The Turning Wheel of Terror-Joy.

From the Mary-El Tarot

I’ve been thinking a lot about this card lately. I feel quietly detached from my problems (and my joys, for that matter) when I consider my life in its terms.

The Wheel rules all things (in this world). We are bound to it, tethered to its ups and downs as time rolls along.

Fortune can seem a fickle lady

I would say the motto of Dame Fortuna is “What goes up, must come down,” and of course, vice-versa. Perhaps even better would be “Everything comes full-circle.”

To some extent, I see this as a card of reaping what is sown, especially in a cosmic, karmic sense, but that is a bit misleading. Karma implies a degree of personal responsibility. The Wheel turns for everyone, though, whether they work to fulfill their karmic duty (dharma, if I’m not mistaken) or not.*


It’s the unfortunate truth: to live is to suffer, and sometimes, no matter how good you are, you have to endure the crushing weight of the bottom of the Wheel. It happens. But you are also guaranteed some time at the top, too, and the message of the Wheel is that, though times seem tough, bad luck can’t last forever.

Joseph Campbell called the mythic cyclical concept the “turning wheel of terror-joy”, to which we are all bound.** It’s life, plain and simple. We all have spells of good and poor fortune. We all have our ups and downs. It never stops turning.

Riddles in the Dark
– the Hobbit Tarot


As the 10th card in the Major Arcana, the Wheel of Fortune is located very near the middle. It’s almost as if it’s the axis about which everything else in the pack revolves. If you subscribe to the Fool’s Journey interpretation of the cards, this is roughly the point when the Fool leaves the light of day behind and begins his great tribulation. In this sense, the Wheel suggests a critical turning point in one’s life.

When the Wheel of Fortune turns up in my readings, I generally take it as a positive omen. Most folks agree that this card usually portends good fortune. Given the ups and downs of its actual implications, though, it is wise to check what the cards around it have to say before you assume Lady Fortune is about to smile upon you.

This card tends to put things in perspective for me, and that’s the ultimate lesson I take from it, regardless of whether it brings good or bad news. It admonishes me not to take my good luck for granted, and to take my bad luck with faith and humility.


The Wheel is an apt metaphor for Time. It’s a fairly popular cosmological motif the world over. Our universe appears to be ruled by cycles. The seasons revolve, the heavens rotate, and history repeats itself. In the RWS, the Wheel of Fortune foreshadows the World with its distinctive imagery. The World represents enlightened consciousness attained at the end of the journey. The Wheel of Fortune offers a glimpse from the halfway point. To see the whole thing, you need to take a step or two back.*** It is a grand perspective, and it’s a good perspective to keep in mind if you’re playing the long game. Ultimately, all it takes to get from the bottom to the top is time.****

The Wheel can also be considered a metaphor for the whole Tarot deck, and not just the single card within. It’s a symbol that requires you to consider ideas like fortune and fate, which are questions all diviners must face eventually.



*I think the actual “reap-what-you-sow” card is probably Judgement, or possibly Justice. I haven’t written much about either of those cards yet, though, so we’ll see what I come up with when the time comes to really dig into them. The Wheel of Fortune is karmic more in the sense that, until your soul attains unity with Brahman, you are stuck on the ever-turning wheel of birth, death, and reincarnation.

**See Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God series, particularly Creative Mythology, page 405. Interestingly, the chapter in which it appears focuses more on motifs associated with the Hanged Man than the Wheel of Fortune.

***I do not think it is mere coincidence that the Wheel of Fortune follows the Hermit in the Major Arcana.

****The main difference between the Wheel and the World is that the individual is on the outside looking in (or the rim) in the former and in the center (or the hub) in the latter, where the spinning has ceased to have effect, and unity with all is achieved. Seen in this light, the goal should actually not be to climb to the top (from which you are doomed to fall back down again, like Sisyphus’ boulder), but to remove yourself from the oscillation altogether. Again, these ideas are examined in great detail in Campbell’s Creative Mythology in the sub-chapter about the turning Wheel of Terror-Joy (and it is the morbidly entertaining juxtaposition of “terror” and “joy” that won the spot as the title of this post).


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