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R-W-S Images/G.D. Meanings 4

November 21, 2019

by Tony Willis            

The Pentacles Spot Cards

Waite tells us that on the Waite-Smith 2 of Pentacles we find depicted the following: “A young man in the act of dancing, has a pentacle in either hand, and they are joined by that endless cord which is like the number eight reversed.” The number eight represented here is more on its side, assuming the form of the lemniscate. Waite, for reasons of his own, doesn’t make the connection explicit. The sea behind the young man is greatly disturbed, the ships upon it tossed as though by a tempest.

To the G.D. this card was a symbol of Change, described variously as Harmonious Change or a Pleasant Change. It might also signify “visit to friends, and the like” which sounds very much like a break in routine.

However, the Waite-Smith image hardly suggests Harmonious Change nor does it indicate any of the other meanings the Golden Dawn has for the card. Although the image does hint at Change, from the visual indications it would appear to be an extremely precarious change that is being forecast; or one that is difficult to sustain, if the young man is presumed to be juggling with the coins, for if that is the case, he might at any moment fumble one.

2-of-pentacles-rider-waite-tarot       pentacles 3

The image on the 3 of Pentacles presents us with an ecclesiastical setting. A stone mason is working on an arch while near at hand a monk and another man who holds architectural plans are in conference. In the upper part of the card, three pentacles have been carved into the fabric of the building as decoration.

The G.D. meanings for the card are: “Business, paid employment. Commercial transactions. The realisation and increase of material things, increase of substance or influence, cleverness in business, commencement of a matter to be established later.” Furthermore, they assign it the title Lord of Material Works, which Dion Fortune helpfully translates into "activity on the plane of form."

It is hard to see any part of the Golden Dawn meanings reflected in the Waite-Smith image unless it be Paid Employment, for one can assume that the stone mason will be remunerated for his labor. In fact, so far as the Golden Dawn meanings are concerned, the symbolism goes no further than depicting the elementary concept of Material Works; the rest – paid employment, commencement of a matter to be established later, et al – have all gone into the discard.

Waite describes the 4 of Pentacles in these words: “A crowned figure, having a pentacle over his crown, clasps another with hands and arms; two pentacles are under his feet. He holds to that which he has.”

In G.D. terms, the card signifies: “Gain of money and/or influence. A gift or present. Skill in directing material forces. Assured material gain.” They give it the title Lord of Earthly Power. The image speaks well enough of the latter meaning (earthly power), in the sense that money talks and the figure on the card appears to be brimming over with coins. But visually the crowned individual is already in possession of money and the influence that goes with great wealth whereas the G.D. meaning for the card is of money and influence coming to the inquirer; and at the same time, the idea of a Present heading the inquirer’s way or of Skill in directing material forces are not to be detected in the picture the Waite-Smith deck offers us.

pentacles 4      pentacles 5

Waite’s brief assessment of the image on the 5 of Pentacles is: “Two mendicants in a snow-storm pass a lighted casement.” One of the beggars is a cripple. In the building they are passing is a stained-glass window wherein representations of five pentacles and three roses can be discerned.

The G.D. named the card Lord of Material Trouble and the Waite-Smith image sums up that phrase admirably. However, as well the title of the card, the G.D. assigned a host of meanings to the 5 of Pentacles when appearing as part of a divination: “Loss of profession; loss of business (meaning loss of trade). Monetary anxiety. Loss of money or position. Trouble concerning material things. When very well dignified: money regained after severe toil and labour.” This last, more positive, meaning for the card cannot be read from the Waite-Smith design. And most of the other significances – loss of profession, business losses, trouble concerning material things, which can point to such matters as hold-ups with property repairs – though they could be intuited by the reader who has spent time contemplating the image, are notions one would struggle to arrive at unless one was already conversant with the meanings the G.D. assigned to the card.

The 6 of Pentacles bears an image Waite describes as follows: “A person in the guise of a merchant weighs money in a pair of scales and distributes it to the needy and distressed. It is a testimony to his own success in life, as well as to his goodness of heart.”

As with the previous card, the ascribed image illustrates the G.D. title for the 6 of Pentacles – Lord of Material Success – aptly if crudely. The meanings the G.D. associated with the card are: “Material Success, (reworded as success in material things). Prosperity in business. Gain in material undertakings.”

