Two brass-colored wheels, one contained within the other, radiate between clouds in the sky. In the outer wheel are inscribed four letters in English and four in Hebrew; the wheel-within-a-wheel holds eight spokes, and sports the symbols of alchemy. Surrounding the wheels at equidistant points are four creatures—a bull, a lion, an eagle, and an angel; all are borne up by their own wings, and all are writing names into the Book of Life. A sphinx wielding a sword is perched atop the wheels, while a serpent and a jackal-headed creature move around it in orbit.
So much for The Hermit’s quiet sanctuary of reflection and prayer. The world into which we’ve now been thrust is one of kinetic energy and perpetual motion, with all manner of signs and portents. How to make any sense of this? It was so nice and serene on that mountaintop!
Astute readers will recall the brief review of the “throne vision” from the Book of Ezekiel in our examination of Trump VII, The Chariot. The Wheel of Fortune provides elaboration on that vision, as well as some added context. This is an important card to consider, and one of the more difficult for the novice; but we can be certain that as Ezekiel’s vision announced that change was about to be visited upon the Israelites, so too is change about to be visited upon us. It is, in reality, the only constant we can expect in this earthly realm of flesh and bone.
The English letters in the outer wheel, read clockwise, spell TARO. The Hebrew letters, read counterclockwise, spell YHVH, the unpronounceable name of God, whom we commonly refer to as Yahweh or Jehovah. The inner wheel contains the alchemical symbols, read clockwise from the top, of mercury, sulfur, water and salt. Of these, water is the most significant, for it is the one element that is essential to sustaining us and our food sources, and it is the one element with the most natural inclination to dissolve. As we will see later, the alchemical reconstructive principle of solve et coagula (basically, “dissolve and coagulate,” or, psychologically, to take apart and reassemble) is one of the most important concepts we will encounter in our study of the Tarot.
Another way of looking at the wheels is as follows: An outer wheel containing God’s immutable Law (TARO = TORA), and an inner wheel reflecting man’s mutable nature (the elements). Both coexist here on earth, and if we are still separated from God, His Law still shields us from harm; we only need to heed His commandments.
The four living creatures, mentioned in Ezekiel 1:10 and again in Revelation 4:7, correspond to the four “fixed” signs of the zodiac, the four elements of nature, and the four Trumps Minor: Leo, fire and Wands (the lion); Scorpio, water and Cups (the eagle); Aquarius, air and Swords (the angel); and Taurus, earth and Pentacles (the bull). We now see that the creatures symbolize the eternality of Creation, and of the laws of God being delivered to man in our time as it was to the Israelites in theirs. It is only our lesser state of consciousness that prevents us from understanding the laws clearly, or from knowing what the exact will of God is going to be at any given time. Improving this intuitive faculty is, of course, one of the primary objectives of esoteric study.
The other archetypal figures surrounding the wheels provide us with even greater context:
The red jackal-headed figure is Anubis, Egyptian weigher of souls and protector of tombs in the underworld; and the yellow serpent is his father Set, god of destruction and violence who killed his brother Osiris, the god of regeneration and rebirth. Rachel Pollack suggests that the sphinx atop the wheels is Horus the sky god, son of Osiris; but as Horus is usually depicted as a human form with the head of a falcon, the figure of Osiris himself seems be appropriate to the image while preserving the fidelity of the narrative: The bringer of death, the custodian of the underworld, and the dying and resurrected god circling the wheel in an endless cycle of life, death and rebirth.
The Hebrew letter assigned to The Wheel of Fortune is Kaph, or “fist.” This does not imply anger, however; as Paul Foster Case notes, a clenched fist can be holding or grasping something, or performing some sort of labor. As with the wheel itself, a Newtonian force of motion is implied. When we refer in our everyday speech to “getting a grip” or “having a firm grasp” on things, we are getting closer to divining one of the card’s implied meanings, which is “comprehension of the mysteries”. One thing we learn in this plane of existence, however, is that sometimes “letting loose your grip” or simply “letting go” is just as valuable in our journey of self-discovery as stubbornly “holding on”, in particular to ways of thinking that are harmful and destructive. In this vein, The Wheel reminds us of the importance of living a spiritual life as an active participant, not a passive observer to events; for The Wheel’s path, which connects Chesed to Netzach in the formative world, is known as the Rewarding Intelligence of Those Who Seek. If we, like Ezekiel, seek a revelation in earnest, it shall eventually be given us.
The letters in TARO can be arranged to spell ATOR (after “Hathor”, Egyptian goddess of love), ORAT (Latin, “to speak”), ROTA (Latin, “wheel”), and TORA (Hebrew, “law”). Case, following 19th-century occultist MacGregor Mathers, proposes a Tarot “mission statement” of sorts: ROTA TARO ORAT TORA ATOR, or “The Wheel of Tarot Speaks the Law of Nature,” though given Hathor’s exalted place in the Egyptian pantheon of deities, “The Wheel of Tarot Speaks the Law of Love” seems slightly more precise, and certainly more poetic.
The planetary ruler of the Wheel of Fortune is Jupiter, god of the skies, and of thunder and lightning. Because of his formidable powers (and his formidable size in space), he is associated more than any other planet in astrology with unpredictable good or ill fortune. On any given day, he might heal our lands with abundant sunshine and gentle rains, or he might destroy them with bolts of fire hurled down from the heavens. In the days of the ancients, there was no way for us to know what conditions the morrow would bring—whether Jupiter would smile on us, or wake up in a bad mood. In our time, we have developed sophisticated technologies that can track the weather and the movements of the tides—but even so, we are still sometimes caught by surprise. As our world grows gradually warmer over the next several decades, we are likely to see a few more lightning bolts tossed our way. Let us hope we are prepared for them.
Due to the fluid, ever-shifting nature of this card, meanings of the Wheel of Fortune in a reading depend in great part on the cards surrounding it, but generally, meanings can include: changes unforeseen, reversal of fortune, “don’t count your chickens,” Divine intercession in a matter, unexpected good or bad news; but also unrealistic expectations, refusing to accept the inevitable, the fickleness of man, “roll with the punches,” and the darkest before the dawn. “Man proposes, and God disposes,” the common saying goes; thus it is for us, like Adam and Eve, in our state of separation. The Hermit teaches us the value of prayer and reflection as a spiritual “wake-up call” in the mind of man, but until we are once again reunited in Eden, we can never truly know all of God’s workings, plans or designs. This can cause deep frustration until we understand that nothing in the world of human consciousness is forever set in stone; like the seasons of the earth, or our seasons of age, all is impermanent, all is ever changing, and what we may perceive to be our misfortune today may redound to our great glory tomorrow.