Greater Arcana Study Group—Wheel of Fortune


In this symbol I have again followed the reconstruction of Éliphas Lévi, who has furnished several variants. It is legitimate—as I have intimated—to use Egyptian symbolism when this serves our purpose, provided that no theory of origin is implied therein. I have, however, presented Typhon in his serpent form. The symbolism is, of course, not exclusively Egyptian, as the four Living Creatures of Ezekiel occupy the angles of the card, and the wheel itself follows other indications of Lévi in respect of Ezekiel’s vision, as illustrative of the particular Tarot Key. With the French occultist, and in the design itself, the symbolic picture stands for the perpetual motion of a fluidic universe and for the flux of human life. The Sphinx is the equilibrium therein. The transliteration of Taro as Rota is inscribed on the wheel, counterchanged with the letters of the Divine Name—to show that Providence is implied through all. But this is the Divine intention within, and the similar intention without is exemplified by the four Living Creatures. Sometimes the sphinx is represented couchant on a pedestal above, which defrauds the symbolism by stultifying the essential idea of stability amidst movement.

Behind the general notion expressed in the symbol there lies the denial of chance and the fatality which is implied therein. It may be added that, from the days of Lévi onward, the occult explanations of this card are—even for occultism itself—of a singularly fatuous [foolish, stupid] kind. It has been said to mean principle, fecundity, virile honor, ruling authority, etc. The findings of common fortune-telling are better than this on their own plane.


I’ll admit there’s a lot about this card I don’t understand but there are a few things I can point out and clarify. Obviously, Waite based his design on Levi’s “Ezekiel's Wheel of Fortune.” Here again we meet with Waite’s Divine Providence.

Levi/Waite Comparison

Waite says: “. . .and the wheel itself follows other indications of Lévi in respect of Ezekiel’s vision, as illustrative of the particular Tarot Key.” This is talking about a double Philosophical Cross + which Levi mentions in Transcendental Magic: “Thus is the Philosophical Cross the key of prophecy, and all gates of science may be opened with the pantacle of Ezekiel, the centre of which is a star formed by the interlacement of two crosses.” This is seen in both Waite and Levi as the eight “spokes” of the wheel.

The blue Sphinx was apparently based on an earlier of Pamela’s paintings, The Blue Cat. It does look very similar indeed.

The words Taro and Rota are explained by Levi:

“The word may read Rota, thus signifying the wheel of Ezekiel, or Tarot, and then it is synonymous with the Azoth of Hermetic philosophers. It [Taro] is a word which expresses kabalistically the dogmatic and natural absolute; it is formed of the characters of the Monogram of Christ, according to the Greeks and Hebrews. The Latin R or Greek P is found between the alpha and omega of the Apocalypse; the sacred Tau image of the Cross, encloses the complete word, as represented previously in our “Ritual”.​

This illustration shows the Christ Monogram and the word “Taro.”

Four spokes point to the letters of the Tetragram and the other four point to letters of the words Taro/Rota. Three of the symbols at the ends of the spokes stand for Salt, Sulphur and Mercury of Alchemy. They’re also Fire, Water, Air and Earth.

There's a smaller circle in the center as if to draw one's attention to that area of the wheel.


From the top, moving clockwise around the center of the wheel, there are the alchemical signs for Mercury, Sulfur, Water, and Salt.

"According to Eliphas Lévi, Philosophical Salt is Wisdom, Mercury is skill and application, Sulphur is the fire of will.” Quoted by Waite in The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry.

Letter from Eliphas Lévi to Baron Spedalieri, in Waite’s The Mysteries of Magic:
“The old Hermetic philosophers used to say that the universal substance in externalizing itself takes on three forms and three modes:
• The active and motion-producing form—Sulphur’—not, however, the chemical element so called:
• The passive and mobile form—Mercury’—which has no connection with ordinary quicksilver:
• The equilibrated or mixed form —Salt’—composed of two forces, yet a fixed substance incapable of decomposition.

"As for its modes, they were called the four elements, analogous to oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon. Their basic principle was that the one substance becomes diversified by motion and takes on different appearances according to its polar angulations and attractions—each molecule of the one substance being magnetic and polarized like the worlds. They believed in perpetual motion, which is the supreme Arcanum of physics, and thought with reason that by the artificial direction of natural forces it was possible, within a certain circle and according to a certain measure, to quicken or retard this motion.”

Lévi, Dogme de la Haute Magie:
“All is enclosed in one word, and in a word of four letters—it is Tetragram of the Hebrews, the Azoth of the Alchemists, the Thot of the Bohemians and the Kabbalistic Tarot. This word expressed in such various ways signifies God for the profane, man for the philosophers, and gives to the adept the final word of human science and the key of divine power; but he alone can avail himself of it who understand the necessity of never revealing it.’

