The oldest known Wheel of Fortune Tarot card is, unsurprisingly, also the closest to conventional, non-Tarot versions of that motif. Like Carmina Burana
, it places Fortuna at the center of the wheel, has a dais and throne at the top, and labels the four figures with the same Latin mottos: I reign, I have reigned, I have no reign, I shall reign
. Like the Miélot version
, it portrays Fortuna as winged and blindfolded. It also features a milder version of the transformations seen in the Dürer version
: While all four figures are basically human, the one ascending has small ass's ears, the one at the top has a larger pair, and the one descending has an ass's tail.
We now come to this version's own peculiarities. The figure under the wheel is an old man with a long, white beard, dressed in white rags. He is neither grasping the wheel nor even attempting to do so, nor is he being crushed by it. Rather, he is on his hands and knees, supporting the wheel on his back. One gets the impression that he is not part of the cycle -- that while the other three figures rise and fall, he remains where he is, supporting them all. This may be the meaning of his great age: that, unlike the others, he has been in his position since time immemorial.
The other three figures are all children with golden curls, differing only in the color of their clothing and the nature of their asinine features. (So again, this is clearly not a "life cycle" from childhood to old age.) The ascending child is dressed in green trimmed with white, perhaps symbolizing hope and inexperience, and has ass's ears. The one at the top also has ass's ears and is dressed in cloth of gold; he lacks the traditional crown and scepter but does appear to be holding an orb or globus cruciger in his right hand. (I can't make out what, if anything, is in his left.) The combination of gold, ass's ears, and royal status brings to mind the legend of King Midas. The descending child, sporting an ass's tail, is dressed in red trimmed with gold. These are autumnal colors, and in fact the whole color scheme suggests the cycle of the seasons -- but if the correspondence is intentional, we are left to wonder why Autumn is no older than Spring, and why Winter doesn't appear to be revolving on the wheel with the others.
What of Midas Junior there at the top of the wheel? Is he revolving? His similarity to the ascending and descending children suggests that he is part of the same cycle, but there is the problem of the platform or dais on which he is seated. (The Carmina Burana version raises the same question.) Is it attached to the wheel? If so, it is only by chance that it currently happens to be at the top. Rotate the Wheel 90 degrees, and there will be a dais and throne projecting from its side, while the new king, throneless, will have to content himself with sitting on the rim of the wheel itself, as in the Miélot and Dürer versions. But if the dais is not fixed to the wheel, it seems that the king could sit there indefinitely, unperturbed by the rotation of the wheel -- whereas the whole point of the traditional Wheel of Fortune motif is that everyone's station in life is unstable, liable to change at a moment's notice. Perhaps when the rising child reaches the throne, he will push its current occupant off, and back onto the wheel. Or perhaps only the children in red and green are revolving, and they visit the poor old man and the child king in turn as they do so.
In its earliest usage, the term rota fortunae referred to the zodiac, and with the Tarot of Marseille it resumes its character as a literal zodiac -- ζῳδιακός κύκλος, "cycle of little animals." The figures on the wheel are no longer human but have become creatures whose exact identity is not very clear, but which are traditionally identified as a dog, a sphinx, and a monkey. The clothes they are still wearing betray their origins as human-animal hybrids along the lines of those seen in the Dürer woodcut and the Visconti-Sforza card. (The monkey's flaring skirt, in particular, calls to mind the dress of its human counterpart on the Visconti-Sforza card.) Presumably repeated copyings have gradually distorted the figures to the point that they have entirely lost their human character.
The influence, more or less direct, of Dürer on this image would be hard to deny. The wheel is mounted on a stand, turned by a crank; there are only three figures on it, rather than the more conventional four; Fortuna herself is not depicted; and, unlike every other Wheel we have looked at save Dürer's only, it rotates counterclockwise, so that the ascending figure is on the right and the descending one on the left.
