Had Omar Khayyam been a tarotist, he might have said something like “The moving Wheel spins, and having spun, moves on.” Until fairly recently, the usual interpretation of the Wheel of Fortune was predominantly positive, given its astrological correspondence to the planet Jupiter, known as “the Greater Benefic.” A sampling of keywords yields “Destiny; fortune; success; elevation; luck; felicity” (Waite); “Good fortune, success, increase” (Gray); “Good fortune, happiness (within bounds)” (Golden Dawn); “Destiny, good fortune, turn for the better” (Case). Aleister Crowley gave a justification that sheds some light on this benevolent bias: “Change of fortune. (This generally means good fortune because the fact of consultation implies anxiety or discontent.)” In other words, in the querent’s mind there’s nowhere to go but up.
The mantra among modern purveyors of tarot wisdom is that the Wheel of Fortune must be ambivalent because “there are no good or bad cards.” In other words, one’s luck will most certainly change, but it might just as easily turn sour as sweeten ones lot in life. This catholicity of expression may seem to be a holistic necessity, but it discards generations of practice built on the assumption that Jupiter is one of the good guys that invariably “bring good things to life.” The only basis I can find for such a noncommittal viewpoint is that achieving the promised “destiny” doesn’t necessarily mean being granted one’s fondest wish. There is a definite quality of “reaping what you have sown” to it, exemplified by the next card, Justice, in Waite’s model of the series.
The directional rotation of the Wheel is interesting. Given its numerological association to the the Sun card (19 = 1+9 = 10), one can be forgiven for assuming that the spin of the Wheel would be in a clockwise direction to echo the diurnal motion of the Sun. However the “holy living creatures” of Ezekiel’s vision that are placed at the corners of the card represent the fixed signs of the zodiac, and thus follow the seasonal (counterclockwise) zodiacal order from the lower left. The moving figures clinging to the rim of the Wheel are similarly oriented, with the stationary Sphinx at the top also faced accordingly. This clearly reflects a long-haul proposition and not an instance of immediate gratification.
Undeniably, there is a bittersweet feel to the idea of seasonal change. The image of the Wheel strongly suggests the lyrics to the Joni Mitchell song, The Circle Game:
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
All we can do is wait patiently until we come out on the “upside” of the year (or the situation) once again. On balance, though, I’m inclined to see the operation of the Wheel of Fortune as more affirmative than neutral or negative in any reading, unless the cards following it are especially dire. Even then I can envision an ameliorating effect to its influence that will most likely “soften the blow,” if only by presenting a moving target to the forces of chaos that invites a glancing poke rather than a knockout punch. Arrayed against Minor Arcana cards, this benefit would be more pronounced, while it would be less observable when countered by other trump cards of an antithetical nature, since at its most impersonal Jupiter can exaggerate anything with which it engages, for either good or evil. Reversed, the Wheel of Fortune implies being stuck in a rut, or having to repeat past experiences and lessons.