INTUITING TAROT AND JUNG: Card X (the Wheel of Fortune)

28 August 2013


Fate is what happens to you; destiny is what you make of it.

Introduction & Disclaimer[1]

The twelfth post in a series that adds commentary to Nichols’ (1980)[2] Jungian commentary on the major arcana of the Tarot, here I engage with card 10: the Wheel of Fortune.

Over the past two or so years, I’ve been reading a lot of Jung’s writings,[3] and will continue to do so,[4] in part not only because his approach to psychology resonates with my own experience but also because when I read his works I experience a dislodging of psychic imagery that seems interesting and/or fruitful and/or inspiring. In addition, I have been doing Tarot card readings since 1986,[5] when my friend in college introduced them to me, and have even worked “professionally” as one.

So it proved very on-point and kind of my friend to think of me when she saw a copy of Nichols’ (1980) Jung and Tarot: an Archetypal Journey. This series, then, embodies my reactions to and commentaries on Nichols’ commentaries, &c, and will work through the major arcana (the trumps) of the Tarot deck chapter by chapter as Nichol’s book does in order from 0 to 21.

The Wheel of Fortune: Help![6]

Contrasting the rising and falling figures, variously identified as Anubis[7] and Typhon,[8]  strapped to a wheel, Nichols asserts that now two kinds of energy

appear as two forms of unconscious animal libido caught in the never ending cycle of nature: the yang urge to dominate and organize, and the yin tendency to receive and contain. As we know, both are instinctual in all of nature, and both operate continuously in all of us. That these animals wear human clothes might mean that the forces which they represent are partially civilized—they have evolved towards consciousness to a point where their energy is now available for human use(180).

Inasmuch as Nichols claims these two factors operate continuously in us, and inasmuch as she claims the card itself already construes these figures as partially civilized, to invoke “nature” as their original basis (“as we know, both are instinctual in all of nature”) begs the question, since we (the partially civilized) comprise the very ones who make this statement about “Nature” in the first place.  I could digress into a thousand pages about the various dangers, racisms, immoralities, and undesirabilities that accompany this kind of attempt to locate something “unnatural” (like the human being) in “Nature,”[9] but I’ll let this suffice. Similarly, please note how Nichols transforms these figures from (Egyptian) gods, Anubis and Typhon, into animals—reprising a very habitual piece of orientalism, which itself partially illustrates the dangers, racisms, immoralities, and undesirabilities implicated in the desire to trace the human back to “Nature”. Also, to identify a monkey-headed figure with Typhon seems bizarre, given that:

Typhon was described in pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheke, as the largest and most fearsome of all creatures. His human upper half reached as high as the stars, and his hands reached east and west. Instead of a human head, a hundred dragon heads erupted from his neck and shoulders (some, however, depict him as having a human head, with the dragon heads replacing the fingers on his hands). His bottom half consisted of gigantic viper coils that could reach the top of his head when stretched out and constantly made a hissing noise. His whole body was covered in wings, and fire flashed from his eyes, striking fear even into the Olympians (see here)

Nichols does not make this identification herself, but reports others have. One would think, however, that a monkey-headed figure should put one in the mind of Hanuman; one might also forego excessive symbolizing (at least for a moment) and consider the long tradition of European medieval iconography for the monkey and the dog. It remains mostly unclear, in any case, why the opposite powers on the wheel should consist of someone who participates in judging the dead and another figure who embodies disintegration an destruction.

This mess notwithstanding, which again Nichols merely reports upon rather than dwells upon, she follows with: “it I the task of all human beings striving for consciousness to liberate animal energies previously caught in the repetitive instinctual round, so that this libido can be used in a more conscious way” (180). Although we still have the word “animal” and “instinctual,” at least we see when analytical psychology doesn’t start primarily with received (and bastardized or misunderstood) mythologies, then at least some semblance of likely adheres to the statements. The Wheel of Fortune denotes the last card in the first sequence of ten major Arcana; it signals the pinnacle of, the most articulated variety, of involuntary (one might say unconscious) existence. Till now, we have not actually held the reins, but with the Wheel of Fortune, we finally stand at the threshold (in the next series from 11–20) of such steersmanship.