Another artist who seems to make his presence felt in this image is Hieronymus Bosch. Looking at the dog on the right side of the wheel, we notice a few strange things about it. In addition to its frock-like garment, it is wearing a collar -- as dogs generally do -- but, bizarrely, the collar is worn over the dog's ears, so that the ears protrude behind it. Another oddity is the tail, with a tuft of fur at the end, looking less like a dog's tail than a lion's (or, given the probable history of the image, an ass's). Where else can we find such a singular-looking dog? In Bosch's painting The Conjurer, painted a century and a half before the first Tarot de Marseille.
In Bosch's painting, it is clear that the "ears" are behind the collar of the dog's garment because they belong to the garment itself rather than to the dog. The tail is tufted like a lion's, presumably because it has been shaved that way. A further "coincidence" can be seen in the hoop next to the dog, suggesting the Wheel. Some critics have even identified the other creature, the one in the conjurer's basket, as a monkey, but this is a mistake. The reappearance of this pair in the central panel of Bosch's St. Anthony Triptych leaves no room for doubt that it is a barn owl.
Of course, the fact that Bosch intended the creature in the basket to be an owl does not rule out its influence on the Tarot de Marseille. If modern art critics have sometimes mistaken it for a monkey, the cardmakers of Marseille could just as easily have done the same. (Remember that we are operating under the assumption that even manifest errors in the transmission of tradition are potentially inspired.) At the time the Tarot de Marseille was created, the St. Anthony Triptych was most likely in either Spain or Portugal, while at least one version of The Conjurer was likely in France, so it makes sense that the French cardmakers would have known only the latter work, with its ambiguous owl-monkey.
The origin of the sphinx at the top of the wheel is uncertain, but its crown and cape suggest that it is derived from the king typically depicted in this position, having become a quadruped under the influence of Dürer's ass. (The ass's tail could easily be misinterpreted as a lion's) The cape may also be a distortion of what was originally a throne, or perhaps a pair of wings. The sword it holds in its left hand is an innovation, with no precedents of which I am aware, though I would not be at all surprised to discover that some pre-Tarot Wheel of Fortune pictures show the king so armed. As in the Visconti-Sforza card and Carmina Burana, the figure at the top sits on a platform rather than on the wheel itself, so it is unclear whether or not it is revolving with the others. We might also note that this figure is not exactly a conventional sphinx, which should have a human face with the body (including forelimbs) of a lion. The figure on the Marseille card is able to hold a sword, which would not be possible if it had a lion's paws, and its face looks more like the monkey's than like any of the other human faces in the Tarot. Its blue color is also something of an enigma, but color schemes vary so much among different decks that it would be hard to draw any conclusions from it.
French authors generally understand the dog, sphinx, and monkey to be symbols of submission, accomplishment, and decadence, respectively. Valentin Tomberg, on the other hand, sees in them symbols of the various relationships which may hold between the human and animal elements in our nature: The dog "represents animality aspiring to union with humanity"; the sphinx, "animality and humanity united"; the monkey, "the process of the animalization of humanity" (Meditations on the Tarot, 10th letter). The sphinx is thus seen as representing the ideal state of affairs, to which we should aspire -- but we must not forget that it occupies that place on the wheel where Dürer saw fit to put a jackass. A sphinx is, after all, a monster, a grotesque, a hodgepodge of mismatched parts; and it appears rather more sinister than noble as portrayed on the Marseille card.
Taking Tomberg's interpretation as a starting point, we might see in the progression from dog to sphinx to monkey a progressively fine union of man and animal. In the dog we see animal as "man's best friend," man and animal as close companions but still physically distinct. In the sphinx, man and animal are combined in a single body, but each specific part of that body is either all-human or all-animal. In the monkey, the human and animal elements are blended so completely that no separation is possible; each and every part of its body is human-ish but not fully human. (Dürer's version of the Wheel could perhaps also be interpreted in terms of various combinations of spiritual "humanity" and biological "animality"; we might recall that St. Francis of Assisi was in the habit of calling his body "Brother Ass.")
Why do both Dürer and the Marseille cardmakers leave the bottom of the wheel, where the fully human figure ought to be, empty? Because there can be no humanity without some admixture of animality. A man without any animal nature at all is nothing but a ghost, and as such, invisible.