The Chariot

The earlier versions of this card, which showed the Chariot pulled by two horses rather than two sphinxes, derives from a number of historical and mythological sources. Primarily it comes out of the processions given in Rome and other places for a conquering hero, when his chariot carried him through the streets that were filled with cheering citizens. The custom apparently answers some deep psychic need for group participation. Wre still practice it today, two thousand years later, in the parades given to presidents, generals, and astronauts, with open limousines replacing the chariot.

The Chariot implies more than a greater victory. To drive a two horse vehicle at speed requires total control over the animals; the activity serves as a perfect vehicle for the powerful will. Plato, in the Phaedrus, refers to the mind as a chariot drawn by a black and white horse, the exact image of the Tarot.

A certain Hindu myth tells of Shiva destroying a triple city of the demons. To do so he requires that all creation be subordinated to his will. The gods make a chariot for Shiva, using not only themselves but the heavens and the Earth as materials. The sun and moon become the wheels and the winds the horses. (The symbol on the front of the Tarot Chariot, like a nut and bolt, or a wheel and axle, is called the lingam and yoni, standing for Shiva, the masculine liberation requires finally a great deal more than passion. But love can help us see the path, and know a little of the joy that waits for us at the end of it. A number of mystics, notably Saint Teresa, have described union with God in terms of sexual ecstasy.

The divinatory meanings for the Waite-Smith image are straightforward. They refer to the importance of love in a person's life and to a specific lover; very often to marriage or a long relationship. The card implies that the particular relationship has been or will prove to be very valuable to the person, leading him or her to a new understanding of life. If some specific problem is being considered in the reading then the Lovers indicates help in some way, either practically through the lover's assistance, or through emotional support. But this is not always true. The Lovers, in the position of the past, especially in relation to cards indicating a refusal to look at the present situation, can indicate a crippling nostalgia for a past love.

The earlier cards all represented archetypes. When we reversed them we added the missing elements. But here the individual has advanced and now the reversed meaning shows weakness and blocks. It is first of all a destructive love, particularly in a bad marriage. It can refer to romantic or sexual problems that dominate a person's life, either from difficulties with a specific person, or because the person finds love simply a great problem. Because the Waite-Smith picture indicates a mature love, and the traditional image shows the process of adolescent choice, either version reversed indicates romantic immaturity; the prolonged adolescence that keeps some people involved in childish fantasies long after their bodies have fully matured.

and the circle of the spiritual). His chariot looms larger than the town behind indicating that his will is more powerful than the rules of society. However, the fact that his chariot is not in motion indicates that he is not a rebel. The wheels of the chariot rest on water, showing that he draws energy from the unconscious, though the chariot itself, resting on land, separates him from a direct contact with that great force.

We have mentioned the sexual symbolism of the lingam and yoni. While Hindu myth connects horses to death, Freudian dream symbolism connects them to the sexual energy of the libido. By controlling the horses (or sphinxes) the Charioteer controls his instinctive desires.

Various magic signs adorn his body. His skirt bears symbols of ceremonial magic, his belt shows the sign and planets. The two lunar faces on his shoulders are named 'Urin and Thummim', the supposed shoulder plates of the High Priest in Jerusalem and which therefore suggest the Hierophant. At the same time the lunar plates refer to the High Priestess. Note also that the cloth at the back of the chariot suggests the High Priestess's veil; he has set the mystery of the unconscious behind him.

We see, therefore, in the Chariot's symbolism all the previous cards of the first line. The wand and symbols indicate the Magician, the water, sphinxes, and veil symbolize the High Priestess, the square and green earth symbolize the Empress, the city symbolizes the Emperor, the shoulder plates symbolize the Hierophant, and the lingam and yoni symbolize the Lovers. All these forces contribute to the outer personality.

And yet - observe the Chariot with its stone-like qualities. Observe the charioteer himself merging into his stone vehicle. The mind that subordinates all things to conscious will runs the risk of becoming rigid, cut off from the very forces it has learned to control. Observe also that the black and white sphinxes are not reconciled to each other. They look in opposite directions. The charioteer's will holds them together in a tense balance. If that will should fail, the Chariot and its rider will be torn apart.