So we have no reason to call this “animal” or “instinctual,” especially as this invokes the whole matrix of orientalist distinctions that make the appearance of a monkey figure here—and all that that implies about Africa as full of monkeys, &c—so unpalatable if we pretend this should get linked to “animal” or “instinctual”. Nor does it do to tacitly or explicitly assert (not acknowledge) that so-called “civilized man” stands not so far away from “his” animal ancestors, because midway between “us” and those “ancestors” stands Africa, and all that that implies as well. People like Schopenhauer and Canetti delight in degrading “civilized” people as “primitives”; this seems entirely the wrong direction to wield the mature-versus-immature value-judgment stick. It seems more than adequate already to distinguish between (involuntary) unconscious impulses—that otherwise come along to usurp our wills and wreak havoc in our worlds, even if that means to provide the complement to too much one-sidedness in our lives—and voluntary processes of consciousness.

Of the figure atop the Wheel, Nichols declares it a sphinx, but not the “Egyptian figure … a masculine symbol, associated with the sun god Horus” (181) but rather “a female character, closely related to the sphinx of Greek mythology which presents a negative mother principle” (181). This kind of sphinx, as in a painting by Moreau, “fastens her claws into Oedipus, impeding his progress, sapping his vitality, and threatening his very life” (181). No doubt if you fear or hate women, if you neurotically reject Egyptian figures to lie for the sake of your own (Greek) mythology about the dynastic neighbors your vanity demands you distinguish yourself from, then indeed you might come up with such nonsense about sphinxes. Or, equally, von Franz’s interpretation of the Oedipus myth, summarized by Nichols, to the effect that the sphinx (that proposes riddles to Oedipus) and Jocasta (his mother) alike represent manifestations of the Devouring Mother. The ill-willed mother in the form of the sphinx tests Oedipus, an when he shows intellectual sufficient to solve the riddles, this engenders the gods’ jealousy and Jocasta manifests as the (duplicitous, tricking) Devouring Mother who does Oedipus in.

This may diagnose neurotic masculinity, but if Jungian approaches distinguish themselves by foreswearing generalization based on neurotic cases only, we my expect as much from Jungian analysis when speaking of psychological individuation generally. Just as England in the eighteenth century imprisoned women as domestic angels in the home by offering a flattering portrait of them as capable of redeeming the world in a way that men could not, this similar compliment to women—that they embody or contain within themselves the most primeval forces of creation and destruction—similarly traps women by (1) demanding they not practice this terrible power, and (2) making men act fearfully, violently, or, in a word, neurotically toward them. By contrast, Nichols says, “For us also, the intellect is to no avail in confronting the sphinx on the Wheel. We cannot free our creative energies with mental gymnastics nor outwit our human fate by lever answer” (183); because with the Wheel (I say) we stand still on “this side” of enlightenment.

This means not that Oedipus got punished for knowing the answer, but rather that he sealed his fate when he believed he did and behaved accordingly. The Jains have long stated: no one knows the Truth (noumena), for everyone can only have a partial understanding of the truth (phenomena); therefore, let’s not fight about it, they conclude. Of course, if you hate or fear women—if a major portion of your identity gets defined in an orientalist binary opposition or distinction from the Other—then believing that demonstrating your intellectual superiority over them amounts to some kind of essential victory might seem like the way to go. This has nothing to do with actual women, of course; as Said (1978)[10] makes clear “that what is commonly circulated by it is not ‘truth’ but representations” (21).[11]

Here we find the root of male violence, as they generally assault actual women due to ideas of women (or that woman) that possesses their minds. Listen to (typically) heterosexual males after a relationship breaks up, and they will not insist, “Amy is a bitch” but rather that “All women are bitches.” Why this sudden generalization, if their orientation points not first and foremost to their idea of women, rather than to the actual woman who left them (for good cause or not).

So believe he had the Truth (as the answer to a riddle), not having the Truth condemned Oedipus. We see this clearly when we do not allow misogynistic fantasies to ideologize the interpretation of myths. Or to reject the notion that “the first step in the hero’s quest is universally[12] depicted as an act committed in defiance of the negative mother” (183).

