A chariot driver rests with his steeds on a bright sunny day. His countenance is stern and disapproving, and his sphinxes look similarly annoyed. One of them, white and female, stares at us in disbelief, while the other, black and male, looks dolefully up to heaven as if to say, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” In his right hand the charioteer holds a wand with which he commands his charges, for he has no need of reins. Sigils of ceremonial magic adorn his belt and skirt, and his breastplate sports a square, the symbol of the perfected work. His crown is topped by an eight-pointed star, signifying the triumph of Divine intellect. He is surrounded by four posts upon which a canopy of blue is hung; it is festooned with 22 white stars—the number of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet and the number of the Trumps Major—and the veil behind him resembles the veil of the High Priestess in its symmetry of design, though with stars in place of pomegranates. Likewise, the crescent moons on his shoulders suggest the powers of the unconscious and his connection to the Priestess. The chariot itself bears the image of the wings of a caduceus bearing the nut-and-bolt glyph of yoni and lingam of Hindu mythology, the archetypal symbol of sexual union and the reconciliation of opposites. Behind him is a magnificent city, protected by a high wall, lined by trees, and further guarded by a river. Happy the man who should call this place his home! Alas, it is not for us, for now that we have been expelled from the Garden, our eyes have been opened, and we behold what we have lost; for the charioteer has been summoned not to escort us into heaven, but to usher us down to a lower plane of existence. No wonder he looks so perturbed!
If this card seems to be a bit overwhelming with symbolism—well, it is, and it is one of the Trumps Major that requires the greatest amount of study to fully grasp. One place to start is with the chariot’s significance in Jewish mysticism, where it first appears in the Book of Ezekiel; there, it is seen soaring in the heavens, borne by four winged “living creatures” and angels shaped like wheels (the seraphim). Within the chariot, seated on a splendid throne of sapphire (the color of The Chariot’s canopy and veil, and of the charioteer’s garments), is the Lord God Himself, who instructs Ezekiel to prepare the Israelites for the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. The Israelites had fallen into idol worship, and while the Lord eventually put the city to the torch and turned it into a “valley of dry bones,” those who had remained faithful to God were permitted to return to build a New Jerusalem that would be more glorious and exalted in the eyes of God than ever. This story marks a turning point on the path to individuation, both of man and of God; for whereas the authors of the earlier Deuteronomic texts espoused the concept of collective guilt—where an entire nation could be made to suffer for the sins of individual rulers—in Ezekiel guilt is now judged an individual responsibility, and one that can be forgiven provided atonement is offered. In that sense, The Chariot may be escorting us from heaven today, but given enough time to pray, meditate, and to perform acts of charity and mercy, we can beseech God that The Chariot return to us one day, to bear us up to the heavens when we have proved ourselves faithful in His eyes.
The letter in the Hebrew alphabet assigned to the Chariot is Cheth, which means “fence” or “enclosure,” and all the lands within implied. In the case of the charioteer, it takes the obvious form of the four pillars, the canopy, and even the vehicle itself. He is the sum of all the powers that have preceded him in the Trumps Major: The conqueror of all worlds, but not by force of war but by the force of Divine love; his only weapon is a magic wand, after all! For us today, still chastened by our fall from grace, the “fence” most likely appears as the high wall surrounding the beautiful and prosperous kingdom that the charioteer protects; we realize that we are separated from it, and now must begin the hard work of repairing our split minds and making our Selves whole again. In the Talmud, the believer is exhorted more than once to “build a fence” ’round the Torah lest it be defiled by false teachings. Having profaned the temple at Eden with our quarrelsome natures, we are now exiles, on the outside looking in.
The path of The Chariot, which connects Binah with Geburah and which parallels the paths of the High Priestess and The Hierophant, is known as the Intelligence of the House of Influence. This reminds us of the protection and safety that a house, or “enclosure,” implies, and while we may be on the “outside looking in” for the moment, there is always the chance that the door to the House of God will again be opened to us if we exert sufficient “influence” upon its inhabitants with penitence and prayer.
The word “chariot” is rooted in the Middle English carre or Latin carrus, which means a “vehicle” but also a vehicle’s function: to “carry,” “career;” or “current,” implying motion, This is probably why the astrological sign attributed to The Chariot is Cancer, the cardinal water sign. The great waters of the sea are driven by currents, and the movements of the tides are controlled by the moon (the High Priestess); the color of water is reflected in the sapphire-blue throne of Ezekiel’s vision, as well as the charioteer’s blue canopy and uniform, and the river protecting the city on its banks. It also reveals the card’s deepest meaning, in Case’s words: “Complete receptivity is the secret of the most powerful manifestations of will.” As we submit to God’s will, in other words, so we conquer here on earth. If we stop “swimming against the current” and “go with the flow,” we will reach our desired destination more quickly. Once again, our charioteer is a peaceful warrior, and the only reason he appears annoyed with us is because he has been commanded to do something he doesn’t wish to do.
The Chariot’s number “7” corresponds on the kabbalistic Tree of Life to Netzach, or “Victory.” Having reconciled the supernal and archetypal worlds in Tiphareth in the form of the six-pointed star, Divine consciousness, emanating downward to man, pauses to celebrate its liberation into the formative plane of existence. We realize, also, that as with the pentagram, we have temporarily rendered a perfect form (the square and the hexagram) imperfect, so we must accept the reality that even great triumphs come with limitations. This is why in the days of Imperial Rome, a proconsul returning aboard his chariot to the cheers of the multitude after emerging victorious in battle would be accompanied by a humble vassal who, riding behind him, would whisper into the warrior’s ear, reminding him that he was only a mortal man, not a God.
Once understood properly, meanings of The Chariot in a reading are fairly straightforward, and can include triumph, mastery, the way of the peaceful warrior, and salvation earned through supplication and atonement; but also the costs of war, death and destruction; in our time, mindless militarism and even terrorism can even be implied. Chariots, after all, can be used to transport soldiers to fight or angels to heal. The choice in our sphere of existence is entirely up to us.