Somewhere around 593 BCE, a Jewish priest named Ezekiel—a Jerusalemite who’d been forced into exile when the Babylonians conquered Judah—was struck by a vision that has captivated western mystics ever since. It was, he said, a vision of God.
Ezekiel describes the heavens breaking open, a wind sweeping in from the north, and some kind of radiant, flashing fire. In the center of all that were four living beings that he would later identify as cherubim—creatures that appear in many ancient cultures of the Near East. Like the seraphim, they’re sometimes regarded as awe-inspiring and, well, scary-looking angels. And, also like the seraphim, they’re sometimes just considered to be their own thing, something we have no means of classifying.
Whatever the cherubim are, Ezekiel said they were like human beings, except that they had four sets of wings, plus legs that were fused together. Their otherness didn’t stop there, though. Each had four faces as well: a human face in front, a lion’s face to the right, a bull (or ox’s) face to the left, and an eagle’s face in back.
(Supernatural fans: remember how the angel Zachariah claimed to have four faces, one of which was a lion?)
Christians later paid homage to Ezekiel’s vision by assigning each of these figures—the human, the lion, the bull and the eagle—to one of their Gospels. So there’s a double reference here as we see each one taking up a corner of the Wheel of Fortune card.
In Ezekiel’s vision, each of the cherubim stood next to a wheel—the four wheels together formed the base of a chariot. And these four wheels could move (along with the cherubim and the chariot) in any direction. And then we get deeper into the description of the chariot itself. And a description of the semblance of a throne and the semblance of the Divine Presence. (I can’t do this vision justice here. Probably no one can, without lots of study in Hebrew and mysticism.)
This vision must have struck the exiles who heard it as a powerful reminder that God was not confined to the Temple in Jerusalem. That’s one reason the wheels bearing God’s chariot are so mobile—to show that the Divine Presence could be experienced even in exile.
The wheel that dominates this card is partly, I think, a reference to the wheels of Ezekiel’s vision. In fact, the Hebrew letters inscribed on the wheel are the four letters (Yod Heh Vav Heh) that comprise the most sacred name of God in Hebrew, the one traditional Jews don’t pronounce.
But the Latin letters matter too. You can read them as T-A-R-O. So a reference to the Tarot? Maybe. But it also spells out ROTA—or “wheel” in Latin. A wheel that’s easily associated with the goddess Fortuna, the personification of luck, with all its traditional fickleness.
There’s still more to this card. The wheel shows alchemical symbols for the four Hermetic elements: earth, air, fire and water. Each is represented by a suit of the Minor Arcana: Pentacles, Swords, Wands and Cups, respectively.
And then there are Egyptian touches: the Sphinx and Anubis. Any Egyptian-style Pagans or lovers of the myths of Egypt want to weigh in on these figures? I don’t know enough to do them justice.
And that snake—I’m not sure if it’s from Greek or Hebrew myth.
Of all these references, the primary two, for me, are the ones to Ezekiel’s vision of the God of Israel and the ones to Fortuna. The card seems to posit age old questions: where does Divine Providence end and luck begin? And where do humans come into this? How much influence do we have over either?
But how do we use this card in writing?
I don’t use the Major Arcana cards to represent an individual character. Lots of people do, but for me they represent big ideas instead—and, in this case, the big questions that characters might ask. Questions about God and Fate and chance. Questions for the lowest point of a character’s life, when he’s grieving, or lost in exile, or shaking his fist at God or whatever cruel bit of luck landed him in his current disaster.
Of course, the Wheel of Fortune can represent a high point in the life of a character as well. But she might not ask the big questions when everything’s going well. And, to me, there are so many big questions in this card! Questions with answers that are all over the map.
Do you have a character who asks big questions? A character who, perhaps, searches through many different traditions and philosophies looking for answers? Or would you use this card in a completely different way for writing? Let me know in the comments, and leave a link if this card inspires a meta, poem or story!
Okay, time to choose a card for next week. Looks like we’re sticking with the Major Arcana: I drew The Hierophant.