Il Carro/Le Chariot/The Chariot
For thousands of years, Roman victory parades, Renaissance triumphal processions, and twentieth-century ticker tape parades have honored royalty, victorious generals and people of outstanding achievement. The game of Trionfi/Tarocchi/Tarot was modelled on the type of triumphal parades that seized the public’s imagination in the fifteenth century. The tarot Chariot card is a direct reference to these parades. Let’s start by putting it in the context of victory parades throughout history.
Chariots and Parades in History
For two thousand years, in the Bronze and Iron Ages, the ultimate war machine was a chariot with horses, driver and archer performing as a coordinated unit. Alexander the Great ended the era of the war chariot in 331 BCE when his mobile cavalry defeated Persian chariots. After retiring from the battlefield, chariots became status symbols that conveyed the elite in ceremonial processions.
The Renaissance parades that inspired the game of Tarot were modelled on the triumphal parades granted to Roman generals whose military feats expanded the borders of the empire. The victorious conqueror was pulled through the streets of Rome in a chariot drawn by four white horses and surrounded by hundreds of soldiers. High-status captives were bound and displayed on carts, while other carts were piled with looted treasure.
In the Middle Ages, parades lost their military flavor. Holy relics were paraded through the streets in popular religious processions. Christmas, Corpus Christi and other religious festivals were occasions for joyous parades with music, incense, and enactments of the lives of saints.
When the game of Trionfi was invented in the 1430s, triumphal parades were reaching their pinnacle as dazzling displays of courtly magnificence and personal aggrandizement. Alfonso V of Aragon celebrated his entry into Naples in 1443 as its king and conqueror with a triumphal parade designed to awe the public with its wealth and splendor. This parade set the standard for all the ones that followed, with a level of wretched excess that few other rulers could emulate, although many tried.
As the Middle Ages transitioned into the Renaissance in the mid-fourteenth century, one literary work directly inspired the future tarot trumps.
Petrarch’s Triumphal Parade
The poem I Trionfi by Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) tells of his love for the unattainable Laura (much like Dante tells of his love for the unattainable Beatrice in the Divine Comedy) as well as his vision of six allegorical figures (Love, Chastity, Death, Time, Fame and Eternity). Petrarch’s unique contribution is having each figure triumph over the one that precedes it; just as in the card game each trump card captures the lower-numbered cards that precede it. Petrarch’s triumphal parade was a cultural phenomenon. Artists reproduced Petrarch’s triumphs in tapestries, illustrated books, furniture, and wall frescos. Just as Disney has stamped his vision of Snow White and Cinderella on our collective imagination, Petrarch permanently altered how people envisioned parades.
The artist Pesellino illustrated all six of Petrarch’s allegories as a triumphal parade on the sides of a wedding chest in 1445.
The story begins with Cupid entering on the left surrounded by couples in love. Cupid is eventually captured and bound by a woman in white surrounded by virtuous women representing Chastity (or Modesty). Death on the right side of the first panel captures all mortals, no matter how virtuous. The next panel begins with Fame triumphing over Death, since one’s reputation can live on after death. Time has the last word, since even the most famous will fade from memory, given enough time. Petrarch’s final triumph, Eternity, is a vision of a timeless heaven of immortal beauty where he hopes to be reunited with Laura.
Like Petrarch’s parade, a series of allegorical figures comprise the basic structure of the tarot trumps. Mortals like the Bagatto, Emperor, Pope and Lovers are subject to Time (the Hermit), Death, and the prospect of eternal damnation (Devil). Then the Star card begins the ascent to the Last Judgment and Paradise (The World). Just as in Petrarch’s parade, each card in the game of trionfi triumphs over and capture the cards that precede it in the line-up. The Chariot card, as a symbol of triumph, encapsulates the essence of the game.
