10. The Wheel of Fortune
The major arcana of the tarot is a series of miniatures that refer to spiritual awakening. Each card illustrates
an aspect of the process of God-realization, driven by the kundalini energy in our pelvis.
Surprisingly enough, The Wheel of Fortune also.
Traditionally, the wheel of fortune stands for the instability of prosperity and social success; everything you have achieved in life you can lose again. The oldest images of a wheel of fortune date from the early Middle Ages. In most cases we see the Roman goddess Fortuna (Tyche with the Ancient Greeks) who turns a large wheel (Rota Fortunae), with several people clinging unto it. Because of the rotation there is a constant dynamic of changing positions: some are on their way up, others are on their way down. At the top of the wheel is – temporarily! – the lucky person: the king or another ruler. Sometimes Fortuna is blindfolded. This is a reference to her arbitrariness: she seems to be distributing prosperity and setbacks without personal regards.
A Wheel of Fortune from:
Troy Book by John Lydgate (15th century)
The Visconti Tarot
On the very first Wheel of Fortune card, that of the 15th century Visconti tarot, both the person moving up on the wheel, and the one at the top, have a pair of large donkey ears. The designers of this card want to make it clear to us that those who are concerned with status, power and money, are donkeys. These worldly things are fleeting, and you are at the mercy of Lady Fortuna, as the image of the wheel of fortune shows. Of lasting value is inner wealth, obtained through a God-centered life.
The Tarot of Marsseille and family
From the 16th century on, the rotating wheel on tarot card The Wheel of Fortune, represents the spiral movement of the kundalini energy. The upward movement represents spiritual ascension: growing in consciousness from the material / animal to the divine. The downward movement stands for spiritual descend: the way back to an unconscious, “animal-like” life.
Tarot of Marseille
(Payen-Webb, 18th century)
Tarot of Bologna (Giacomo Zoni, 1780)
Liguria-Piedmont Tarot (1860)
The designer of the Marseille Payen-Webb card has placed the wheel on a body of water (the “kundalini well” in the pelvis). On the right side we see a dog, wearing a collar and a skirt, on the way to the top of the wheel. This dog in human clothing symbolizes the spiritually unconscious person living an animal-like life. The collar refers to controlling the animal drives, a prerequisite for the process of God-realization. The choice of a dog has to do with the tamed nature of this animal. It is a pet that no longer lives fully according to its instincts, but has learned to obey man.
On top of the wheel of the Tarot de Marseille card is a sphinx-like creature – a human head on an animal body – that symbolizes the person who has mastered his animal nature. We can deduce this from the crown on the head of the sphinx and from the wings (symbol of sublimation) on the animal body. The red sword represents the driving force behind this spiritual process: the kundalini energy.
On the way down, back to a spiritually unconscious life, there is a figure with a tail of fire. The awakened kundalini energy in this person has not ascended to the crown, but is dwelling in the abdomen and feeds the lower chakras (sensory pleasure and ego aspects).
Also on the Tarot of Bologna card a dog in human clothing is on the way up, and there is a sphinx-like figure, with crown, scepter and wing, on top of the wheel. That the rotating wheel represents the spiral movement of the kundalini, is made clear by the pillar with the large flame attached to the wheel.
On the Liguria-Piedmont card it is even clearer that the body of water, under the wheel, represents the kundalini in the pelvis: water also flows around the wheel – poorly colored, yet clearly visible.
The “kundalini goddess” Shakti as a female figure in a bowl (the pelvis, the Holy Grail) with divine fire, and as a coiled serpent (gouache from Rajasthan, India, 19th century).
Illustration from: The Chronicle of Nuremberg (Hartmann Schedel, 1493). Man as a hybrid being: partly human and partly dog / wolf. These two halves want to go in opposite directions, which gives us continuously inner struggles.
On the left a drawing of “the serpent pillar” from Delphi, on the right the current state of the pillar, erected in 447 BC.
Oswald Wirth Tarot
Both the tarot deck of Oswald Wirth and the Rider-Waite-Smith deck are influenced by the ideas of the French occultist Éliphas Lévi. Lévi has never designed a complete tarot deck himself, but in his book “La Clef des Grands Mystères” (The Key to the Great Mysteries, 1861) a number of cards are depicted, including The Wheel of Fortune (see below).
Wheel of Fortune: illustration off
“La Clef des Grands Mystères”
from Eliphas Levi
Oswald Wirth Tarot (1889)
The sphinx at the top of the wheel of Lévi wears an Egyptian nemis: a striped headscarf that only Pharaohs were allowed to wear and which underlined their divine status. The nemis gave the head of the pharaoh the contours of a standing cobra with a spreaded hood: the serpent that is a symbol of the kundalini energy in several spiritual traditions. The false beard that Pharaohs wore represented the body of the snake. The sphinx’s raised tail, on Lévi’s card, stands for the same as the sword: the ascended kundalini.
The death mask of
A standing cobra
Instead of a dog in human clothing, Lévi chose Hermanubis: the god who is a combination of the Egyptian god Anubis and the Greek god Hermes. The human body with a head of a jackal / dog and a nemis is derived from Anubis, the god of mummification and guide of the deceased. The staff in the hands of Hermanubis is the caduceus of the Greek god Hermes, that stands for a kundalini awakening.
