Not informed of the natural law,
squatting, lordly, on a stool, in a stall,
we spun gold clear out of straw.
Joanna Newsom, “No Provenance” (Have One On Me, 2010)
Sitting at an 8-spoked spinning wheel in a barn, a woman spins straw into gold. A bridle hangs from the wall behind her. She wears a white apron embroidered with apples. The wheel is decorated with the glyphs for Sun, Earth, and Moon. The woman’s left foot is on the wheel’s rectangular pedal, and her left foot rests on a sphere. Through the door behind her, there is a gray-brown field of grass with small red branches shooting up. Further back there is a broken fence, where a small black horse with a white face stands next to a red leafless apple tree.
The last Cardinal Virtue in the tarot is Temperance (the others are VIII. Justice and XI. Fortitude). This virtue relates to humans controlling their animal nature, represented as a bridle for the mysterious little horse. The ball and block beneath the woman’s feet are borrowed from Etteilla imagery (see the Grand Etteilla decks in Selected References). The foot on the block is stable and gives motion to the spinning wheel, while the foot on the ball holds steady only through constant movement. One must practice Temperance continually – halting or rushing results in uneven and lumpy spinning.
The apple motif refers to Johnny Appleseed, who is mentioned at the end of the song. He is an icon of conservation and well known for an ascetic Christian lifestyle. However, he has also been criticized for spreading invasive species. He sows seeds indiscriminately and leaves them behind, as we can see from the sprouts poking through the tall grass. Thus, he can be taken as either a representation of Temperance, or of its opposite.
Some occult readings see Temperance, rather than a virtue, as transmutation or alchemy. This could be reflected in the picture too, as straw turns into gold.
The song refers also to the Big Return, the idea that our lives loop infinitely in a cycle with no source, only recursion (similar to XVI. Kingfisher). The narrator regrets the blindness that each new recursion brings, which dooms one to repeat all previous mistakes. In this light, Temperance can be read as a path to self-improvement, hoping to spin the wheel in a new direction.
Temperance, self-control, restraint, harmony, health, conservation, preservation, transmutation, excess, animal nature, protection, asceticism, repetition.