Sources of the Waite/Smith Tarot Symbols by Robert V. O'Neill The Chariot

The Chariot

Solid CubeLeviT de MarseilleT d Mantegna
Four pillarsLeviT de MarseilleV di Madrone
Starred CanopyLeviV di Madrone
Shield on FrontLeviT de MarseilleCary Sheet
Lingham & YoniLevi
Winged DiskLevi
Black/White SphinxesLevi
Egyptian HeaddressesLevi
Laurel WreatheParisian
MatureLeviT de MarseilleVisconti-Sforza
Circle/star tiaraLevi
Scepter in Right HandLeviT de MarseilleVisconti-Sforza
Moons on ShouldersLeviT de Marseille
BreastplateLeviT de MarseilleT d Mantegna
Square on chestLevi


  1. The river in the background may represent another of the Four Rivers from Eden (Empress, Emperor, Chariot, Death).

  2. The primary source for this card is the Chariot card drawn by Eliphas Levi (1856, Dogme et rituale de la haute magie) which can be seen in Waite’s “Transcendental Magic” on page 389. But there are also fine details that appear to be taken from Wirth’s card, e.g., the positions of the Charioteer’s hands and the crowns on the sphinxes. Notice that the square front of the chariot plus the triangle formed by the Charioteers head and hands represents a septernary - possibly indicating that the Chariot card completes the first septernary of the trumps.

  3. The source for the stars on the canopy is probably Freemasonry. Many Lodges have the ceiling of the meeting room painted to represent the sky. The significance is suggested by Webb 1818. The Freemason’s Monitor (Kessinger Reprint) p. 36: “Here...we receive instruction relative to the form, supports, covering ...of a lodge...From east to west Freemasonry extends...its dimensions are unlimited and its ‘covering’ no less that the canopy of heaven. To this object the mason’s mind is continually directed and thither he hopes at last to arrive...”

  4. Levi describes the Charioteer as having “3 superimposed squares” on his breastplate. The square that Levi refers to is probably not the four-sided figure, but the Masonic Square - a right angle with 2 equal arms. The Masonic degree of Master uses 3 squares as part of its symbolism. Levi’s image of the Chariot is not at all clear, but it is possible that the three overlapping squares are represented with the point of the right angle pointed up and fastened to the breastplate by a number of rivets.

    The “3 superimposed squares” do not appear to be represented on the Waite/Smith card. But there is an outside possibility that they are represented by the white square on the Charioteer’s chest. The square is interpreted as a four-sided figure and the superimposition by the fact tht the three additive primary colors produce white light.

  5. The square may also be a reference to the Tattwa for earth (Francis King - Magic, The Western Tradition, Fig 54 and p 26, and Israel Regardie - The Golden Dawn, pp 456-8). The possibility is made stronger by similar Tattwa-like forms on the chest of Justice and Temperance. The possibility is made weaker by the fact that the earth Tattwa should be yellow in color.

  6. In the GD system, the Chariot is assigned to the Hebrew letter Cheth which means a fence or enclosure; this may be the source for the enclosed or walled city in the background. However, see The Fool, footnote 6 for a caveat about assuming that the Hebrew letters can be found in the Waite-Smith designs.

  7. In the GD system, Chariot is assigned to Cancer ruled by the Moon. The symbols for Cancer and the Moon appear on the sword belt around the Charioteer’s waist. This may also account for the moons on the shoulders

  8. The symbol in the shield on front of the chariot is a Hindu symbol which, like the Chinese yin-yang, represents duality and unity: the erect male penis (lingam) penetrating the female genitals (yoni). Perhaps it refers to the sexual maturity of the Charioteer, having completed the first third of the journey.

  9. Above the shield is a winged orb. Waite shows a similar symbol on page 157 and 183 of “The Secret Tradition in Freemasonry.” In the first instance he calls it an Egyptian symbol, and in the second instance he calls it the “Winged Wheel of the Spirit.” He offers no further comments, but given the presence of two examples in this book, Waite probably associated the symbol with Freemasonry.

  10. Much of the symbolism in Levi’s card probably comes from Plato:

    "As to the soul's...nature...Let it be likened to...a team of winged steeds and their...charioteer...Now of the is good and the other is not...He that is on the more honorable side (that is, the right side) is upright and clean-limbed, carrying his neck high, with something of a crooked nose; in color, he is WHITE with black eyes; a lover of glory, but with temperance and modesty; one that consorts with genuine renown, and needs no whip, being driven by the word of command alone. The other is crooked of frame, a massive jumble of a creature, with thick short neck, snub nose, BLACK skin, and gray eyes; hot-blooded, consorting with wantonness and vainglory; shaggy of ear, deaf, and hard to control with whip and goad. Now when the driver beholds the person of the beloved...the obedient steed, constrained now as always by modesty, refrains from leaping upon the beloved. But his fellow, heeding no more the driver's goad or whip, leaps and dashes on, sorely troubling his companion and his driver...."

    "For a while they struggle...the driver's memory goes back to that form of beauty, and he sees her one again enthroned by the side of temperance upon her holy seat; then in awe and reverence he falls back upon his back, and therewith is compelled to pull the reins so violently that he brings both steeds down on their haunches, the good one willing and unresistant, but the wanton sore against his will..." Phaedrus, 246-254 (E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, eds., The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Princeton University Press, 1961).

  11. It's not clear that Waite understood this source for Levi's image. Waite/Smith reversed the position of the black/white sphinxes and lost the good/evil expressions on their faces to something more like happy/sad. Nevertheless, the following is from Waite's translation of Levi's Transcendental Magic; Its doctrine and ritual, George Redway, 1896. I am quoting from the pirated version published by Occult Publishing House, Chicago, 1910, Kessinger Reprint, p 77:

    • "...represented in the Tarot by a crowned warrior...posed upon a cube, to which two sphinxes are harnessed, straining in opposite directions, while their heads are turned the same way." (That is, they are looking at the same object of desire but pulling the chariot in contradictory directions.)

    • p 380: "A double sphinx or two sphinxes joined at the lower parts are harnessed to the chariot; they are pulling in opposite directions, but one is turning his head so that they are looking in the same direction. The sphinx with head turned is black, the other is white."

Based on original research by Robert V. O'Neill. To add to this collection of information, please email Robert V. O'Neill.

The Fool
The Magician
The High Priestess
The Empress
The Emperor
The Hierophant
The Lovers
The Chariot
The Hermit
Wheel of Fortune
The Hanged Man
The Devil
The Tower
The Star
The Moon
The Sun
The World
Introduction to Sources of the Waite/Smith Tarot Symbols

Additional Tarot History Resources Related to
Sources of the Waite/Smith Tarot Symbols

Holly's Rider-Waite Site A. E. Waite
The Hermitage: A Tarot History Site Villa Revak