Fifteenth Century Italian Tarot Chariots
Italian trionfi chariots of the fifteenth century are surprisingly varied. The charioteer may stand or sit up high exposed to the crowd, or be seated under a canopy. His head might be adorned by a crown, a winged helmet, or a fashionable red hat. The chariot could be pulled by mythic winged horses, or by realistic horses led by a groom. Every component of the French Tarot de Marseille (TdM) chariot (a crowned charioteer standing in a square cart topped by a canopy and pulled by two horses viewed head-on) has an Italian precedent.
The earliest Chariot cards we have are hand-painted luxury cards commissioned by the rulers of Milan. The Visconti di Modrone (Cary-Yale) trionfi deck was created about the time the Duke of Milan’s daughter, Bianca Maria Visconti, married the condottiere Francesco Sforza; so the card may depict her marriage procession into the city of Cremona. Since the Chariot card usually comes after the Lovers card, and the allegory of Chastity follows and triumphs over Love in Petrarch’s literary parade, this card is sometimes interpreted as the Triumph of Chastity. But the woman holds a scepter and the Visconti heraldic device of a dove and sunburst, so she may represent Visconti dominion over Milan.
Ten years after their marriage, Bianca and her husband Francesco Sforza commissioned another luxurious deck hand painted on gold leaf. The winged horses associate this card with the allegory of Fame. The couple had just consolidated their control over Milan, so the woman holding the golden orb and scepter of rulership may be Bianca Maria as the Duchess of Milan proclaiming Sforza ascendency over that city.
Two chariot cards created in the Florence-Ferrara milieu share certain features with the Tarot de Marseille. In the so-called Alessandro Sforza card, we see the chariot head-on as in the TdM, but contrary to the TdM, the horses’ bodies are turned toward each other while their heads are turned away. The chariot is partly enclosed and its walls may support a canopy. The charioteer holds the globe and sword of rulership and wears a red hat, the most common head covering for men in the middle of the century.
The Rosenwald chariot is a hybrid of the TdM and other styles. The charioteer stands in a square chariot holding an orb and sword and wearing a crown, but there is no canopy and nearly his entire body is visible, like the type of card we’re going to consider next.
The pencil sketch by Bellini was possibly an actual chariot he saw on city streets.
Tarot cards from Florence, Ferrara and Bologna feature a charioteer elevated on a podium on top of a chariot or platform without a canopy, situating the charioteer for maximum public exposure. The charioteer in the so-called Charles VI deck wears a red hat similar to the Alessandro Sforza figure; and it’s believed the decks came from the same workshop. This triumphal figure wields an axe, and the scalloped edging around the platform contains Medici heraldry.
Bologna has had a consistent tarot tradition from the early 16th century to the present. Their charioteer is elevated under the sky, as in Florentine cards. He wields the sword and globe of a ruler, and his winged helmet is derived from images of Roman triumphators. The horses appear fused at the haunches as in the TdM.
Early French Chariot Cards
Chariots from the French transition period, before the deck settled into the Tarot de Marseille pattern, are often small, fanciful and decorative. They seem more appropriate for a Sunday drive in the park than for carrying a triumphant prince through city streets. The rather enigmatic Catelin Geoffroy charioteer is a dejected old man holding a bouquet of flowers. He sits on a curved throne high on a podium, exposed to the crowd. The horses are red and white and a groom struggles to control them. The victorious prince on the Anonymous Tarot de Paris card wears the laurel crown of a victor and sits on an open chariot pulled by two swans led by a groom. These features become significant when we consider the influence Plato may have had on the Tarot de Marseille chariot. This fanciful chariot style reappeared nearly 200 years later in the Rouen-Brussels-Vandenborre pattern. Shown on the right is a card printed in Rouen in the early eighteenth century.
The Tarot de Marseille
The Tarot de Marseille Chariot has remained virtually unchanged for nearly 400 years. Illustrated here is one of the earliest Tarot de Marseille known to us alongside one of the most popular versions printed in the twentieth century.
