rider-Waite deck, the imagery on the Wheel of Fortune card seems to come out of nowhere. Along with the World card, it’s one of the least realistic of the cards. There’s no landscape, no “character” humans…just a lot of symbolism in the sky. And very weird symbolism at that! There’s a mysterious wheel with Hebrew writing, Egyptian figures, and all surrounded by Christian symbols for the four evangelists (the authors of the approved gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). What does all of it mean?
Waite calls the corner figures “the four Living Creatures of Ezekiel,” which refers to the first chapter of Ezekiel in the Bible where he sees four creatures that are amalgams of man, ox, lion, and eagle. Eventually, wheels appear next to each creature and these wheels contained the spirit of each creature and followed them wherever they went.
Rachel Pollack, however, notes that these four figures “ultimately symbolize the four fixed sins of the zodiac: the angel for Aquarius, the eagle for Scorpio, the lion for Leo, and the bull for Taurus. These signs represent the seasons and thus the wheel of the year as it goes round and round. The figures also stand for the four elements of the Minor Arcana–lion/fire, eagle/water, angel/air, and bull/earth.” She also notes that Waite and Pamela Coleman Smith imported these figures from the Marseilles World card.
I, like Pollack, think that this importation is the primary reason for these four biblical figures to be on this card. If we look at numbered cards of the Major Arcana, an obvious division pattern is two groups of ten, connected by 11 Justice. The Wheel of Fortune, then, is the halfway card in the pattern. It marks an attainment of sorts, but there’s still a lot of lessons to learn. Therefore, on the Wheel the Ezekiel figures are reading books. In the World, the books are absent: all the lessons have been learned.
Waite got much of the imagery for animals flanking the wheel itself from the Marseilles card, where a sphinx-like creature holding a sword temporarily sits secure at the top while other beasts cling to the the spinning rim. Waite made his sphinx far more Egyptian-like and turned his beasts into the Gods Seth (the snake, whom the Greeks called Typhon) and Anubis (the jackal-man). Both are figures of death, but while Seth is more associated with darkness and chaos, Anubis is more closely linked with guiding souls to new life. The capping sphinx, Pollack says, holds the sword of truth “so we know that all our deaths and rebirths, and the ups and downs of daily life, flow from inner laws.”
On the face of the wheel, the signs at the compass points are the alchemical substances needed for transformation: mercury (north), sulfur (east), water (south), and salt (west). The rim holds English and Hebrew letters. The Hebrew spells out the name of God–a formula for creation–while the English could read “rota” (Latin for wheel), “taro” (Tarot), “orat” (Latin for speaks), or “Ator” (a spelling of Hathor, the Egyptian Goddess of joy, feminine love, and motherhood. She also helped guide souls into the next life and presided over childbirth). In a sentence, those letters could mean “the Wheel of Tarot speaks of Life’s joys.”
For all that arcane symbolism, though, the card means the same as Robin Wood’s illustration. The mysteries of fate, and the turnings of luck and life cycles. The trick is that everything is in constant flux, so the only way to find balance is to accept that “this too shall pass.” Wood describes her images as such:
[The Wheel is] a roulette wheel, to show that the whole thing is a gamble. All that you can really depend on […] is that the situation is going to change. But there is a pattern to the change [… constant revolution around a fixed center]. This demonstrates the interplay […] between the principles that don’t change and the things that do. […] It’s the same ball, on the same wheel. By accepting the idea that it will land in a different section another time, you can gain balance. Whatever is going on now, this too shall pass. […]
The eight spokes symbolize the wheel of the year, from summer to winter and back to summer again, over and over in endless turning.
The silver ball stands for the unconscious, from which our thoughts and feeling spring. It travels the golden rim which is the path of change. The speed of travel may vary, but the path repeats. This illustrates the underlying order in all things. It travels clockwise, deosil, in harmony with the motion of the universe.
The young woman in the card is going through the emotional roller coaster. […] As the wheel continues, she makes the same transitions, in the reverse order, until she is back where she started, in boundless delight once more. […] If she can grasp the concept that wherever she stops it’s just a temporary thing; that the wheel is going to go round again; then she can keep her balance, not get dizzy, and not invest too heavily in the ball stopping in any particular place.
My own personal thought on the matter of the card is that we could do worse than to think of the Wheel of Fortune in Emily Dickinson’s poetic terms. For Dickinson, the word “circumference” was practically synonymous with ecstasy; with everything awful and sublime. We can never in this life get to the eternal “center” that controls that outer experiential rim (namely, for Dickinson, the Christian God): our best bet is to approach the constant change of the circumference as an amazing, awesome adventure…and one whose varied delights must all be captured by the center all at once.
KEYWORDS: Cycles, Fate, Karma, Luck, Roller Coaster, Circumference and Center.
Close your eyes and bring into your imagination your current life situation. Now change the image to show your desired outcome. Take note of how this causes you to feel. Now change the image to show an undesirable outcome. Take note of how this causes you to feel. When you are finished, ask yourself this question: Why is it thatone outcome versus another cause you peace of mind or emotional turmoil? Is it the outcome that propels your emotions? Or is it your interpretation of how things out to be? Contemplate any habitual grasping on to personal desires and how this might contribute to a deluded, disempowered life.
Keep the Wheel of Fortune card with you or place it on your altar. Whatever actions you take today, make your best efforts and accept the outcomes–no matter what they may be. Stay focused on the quality of yoru efforts as opposed to the outcome or effect. As Vietnamese author Thich Nhat Hanh says, “There is washing the dishes to get them clean, and then there is washing the dishes to wash the dishes.”
The card descriptions are a combination of my own insights and paraphrasing from a handful of sources. I’m currently working with Rachel Pollack’s book The New Tarot Handbook, Robin Wood’s Robin Wood Tarot: The Book, and a smattering from Waite’s Pictorial Key. I also strongly recommend Joan Bunning’s book Learning the Tarot as well as the resources found on her website, learntarot.com.