Waite, The Holy Grail:
“The Mercury of the Sages is that which must be fixed and volatilized: naturally it is fluidic and wandering. . . . It is within and is we ourselves in our inward being, it has been said frequently to be nearer than hands and feet. The Sulphur of the Philosophers is an inward substance through which some souls are saved, as by an inward burning fire. The Salt of the Philosophers is a transmuting principle which is with us through all our days in a state of misdirection, and its true application is the Great Work accomplished. In the last resource therefore the physician heals himself."


The four fixed signs of the Zodiac are in the corners, suggesting that this is also the Wheel of the Year - the cyclic rise and fall of Fate. Nevertheless, the clouds indicate that Divine Providence is involved (see Waite on Providence), and the books point to the four Evangelists and the gospels.

Oswald Wirth uses Lévi's exact image for his Wheel of Fortune and has some interesting explanations of the figures Lévi labeled as alchemical Achée, Hyle, Azoth. [See Abrac's link to the Lévi/Waite Comparison.]


I discovered that the smaller wheel in the center represents Spirit. It was used a lot in the Golden Dawn, especially together with Fire, Water, Air and Earth. In Waite's Fellowship of the rosy Cross he associates it with the Christ within.

The whole image seems to represent a progression from outer to inner. The four Living Creatures representing Nature and the outer forms, moving steadily inward toward the Divine Spirit within. :)


I discovered that the smaller wheel in the center represents Spirit. It was used a lot in the Golden Dawn, especially together with Fire, Water, Air and Earth. In Waite's Fellowship of the rosy Cross he associates it with the Christ within.
The small inner circle with the eight spokes is the same design found repeated on the Fool's garment.


There's clearly Salt, Sulphur and Mercury. But then there's what appears to be an Aquarius glyph at the bottom that tends to confuse things a bit. I believe I've found an answer to what Waite is saying here in symbol. It starts with some background on Waite's philosophy. He refers frequently to the necessity in the Great Work of first volatilizing, then fixing Mercury which in its natural state is fluidic and lethargic. Here's an example from an Occult Review article of October 1908, "The Hermetic and Rosicrucian Mystery":

"The mercury of the sages is that which must be fixed and Volatilized—naturally it is fluidic and wandering . . ."​

And another Occult Review article from November the same year, "Pictorial Symbols of Alchemy":

"This, it will be seen, is the crowned or philosophical Mercury, bearing in either hand the caduceus, which is his characteristic emblem, and having wings upon his shoulders, signifying the volatilized state. But there are also wings beneath his feet, meaning that he has overcome this state, and has been fixed by the art of the sages, which is part of the Great Work . . ."​

Here's a picture that accompanies the text.

Mercury Fixed and Volatilized

Mercury in its volatilized state Waite refers to as Quicksilver; it has been enlivened but is still immature. In its fixed state he refers to it as Philosophic Mercury. In his Fellowship of the Rosy Cross Adeptus Major Initiation, there's an interesting part that reveals Waite's thinking about Salt, Sulphur and Mercury. Salt [Will] corresponds to the right pillar on the Tree of Life, Sulphur [Desire] to the left side, and Mercury [Mind] to the middle pillar. As the initiate moves up the Tree these are purified and sublimed, mind also becomes fixed in Tiphareth. Here's a quote:

"I have something to say to you concerning Philosophical Mercury, the symbol of which you bear upon your left side, as an Auxiliary Frater Adeptus. The Keepers of the Secret Tradition tell us in their parables that it is coagulated by its own Sulphur, which is the conjunction of their Sun and Moon, or the Marriage of Adam and Eve. Now this is to be understood mystically, for they say also that it is an union of heaven and earth. The explanation of such hidden language is to be found in the Tree of Life, as this is understood by the Order of the Rosy Cross. The natural principles of our humanity, symbolised in their correspondences with Fire, Water, Air and Earth, are collected in Malkuth, which is the World of Action, and are centred therein upon things manifested. The thoughts, desires and will of man are contained within earth and his senses. In other words, the native Mercury [thoughts], Sulphur [desires] and Salt [will] have not been made subject to the operations of Divine Wisdom. They begin to be purified and prepared in the World of Formation, containing three Sephiroth, allocated respectively to Mind [Yesod], Desire [Hod] and Will [Netzach], and corresponding to three spiritualised planets, the Moon [Yesod], Mercury [Hod] and Venus [Netzach]. These Sephiroth constitute the Second Reflected Triad in the Tree of Life. The World of Creation, or Third Order of the Rosy Cross, is the First Reflected Triad, and it answers to the same principles of our nature, when they have been changed by the work of Wisdom. That which corresponded in Yesod to the reflected light of the Moon has become Philosophical Mercury in the Grade of Tiphereth, or the Mind permeated and transmuted by the Sun of Righteousness. You will understand therefore that in the Higher Grades of the Third Order, analagous [sic] transmutations of Desire and Will are symbolised, so that in the language of the Secret Tradition they become Philosophical Sulphur and Salt. The transmutation of Desire fixes Mind . . ."​

Don't be confused by the correspondence of the planet Mercury to Hod; it plays a role but is distinct from alchemical Mercury corresponding to the middle pillar. I've tried to simplify this complex subject as much as possible while still getting the message across. Some of it may not make sense, but the main point is the volatilizing and fixing of Philosophic Mercury.