The armored charioteer on the TdM is visible from the waist up standing in a boxy, canopied chariot. His left hand is on his hip and he grasps a staff with his right hand. The imperial orb and sword of Italian charioteers is absent; but his crown gives him the appearance of authority. Mysterious faces look up from his circular epaulettes. The shield on the front of the chariot has the initials of either the printer or the block carver. In the earlier Rolichon card, the horse on our right side has one back leg; but in later decks only the front half of each horse is visible. The charioteer does not hold the reins because in a parade, a groom would be walking beside the horses controlling them, as in several Italian cards. This lack of reins is given a spiritual interpretation by occultist authors.
Showing a darker horse looking at the lighter horse may be a reference to Plato’s concept of the human soul which he describes in his dialog Phaedrus. Plato compared the soul to a chariot with two horses. The pure souls of the gods were light chariots pulled by winged white horses. Human soul-chariots start out with winged horses, but as the chariot gets pulled toward earth by the horses’ material attachments, their wings fall off. Earth-bound chariots have a white, noble horse that obeys verbal commands, and a dark horse that is unruly, driven by passions and nearly impossible to control. After a struggle of wills between the charioteer and the unruly horse, the darker horse learns to look to the nobler horse for leadership. Therefore, the darker horse on the tarot card is shown looking at the lighter horse.
According to Christophe Poncet in an online article referenced at the bottom, the fifteenth-century translator of Phaedrus, Marsilio Ficino, published a commentary where he added details to the chariot that were not in Plato. These details show up in the TdM: two awkward wheels, horses that seem attached at the haunches, and the faces on the epaulettes. These details are probably design shortcuts that originated in a print shop, but the connection to Plato is compelling. If the Chariot card follows Plato closely, could other cards in the deck refer to Plato? Michael Howard discusses Platonic influences in all the trump cards in his article linked below.
Just as the image of the chariot has remained essentially unchanged over the centuries, divinatory meanings assigned to the card, starting with the TdM, have been very consistent. The card signifies forward movement toward success, honors and fame. The charioteer masters his fate by exerting his will, mastering his emotions, and overcoming challenges.
The French Occult Chariot
The magician and occultist Eliphas Levi had a tremendous influence on how subsequent chariot cards were imagined. In his 1855 book Transcendental Magic, he describes the trump cards and provides images for the Devil and Chariot. His description of the Chariot card: “A cubic chariot with four pillars and an azure and starry drapery. In the chariot…a victor crowned with a circle adorned with three radiant golden pentagrams.” He goes on to describe several details that deviate from the traditional TdM card. The epaulettes are called Urim and Thummim (objects worn on the breast plate of the high priests in the Old Testament, and/or two objects used by the priests for divination). His scepter is topped with a globe, square and triangle. The chariot is pulled by black and white sphinxes joined at the haunches who move in opposite ways but look in the same direction. On the front of the chariot, instead of the printer’s initials, there is a lingam/yoni (yin/yang symbol) and a winged globe, an Egyptian symbol for the alchemical sublimation of matter.
The occultist Oswald Wirth created a chariot card nearly identical to Levi’s description with its array of symbols from Masonry, alchemy, astronomy, the Bible, and numerology. The only differences are the obviously female sphinxes, a larger canopy, and wheels at a more realistic angle. In his writings, Wirth emphasized Plato’s spiritualized chariot. The cubic chariot is the astral body, an ethereal substance that exists half way between the physical and the invisible worlds; just as an ethereal matrix underlies the physical world and serves as its blueprint. Following Plato, Wirth saw the chariot being pulled by one creature with two heads. The white sphinx is noble and its will is directed toward the common good, while the black sphinx is unruly and would drag the chariot into a ditch. It takes the will and intelligence of the charioteer to keep them coordinated.
For Wirth, and the French occult tradition, the charioteer is an exemplar of self-mastery and intellectual power. He’s in command, not only of his own emotions, but of nature and the elements. The waxing and waning crescent moons on his epaulettes indicate his power over everything associated with those moon phases. Through the sheer force of his personality, he is able to take command of any situation. In the French occult tradition, the Chariot is associated with Gemini and the Hebrew letter Zain, which means an arrow—a weapon used to conquer, to rule and to assert one’s will.
