Tag Archives: symbols

The Symbolism of Winged Discs & Heads in Tarot


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!

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

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.

The Chariot

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

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.

Ra in his sun boat. Nut, the sky goddess, arches her back over the boat.

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.

Ra in his Hawk form.

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

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

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.

Sola-Busca Tarot

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

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

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.

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot


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The Fixed Signs of the Zodiac


Universal Waite Tarot

Universal Waite Tarot

There are two cards in the Major Arcana in which a man, an eagle, a bull, and a lion occupy the four corners of the card – the WHEEL OF FORTUNE & THE WORLD. These symbols represent the four fixed signs of the zodiac, as well as the four corners of the physical world:

Man = Aquarius (fixed air)

Eagle = Scorpio (fixed water)

Bull = Taurus (fixed earth)

Lion = Leo (fixed fire)

There are a few differences between the fixed sign zodiac symbols in these cards. In THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE they are shown reading books and wearing wings. We can see their entire bodies. In THE WORLD, we can only see their heads.

What meaning does this bring to the cards?

For me, books are a symbol of learning, and wings symbolize the things to which we aspire to rise. The changes that The Wheel of Fortune brings us represent life lessons. We grow by learning how to adapt to new situations. The books remind us that being better versions of who we were yesterday involves vigilance. As the wheel turns, we are always reviewing, analyzing, and incorporating new information.

THE WORLD is the endpoint in which we have achieved self-realization by integrating the lessons dished out by the Wheel of Fortune. It brings a moment of jubilation in which the limitations of our bodily existence are overcome. We have ascended to our “higher selves,” hence the heads.

This is only my interpretation. Have you ever noticed this difference? What’s your take on its meaning? Feel free to comment below!



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Unpacking the Seven of Cups



Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

Have you ever wondered about what is going on with all those symbols in the SEVEN OF CUPS? I have.

Not too long ago I posted an image of this card into one of my Facebook groups, when someone asked about the meaning of the little skull engraved in the laurel wreath cup. Much to my embarrassment, I had no idea what it meant, which in turn led to the realization that I don’t know much about any of the symbols featured in this card. I thought it would be interesting to find out more about it.

The results of my search led to some interesting insights on possible divinatory meanings for the Seven of Cups.

For me, the Seven of Cups can be about three things:

  • Choices
  • Illusions
  • Inner transformation

The Seven of Cups teaches us how to make good choices.

The Seven of Cups always reminds of what it feels like to walk through the aisles of a grocery store and feel completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of decisions that have to be made before rolling up to the check-out counter. If the inner thoughts of this man were made visible in thought clouds, he’s probably thinking, “Why are there so many different brands of tomato sauce? How many kinds of canned soup can possibly exist??” There are so many decisions to make before he sits down to eat dinner.

The Seven of Cups teaches us that having too many choices can wear us down. We need to learn how to streamline some of our decision-making processes so that we can focus on what is really important. In fact, eliminating certain lower-order decisions is a skill that some very successful people have identified as a key strategy to staying productive.

For example, let’s take a look at two people who have talked about how eliminating certain decisions has contributed to their success.

Think about the wardrobe of Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. He has effectively eliminated the need to decide what to wear in the morning by showing up to work in the same gray t-shirt and jeans everyday. Says he, “I really want to clear my life so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.”

President Barack Obama is another public figure who also wears the same outfit to work day in and day out. He explains: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits… I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Knowing how to distinguish the important decisions from the unimportant ones is one of the lessons that the Seven of Cups imparts to us. There’s only 24 hours in one day. If we are going make something of ourselves, it’s important to prioritize what we need to devote the bulk of our time and energy to. Everything else is a secondary concern.


The Seven of Cups teaches that making certain choices can fundamentally transform us.

In The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Arthur Edward Waite describes the Seven of Cups as, “Strange chalices of vision, but the images are more especially those of the fantastic spirit.” It’s traditional divinatory meanings include: “Fairy favors, images of reflection, sentiment, imagination, things seen in the glass of contemplation.”

“Seven” cards in Tarot always highlight a challenge. Immersed in the watery realm of cups, the challenge of the Seven of Cups lies in distinguishing between fantasy and reality. This idea is represented by a single cloud that holds up all of the cups. The man with his back turned towards us occupies a dream world where he can conjure whatever good things he wants to bring into his life by simply thinking about them. I think of this card as a representation of the ultimate lucid dream in which anything that you want to bring into your realm of experience can materialize with the blink of an eye.

The cups are arranged in two rows, suggesting that we can pursue desires that lead to ephemeral happiness that is built on the acquisition of worldly things, or we can pursue inner growth that leads to a more solid foundation for happiness. Karen Hanmaker-Zondag writes in Tarot as a Way of Life, that “[t]his is a card with two aspects: it warns against wrong desires and against the development of disagreeable character traits of which we are unaware, and on the other hand it reveals a potential for tremendous spiritual and psychological growth and for becoming ourselves.”