“In both Eastern and Western cultures, the female principle is experience as an implacable and monstrous power presiding over the rotating fortunes of mankind” (183). Please. The religious history of India at least makes a mockery of this oversimplification. Say, rather, that material written by “men” (by which I do not mean only male-bodied people, but people who in some manner or another identify with  the “male” portion of hierarchically organized patriarchal societies) may insist that such power stands as implacable and monstrous. Besides the fact that one would simply have to ascribe rank masochism to millions of people who worship काळी (Kālī)—far and away the most prestigious “destroying mother” type of figure, also known incidentally as Bhavatārini, the “redeemer of the universe”—one would equally have to pathologize everyone who dances in ecstasy before शिव (Śiva), who similarly promises absolute annihilation of everything.[13]

Nichols describes another version of the Wheel of Fortune, where men on the rise get made into asses an men on the fall become, at the bottom[14] fully human. In this regard, she cite Ixion, punished by Zeus for becoming infatuated with Hera, and taxed for impregnating a cloud by begetting a centaur, a  supposedly humanly intellectual figure who nonetheless has his sexuality sunk in bestial nature and out of sight behind him anyway, i.e., unconfrontable. This provides a cautionary tale against hubris. Or Jung’s godlikeness. Hence, “creations begotten within the clouds of prideful inflation are destined to be monsters” (185). Perhaps fair enough, but then Nichols goes on:

Since the Tarot sphinx herself is such a monstrosity, her very presence [at the top of the Wheel of Fortune] warns us of the fate that awaits all who try to elevate themselves above earthly creatureliness and escape the round of human fate. If we rise above our fate, we must find some other way to deal with the sphinx and her Wheel” (185)

This “turn” will not do, because the so-called monstrosity of the sphinx (1) denotes a Greek or subsequent misprision in the first place, (2) has contrarily a positive, if masculine, embodiment in Egyptian tradition, and (3) originates in a tradition where human/animal hybrids denote divinities not monsters; one might also (4) recall the at-least sphinx-like avatars of Śiva and Viṣṇu (Śarabha and Nṛsiṃha , respectively) that battle in Hindu tradition—the point in mentioning all of this, again, because they represent divinities not monstrosities. Nichols nonetheless manages to remark, “We can see the Wheel both as a circular container that holds all nature within certain prescribed boundaries and, conversely, as the very source of energy by which we might consciously transcend these boundaries” (185). I could agree, except for the dubious meaning (perhaps) of “nature” here. In सांख्य (sāṃkhya) philosophy, prakṛti represents both the form and content, the synchronic and diachronic aspect, of reality, so that the main necessity for liberation involves a change in one’s understanding (puruṣa), a paradigm shift of how one looks at prakṛti, rather than a specific change in action.[15] This sort of paradigm shift appears to inform the difference between the first sequence of ten cards and the second; specifically, the second set (cards 11–20) actually reprise the first sequence (cards 1–10), but in a new light—some might say, at a higher level.[16]

Offering a comparison of Eastern and Western temperaments (from Mayananda)[17] as introverted and extraverted, respectively:

This can help us to see what Jung meant when he said that Eastern meditation techniques adopted wholesale are inappropriate to western needs. One cannot live creatively by adopting a style that is not his own (188).

Or one might quote instead or as well Satchidananda’s (1988)[18] translation of the Bhagavad-Gītā, which declares: “It is better to do your own dharma imperfectly than to excel at another’s dharma. Whoever accepts the duties of his own nature is free from sin” (XVIII.47, emphasis in original). Thus Nichols concludes:

It is not by adopting the ways of his opposite number that each type can relate to the other. Rather it is precisely by “doing his own thing,” but more consciously, that each will come to himself and will ultimately find his way to contact the other’s world and speak his language. Then these two can cooperate and share their two worlds harmoniously (188).

