copyright R. M. Place 2005 modified in 2015
In my last article we discussed the various minor arcana cards in the Waite-Smith Tarot in which Waite’s description did not match Smith’s art. These discrepancies, however, were not confined to the minor suits alone. As we will see, Waite’s description of the Chariot also differs from Smith’s art. To understand the themes that were incorporated into the Waite-Smith Chariot and why this discrepancy happened, we must first discuss a 19th century occultist who was influential in shaping Waite’s view of the Tarot and who created the model for Smith’s design.
Alphonse-Louis Constant was born in 1810, in Paris, to a poor family. At the age of fifteen, he entered a seminary and by 1835 he became a deacon. Because of romantic inclinations, however, he left the seminary and never became a priest. Constant had a talent for drawing and writing and made a living for himself as an illustrator for magazines and books, by creating paintings for churches, as an actor, a schoolmaster, and various other jobs. He was also interested in social reform and he became a vocal advocate for women’s rights and communism. On two occasions his political views earned him several months in prison.
In 1846, Constant married Noemie Cadiot, a young woman of 18. They had a daughter the next year. Constant’s marriage, however, ended badly. In 1853, Noemie left him and the following year their daughter died. It was at this low point in his life that Constant embraced occultism, a daring move at the time because thanks to the influence of the “enlightenment” in the early to mid 19th century interest in the occult was dying out. To mark his transformation, Constant changed his name to Eliphas Levi, which he felt was the Hebrew equivalent of his first two names, Alphonse-Luis. No doubt, most readers will be familiar with his work by his occult name.
The newly born magus, Levi, applied the same daring and individuality, the qualities that had earned him a place in prison for his political views, to his new field of interest. He considered High Magic, as he called it, a mystical path to enlightenment. The key ingredients in Levi’s magical synthesis were Kabbalah, Hermeticism, alchemy, Pythagorean number symbolism, astrology, ceremonial magic, and especially Tarot. He never wrote a book on any of these subjects alone because he believed that all of these should be combined in one interconnected doctrine, a type of occult science that was designed to channel psychic energy toward the goal of self-mastery and the development of one’s will.
In 1854 Levi published his first book under his new name, The Doctrine of High Magic. The following year he completed a second volume entitled The Ritual of High Magic. They were later combined together as one book, and in 1896, when Waite translated the two volumes into English. It was published by Rider under the title Transcendental Magic.
The central component of Levi’s synthesis was his correlation between the twenty-two cards in the Tarot’s fifth suit, which he called keys, and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He started with trump one, the Magician, which he aligned with the first letter, aleph, and proceeding in order to the World, which he aligned with the last letter, tau. Of course this only makes use of 21 keys. To make the correlation work he placed the unnumbered Fool in the penultimate position just before the World and aligned him with the next-to-the-last letter shin. This is the reason why Waite placed the Fool in this same position in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot, which was written to accompany the Waite-Smith deck. In the Golden Dawn system, the Fool would have been the first card and therefore aligned with aleph.
Each of the Hebrew letters was originally a picture of an object or animal, something like a hieroglyph, and the name of each letter retains this meaning. For example, aleph means ox and was originally a stylized picture of an ox head. In the Kabbalah, each letter was also assigned a correlation with a planet, a constellation, or an element, and a path on the Kabbalistic symbol for the journey toward enlightenment called the Tree of life. Both of Levi’s books contain twenty-two chapters and each chapter presents a correlation of subjects freely associated with the appropriate number, Hebrew letter, pictorial symbol, celestial or elemental association, or Tarot key.
Chapter seven in The Doctrine of High Magic, which became volume one of Transcendental Magic, is, of course, linked with the Tarot’s Chariot, the seventh key if we are following the Tarot of Marseilles order as Levi was. The seventh Hebrew letter is zain, which means sword. Therefore, the title of the chapter is “The Fiery Sword.” Because Levi followed the correlations of the 17th century Christian Kabbalists, Kircher, instead of the more traditional Jewish associations, he equates zain with Principalities, the third of the nine orders of angels found in the medieval Christian world-view, instead of the constellation Gemini as recommended in Jewish texts such as the Sepher Yetzirah. He also associates it with the seventh sepiroth in the Kabalistic Tree of Life, which he called Conquest. In this chapter he treats us to a description of the Chariot key in which he projects numerous associations of his magical synthesis onto the traditional image.