On the way down, at the wheel of Lévi, there is a devilish figure, called Typhon by Lévi himself: the serpentine monster from Greek mythology who is defeated by the supreme god Zeus after a major battle. Typhon rerpesents everything that stands between us and the divine, in particular our animal instincts. The trident symbolizes the three energy channels involved in a kundalini awakening. In the hands of Typhon this energy flows down to the lower chakras.
Tomb of Sennedjem, Deir el-Medina, Egypt.
Living on after death was associated in ancient Egypt with a kundalini awakening. On this image we see the god Anubis with the mummy of Pharaoh Seti I. The bench on which the mummy is lying is decorated with a lion’s head and tail. The curled tail touches Anubis at the height of his pelvis area, the dwelling place of the kundalini.
Lévi placed the words Azoth, Archée, and Hyle next to the three figures on the wheel. Azoth is a term from alchemy for the kundalini, or God’s (Holy) Spirit. Hyle is Greek for matter. Archée refers to the soul. In alchemy, the element sulfur stands for the soul. On the Oswald Wirth tarot card we see the symbol for sulfur – a triangle with a cross underneath – above the head of the sphinx, instead of Lévi’s Archée.
The double wheel, according to Wirth, stands for the dual energies in humans, which constantly move in opposite directions (“the good and the bad”, Hermanubis and Typhon). The two serpents under the wheel also represent these dual energies. The yoga tradition speaks of the ida and pingala nadi. According to Wirth, the seven spokes on the wheel represent the seven (classical) planets. These planets, in turn, correspond to the seven chakras.
On the mosaic of Château des Avenières (1917), Typhon has been replaced by a crocodile: the animal that represented in Ancient Egypt our most primitive (animal) urges. The six spokes of the wheel form a hexagram; just like the double wheel of Wirth, a reference to the (fusion of the) dual energies in humans.
The Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot
On the RWS card we also see the influences of a second diagram from the books of Éliphas Lévi: his interpretation of the Wheel of Ezekiel (see below). In the Old Testament we read about the vision that the prophet Ezekiel has of four living beings with four faces (a man, an eagle, a lion and an ox), and four wheels on the ground next to it (Ezekiel 1:5-15).
These four faces represent the four aspects of man: the mind (eagle), feelings / emotions (lion), the body with the animal instincts (ox) and the soul (face of man / angel). Pamela Colman-Smith, the designer of the RWS deck, has placed these four aspects in the four corners of this card. We will also see the same four images on the last card of the major arcana: The World. It is these four aspects of man that are transformed during the process of spiritual awakening.
Instead of Typhon, Colman-Smith opted for more straight forward symbolism: a (kundalini) serpent, on its way down. Hermanubis has a more stylized appearance on this card and is red in color: the color of the (first) chakra where the kundalini resides when she is still ‘sleeping’. Unlike the cards of Lévi and Wirth, Hermanubis on the RWS map covers both the position at the bottom of the wheel and the rising position. This confirms our interpretation of the red Hermanubis: the kundalini leaves from the bottom of the spine, from the first chakra, rising up to the crown (top of the wheel).
Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (1909)
The Wheel of Ezekiël from: Dogme et rituel de la haute magie, by Éliphas Lévi (1854)
The RWS Wheel contains the symbols of the three primary building blocks of the alchemist: salt (left), mercury (top) and sulfur (right). The esoteric meaning of these chemical elements is: the body with the animal drives (salt), the Spirit / kundalini (mercury) and the soul (sulfur). Just like Lévi, Colman-Smith added a fourth element at the bottom of the wheel: the symbol for water. How this fourth sign relates to the other three elements, and to the Wheel, is not clear. Different interpretations are possible. Written on the outer edge of the RWS Wheel is the name YHWH in Hebrew, and the letters TARO, which can also be read as ROTA (Latin for wheel), TAROT, and TORA(H).
Traditionally, the Wheel of Fortune stands for the volatility of wealth and power. The image of a blindfolded goddess spinning a wheel, with people clinging to it, stems from a pessimistic and fatalistic philosophy: prosperity in life depends to a large extent on being lucky, and you may lose it any time.
The Wheel of Fortune has a completely different meaning in the tarot. A better name for this card would be: the Wheel of Spiritual Evolution. The evolution from ‘ape-man’ to ‘god-man’.
The goddess that spins the wheel is not Lady Fortuna, but the kundalini shakti. She is the driving force behind the process of spiritual awakening. The way up on the wheel represents the rising of the kundalini energy. The position at the top of the wheel represents God-realization: the inner animal has been conquered and integrated. The way down is a “fall into matter” (the “fall of man” of Adam and Eve).
We often see the wheel as an esoteric symbol, referring to a kundalini awakening, in spiritual traditions. Officially, the wheel in Buddhism stands for the dharma (the teachings of the Buddha). However, if you dig deeper into the writings and iconography of Buddhism, you will come to the conclusion that this official reading is not the only meaning of the wheel. The flame on the Buddha’s head is one of the pointers.
(photo: M. Lang via Pixabay)
This article was published in Paravisie Magazine (Dec ’19). Copyright Anne-Marie Wegh 2019
Anne-Marie Wegh is the author of the book
John the Baptist who became Jesus the Christ
Illustrations from the tarot decks, reproduced by permission of U.S. Games Systems, Inc., Stamford, CT 06902. c. by U.S. Games Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.
Foto’s Châteaux de Avenières: http://hermetism.free.fr/Avenieres