Insofar as introvert and extravert may signal reflective and radiant forms of consciousness—ones that occur in a mutually exclusive way, linking themselves therefore in the image of inversely rising and falling figures on the card of the Wheel of fortune Nichols considers—we see something even more than a rejection of an either/or premise occurs here. Certainly the rejection of dualities points most broadly to various form of advaita (non-dualistic) forms of though we find in Indian philosophy (and elsewhere), as the prerequisite realization to living in the “second cycle” of cards.

Taken in groups of five cards at a time, the Wheel of Fortune corresponds to the Hierophant; thus, in the picture of the priest who performed rituals, with the Wheel we see the metaphysical reality that the priest (more or less unconsciously) draws upon, whether we imagine this metaphysical reality as a supernatural realm (the “all”) or “merely” culture.

Imagined in groups of four, the Wheel represents the second card in the dharma or “service” level of the cards (where “pleasure” and “power” comprise the first two sets of four cards). In the position of “water” or “cups,” this suggests the “meaning” or “socio-cultural significance” of the “idea” encountered in the previous card. Just as the Magician presents the mere image or idea of playing tricks, the High Priestess converts this into a meaning-giving activity (as an Oracle); so here as the Hermit uncovers the general notion of service (or dharma) itself for the individual, ten culture (the Wheel of Fortune) not only gives meaning, but also the very grounding itself for how such dharma or service would play out in culture. (Similarly, whereas the Hierophant individual performs “miracles” the Lovers or Synergy card shows how cooperation—again, the introduction of others seems key—leads to “miracles” performed by way of cooperation.)


[1] As a general context, I do not believe Tarot cards are in any way inherently magical; I’m not someone who becomes psychically disturbed if you touch my deck or someone who claims you’ve ruined the vibe if you do. Personally, doing Tarot readings for people is one place in my life where my intuitive and intellectual sides work in tandem, rather than being at odds with one another—and that sense of co-operation is a pleasure to experience. For others—for the “us” that exists during the duration of the Tarot reading—it is a chance to have a conversation; as an example, I’ve had a radio show where I did Tarot card readings on the air with formerly incarcerated individuals in order to let the world listening hear the reality of incarceration, &c, but the conversation is also for the other person, to examine the forces, the patterns, the trends in her or his life, and to have the opportunity to change them. I continually ask questions when doing Tarot card readings; I don’t pretend to be or act psychic. And having said all that, to the extent that the imagery in the Tarot operates archetypally (as Nichols claims), to the extent that it can inspire images and dislodge psychic impressions in those using and viewing the cards, then I agree that the Jungian approach Nichols brings to the Tarot stands to be helpful, insightful, and useful—hence this commentary on her commentary.

[2] Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot: an archetypal journey. New York: S. Weiser.

[3] Psychological Types (Collected Works 6, [1921], 1971), Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works 9, Part 1, 2nd ed. 1968), Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (Collected Works 7, 2nd ed 1966), Psychology and Alchemy (Collected Works 12, [1944], 2nd ed. 1968), Alchemical Studies (Collected Works 13, 1968), Mysterium Coniunctionis (Collected Works 14, [1955-6], 2nd ed. 1970).

[4] I have Symbols of Transformation (Collected Works 5, [1911-12], 2nd ed. 1967), Aion (Collected Works 9, Part 2, [1951], 2nd ed. 1968), Psychiatric Studies (Collected Works 1, 2nd ed. 1970), Experimental Researches (Collected Works 2, 1973) lined up next, and need still to find affordable copy of The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (Collected Works 8, 1970).

[5] I began with the Crowley-Harris (1972) Thoth Tarot, which I used for many years, acquired but didn’t find myself inspired by Dali’s (1955) Universal Tarot, owned, found myself inspired by, but did not use Tavaglione’s (1979) Stairs of Gold Tarot, used Brian William’s (1988) Renaissance Tarot during my professional phase, in part because the trumps readily leant themselves to that kind of setting, Gerhardt & Zeeuwen’s (1996) Terrestrial Tarot, which one reviewer describes as very unsettling yet still possessing a “strange magnetism,” and finally, Sergio Toppi’s (2000) Tarot of the Origins—Toppi being, as it turns out, one of my favorite illustrators of all time (see here and here, for my reviews of two of his books). I recently acquired the Mary-El deck as well.