Paul Douglas has compared the Chariot to Jung's idea of the 'persona'. As we grow up we create a kind of mask to deal with the outside world. If we have dealt successfully with the various challenges of life, then the different aspects symbolized by the other cards will become integrated into this ego-mask. But we can too easily confuse this successful persona with the true self, even to the point that if we try to discard the mask we will fear its loss as a kind of death. This is why the second line of the Major Arcana, which deals precisely with the release of the self from its outer masks, principle, and Parvati, the feminine principle, united in a single figure.) Through the myth's images we learn that spiritual victory over evil comes when we can focus all of nature, as well as the unconscious energy embodied in Shiva himself, through the conscious will.

These two fables show two different aspects of the idea of will. The story of Shiva speaks of a true victory, in which the spirit has found a focus to release its total force. But the Phaedrus gives us an image of the triumphant ego, which controls rather than resolves the basic conflicts of life. Those Tarot commentators who see the cards as a group of separate images, each one contributing some vital lesson to our spiritual understanding, tend to give the Chariot its wider meaning. They point out that the Qabalistic title for the number 7, with all its mystic connotations, is 'Victory'.

In many places, particularly India, the horse became associated with death and funerals. When the rising patriarchy abolished the ritual sacrifice of the king, a horse was killed instead. The horse sacrifice became the most holy, associated with immortality. Even today, horses are used to pull the coffins of great leaders. (A bizarre junction of two aspects of the Chariot was seen in the death of John Kennedy. He was killed in his limousine during a parade, and then a horse - who rebelled against his trainer's control - pulled his coffin in the state funeral.) These connections suggest the idea of the soul's victory over mortality.

When we look at the cards sequentially we see that 7 is only the victory of the first line of the Major Arcana. It crowns that line's process of maturation, but by necessity it cannot address the great areas of the unconscious and super-conscious. Seen this way the Chariot shows us the developed ego; the lessons of the early cards have been absorbed, the adolescent period of searching and self-creation has been passed, and now we see the mature adult, successful in life, admired by others, confident and content with himself, able to control feelings, and above all, to direct the will.

Like the Magician the Charioteer carries a magic wand. Unlike the Magician he does not raise it above his head to heaven. His power is subordinate to his will. His hands hold no reins. His strong character alone controls the opposing forces in life.

The lingam and yoni indicate his mature sexuality which is under his control. Thus he is not the victim of his emotions and his sexuality contributes to a satisfying life. The glowing square on his chest, a symbol of vibrant nature, links him to the sensual world of the Empress, but the eight pointed star on his crown shows his mental energy directing his passions (symbolists consider the eight pointed star as halfway between the square of the material world sphinx siezed the young men of the city and asked them the following riddle: 'What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?' Those who could not answer were devoured. Now, the answer is 'man1 who crawls as a baby, walks upright as an adult, and uses a cane in old age. The implication is clear. If you do not understand your basic humanity, with its strengths and weaknesses, then life will destroy you. The Chariot symbolizes maturity, accepting the limits of life, plus the faculty of speech, that is, rational understanding, which is used to define existence and therefore to control it.

But a further meaning lurks here. The man who answered the sphinx's riddle was Oedipus, who arrived in Thebes after killing his father. Freud's emphasis on incest has diverted attention from the deeper message of the Oedipus story. Oedipus was the perfect image of the successful man. Not only did he save Thebes from a menace and become king of the city but he did so by his understanding of life. He knew what man was. Yet he did not know himself. His own inner reality remained closed to him until the gods forced him to confront it. And the gods did force him. If the oracles had not spoken first to his father and then to him, Oedipus would never have done the things he did. Therefore, though he understood the outer meaning of man's life he did not understand either who he really was, or his relation to the gods who controlled his life. And these two subjects are precisely the concerns of the second and third lines of the Major Arcana. In the second we go beyond the ego to find the true self. In the third we deal openly with the archetypal forces of existence and reach at last a full integration of those dualities which the charioteer was able to dominate but never reconcile.