Here's a diagram I made from the FRC Tree that makes it easier to see how it all fits. Salt, Sulphur and Mercury retain their positions on the pillars and are transformed as they move up.

On the card the Sphinx is sitting on the circle directly above the Mercury glyph illustrating the fixed state. In the PKT Waite says:

"The Sphinx is the equilibrium therein."​


"Sometimes the Sphinx is represented couchant on a pedestal above, which defrauds the symbolism by stultifying the essential idea of stability amidst movement."​

The water glyph below illustrates the mind in its natural, fluidic state.

This concept of mind in a fixed state is also mentioned by Waite in his comment on the Magician:

"It is also the unity of individual being on all planes, and in a very high sense it is thought, in the fixation thereof."​

I believe it can also be seen in the Hanged Man and Temperance, though Waite doesn't specifically say it.


Ran across something particularly interesting in connection with the Wheel of Fortune imagery. In The Occult Sciences, p. 44, Waite relates something from Levi's Transcendental Magic. He quotes Levi word for word:

"It must be borne in mind that the special kingdom of the Gnomes is at the north, that of the Salamanders at the south, that of the Sylphs at the east, and that of the Undines at the west. . . . Their signs are—the hieroglyphs of the Bull for the Gnomes, who are commanded with the magic sword; of the Lion for the Salamanders, who are commanded with the forked rod, or magic trident; of the Eagle for the Sylphs, who are ruled by the holy pentacles; and, finally, of Aquarius for the Undines, who are evoked by the cup of libations."​

It's interesting that Levi uses "Aqaurius" for the Undines.

Furthermore, in Transcendental Magic:

"The symbolical tetrad, represented in the mysteries of Memphis and Thebes by the four forms of the sphinx—the man, eagle, lion, and bull—corresponded with the four elements of the old world, water being signified by the cup held by the man or aquarius; air by the circle or nimbus surrounding the head of the celestial eagle; fire by the wood which nourishes it, by the tree fructifying in the heat of earth and sun, and, finally, by the sceptre of royalty, which the lion typifies; earth by the sword of Mithras, who each year immolates the sacred bull, and, together with its blood, pours forth that sap which gives increase to all fruits of earth. Now, these four signs, with all their analogies, explain the one word hidden in all sanctuaries, that word which the bacchantes seemed to divine in their intoxication when they worked themselves into frenzy for Io Evohe. What, then, was the meaning of this mysterious term? It was the name of the four primitive letters of the mothertongue: the Jod, symbol of the vine, or paternal sceptre of Noah; the He, type of the cup of libations and also of maternity; the Vau, which joins the two, and was depicted in India by the great and mysterious lingam. Such was the triple sign of the triad in the divine word; then the mother letter appeared a second time to express the fecundity of nature and woman, and to formulate the doctrine of universal and progressive analogies descending from causes to effects, and ascending from effects to causes. Moreover, the sacred word was not pronounced; it was spelt, and read off in four words, which are the four sacred words Jod He Vau He."​

This seems to be the source from which Waite drew, at least in part. Levi says the symbolic tetrad represented the "four forms of the sphinx." The four alchemical symbols can now be seen in relation to the YHVH on the outer ring of the circle. The four living creatures correspond to the four cardinal points and the alchemical symbols within the circle. In the corners of the card they represent Divine intention "without" and inside the circle they are Divine intention "within." Mercury would be Air and correspond to the Eagle.

This seems to me a more realistic reflection of Waite's thinking at the time the deck was created. I made a diagram that illustrates the correspondences. The N., S., E., and W. layout corresponds to a typical Golden Dawn temple diagram, E. being the upper part of the Tree of Life and W. being the lower.

Wheel Diagram


Here's a temple diagram from the Golden Dawn Practicus Initiation. This diagram represents the portion of the ritual where the initiate advances into Hod. Mercury is the planet of Hod and the word Mercury can be seen at the top, or in the East. At the bottom in the West is a cup of water. This is fairly common in a lot of the rituals. The water for purification was the responsibility of the Stolistes. For the office of water-bearer in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, Waite adopted the title "Aquarius."

The Eden Diagram can be seen on the altar in the center of the temple. This may have some correspondence to the Wheel of Spirit symbol, the smallest circle in the center of Waite's Wheel, or maybe not but it's fun to speculate. :)