In our Western culture (but also in others), for centuries The Wheel of Fortune has been associated with the realization that everything is constantly changing and in motion. On a mundane level, in short you can call it ‘fate’. In the Tarot it’s not just about good or ill fate coming your way; It is also about whether you are able to give direction to your life and willingness to change. In terms of symbolism, a lot of attention is paid in various literature to the ‘animals’ / ‘angels’ in the corners of the card: The Taurus, the Lion, the Eagle and Man. They are connected to the zodiacal signs, the elements and the figures from the biblical vision of Ezekiel. Much has been written about it and it is a familiar symbolism to most tarotists. Much less can be found about the ‘animals’ in the middle: The Snake, the Sphinx and the ‘dog’ figure (the Egyptian God Anubis). Why did Waite mix Egyptian symbolism with Christian symbolism here? After all, Waite was of the opinion that the origin of the Tarot was NOT Egyptian; And what does the Sphinx symbolize? You can write a very thick book about this card. I will do that when I grow up, but first I want to share some thoughts about the sfynx.
The obvious place to start, is “The Pictorial Key to the Tarot” so we can learn what Waite wanted to share about this card; Waite explains that he followed the symbolism of Eliphas Lévi for the Wheel of Fortune card. Waite was a fan of Lévi and he states that it is perfectly legitimate to use Egyptian symbolism when it is convenient, even though the origin of the Tarot is not Egyptian. So that question is quickly answered. The funny thing is that Waite also writes that he thinks the occult meaning of the card a bit foolish and that the explanation of the ‘ordinairy’ fortune tellers (fate and your ability to handle the things that come your way) is better. But of the Sphinx he just mentions that “the symbolic picture stands for the perpetual motion of a fluidic universe and for the flux of human life, and that the Sphinx is the equilibrium therein” I always thought this was weird. Because what does a sphinx have to do with balance?
In Levi’s “The Magical Ritual of the Sanctum Regnum” we see that he does speak of a balance, but it is the figures in the corners of the card that keep each other in balance. Nothing is said about the Sfynx there. Note that this work was translated from The French by William Wynn Westcott (Golden Dawn) after Levi’s death. Westcott was a bit of a fraud, but I’ll save that one for a later blogpost.
“It is a glyph of perpetual motion. The state of universal equilibrium is suggested by the counterpoised emblems, and the pairs of symbols. The flying Eagle balances the man; the roaring Lion counterpoises the laborious Bull”.Eliphas Lévi
In “The Key of the Mysteries” (also translated after Levi’s death but by Aleister Crowley) we read:
‘At the top of the wheel is the Nemesis seated on a platform as a sphinx with a sword: head cloth, stern male face and woman’s breasts, winged. The sword is hilt to wheel and up to left. “ARCHEE” is written over the wing to the left. Risking on the right of the wheel is a Hermanubus or variation of Serapis: Dog’s head, human body, carries a caduceus half hidden behind head and wheel, legs before wheel. “AZOTH” is written above the head of this figure’.Eliphas Lévi
But in “Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic” we finally come across a very small phrase on the equilibrium that the Sphinx is apparently guarding according to Waite:
“The WHEEL OF FORTUNE that is, the cosmogonical wheel of Ezekiel, with a Hermanubis rising up on the right, a Typhon descending down on the left, and a sphinx above it in equilibrium, holding the sword between his lion’s claws”Arthur Edward Waite
The story of Oedipus and the Sphinx
Laius, the childless king of Thebes, decided to consult the Oracle at Delphi to find out if he and his wife (the beautiful young Jocasta) would ever have children. To his great dismay, he was told that it would be better for him not to have children at all: every son born of their union was destined to kill him. Although Laius was careful, Jocasta became pregnant and gave birth to a son. To ward off the prophecy, Laius told his servants to cut the tendons of the baby’s feet so that it would not even be able to crawl, so the baby could not harm him; Then, to be even safer, he gave his son to one of the shepherds of Thebes and told him to leave the baby in the mountains to die. The shepherd could not go ahead to this and passed the baby on to another shepherd instead. This shepherd took pity on the boy and brought him to the court of King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth.
The royal couple, also childless, decided to adopt the poor baby and raise him as their own child. They named the boy after his ankle wounds: Oedipus means ‘Swollen foot’. When Oedipus was growing up, an oracle foretold him that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus was so shocked that he fled Corinth. During his wandering he came across a carriage with a distinguished passenger. Oedipus gets into an argument with the herald who accompanies the carriage and kills him. He then also kills the traveler who had slapped him on the head with a stick. This traveler was his father, but Oedipus does not know this.
It happened that the area around Thebes was ‘terrorized’ by a Sphinx. The sphinx, possessing the body of a dog, legs of a lion, the head of a woman and wings of an eagle, could appear out of nowhere and sing a riddle to an unsuspecting passerby; If you didn’t know the answer, she would strangle you. To put an end to the terror of the Sphinx, a decree was drawn up stating that whoever could make the Sphinx disappear or kill it, could marry the beautiful young Queen Jocasta. Oedipus came face to face with the Sphinx, who presented him with the following riddle: “What creature walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs in the afternoon, and on three in the evening?”
Oedipus knew the correct answer: “A human person ‘walks’ as a baby on all fours, as an adult he walks on two legs and when he has grown old he walks on three legs: two legs and a walking stick”. The Sphinx disappeared, some say she fled to Egypt where she turned into stone. Oedipus unknowingly married Jocasta and had four children with her. But when he found out that fate has ‘caught up’ with him, he gouges out his own eyes.