Of all the minor arcana cards in the Waite-Smith tarot, the Sixes are the ones that I feel are the least in tune with the Golden Dawn roots that both Waite and Smith shared; and of the Sixes, the 6 of Pentacles is arguably the most misaligned. The Golden Dawn interpretation of this card was “Lord of Material Success,” period. There was no advice regarding the use to which one should put this bounty, it was merely a statement of fact that abundance was imminent as shown by the number Six (harmony) in the realm of Earth (material affairs). Waite embellished this straightforward claim with the idea of “goodness of heart” as a consequence of prosperity, but it was Smith in her illustration who invented hints of generosity and charity, along with the related connotation of equitable distribution as shown by the scales; these are concepts that were apparently never intended by Mathers, nor by Etteilla (his main inspiration) before him.
I pretty much ignore the narrative vignette and the folklore that’s grown up around it and just stick with the idea of “Material Success.” Such success requires coordinated effort, it’s not a charitable proposition as depicted on the RWS card, and that effort can either be skillfully and economically applied in a way that maximizes one’s profits, or scattered and squandered chasing after illusory success (which comes with the 7 of Pentacles, “Success Unfulfilled” or “Failure”), usually due to a lack of the planning and foresight that should have happened way back in the 3 of Pentacles, and a tendency to sit back and let opportunity slip through one’s fingers as implied by the 4 and 5 of Pentacles. There is also the observation from Crowley that although the Moon in Taurus (the astrological correspondence for this card) is highly favorable for an increase in one’s fortunes, its benefit is also markedly short-lived. So this can be an “easy come, easy go” card and not the free ride it is usually taken to mean. You might want to “take it to the bank” before the interest rates fall.
I’m now re-reading Isabel Kliegman’s book, Tarot and the Tree of Life, in which she goes to great lengths to examine the psychology of need and fulfillment as displayed in the scenic “narrative vignette” of the RWS 6 of Pentacles. She dives deeply into Smith’s image, but it isn’t until she reaches the very end of the passage that she begins to make sense to me when she explores the idea of “necessary sacrifice” as implied by the sixth sephira on the Tree of Life, Tiphareth, the sphere of the “sacrificed god.” She suggests that we can never achieve the pinnacle of success unless we are willing to give up something else that may be holding us back, an allusion to the material encumbrances signified by the aphorism “You can’t take it with you.”
For me, therefore, the legitimate meaning of this card becomes “Success, but at what cost?” The price exacted by success may be equal to or greater than the advantage gained, so deciding to pursue it becomes a cost/benefit proposition. That hidden cost could be considered the “shadow side” of the 6 of Pentacles. Something of value may have to be shed to aspire to something else of greater perceived worth. It does not necessarily denote an embarrassment of riches that we should give away in order to make ourselves feel more noble, as the RWS image would have us believe; it can also reflect cumbersome “dead weight” that must be divested to lighten the load that burdens us. No matter how “grounded” it might make us feel, we can’t walk on water in a pair of lead boots. We could say that the “Lord of Expansion” works hand-in-hand with the “Lord of Contraction” in the 6 of Pentacles.
The Tarot de Marseille 6 of Coins shows a bountiful harvest, not yet past its prime and ready for gathering. As the rural idiom goes, “Time’s a-wastin’,” and the situation may be only a hair’s breadth away from decline. If you’ve been planning on doing something, do it now! The Thoth 6 of Disks is a close cousin to the TdM card, both visually and literally. Crowley’s title, “Success,” neatly captures the essence of the Six in the world of commerce and finance: an economic engine hitting on all cylinders. The RWS 6 of Pentacles, on the other hand, confuses the issue with the aforementioned notions of charity and generosity. While the opportunity to exercise those virtues may be a collateral benefit of amassing wealth beyond one’s immediate needs, they have little to do with the primary urge to succeed for its own sake. Waite’s notion of “gift-giving” is entirely foreign to that of the achievement of material gratification which lies at the heart of the original idea.
As I see it, Earth is the least outgoing of the elements, and the Six is one of its more self-absorbed expressions. It may be productive in its own way but it is neither effusive nor magnanimous toward others as a matter of course. Like Hotel California, it is “programmed to receive;” it’s all about collecting the well-earned fruits of one’s labor, so income with no corresponding outgo is suggested. To be fair, it is less anal about its fixation than the RWS 4 of Pentacles as it is more confident about getting its due than paranoid about clinging to wealth at all costs. But there is also no implied pursuit of social responsibility through “balancing the ledger.” The concept of altruism is entirely contrary to a card whose true calling is making money hand-over-fist, not passing it out, no matter how discriminating the judgment of the man with the scales appears to be. Imparting to it the kind of sentimentality that Smith attempts merely muddies the water when we should be looking for a windfall from our own efforts (with the caveat that there is “no free lunch”).
Crowley’s abbreviation is good enough for me; what we do with such success is beyond the scope of this card, and I don’t draw any conclusions along those lines from the image when it shows up in a spread. Besides, who wants to be told they should part with their hard-earned cash? On the other hand, I might be convinced that the 6 of Pentacles implies receiving a legacy or inheritance, and that the querent could perhaps anticipate a financial bonanza from someone else’s misfortune if other cards in the reading support the idea of a mixed blessing. Waite says the 4 of Pentacles conveys a bequest, not the Six, but I would argue that the man in that card has already obtained his estate and is more concerned about keeping it. I can see opportunity in the down-to-earth 6 of Pentacles as readily as impending affluence, and I’m more apt to point my sitters at the old Smith-Barney slogan by telling them that, when it shows up, they could be well-positioned to make their money the old-fashioned way, by “earning it.”
Although you wouldn’t know it from the modern addiction to money and power, success brings with it a moral obligation to rightly apply its largess to our purpose in life, and that can include making a sober assessment of “How much is too much?” We may have our head in the clouds, mesmerized by visions of attainment, but our feet could still be mired in the clinging muck that we must scrape from our shoes before we can ascend unimpeded to that “mansion on the hill.” I’m reminded of the prize-fighter’s analogy of “reaching our fighting weight.” We must whittle away everything that doesn’t contribute to our goal. Consider the words that Irving Stone put into the mouth of Michelangelo Buonarroti in The Agony and the Ecstasy: to carve a statue of a horse from a block of marble, we simply remove everything that isn’t “horse.” The measure of success is how elegantly — and with how little wasted effort — we accomplish this.