The symbols of this card function as a metaphor for the multiple pathways that we can walk down. Some people look for happiness by chasing worldly things like money, status, and power. Hanmaker-Zondag writes that “the lower row can lure us into power play, greed, ambition, or aggression, before we are aware of it…”

The symbols in the lower four cups reflect that.


Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

Being a mythical creature, the DRAGON in the lower right-hand corner suggests that the offerings of the following three cups can provide momentary, fleeting happiness. This includes the pursuit of fame and recognition (LAUREL WREATH), material possessions (JEWELS), and a home fit for a king (CASTLE). These symbols represent the traditional markers of success that people use to measure their worldly success. They are also symbols of temptation and seduction.

The remaining three symbols in the upper row represent higher-order pursuits that can help us discover who we are underneath the social conditioning. They are symbols of expansion and spiritual growth. These are the options that “can lead us to improved contact with our unconscious, to the unobstructed flow of psychic energy, and ultimately to fusion with our inner center, our true being, which is now still under a veil,” writes Hanmaker-Zondag.

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

The central symbol in this card – the MAN COVERED IN A WHITE SHEET – is for me the quintessential symbolic representation of distinguishing the real from the unreal. No, this isn’t Caspar the Friendly Ghost, but a man masquerading as a ghost. Everyday we come across people, places, and things that appear to be one thing, but underneath are really another. With time and experience, we can learn how to look beneath the surface to determine what is real from what is false.

Hamaker-Zondag takes a different view, calling the “Ghost Man” a symbol of “our true, divine center.” Note that this is the only symbol cast in a red glow, suggesting that we should pay extra attention to this guy.


Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

To the left of the center cup sits another cup containing a HEAD. This symbol has always befuddled me, so I rely on what other people have said about its meaning.

Hamaker-Zondag writes that the head is a Jungian symbol of the animus and anima – the opposing forces that we seek to balance within us. When we access our unconscious “other side,” we tap into a source of wisdom that gives us a truer sense of who we are, and what is right for us.

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

In 78 Degrees of Wisdom, Rachel Pollack describes the head as a “god-like face” that represents an archetype of mythology.

While SNAKES are symbols of temptation and sexuality, they also symbolize transformation, rebirth, and psychic energy. When the latter can’t flow freely, mental blockages result.

The Seven of Cups teaches us that personal growth comes from our choices.

Let’s not forget one last symbol – the SKULL etched into the cup that contains the laurel wreath.

According to Marcus Katz and Tali Goodwin in Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot, the skull is a symbol of the second stage in the alchemical transformative process: “Dissolution is pictured as victory in death of the cup next to it.”

Katz and Goodwin argue that the seven cups represent the seven transformative stages of alchemy:

  1. Calcination (Dragon): The destruction of the ego and attachment to the material world.
  2. Dissolution (Laurel wreath in the “Skull” cup): Breaking down the artificial structures of the mind.
  3. Separation (Treasure): Releasing the self-inflicted restraints to our true nature.
  4. Conjunction (Castle): Integrating the yin and yang sides of the psyche into a new belief system.
  5. Fermentation (Snake): The stimulation of chi (or kundalini) to heal and give life.
  6. Distillation (Ghost Man): The higher forces are balanced with the lower ones, providing the “groundedness” needed to be whole.
  7. Coagulation (Perfected Human Being): The final stage, the philosopher’s stone.

The skull on the cup that holds the laurel wreath symbolizes the ego-death that occurs as a

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot

result of the “Dissolution” process. We are continually transforming ourselves, shedding old parts of ourselves to leave behind in the past, just as a snake sheds its skin.

If we read each of the seven cups as a representation of the seven stages in Alchemical transformation, then this card also speaks to the personal growth that comes from the choices we make. Because of Free Will, taking responsibility for the choices that we make in life is an inherent part of what it means to be human. We choose the experiences that we attract into our orbit, and we choose to integrate the soul lessons learned from them.

Questions to ask when the Seven of Cups appears in a reading:

  • What needs to be prioritized?
  • What needs to be placed on the backburner so that I can focus on what is most important?
  • Are my expectations realistic?
  • How can I tell what is real from what is merely an illusion?
  • What internal changes do my choices usher in?

Check out the video below for my take on the Seven of Cups:


Dismore, Joseph D. The 7 Steps in Alchemical Transformation, http://ordosacerdotalvstempli.net/seven.html

Hamaker-Zondag, 1997. Tarot as a Way of Life: A Jungian Approach to the Tarot. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser.

Katz, Marcus and Tali Goodwin, 2015. Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot. Woodbury, MN: Llewelyn Publications.

Pollack, Rachel, 2007. Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. San Francisco, CA: Weiser Books.

Waite, Arthur Edward, 1989. The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser.



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