“(The septenary is) represented in the Tarot by a crowned warrior, who bears a triangle on his cuirass (breastplate) and is posed upon a cube, to which two sphinxes are harnessed, straining in opposite directions, while their heads are turned the same way. This warrior is armed with a fiery sword and holds in his left hand a scepter surmounted by a triangle and a sphere. The cube is the Philosophical Stone; the sphinxes are the forces of the Great Agent, corresponding to Jakin and Boaz, the two pillars of the Temple (of Solomon); the cuirass is the knowledge of Divine Things, which renders a wise man invulnerable to human assaults; the scepter is the Magic Wand; the fiery sword is the symbol of victory over the deadly sins, seven in number like the virtues, the conceptions of both being typified by the ancients under the figures of the seven planets then known. “
(Page 80; Levi, Eliphas; translated by Waite, A. E.; Transcendental Magic; Samuel Weiser, New York: 1970)
It is surprising that, although Levi was an artist, he did not design his own version of the Tarot deck, one that would illustrate his theories. It is believed that he was working on such a deck but never completed it. He did, however, complete the illustration for one card, The Chariot, which he included in chapter 22 of the second volume of his book. Chapter 22 is entitled The Book of Hermes and focuses on Levi’s theories concerning the 22 Tarot keys.
We can see that Levi’s illustration, although more realistic in style, is firmly based on the Tarot of Marseilles model. However, he reads into what is included in the Marseilles image and, for the most part, makes the details conform to his fantasies. His description included next to the illustration in Volume Two has been altered form the one presented in Volume One.
“Hieroglyph, a Cubic Chariot, with four pillars and an azure and starry drapery. In the chariot, between the four pillars, a victor, crowned with a circle, adorned with three radiant golden pentagrams. Upon his breast are three superposed squares, on his shoulder the Urim and Thummim of the sovereign sacrificer, represented by the two crescents of the moon in Gedulah and Geburah; in his hand is a scepter surmounted by a globe, square and triangle: his attitude is proud and tranquil. A double sphinx or two sphinxes joined at the haunches are harnessed to the chariot; they are pulling in opposite directions, but are looking the same way. They are respectively black and white. On the square, which forms the fore part of the chariot is the Indian lingam surmounted by the flying sphere of the Egyptians. This hieroglyph, which we reproduce exactly, is perhaps the most beautiful and complete of all those that are comprised in the Clavicle of the Tarot.”
(Page 388; ibid.)
In chapter two of The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Waite describes each of the trumps, and he has this to say about the Chariot:
“This is represented in some extant codices as being drawn by two sphinxes, and the device is in consonance with the symbolism, but it must not be supposed that such was the original form; the variation was invented to support a particular Hypothesis (Court de Gebelin’s theory that the Tarot originated in ancient Egypt, first published in 1781). In the eighteenth century white horses were yoked to the car.”
(Page 15; Waite, Arthur Edward; The Pictorial Key to the Tarot; Harper & Row, San Francisco: 1971)
Indeed, the earliest cards do depict horses harnessed to the chariot and Levi was depicting sphinxes to add an Egyptian flavor to the image, but he did have a historical model for his card. One of the oldest French Tarots, The Jacques Vieville Tarot, published in Paris circa 1650, has sphinxes on the Chariot. But the typical French Chariot in the most popular form (the Tarot of Marseilles) depicts horses on the Chariot. In the many variations of the Tarot of Marseilles the charioteer is most often holding a scepter toped with a sphere and a triangle, the armor plates covering the charioteer’s shoulders have human faces seen in profile that suggest the image of crescent moons with faces, and the crude depiction of the chariot helps it to appear as a cubic block sitting on the ground with the wheels protruding at angles on either side. But there is no card depicting a flaming sword.
Levi’s Charioteer stands with his left hand on his hip and holds a scepter in his right hand as he does in almost ever Marseilles model. His scepter is toped with a sphere and a cone as in the Marseilles cards. I assume that these are the globe and triangle that Levi mentions, but, as for the square, he is probably referring to the disk at the base of the cone. The symbolism of the square and the triangle are important to Levi because they represent the four and the three that comprise the seven, the number of the card.
Notice that the charioteer is not holding a fiery sword, or any other sword, and Levi seems to have dropped this detail considered so important in Volume One. Also in Volume One, he said that the warrior was holding the scepter in his left hand, not his right as he is here. This seems significant, because the only model in the French decks that I have found that has the scepter in the left hand is the Chariot found in the Jacques Vieville Tarot, the one with the sphinxes. When he first described the Chariot in Volume One Levi may have been focusing on the card from this deck (the only known copy is found in the national library in Paris) and when it came time to draw his own version he opted for the more common pose with the scepter in the right hand.
