World of Symbols
Michelle Snyder, M. Phil, Symbolist
Michelle Snyder, M. Phil, Symbolist
In our culture we take wheels for granted. They are on every vehicle we see; daily living without wheels is now unimaginable. The wheel symbol has been used repeatedly all over the world from the oldest times we know of to the most modern. The word wheel can be traced to the ancient word for spindle-whorl – a round disk with a hole in the center, used for spinning threads. The concept of the sun as a wheel was widespread in antiquity, and the wheel is often used as a solar emblem. The oldest wheels have four spokes. There are also six, eight, and twelve-spoked wheels. All are astronomically associated.
Wheels indicate movement. The rim of the wheel divided into sections illustrates the passage of time. The divisions are astrological, symbolizing the passing of seasons and the cycles of the heavens. The Wheel of Signs - the zodiac - denotes the revolution of a year. Mithraic wheels symbolize the sun’s movement in the heavens. The Buddhist solar wheel symbolizes the passage of time and cosmic forces.
Representing solar power, the sun in the center and the rays as its spokes, a solar wheel symbolizes the chariot of Helios (Apollo) and is an emblem of Dionysus. It is an attribute of all sun gods and their earthly delegates - sun kings. The winged wheel indicates swiftness of time passing. In Greek symbolism a six-spoked wheel is an attribute of Zeus (Jupiter) as sky god. In Egyptian mythology man was fashioned on the potter’s wheel of Khnemu - the intellect. Wheeled crosses sometimes symbolize the sun; the Celtic cross has a wheel at the crossed bars, symbolizing winter solstice (See Ch. 7: Symbology, Decoding Classic Images).
Horse-drawn chariots became a great weapon, combining high speed, strength, durability, and mobility that unmatched by infantry. Chariot racing became a sport in the arenas of Rome. The use of wheels has facilitated wealth and power. In Ireland a wheel brooch is bequeathed from one ruler to the next.
Mandalas, a type of wheel, are used in meditation. Some have images of deities in the center to help the initiate focus on the divine. Medieval cathedrals often have a rose window, called Rota - Latin for wheel. The wheel symbol is associated with the rose in the West and the lotus in the East - both patterns of the mandala.
In alchemical symbolism the wheel contrasts the movable (the perimeter) and the fixed (the center). The Wheel of Fortune tarot card is based on the number two: contrary forces, the duality. The turn of the fateful wheel is irreversible once set in motion, floating in an ocean of chaos; the two halves symbolize constructive and destructive forces of existence. As some are considered lucky in love, and some unlucky, the Wheel of Fortune exemplifies the eternal cycle of good and bad luck, prosperity and poverty, stability and change - constantly subjecting mortals to the turns of Fate; the Wheel of Life raises them up and brings them down. The goddess Fortuna is occasionally shown standing on a wheel.
In mystical thinking the wheel represents the Unmoved Mover. The Taoist sage is he who attains the central point of the wheel and remains united with the Origin, bound at the center. The sage, the Unmoved Mover, can move the wheel without himself moving. The Buddhist wheel represents the dynamism of peaceful change, destiny, fate, karma, and sovereignty. It is associated with the lotus and the chakras. The Wheel of Law, Truth, and Life is one of the eight emblems of good luck in Chinese Buddhism.
As the world turns is a contemporary phrase with an ancient meaning: We are all riding around the sun on this chariot called Earth. What a trip!
For more history and context of symbols, visit Michelle’s blog and website, watch her YouTube video: Lost Civilizations: the Green Man.
Books by Michelle Snyder: