Roses and Lilies in the Rider Waite Smith
The language of flowers in the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) is fascinating. Sometimes they look like the deck’s editor made a note like “put some flowers here,” and so someone did, adding dabs of colour that you can’t identify but add to the joyful energy of the card, as in the 4 of Wands. Sometimes the flowers are obviously a particular type, e.g. sunflowers (Queen of Wands), white roses (Death), irises (Temperance) or lotus blossoms (Ace of Cups). When they’re specific, it’s fairly easy to figure out what they represent. But what happens when you have two kinds of flowers together? That expands individual symbols into a glyph – a message.
One of the first things that intrigued me about the Rider Waite Smith was the use of red roses together with white lilies. On the Magician, he and his altar are surrounded by the lush greenery of vibrant red roses and clusters of blue-white lilies. In the Hierophant, one of the student monks has red roses and green leaves on his robe, and the other has white lilies on blue. In the 2 of Wands, a small cluster of two red roses and two white lilies decorates the castle battlement that we are looking out from. And in the Ace of Pentacles, the hedge-archway that leads to a new future is dotted with red roses, and we see tall, white lilies growing on the grass on both sides of the path.
Fertility and abundance are major themes of this Tarot, and the rose as feminine and the lily as masculine make sense, at least for the Magician, the 2 of Wands, and the Ace of Pentacles. But the Hierophant is different. There is the abundance of knowledge that he is passing on to his students, but there is even more to it. And we can look at two additional cards for clues: the 9 of Swords with its red rose bedspread, and the 6 of Cups, each holding a blossoming white lily.
Symbols like the rose and lily have multiple meanings, depending on the tradition you follow. In the Hermetic tradition, which inspired the RWS Tarot, they can refer to the Rose of Jericho and the Lily of the Valley – both associated with rebirth and renewal. In fact, the Latin name for the Rose of Jericho is Rosa hierochuntis, which makes me feel like we’re on the right track. Of course, the rose of Jericho isn’t a rose as we know it – it is a desert plant that looks more like a very small shrub, but to be fair, it would be difficult to illustrate that and get your meaning across on a Tarot card. And this leads us to what I think is the main intended meaning for the rose and lily combo.
In the Hermetic tradition, the rose represents wisdom and lily is compassion. If we take the rose as feminine and the lily as masculine, then we have exactly the association of feminine and masculine energy that we see on the Tree of Life. In the glyph of the Tree of Life, there are three pillars. From left to right, we have the Pillar of Severity (feminine), the Middle Pillar, and the Pillar of Mercy (masculine). Severity here is meant in the sense of restriction and balance, keeping you right. You know tomatoes are fruit, but wisdom tells you to not put them in a fruit salad. Together, wisdom and compassion are the perfect balance. It is a concept that we also find in Tibetan Buddhism: feminine wisdom and masculine compassion work together. They are seen as two wings on the the same bird – you need both to fly.
Taking them separately for a moment, the wise rose on the bedspread of the 9 of Swords offers rational comfort, and a reminder that dreams aren’t real. The generous lily in the cups of the 6 of Cups shows the compassion and kindness of the older boy for the younger girl. But Wisdom and Compassion together are the key to each of the cards we looked at earlier. The roses-and-lilies reinforce the Magician’s knowledge, and empower us to act fairly and with kindness; they let the Hierophant pass on his wisdom generously, in a way that suits each individual student; in the 2 of Wands, we can begin our explorations knowing that the world responds best when we plan, and are thoughtful and respectful of what is already there; and in the Ace of Pentacles, the roses and lilies offer us the best possible path forward, blessed on all sides. Each of these cards promise something higher, something better, through balancing of Wisdom and Compassion, our feminine and masculine energies, together, and whole.