Last week, I wrote about patterns and cycles, and how the Tarot represents archetypical cycles that are present in our lives. No single Tarot card is more explicitly linked to this concept than the tenth numbered Major Arcanum, The Wheel of Fortune. From Wikipedia:
Fortune’s Wheel often turns up in medieval art, from manuscripts to the great Rose windows in many medieval cathedrals, which are based on the Wheel. Characteristically, it has four shelves, or stages of life, with four human figures, usually labeled on the left regnabo (I shall reign), on the top regno (I reign) and is usually crowned, descending on the right regnavi (I have reigned) and the lowly figure on the bottom is marked sum sine regno (I am without a kingdom).
The Wheel turns, and those on one side of it are elevated, while those on the other side are brought low. Soon, one who is elevated will reach the apex of the Wheel’s turn, and will himself descend. This allegory for the ups and downs of life is what the Wheel of Fortune is all about. When it shows up in a reading, it can generally be interpreted to mean one of two things: either things are going to get better, or your luck is about to run out. Either way, it can be an important card for compelling a querent to take action.
Classically, the Wheel of Fortune, or Rota Fortunae, is a concept representing the fickleness of Fate. Fortune is often depicted as a blindfolded woman turning a wheel by hand, sometimes rolling along atop a spherical stone. There are numerous and varied literary examples and references to the concept of Fortune and her Wheel, and it is one of the most common allegorical archetypes around.
Interestingly, in researching this post I found a Wikipedia entry regarding a medieval torture device called a “breaking wheel” or “Catherine wheel.” The methods of its use varied somewhat geographically but in general it seems like a pretty violent and gruesome form of punishment. The part I found particularly interesting, though, is the Legend of St. Catherine. The legend goes that Catherine was sentenced to be put to death on the wheel, but the wheel broke when she touched it. Many depictions of St. Catherine present her with a wheel or wheel segment as her saintly attribute, along with the sword used in her beheading.
I find this representation to be of particular interest because a) the imagery seems well-suited to a Tarot card and b) the legend suits the interpretation of the card pretty well, in my opinion. Catherine was sentenced to death for her refusal to renounce her Christian faith (a low point on the wheel) but the wheel intended for use in her execution broke at her touch (a high point). Despite this, she was still beheaded (another low) but then was Sainted by the Church (a high).
Obviously this is a particularly extreme example, and frankly one which other readers may or may not agree with. Either way, the message of the Wheel of Fortune is, generally speaking, pretty clear.
Another interpretation, however, presents itself from time to time, and that is this: everything in life, everything in our day-to-day operation, is merely the turning of the wheel. Things may rise and fall and this is to be expected. Recently I threw a Celtic Cross for myself, and the “What others think” card came up as The Wheel. In my mind, this indicated that other folks around me viewed the situation not as a fortunate turn, but more like “oh, this is what’s happening now, okay.” The Wheel turns, and life goes on.