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Tarot Reflections

  June 01, 2003

Shadow Aspects of the Chariot
Sandra Thomson, CTGM

Sandra Thomson's specialty within tarot is that of an author and teacher. She is the co-author of three books (The Lovers' Tarot, Spiritual Tarot, and The Heart of The Tarot), the author of Cloud Nine: A Dreamer's Dictionary, and the author of a forthcoming dictionary of tarot, Pictures from the Heart, published by St. Martin's Press.

She teaches tarot classes at the Philosophical Research Society (PRS) in Los Angeles, where she resides. Although she learned to read with the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, she is very fond of the Ancestral Path and the Shining Tribe decks, and uses them for comparative or special readings. She reads online for the ATA reading networks, and privately.


The Chariot is all about moving forward and about journeying, about leaving home if we are an adolescent, about learning to journey through our life with our own conscious direction, and about learning to journey through life under the auspices of divine or higher spirit (by whatever name you choose to use).  Each of these journeys may take place simultaneously, or more likely, through subsequent phases of our lifetime so that the messages of The Chariot are always with us as we seek to find our life's pathways.

In the Rider-Waite-Smith card, the charioteer has crossed the river and leaves a village behind him, so perhaps one of the shadow aspects of this card is failing to leave the past behind in the sense that we remain a captive to the ways we were wounded by our families or others in the past and never give that up, never understand how we can transform that into something from which we can live a more positive life, or never make the attempt to do so.

In many Chariot cards, two lions (or sometimes mystical animals) pull the chariot and they are of light and dark coloring and/or appear to be pulling in opposite directions.  They are symbols of duality, conflicting urges (I warned you in an earlier essay that you would be tired of hearing about that before this series is over). 

In the Ancestral Path card, they are golden (solar aspect) and ebony (lunar aspect).  We must be guided by both and failure to acknowledge either will put us in stalemate.  I often think that's what the unmoving sphinxes in the RWS card represent, the stalemate the charioteer is in because he wants only to rule by his willpower and ignores the lower instinctual aspects of his personality (some have described him as standing in a "block" of cement rather than in a chariot).  He has blocked off his shadow aspects.
Not so the Robin Wood charioteer, who rolls along at such a fast clip that he raises a cloud of dust behind him.  This is a charioteer who is gonna roll right over you in his ruthless urgency.  No time to stop and listen to shadow. 

He has much to teach us about asserting ourselves, but may not have time to stop and listen to his wife's complaints that he is never home and when he is, doesn't listen to her.  There's not a whole lot of time to stop and listen to the gentle call of love.  And, if he's in a conquest for a woman, he'll have a devil of a time taking "No" for an answer (Perhaps a more pathological shadow of the charioteer is the stalker).  Most likely Robin Wood's charioteer is a workaholic, who cannot recognize his own feelings of inadequacy in that syndrome and covers it with the "shadow pride" that he is indispensable (it won't get done without ME, ME, ME).

Often the charioteer has no reins and must either trust the power of his will and mind (the battle within) or that of the harnessed animals to propel him along his life path.  Tracey Hoover, writing the book for the Ancestral Path deck, regards him as a spiritual warrior (in this card his "canopy" is the open sky above).  Part of the battle is to recognize that there are times when our aggressive and assertive instincts serve us well and we need not repress them (where they may emerge as illness), but rather need to make friends with them and know when to call them into action.
Juliet Sharman-Burke and Liz Greene in writing about the charioteer as the war good Ares, suggest that with The Chariot card The Fool learns to handle his contradictions.  I believe we learn to recognize and handle our contradictions in different ways through many cards in the Tarot deck.  It's a never ending task, and if we get mired in the related ambiguity (one of the many faces of shadow), our forward movement collapses and the shadow rules.
I know it is not so (well, maybe it is if I can imagine it), but I often imagine the bottom of the chariot as being hinged like one of those trap doors on a stage, where actors can ascend and descend, or which, in sophomoric humor or villainous intent, can suddenly open and send a person tumbling below.  If we consider the canopy above the charioteer as the divine cosmos, and the area beneath his chariot as the underworld, then he stands squarely in the middle, but the trick trapdoor holds the potential to open at any moment and send him tumbling into the shadow world.  "Gotcha," says the shadow.
In one of those wonderful puns associated with Tarot cards, Pamela Eakins (Tarot of the Spirit) says the card represents "time to clear out."  She also writes that the chariot is the vehicle for expression of the spirit.  So one of the shadow aspects of The Charioteer is failure to acknowledge and express your spirit, to clear out that accumulated negativity (we all have it, gulp) and to let your soul/higher self (whatever words you use) "take off" and propel you forward into new choices, activities, and ways of being.

Lon Milo Duquette, a member of our ATA Advisory Board, thinks that what's hidden in the chariot is the Holy Grail.  Now if you remember your Arthurian tales, then you know that the story of the Holy Grail is all about Parsival's travels through life until he has encountered enough "wisdom" experiences to be able to ask the "right question" and restore the wasteland of the wounded Fisher King.  Another aspect of the shadow side of this card, then, would be, failing to pursue shadow knowledge in order to achieve enough wisdom to ask the proper question.

As I indicate in The Lovers' Tarot, carefully formulating a question for a tarot reading steers us between what we know in our conscious awareness and the reservoirs of information in our unconscious.  When you formulate the question that resonates with your heart's wish to know, you set up a sympathetic vibration to the appropriate answer.  If we consider The Chariot card as that which instructs us in how to ask the right question (pay attention to the treasure hidden deep in your chariot and the spirit above or surrounding you), its shadow aspect would have to be ignoring the Self's need to know, and asking superficial, shallow questions rather than questions the answers to which will guide you toward fullness and growth.

Cards from the Ancestral Path Tarot and the Universal Waite Tarot are copyright (c) U.S. Games, and are used by permission. Visit the US Games website at  Chariot image from the Robin Wood Tarot is copyright (c) Llewellyn Worldwide. Visit the Llewellyn website at


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