Yet the symbolism of the Waite-Smith image points in another direction, to receipt of money, possibly as a gift or loan, though these eventualities are not in line with the significances put forward by the Golden Dawn. Most of the Golden Dawn meanings for the card are not highlighted by the vignette on the 6 of Pentacles, Prosperity in Business and Gain in Material Undertakings, for instance. Particularly noticeable by its absence is the latter – Gain in Material Undertakings – since the beggars appear to have expended no effort in order to obtain the coins they receive. The Waite-Smith 6 of Pentacles seems more a card of charity or reliance on the goodwill of others, and that is a common way I see the card being interpreted in readings nowadays.

6 pentacles w-s     pentacles 7

In the 7 of Pentacles we have “A young man, leaning on his staff, looks intently at seven pentacles attached to a clump of greenery on his right; one would say that these were his treasures and that his heart was there.” Or so Waite describes it in The Key to the Tarot.

The Golden Dawn understood the card to represent: “Unprofitable speculations or employments; also honorary work un­dertaken for the love of it, and without desire of reward. Little gain for much labour. Promises of success unfulfilled. Loss of apparently promis­ing fortune. Some­times it denotes slight and isolated gains with no fruits resulting therefrom, and of no further account, though seeming to promise well.” This is a wide range of meanings, hardly any of which can be drawn out from the Waite-Smith image. When this card was designed, Waite evidently had it in mind to illustrate other meanings than those advanced by the G.D. One of his sources gives the meanings for the 7 of Pentacles as “money, business, barter.” These are suggested by the picture: if Pentacles are taken as synonymous with coins, then money is growing on plant the young man is regarding so intently; and if the Pentacles are thought of as the fruit of the tree then the farmer can exchange that fruit for money or other goods, the first action being good business, the second a transaction based on the barter system. All well and good so long as one subscribes to those particular meanings for the card. But they are not the G.D. meanings and nor are they the other types of meaning Waite tells us were associated with the card in his day, these being: altercation and quarrel by one faction and innocence, ingenuity and purgation by another.

What is the Waite-Smith image assigned to the 8 of Pentacles? An artisan in his workshop engraves a pentagram on a circular piece of metal (though Waite declares it to be stone). Six other examples of his handiwork hang on the wooden doorframe. Another stands by his workbench and an eighth lies on the floor beside him.

As well as naming the card Lord of Prudence, the G.D. gave it the meanings: “Skill, prudence, but also artfulness and cunning (depending on the cards associated with it.) Gain of ready money in small sums. Skill in material affairs.” The image aptly illustrates the ideas Skill and Artfulness, where the latter does not encompass Cunning, Trickery. It also conveys proficiency in practical matters, a meaning the astute taromancer will be able to convert into the G.D.’s “skill in material affairs”, by which the Order intended to be understood “cleverness with money, generally, by not always, in a business context”. What is not conveyed by the Waite-Smith picture are the meanings “gain of ready money in small sums”, “prudence”, and the negative side of the card, “cunning”.

pentacles 8     pentacles 9

For the 9 of Pentacles, the Waite-Smith deck presents us with the following image: “A woman with a bird upon her wrist, stands amidst a great abundance of grapevines in the garden of a manorial house. It is a wide domain, suggesting plenty in all things. Possibly it is her own possession and testifies to material well-being.”

Without the aid of Waite’s description, the image on its own does not bring to mind any of the approved Golden Dawn meanings: “Much increase of money or of goods. Complete realisation of material gain. Inheritance, legacy.” The woman on the card is not shown about to receive valuables or a legacy. On the contrary she appears to be already in receipt of money or something of worth as she is clearly a lady of leisure.

10 pentacles w-s

Waite describes the image on the 10 of Pentacles in this way: “A man and woman beneath an archway which gives entrance to a house and domain. They are accompanied by a child, who looks curiously at two dogs accosting an ancient personage seated in the foreground. The child’s hand is on one of them.” The obscurantist in Waite does not allow him to pass on to his readers the information that, superimposed on the scene, are ten pentacles set out so as to represent the spheres of the Tree of Life.

To the G.D., the card was the Lord of Wealth and denoted “Riches and wealth. Business prospers. Completion of material gain and fortune, but nothing beyond.” While, so long as one knows that the card’s overall meaning is Wealth, one can use the Waite-Smith image as a mnemonic to call to mind the interleaved concepts of Riches, Wealth and Material Prosperity, this nexus of ideas could surely have been better represented. Why did Waite choose this image, or, if it emanates from the imagination of Pamela Coleman Smith’s, on what grounds did Waite approve it? Waite is silent on this point.

