By: VICTORIA WILSON on APRIL 29, 2017
A couple of days ago a student in my Tarot Gateways meditation class at Aum & Garden pointed out an interesting symbol in the King of Swords that I had never before noticed. Etched into the center band of his crown is a pair of wings attached to a little round face. Check it out!
Upon closer inspection, I realized that it doesn’t look too different from symbols that appear in other cards of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot. I couldn’t find much information on the meaning of the little winged head in the King of Swords, so I turned to The Chariot and the Two of Cups to figure out what it means.
There’s the winged solar disc emblazoned on the front of The Chariot. According to Ruth Ann and Wald Amberstone in The Secret Language of Tarot, this symbol represents the Egyptian sun god Ra/Horus rising up at the start of the new day on his Hawk wings. The winged disc is the sign of a “lofty intellect and the soul’s ability to hover over the Abyss, across which the path of The Chariot passes from above to below and back.” The Amberstones are referencing Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun, and his daily journey across the sky in his sun boat.
Because the sun is the giver of warmth, life, and growth, Ra occupied center stage in the Egyptian pantheon. Many historians concur that he was the most widely worshiped god in ancient Egypt.
Just as the Sun is the giver of all life on Earth, Ra was the god of all Creation. It was believed that he created himself out of the mound the rose out of the primeval waters. After that, Ra created time, the four seasons, and all plants and animals. He made human beings out of his tears, and created the air god Shu and Tefnut the goddess of moisture. Tefnut later gave birth to Geb the Earth goddess, and Nut the goddess of the sky.
Ra made his daily journey across the sky in one of his various sun boats, and which sun boat he used depended on the time of day. From sunrise to noon he traveled in the “Matet” boat, and from noon to sunset the “Sketet” boat. These sun boats where also used to transport the gods between the divine and earthly realms.
At night Ra made his way through the Underworld to be attacked by Apep, the evil snake god. Many of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings include paintings that show Ra’s journey through the underworld over twelve “hours.” In the fifth hour, Ra succumbs to Apep’s attacks and is reunited with Osiris in the underworld. But the twelfth hour brings redemption as Ra is reborn as the scarab beetle, Khepri, who welcomes each new day by pushing up the sun, awakening it from it’s nightly retirement to the Underworld. Ra is commonly depicted pushing up the sun from the Underworld in his beetle form.
All of this brings us back to the question of why Pamela Colman Smith, the painter of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, choose to grace the front of the charioteer’s chariot with a winged disc? A few thoughts come to mind…
The Chariot represents that stage in life when we are on a mission to prove ourselves. Its about having the self-control and the motivation to achieve something. This often involves leaving the safety of the home to venture out into the real world, where one can only depend on yourself. It’s not easy to relax here. The armor that covers the charioteer from head to toe reminds us that he is gearing up to go into battle, just as Ra battled Apep. Life is not easy. But we are given the protection we need to overcome its downfalls.
Ra’s journey and eventual death in the Underworld yields a brand new start. There are many times in life when we succumb to letdown and failure. But The Chariot teaches us how to develop a thicker skin and not allow life’s lows to get us down for too long.
It’s no coincidence that Cancer is the zodiacal ruler of The Chariot. Just as the crab is known for being hard on the outside and soft on the inside, I have known many a Cancer project a gruff exterior to “weed out” people who could potentially hurt them. The crab is very sensitive, and because of that he guards who is allowed into his inner circle very carefully. What is to one person a minor disappointment can be a major depression to the easily hurt Cancer.
Thus the crab tends to shy away from life, protecting itself inside its hard shell. The Chariot teaches us that too much emotional sensitivity can take us off course. Growth comes in when we learn how to toughen up, always being ready to show up for a new day. The Chariot describes the psycho-spiritual process of growing up. Taking on the responsibilities of adulthood sometimes requires us to put our emotions to the side and do what is needed.