In the oldest French cards, the charioteer’s crown has three fleurs-de-lis, fitting for a French prince, but Levi interprets these as three pentagrams. The angles drawn on his breast plate Levi interpreted as a triangle in Volume One but now he has decided that they are the corners of three squares, again, the three and four symbolism.
On his shoulders, the Charioteer has armor plates hammered into faces. Seen in profile they suggest a waxing moon on our left and a waning moon on our right, notice that Levi has placed the light sphinx on the side with the waxing moon and the dark one with the waning moon. Levi has equated these symbols with the Urim and Thummim, two stones that were attached to the breast plate or worn on the shoulders of the ancient Hebrew priests and used in divination to provide a negative or positive answer to a question, although it is uncertain from the Biblical references which stone is positive and which one is negative. Similarly, in Volume One, Levi compared the sphinxes to the dark and light pillars said to reside in Solomon’s Temple: Boaz and Jachim, which are depicted on the High Priestess in the Waite Smith Tarot.
As we can see on the French cards, the Charioteer has a small shield attached to the front of his vehicle. In most examples, this shield contains the initials of the card maker. Levi added the Indian lingam (upright stone) and yoni (dish) symbols here. These and Tantric symbols for the interaction of the male and female sexual organs. These symbolize the creative essence that Levi sought to channel in his magical practice. Above this, Levi has interpreted the decorative scrollwork found at the top of the shield on some Marseilles cards as the Egyptian solar disk, a symbol of the divine power that Levi hoped to attain once the creative essence had been channeled. All of these symbols are being equated to the cubic stone which was the raw material that the alchemists hoped to turn into the magical elixir that they sought. Levi loved to mix the symbolism of various cultural traditions in this way.
Notice, also, that Levi has added a small sphere below the dish. With this addition the Tantric symbol begins to look like a stylized sword and as the solar disk is a type of flame, perhaps Levi meant this symbol to also represent the fiery sword from Volume One. After all, he did not say it was in the warrior’s hand, only that he was armed with it. If this is true, then we can see that although Levi wishfully projects his symbols into tiny abstract details, all of his observations are sparked by the actual details included in the traditional cards. The only thing totally fabricated by him is the addition of the Hebrew letter zain. The Arabic numeral seven is, of course, replacing the Roman numeral on the traditional cards.
Now let’s look at Pamela Colman Smith’s Chariot. Although different in style and symbolically simplified, it is clearly based on Levi’s design and as Levi was Waite’s inspiration for much of the symbolism in the deck, it is likely that he suggested this model to Smith. However she has allowed herself artistic license in recreating the image. Instead of three stars on the crown she has one. Instead of the suggestion of three squares on the breast she had one complete square. The warrior’s left hand is off his hip, the Tantric symbol has been simplified to a wheel and axil, and the sphinxes are complete and separate and each is looking its own way. Notice that she has changed the dark and light sides so that they no longer coincide with the waxing and waning moons. Also she has more clearly depicted the chariot as the cubic stone, resting on the ground with the charioteer seemingly embedded in it, or as the spirit off the stone rising out of it.
In the Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Waite clearly states that the Chariot design is based on Levi’s model and he has therefore included the sphinxes, although earlier in the book he mistakenly writes that they are not based on a historic model. He also seems to veer away from Levi’s magical associations for the Chariot and sees his as a character of lesser importance. As we said in the beginning, his description does not entirely coincide with Smiths art. Waite begins the section with the following description,
“An erect and princely figure carrying a drawn sword and corresponding, broadly speaking, to the traditional description, which I have given in the first part. On the shoulders of the victorious hero are supposed to be the Urim and Thummim.”
(Page 96; Waite, Arthur Edward; The Pictorial Key to the Tarot; Harper and Row, San Francisco:1971)
Obviously Smith’s figure is true to Levi’s and is only carrying a scepter, not a sword. Waite seemed to be carried away by Levi’s description in the first volume and neglected to notice that the sword is not in the picture. Also, I am not sure what Wait means by “supposed to be.” Is he complaining about Smith for not putting the stones on the shoulders or about Levi for saying the crescents are the stones? If he is complaining about Levi, I believe that Waite has misinterpreted him. When Levi says that the moons are the stones, I believe that he is only suggesting that they are symbolically linked. Unlike Wait, Levi drew his own picture and knew what he was depicting.