The Waite Smith Chariot
The Chariot card designed by British occultist A. E. Waite and artist P. C. Smith circles back to its Italian origins. Waite brings Wirth’s spiritualized chariot down to earth by insisting that the charioteer is not a spiritual being. He’s the victorious hero, or worldly prince, dominating the physical world we all live in. Smith depicts this world in her distinctive style as a walled city in the background.
Waite’s charioteer is embedded in his square, stone chariot symbolizing rationality and the triumph of the intellect. According to Waite in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot, the charioteer’s knowledge and mastery is solely of this world. He knows nothing of the higher, more divine world of the High Priestess which cannot be accessed by the rational mind. If he becomes unbalanced, he could become a prisoner of logic.
Waite’s chariot is pulled by sphinxes, but unlike Wirth’s design, they have complete bodies. As in Plato and Wirth, the creatures pull in opposite directions, so the charioteer has to exert his will to keep them coordinated.
In the British occult tradition, this card corresponds to the Hebrew letter Cheth and the zodiac sign Cancer, giving the crescent moons on the epaulettes a context. Certain Waite Smith design elements diverge from earlier cards. Rather than a king’s crown, the charioteer wears the laurel crown of earthly honors topped by a gold star. The chariot’s wheels are very heavy and face forward in proper perspective. Waite retains Wirth’s winged globe and lingam on the front of the chariot, but he doesn’t mention them in his book, so perhaps he considered them design elements rather than significant symbols.
Waite’s divinatory meanings for this card are conventional, but he adds darker elements: War, vengeance, and trouble.
Contemporary Chariot Cards
Contemporary tarot chariots leave Plato and parades far behind. They convey a sense of speed, power and aggression, as well as the ability to break boundaries and transcend limits.
The Witch is hell-bent for adventure as she speeds through the air on her broomstick. Once marginalized and persecuted, this witch has claimed the freedom to transcend cultural labels and pursue her dreams.
For Brian Williams’ macho road warrior, his “wheels” are an ego-extender and a tool for petty acts of aggression. He exemplifies every jerk who’s ever cut you off on the highway with a smirk and a rude gesture.
Robin Wood’s gentle chariot glides along in perfect balance and harmony. Black and white unicorns (reminding us of the Triumph of Chastity) with silver and gold harnesses face away from each other; but unlike Plato’s horses, they don’t endanger the chariot by pulling in opposite directions. The yin/yang symbol on the front of the chariot conveys the card’s essence— a balance of solar and lunar energies. As in all tarot chariot cards, the charioteer does not control the animals with reins. In this card, harmonious music keeps the unicorns balanced and working together. Rather than using the force of his will and intellect, the charioteer’s purity of soul creates an atmosphere of peace and beauty.
Contemporary divinatory meanings for the Chariot are more practical and specific than the spiritualized interpretations of past eras. The card signifies triumphing over ill health, money problems, career setbacks, and road blocks of any sort. Modern chariot cards often convey competitiveness, speed and aggression, along with the warning that excess speed and arrogance can lead to crashing and burning.
Many authors give this card a Jungian twist by associating it with the armored ego and the carefully curated persona that creates the personal Shadow by suppressing important aspects of the personality. Banishing parts of your psyche because they don’t align with your self-image, rather than owning and integrating them, creates a Shadow that will emerge to trip you up in subsequent cards like the Devil and Tower.
In the sequence of cards, the Chariot is always next to the Lovers, and comes after the initial series of cards that are sometimes interpreted as parents, church, and indoctrination with society’s norms. Charioteers have reached that stage in life where they fall in love for the first time, get their first job and apartment, and start separating from their families. They dare to move out of their comfort zone to pursue their goals and dreams.
We’ve just spanned 5,000 years from Assyrian war chariots to Roman triumphs, Renaissance spectacles, literary allegories, and ethereal Platonic realms. But one image remains consistent: the victorious hero, elevated above the crowd, enjoying acclaim for his (or her) achievements. The chariot card celebrates the triumph of individual will, the courage to face challenges head-on, and the confidence to pursue one’s goals.