Two of Cups
The winged lion in the Two of Cups is a similar looking symbol. In the RWS version of this card we see a man and a woman meeting one another on equal ground, their cups held out in front of them. Hovering just over their heads is a red lion’s head with two wings protruding from each side. In 78 Degrees of Wisdom, Rachel Pollack writes that the lion represents sexuality and the wings Spirit. The Two of Cups is about mutual attraction and the early stages of romance or friendship.
The winged lion in the Two of Cups reminds us that every relationship is an opportunity to grow. When two people merge, they can produce something that is even better than what they would have achieved alone. In this sense, relationships help you ascend to a higher version of yourself. Even the ones that don’t turn out so well impart valuable information about who you are, and who you are becoming. The Caduceus of Hermes emerges from beneath the winged lions head as a symbol of healing. It reminds us of the power of human connection and love has in the healing trauma, pain, and ego wounds.
Is the winged lion the Two of Cups also symbolic of the Egyptian sun god Ra?
Neither Pamela Colman-Smith nor Arthur Edward Waite are explicitly clear. I will point out, however, that the lion is connected to the sun by virtue of Leo, the zodiacal sign ruled by the sun. Based on that, one could interpret the red lion head as reference to the sun. There’s also the interesting juxtaposition of the intertwined snakes next to the lion’s head. As Ra travelled the Underworld his foe, Apep, took the form of a snake.
How does this deepen our understanding of the Two of Cups?
It teaches us that relationships can be a battle of good and evil. Our lovers are capable of drawing out of us both our very best, and our very worst, selves. They function as a mirror of who we are on the inside, particularly the shadowy parts that we don’t see. Those shadows come out in our rawest, most vulnerable moments – the moments that an intimate partner is usually witness to.
But it’s also likely that this symbol has nothing to do with Egyptian sun gods. According to Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin in Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot, the imagery of the Two of Cups is inspired by Act 1, Scene IV of Romeo and Juliet where Mercutio says: “You are a lover; borrow Cupid’s wings, and soar with them a common bound.” The red wings in this card refer to Cupid’s wings. The lion’s head refers to the lust inspired by mutual attraction.
Pamela Colman Smith also took inspiration from the Sola Busca Tarot, one of the earliest known Tarots to come out of Renaissance-era Italy. The Two of Cups of the RWS is based on the Two of Amphorae in the Sola Busca, pictured on the left. As you can see, the Cupid pointing his bow and arrow at the viewer very much resembles the winged lion in the Two of Cups. It’s likely that the image of the lions head with its wings has nothing to do with the story of Ra and his sun boat.
Based on this interpretation, the winged lion in the Two of Cups is a symbolic representation of our lusty animal passions elevated by Cupid’s love.
King of Swords
Finally, we return to the King of Swords, the very card that opened up this line of inquiry. The round, circular face wedged between two wings on the King of Sword’s crown seems to combine the imagery of the sun disk and the lion’s head. There isn’t much to be found on the internet by way of where this symbol comes from and what it is meant to represent. But that doesn’t stop us from guessing.
Vivien Ni Dhuinn of Truly Teach Me Tarot describes this symbol as a “winged spirit… connecting this man to the element of Air and his ability to rise above any issue or event that comes his way.” I agree. While looking at the winged face on the King of Sword’s crown, it occurred to me that he uses his intellect to rise above his emotions.
For some people, the human capacity for rational thinking is what gives us greater importance over animals in the hierarchical order of the Universe. If we are interested in rendering a non-biased judgement, as the King of Swords is, some emotional detachment is required. As a Court Card, the King of Swords represents someone who is indifferent to the longings of the heart or the dictates of fear. Rather than just see his point of view, his goal is to understand where everyone else is coming from.
The winged face spans the width of the King of Sword’s forehead. This reminds us that mastering the realm of Air requires us to be mindful of our words and the effect that they have on others. This brings to mind the Buddhist concept of “Right Speech.” If the intention is to hurt, it’s best not to speak. When the intention is to help, sometimes we need to modify our speech and say things that won’t be taken the wrong way. Right speech means that we are speaking with the welfare of others in mind. For me, this is very much in keeping with the idea of elevated speech.
CLICK HERE TO BOOK A READING WITH ME.