- The Wheel of Fortune turns
- I go down, demeaned;
- another is raised up;
- far too proud
- sits the king at the summit --
- let him fear ruin!
- for under the axis we read
- about Queen Hecuba
These lines from the 13th-century Carmina Burana capture an irony and fatalism that was no doubt strong in the medieval view of the world. Fortuna, the fickle and capricious goddess of luck, was no benign benefactress, but rather a reminder of the powerlessness of human beings at the hands of fate. The Wheel is almost a medieval torture instrument, to which we are strapped, forced to endure the humbling roller-coaster ride of life.
The name of this card has remained the same from the beginning, although once or twice it is shorted to simply "The Wheel". The standard medieval symbolism is reproduced perfectly in the Visconti-Sforza card. Four figures ride the Wheel. The one to the left says regnabo "I will reign", the one at the top says regno "I reign", the one to the right says regnavi "I have reigned", and the final figure, crushed below the wheel, says sum sine regno "I am without reign". Fortuna herself stands in the middle, turning the Wheel, and blindfolded to show her indifference. The king at the top has ass's ears, highlighting his vanity and folly, and recalling the story of King Midas, whose greed earned him a similar transformation. Moakley reports that in Dante's time the Wheel was seen as having eight stations, not just four. These were humility, patience, peace, wealth, exaltation, impatience, war, and poverty.
The variations in symbolism are mostly the result of the need for simplification in presenting an intelligible scene on a small woodblock-printed card face. Fortuna is often omitted, or else made to stand at the side of the Wheel, so that only three of the four riders are shown. In the Tarot de Marseille, Fortuna and the bottom figure are both omitted, and the others become so simplified and distorted that they resemble animals, joining the ass-eared king as part of a sad menagerie. In this version, the Wheel rotates counterclockwise, so the figure to the left is descending. This resulted in an odd substitution. In some of these decks, the descending creature wears a pleated, conical tunic and his tail sprouts upward from under it. The 18th-century makers of the Lombardy tarot saw this as a flaming censer, a design reproduced with artistic sophistication by Carlo Dellarocca in the Soprafino Tarot of c.1835. The Soprafino card also shows the king at the top of the Wheel spilling coins from a sack, a motif apparently borrowed from Mitelli's Tarocchino Bolognese of nearly two centuries before.
Although the tarot trump sequence may be seen as an ascending ladder from the lowest state of humanity to the highest heavens, it is not, like the Tarocchi del Mantegna, an uninterrupted progression of increasing bliss and majesty. Rather, the tarot also captures the troubles and tragedies of the human condition. In this respect, it is more in the spirit of Petrarch's I Trionfi, which interposes visions of mortality and futility before the final divine Triumph of Eternity is achieved. Although not as explicitly grim as the "dark cards" of The Traitor, The Death, and The Devil, the Wheel of Fortune nevertheless testifies to human impotence and the futility of pursuing worldly desires.
In decks of the southern tradition (Minchiate, Tarocchino Bolognese, and Tarocco Siciliano), the Wheel, along with Love and The Chariot, is found sharing the tumultuous space between the Pope and the dark cards with the three virtues Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice. Love, the Chariot, and the Wheel of Fortune are all very earthy cards, having to do with human passions and struggles. The cardinal virtues are their natural adversaries, and there are numerous proverbs expressing the hope that Fortune will be obedient to Virtue. I doubt that the writer of the Carmina Burana shared that moralistic sentiment. It is thus fascinating to take careful note of the shifting placement of the Wheel of Fortune in the Italian tarot tradition. In Milan (and the Tarot de Marseille), she conquers the Old Man (Time), but yields to The Traitor. In Ferrara and Bologna, she conquers Fortitude but falls to Time (a more logical allegory). In Florence, she likewise conquers Fortitude, but this time succombs to the Chariot (Victory), which may suggest a rather cheeky optimism about human power to control destiny.
Meanings in Divination
The Wheel of Fortune is a type of energy that stands beyond the realm of our understanding and control. Certainly you can experience its effects in life, like you feel the pull of gravity on your body. But just as you can see the apple falling but not the gravity pulling on it, so too are the works of Fate and Destiny invisible to us. Only their results can be seen, and even then, only when Destiny itself decrees that the time is right for its effects to be manifested. Unlike the majority of the Major Arcana, the Wheel of Fortune hovers in the clouds, showing that you can try to reach it, but that you can never fully understand it.
The wheel is an apt symbol for the forces of Destiny and Fate because it shows how everything is connected in a cycle; some might call it the circle of life. Everything happens in cycles; we rise and fall just as a spot on the perimeter of a wheel travels from the highest point, through all the possible points on the wheel, and then back to the apex. However changes will affect you depends on where you are on the wheel. If you are at the top then any change could throw you off, but if you are the bottom then a change could start you back up to the top. And for one person to rise another must fall - everyone is connected.
Destiny seems to strike without warning, but often its effects can be seen coming if you know where and how to look for them. This is the principle of the Tarot and divinatory systems in general; to see things coming before they happen so you can prepare. Obviously if you see a wheel with the Sphinx on the top, Typhon the snake on the left, and Hermanubis on the lower right, and you know which way the wheel is turning, you can tell where each of the three figures is going - and you can also tell where they've been. Through careful extrapolation the effects of Destiny become less mysterious, and someday everyone may grasp this idea.
This cyclical structure of Fate is perhaps the only way to really understand how Fate manifests. The conclusion of a situation is found in its beginning, just as the number 10 of the Wheel of Fortune reduces to 1 by the addition of its digits. When you can realize that each beginning leads to an ending, and that each ending is both the results of one beginning and the freshly planted seed of another, then you will have grasped the essential notion of the Wheel of Fortune. And once that notion is grasped, the universe opens up to you, because you are ready to learn all its wisdom. The first hurdle has been passed and greater lessons lie ahead.
The appearance of the Wheel of Fortune shows that change is not only likely to happen, it is certain to happen, and soon. The nature of that change and the effects it has really depend on how much you understand the concepts of Fate, and whether or not you can prepare for it. Generally the change shown in the Wheel of Fortune is a dramatic change from the established order. So if you have been scraping along for a while, expect big changes in your favor within a few days. But if you've been feeling on top of the world for a long time, batten down the hatches and keep an eye out for storms - one is bound to hit you sooner or later.
No matter which way the Wheel of Fortune throws you, it's impossible to try and change it, so you might as well try to live with it. If a crisis seems inevitable, recall that in every crisis lies opportunity. When you've been swept in new direction, know that every path leads somewhere, even if you don't know where it is. When times are bad, or when times are good, always keep in mind that they won't last forever. Such events are just out of your control, and if you can accept that then the ride gets a lot easier. If you struggle against the Wheel it will crush you. So roll along with it!
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