While allowing Gain and Wealth as possible meanings for the card in The Key to the Tarot, Waite also furnishes his reader with other meanings for the card that vary between “family matters, archives, extraction, [and] the abode of the family”, or simply a house or dwelling. Of these family matters, the family home or more abstractly a house can be drawn out from the illustration. So can gain and wealth if the suit symbols are read in an elementary way; for where Pentacles stand in place of Coins, the 10 of Coins is the highest number of coins available in the deck and therefore epitomizes financial abundance. These various ways of looking at the symbolism still leave “archives” and “extraction” out in the cold.


My objective in this article has been to dispel the illusion some people are under that the illustrations on the Waite-Smith spot cards reflect the meanings the Golden Dawn assigned to those cards. Due to the fact that Waite was a member of the Golden Dawn (before going on to found his own mystical order), and not only Waite, but Pamela Coleman Smith as well, it is sometimes assumed that the pictures must somehow convey the G.D. significances. As we have seen, this is hardly ever the case. The furthest the pictures go in that direction is that several of them epitomize the G.D.’s mystical title for the card – the 10of Wands, 2 of Cups, 3 of Swords, and 4 and 5 of Pentacles for example – even if one is required to scrutinize the image with great thoroughness in order to find the link.

Waite made the decision to have the illustrations for the spot cards encompass as many disparate meanings as possible. Goodness knows why. There could be many reasons for his decision and I am not going to speculate. What is certain is that this was his intention. There is a humungous problem with this approach – there are only so many incongruent meanings that can be incorporated into a single image. The strategy is most effective where the meanings agree or at least are consonant. According to my count, this occurs only eight times among the thirty-six spots. The best examples are the 8 of Pentacles and the 4 of Swords. For the former, Waite lists these meanings: “Work, employment, commission [a commission to carry out a piece of work], craftsman, skill in craft and business.” All these attributes are connoted by the picture on the Waite-Smith card or can be extracted from it with relative ease. For the latter card, Waite supplies the meanings: “Vigilance, retreat, solitude, hermit’s repose, exile, tomb and coffin.” Of these, “vigilance” is the most obscure – until one links the representation of a knight atop the tomb with the vigil every candidate for the accolade was expected to carry out overnight in a church back in the days of chivalry. Sure, one has to come at this meaning by a convoluted thought process, but the other meanings are pretty much embedded in the details of the picture and therefore come to mind almost instantly.

Although all this goes out of the window when it come to reversals. In Waite’s day, a spot card’s meaning in reverse might have nothing to do with its upright meaning. Note, in this regard, that the 8 of Pentacles in reverse was taken to signify, variously, “voided ambition, vanity, cupidity, extraction, usury.” While Vanity, Cupidity, Extraction and Usury are all money-oriented terms, they are neither the opposite of the upright meanings nor extensions of them. The same condition pertains in the case of the 4 of Swords, where the reversed meanings given by Waite are “Wise administration, circumspection, economy, avarice, precaution, testament.” Evidently one tarot savant saw the 4 of Swords as a reflection of The Hermit card from the Major Arcana. This accounts for the 4 of Swords being assigned the upright meanings “retreat, solitude, hermit’s repose” and even “exile” – all concepts that have been associated over the years with Trump 9. It also accounts for such reversed meanings for the 4 of Swords as “circumspection” and “precaution” since these, too, have been consistently linked to the Hermit since at least the time of the French Occult Revival in the nineteenth century, although they have tended to be attached to Trump 9 when upright.

In Waite’s day, if one set oneself the task of memorizing the spot card meanings, the absence of any reasonable  link between the upright and reversed significances made the effort all the more onerous.

Little wonder that over the past fifty years students of the tarot have taken to interpreting the Waite-Smith pictures rather than bothering to learn any set of meanings whatsoever. And yet, Golden Dawn teaching was that the student should learn the significances of all seventy-eight cards by heart and not until that feat had been accomplished would the tarot speak truly to them.

In my next articles I intend to describe some divinations made using the G.D. meanings for the cards. As the Waite-Smith pictures so often lead the mind away from the sanctioned G.D. meanings, I will illustrate these articles with examples from Tarot de Marseille-type decks.

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