The divinatory meanings of the Chariot derive from its powerful will. In a reading the card signifies that the person is successfully controlling some situation through the force of his or her personality. The card implies that a situation contains some contradictions and that these have not been brought together but simply held under control. This is not to stress too highly the negative undertones of the card. When it is the right way up the Chariot basically means success; the personality in charge of the world around it. If it appears as the outcome in a reading dealing with problems then it indicates victory-.

Reversed, the card's inherent contradictions gain greater force. The Chariot upside down implies that the approach of will-power has proven unsuccessful, and the situation has got out of control. Unless the person can find some other approach to the difficulties, he or she faces disaster. Will-power alone cannot always sustain us. Like Oedipus we must sometimes learn to give way to the gods.


bears Death as its next to last card.

So far we have considered the Chariot as an emblem of personal maturity. But the idea of human will extends beyond the individual. With its images of the mind subduing and utilizing the forces of life the Chariot is a perfect symbol for civilization, which creates order out of the chaos of nature by using the natural world as the raw materials for its agriculture and cities. One of the chief Qabalistic connotations for the card extends this idea. By its connection with the Hebrew letter 'Iain' the Chariot carries the quality of'speech'. Speech has always seemed to humans to represent the rational mind and its dominance over nature. As far as we know only humans possess language (though chimpanzees have shown themselves capable of learning human sign language, and whales and dolphins may possess developed languages of their own) and we may say that speech separates us from the animal. Adam gained control over the beasts in Eden by speaking their names. Most important, humans use language to transmit the information that allows civilization to continue.

However, just as the ego is limited, so is speech. First of all, speech restricts our experience of reality. By forming a description of the world, by giving everything a label, we erect a barrier between ourselves and experience. When we look at a tree, we do not feel the impact of a living organism; rather, we think 'tree' and move on. The label has replaced the thing itself. Also, by relying too much on this rational quality of language we ignore experiences that cannot be expressed in words. We have already seen how the High Priestess signifies intuitive wisdom beyond language. Certain experiences, especially mystical union with spirit, cannot be described. Language can only hint at them with metaphors and fables. People who rely totally on speech have even gone so far as to insist that non-verbal experiences, or experiences which cannot be measured by psychological tests, do not exist. This is simply because they cannot be scientifically described. Such dogmatism receives its perfect symbol in the charioteer's merging with his stone wagon.

So far we have considered every symbol in the picture except, perhaps, the most obvious one: the two sphinxes. Waite borrowed this innovation from Eliphas L£vi, the great pioneer of Qabalistic Tarot. Like the two pillars of the High Priestess, or the black and white horses they replace, the sphinxes signify the dualities and contradictions of life. Once again, we see the triangular motif. Here the mediating force is will-power.

The use of sphinxes instead of horses suggests several deeper meanings. The sphinx in Greek legend was a riddler, presenting the mystery of life to the people of Thebes. The myth tells us that the in Strength and the Hermit, while the principle of light and dark, outer and inner, remain in the same positions. The Wheel of Fortune turns away from the natural and mindless world of the Empress to a vision of inner mysteries. At the end of the line Temperance shows us a new kind of victory. The Chariot's force has been replaced by balance and calm. Where the charioteer's stone chariot removed him from direct contact with the earth and the river, the angel of Temperance stands with one foot on land, one in water, showing the personality in harmony with itself and life.

Another theme appears in the second line. So far the cards have presented a series of lessons to us, things we must learn about life to become mature and successful in the outer world. But enlightenment is a deeply personal experience. It cannot be studied or even pondered but only lived. The series of outer lessons culminate in the W'heel of Fortune which shows us a vision of the world and ourselves which must be answered. The Hanged Man, however, shows something else entirely. Here we see, not a lesson, but the image of enlightenment itself, the outer personality turned upside down by a very real and personal experience.

In between these two cards, and at the exact centre of the whole Major Arcana, lies Justice, carefully balancing the scales between inner and outer, past and future, rationality and intuition, knowledge and experience.

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  • Gorbulas
    Does the chariot tarot card always mean success in a relationship?
    5 years ago

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