[6] The title used for this header comes from the title of the chapter in Nichol’s book.

[7] “The dog-faced god of Egypt who weighed the souls of the dead” (179); for more, if slanted, see here.

[8] “the god of disintegration and destruction” (179); also known by the Greeks as “was the most deadly monster of Greek mythology” (see here). Though perhaps best known to us through Greek discourse, Typhon pre-dates the Greek proto-civilization.

[9] See my 50+ blogs about Canetti’s (1960)* repellent Crowds and Power for an extended, perhaps often too focused negation of this attempt (see here).

* Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press. (paperback)

[10] Said, E. W. (1979). Orientalism. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.

[11] The entire passage from Said (1978) reads:

Another reason for insisting upon exteriority is that I believe it needs to be made clear about cultural discourse and exchange within a culture that what is commonly circulated by it is not “truth” but representations. It hardly needs to be demonstrated again that language itself is a highly organized and encoded system, which employs many devices to express, indicate, exchange messages and information represent, and so forth. In any instance of at least written language, there is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a re-presence, or a representation. The value, efficacy, strength, apparent veracity of a written statement about [crowds or power] therefore relies very little, and cannot instrumentally depend, on [those phenomena] as such. On the contrary, the written statement is a presence to the reader by virtue of its having excluded, displaced, made supererogatory any such real thing as [crowds or power] (21, italics in original).

[12] I can only wonder why the insistence here. For women, this amounts in Jungian terms to her animus destroying “her”—hardly the same as for males and therefore not universal. We also may find (and do) hundreds of examples where male initiations denote breaks from childhood and mothers, but we have far less evidence—for obvious reasons-about what sort of rites girls may undergo. Amidst several aboriginal tribes, girls experience a circumcision ritual usually as often as boys, and the variety of female circumcision practices in Africa (some of them legitimately very problematic on medical grounds, yes) makes any talk of “universal” perilous at best.

[13] It seems to me that everything about “dragon” and the like originates in minor cultures or civilizations that attempt to set themselves apart from major dynastic powers, whether Egyptian or Sumerian, &c. We may see clearly, in the confrontation recorded first in the महाभारतम् (Mahābhārata) and later the Avesta how the authors on both sides use similar terms but in opposite senses:

the Gathic ahura meant “divine lord”; Vedic asura meant “demon”. It is probably no coincidence that the reverse also happens to be true: the Vedic word for “gods”, deva, means “demons” in Gathic (daeva) [see here]

We may imagine a similar kind of polarity of terminology for something like “dragon”. So that this “negative sphinx” merely comprises an ideological sneer, that needn’t get magnified into a principle of psychological reality, even if we want to pretend we’re the descendants and heirs of Greece. Nor should we (or at least will I) succumb to orientalist bullshit and pretend that one of the most populated of human cultures the world has ever seen has some kind of mental defect such that they refuse to throw a figure like Kālī under the bus, especially when some judgmental psychoanalysts insist that attachment to the Great Mother explains retrogressive homosexuality. &c.

Similarly, this also does not mean of course that one cannot find thousands of examples of (neurotic) masculine avoidance. My point involves debunking the claim of “universal”.

[14] Shakespeare’s Bottom?

[15] I suspect I may have gone heretical some in this summary. We can describe the realization of a paradigm shift in one’s thinking as itself a change of action, and one may emphasize the changes of action that follow from such a realization. By describing prakṛti as the form and content, the synchronic and diachronic aspects, of reality, I mean that all visible manifestation of static and dynamic reality associates with prakṛti; puruṣa seems simply to point to the witness-bearing consciousness, which itself remains immune, or at least no constituted by, prakṛti itself. Assuming, of course, I’ve not simply clotted everything up in some confusion.

[16] Thus one might compare card 20 (Judgment) to card 10 (the Wheel of Fortune), &c.

[17] Mayananda (1963). Tarot for Today. London: Zeus Press.

[18] Satchidananda (1988). The living Gita: the complete Bhagavad Gita. Buckingham, VA: Integral Yoga Publications.


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