The Hanged Man

History of The Major Arcana from Visconti Sforza to the Present

This series was written between October 2016 & January 2017. The goal here is to trace the development of the archetypes from the first Tarot deck - the 14th century Visconti Sforza - to the present, and see how they've changed over time. These cover all of the Major Arcana and some related topics as well. Articles are placed not in the order of the Major Arcana, but instead in the order they were written in. Main sources for this were: - Robert Place's The Tarot: History, Symbolism, & Divination - Christine Payne-Towler's The Underground Stream: Esoteric Tarot Revealed

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The Hanged Man
By Richard Avilla

The big wheel keeps on turning

On a simple line day by day

The earth spins on its axis

One man struggles while another relaxes

There's a hole in my soul like a cavity

Seems like the world is out to gather just by gravity

The wheel keeps turning - the sky's rearranging

Look my son - the weather is changing

--- From Hymn Of The Big Wheel, by Massive Attack


Greetings and salutations! I hope everyone is doing well, and that all are suitably prepared for the upcoming winter solstice celebration. We are now seven cards away from completing our little tour of the Major Arcana, and I will try to wrap things up by the end of this month. We have things we’d like to do in the Development & Study Group next year, and need to make way for them.

Today’s topic is the Wheel of Fortune. I’ve picked four cards. The first three are our usual Visconti Sforza, Gringonneur, and Rider Waite. The outlier is Robert Place’s card from the Vampire Tarot. Let’s take a look to the left and start with the oldest card. Here we have a wheel held aloft by a blindfolded woman, and around the wheel we have four men. The woman is Fortuna, or fate. She’s blindfolded because she rewards and punishes randomly. The four men are the different stages of life. The gentleman on the left, who is ascending the wheel, is the future, and the little box above him says, “I will reign.” The man on top – who looks more like a boy, actually – is the present, and he says, “I reign.” The guy on the right – the one falling headfirst – is the past, and he says, “I have reigned.” All the good times are behind him and he’s on the way down. The old man at the bottom doesn’t say anything, because he is the personification of death. He reminds us that all things end.

While this card is from the 1400s, the idea of a woman spinning the wheel of fate is much older than that – almost a thousand years older. It comes from the book Consolation of Philsophy, written by the Roman author Boethius, who had his reasons for believing in the fickleness of human existence. Boethius was an educated man, and served in the court of Theodoric The Great, king of the Ostrogoths. Boethius served him faithfully for decades, but despite this Theodoric accused him of treason and had him put to death. During the year he spent under arrest prior to his execution, he wrote Consolation of Philosophy. In it, he describes Lady Fortune turning the wheel and bringing powerful men low, and at the same time raising the vanquished. This is who we see turning the wheel on the Visconti Sforza card.

Moving to the right, we have the card from Tarot de Marseilles. Here, Fortuna is gone, and so are the different stages of life. We still have a wheel, but the men have been replaced by monkeys. The monkey at the top carries a sword and wears a crown. Life for him is good. The monkey beneath him however, descends face down and the crown and sword are gone.

To the right of that we have the Rider Waite card, and Waite has switched things around significantly. Here, the wheel is in the sky. It is topped by a sphinx, who carries a sword. On the left of the wheel we have a snake, and on the bottom we have a hybrid creature with a human body and a jackal head. The wheel itself has the word TARO inscribed on it, and also the name of God – YHVH, in Hebrew letters. At the four corners of the card we have the four creatures of Ezekiel: a man, lion, ox, and eagle. All four creatures are winged, and reading books. (We will run into Ezekiel’s four creatures again later in the series.) According to Waite, he is following the visual lead of Eliphas Levi, and Levi’s version of the card. Waite describes the card as standing for “the perpetual motion of a fluidic universe and for the flux of human life.”

The last card takes us past Waite and into the 21st century. This is from Robert Place’s Vampire Tarot. Mr. Place calls this card Fate instead of Wheel of Fortune. The meaning however, is essentially the same. He pulls his meaning and image not from Roman literature, but instead from Greek mythology. This card shows us a wheel, but it is the spinning loom of Fate. The three hooded figures on the bottom are the Fates personified. In Greek myth, they spun the thread of human life, laid it out, and at the end, cut it. The hooded figure on the right is Lachesis, who spins the thread. The hooded figure in red is Clotho, who lays the thread down. The hooded figure in blue is Atropos, and she uses the blood soaked scissors in her hand to cut the thread and bring each life to its end. We should also note that the Wheel of Fate sits between the twin influences of the Sun and the Moon.

We do not live in an orderly universe. We live in a world of perpetual flux, one where success and failure are random, and where bad things happen to good people, and bad people live better and longer than they deserve to. Boethius was contemplating this sixteen hundred years ago, and people were wrestling with the same question thousands of years before Boethius. It’s no surprise that there is a card in the deck that takes this randomness into account.

What does this card mean to you?

Do Lady Fortuna and the Three Fates signify the same thing?