See more cards and art at
Brunwasser, Matthew. A Ride to the Afterlife. Archaeology Magazine, Sept/Oct 2007.
Dise, Robert L., Jr. Review of the book Chariot: From Chariot to Tank, The Astounding Rise and Fall of the World’s First War Machine. Odyssey Magazine, Jan/Feb 2006.
de Simone, Gerardo. Feasts, Spectacles and Triumphs in Renaissance Italy, Accessed from Accademia.edu June 2021.
Zaho, Margaret Ann. Imago Triumphalis: The Function and Significance of Triumphal Imagery for Italian Renaissance Rulers. Renaissance and Baroque: Studies and Texts, Vol. 31, 2004. Accessed at Academia.edu, 2021.
Howard, Michael S. Platonism and the Tarot: From Renaissance Milan to 18th Century France, 2015.
Hurst, Michael J. Pre-Gebelin Tarot History. Ancient Triumphs, 2008.
Poncet, Christophe. Le mystères du tarot de Marseille-Episode 3-Plato.
See the separate Bibliography for books that discuss all the trump cards.
List of Illustrations
- Triumph of Fame. Renowne Manuscript, Rouen, 1520. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
- Wall relief of Hittite war chariot, 9th century bce
- Triumph of Marcus Aurelius (Constantine). Relief panels that may have been part of a triumphal arch for Marcus Aurelius and later reused for Constantine’s triumphal arch.
- Emperor Sigismond in a religious procession in Lucerne, 1417. Schilling manuscript folio 53v. Diebold Schilling the Younger, 1513.
- Triumphal Parade of Alfonso of Aragon. Cronaca della Napoli Aragonese, 1498. The Morgan Library, New York.
- Triumph of Love. Apollonia di Giovanni. Desco da Parto, c. 1450. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh.
- Francesco Pesellino. Triumph of Love, Chastity and Death and Triumph of Fame, Time and Eternity. Cassone Panels, 1445. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA.
- Tarocchi Visconti di Modrone XV Century. Milan c. 1441. Facsimile by Il Meneghello, Milan, 2015. Collection of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
- I Tarocchi dei Visconti. Milan c. 1450. Reproduced by Il Meneghello, Milan, 1996. Collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City
- Alessandro Sforza Tarocchi, mid 15th Collection of the Castello Ursino, Catania, Italy.
- The Rosenwald Deck, c. 1475. Re-created by Sullivan Hismans at Tarot Sheet Revival, 2017. Collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
- Triumphal Chariot. Jacopo Bellini. Pencil sketch, mid 15th British Museum.
- Tarocchi Charles VI, c. 1460. Collection of Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
- Tarocchi Fine Dalla Torre in Bologna, 17th Reproduced by the Museo Internazionale dei Tarocchi, 2016.
- Catelin Geoffroy Tarot. Lyon, c. 1557. Collection of Museum of Kunsthandwerk, Frankfurt.
- Tarot de Paris, c. 1650. Facsimile by André Dimanche/Grimaud, 1980. Collection of Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
- Adam C. deHautot Tarot, c. 1725. Recreated by Sullivan Hismans at Tarot Sheet revival, 2020.
- Nicolas Rolichon Tarot de Marseille, Lyon, late 17th Restored by Marco Benedetti, Rome, 2019.
- Ancien Tarot de Marseille (Grimaud) 1930. Published by France-Cartes c. 2000.
- The Chariot of Hermes. Eliphas Levi. Published in Transcendental Magic, Rider Pocket Edition, 1984.
- Oswald Wirth Tarot, 1887. Collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.
- The Centennial Waite Smith Tarot Deck. London, 1909. U.S. Games System, Inc., Stamford, CT, 2009.
- Tarot of the Crone. Ellen Lorenzi-Prince. Self-published, 2002.
- Po Mo Tarot. Brian Williams. Harper San Francisco, 1994.
- The Robin Wood Tarot. Llewellyn Publications, 1991.