[This post is the third of a four-part series on the tarot suits. For a list of the posts on all four suits, click here.]
The image above is a fine representation of the idea behind the suit of Swords, as the sword transforms into a light image of feathery air. When we look at swords in the tarot, we must keep in mind their primary function, which is to cut. Cutting can have a number of different results, from harming to helping, so a reader should never automatically assume that a swords card is by definition negative.
As with all the tarot cards and all readings, context is everything, and how a sitter interprets their situation and their reading depends much on their own inner psychology and views, not necessarily on a rote meaning assigned to a particular card. What might be a devastating cut for one person could be a welcome relief for another.
Describing the Suit of Swords
The suit of swords is associated with the element of air, so immediately think about communication and the qualities of air in the world when you look to interpret these cards. We speak with our breath, and what we hear travels on sound waves in the air. We can “cut to the chase” in a discussion.
When we see Swords, we should feel the essence of how we can cut away or clarify the practical matters in our lives (pentacles/earth), matters surrounding love and emotions (cups/water), or things we feel enthusiasm and creative energy about (wands/fire). Swords help us to slice away what is extraneous and not needed, and help us to get to the root truth. This can also lead to justice, a reckoning, or a new equilibrium.
The Fool’s Journey through the suit of Swords will show us how we can speak clearly, be more direct, stop avoiding or putting off things that need to be definitively ended or resolved, and also how we can be less emotional and subjective in particular areas and have a healthy dose of emotional detachment and objectivity. Some situations call for these qualities in order to make informed and effective decisions.
The Fool’s Journey always begins with a beginning, the Ace, and ends with an ending, the King, with all the steps in the middle making up the lessons along the way.
Ace: Planting a Seed – A New Beginning (From an Ending)
In this Rider-Waite-Smith depiction of the Ace of Swords, a hand appears from a cloud gripping what appears to be a rather heavy and shiny metal sword. There are three key symbolic elements here: the crown, and two leaves that appear to be laurel and palm. All three of these symbols, in their own ways, point to the concepts of triumph, victory, and authority. Here, the Fool is being given his sword to help him carve out the path ahead of him, which promises to ultimately bring achievement. However, as with all the Aces, the important factor to keep in mind is that this is only an initial step in the journey. The potential here has to be carefully nurtured in order to mature.
Two, Three, Four: Blocking, Suffering, Recovering
Two: The Fool ventures out with his sword and finds that he needs even more defense. Not one sword now, but two, to protect him from the risks of the world. The Two of Swords shows a woman in a closed-off and protective stance, with swords crossed as if to say “don’t come any closer.” She has turned her back to the water and the moon – her emotional, feeling and intuitive side, as well as her ability to allow for natural impulses and rhythms to arrive in accord with the passage of time. There is a sense here of trying to harness the unknown, the depths, unconscious impulses that by their very nature refuse to be controlled. The Two of Swords is making a big effort in self-protection, often with the belief that this will result in not being hurt, especially on an emotional level. There is an imbalance, where head and intellect, a cornerstone of the suit of swords, is trying hard to rule over heart.
Three: This is a card that many non-readers can read easily, because its symbolism is familiar to us all – a large red heart pierced by not one, not two, but three swords. Despite the best efforts in self-preservation and closing off, the heart can never be fully shielded from the pain that life sometimes sends our way, and so, the feelings must be felt. The feelings here are overwhelming in terms of grief, heartache both literal and metaphorical, and a stormy time as evidenced by the card’s backdrop. Three can be significant in terms of relationships, as well – perhaps a third person caused the situation of pain between the other two. Trying to physically take steps to avoid feelings of hurt or potential hurtful situations can only last for so long.
Four: When life becomes very difficult and we have spent our physical and emotional energy on getting through our challenges, we must eventually take time out to step back and rest. This rest gets us out of our normal day-to-day stress, and in fact, the rest shown here on the Four of Swords is a deep and profound period of recovery, a convalescence of sorts after the wrangling between struggling for control and eventually getting hurt. We have laid down one of our swords and accepted at least partly that limitations exist in our lives, but we recognize that other challenges await, as shown by the three swords hanging on the wall. In the meantime, however, we can’t move forward until we take care of ourselves, and this means putting down our swords to regenerate. If we don’t take this rest period voluntarily, life will likely bring us some sort of situation that forces us to do so.
Five, Six, Seven: Exploiting, Leaving, Deceiving
Five: Once we have regained our strength, we may have become a bit overconfident. We’re ready to go out and show how we can overcome any challenge, at any cost. In fact, the figure in the foreground of the Five of Swords is almost smirking with satisfaction at having taken everyone else’s swords from them. There isn’t much compassion here, but rather a sense of entitlement to the win. We shouldn’t neglect the other figures on the card and their reactions – one is devastated, head in hands, and the other a bit more pensive, but both have their backs turned in defeat. This card shows how winning isn’t necessarily everything, and sometimes the desire to win can become vicious and devoid of emotion, which risks becoming inhumane.
Six: Perhaps the figure in this boat is one of those defeated in the previous battle. When something is no longer viable and a battle has been lost (a lost job, circumstances beyond our control that force us to change and to move), we must head out onto new, unknown shores. Change is difficult for most people, and there is a sense of sorrow about this card, a reluctance to move on from the past, despite the fact that there is really no choice. All the challenges are coming along for the ride (the swords in the front of the boat), but we have conscious awareness of what we have fought for and what we have achieved, so this brings wisdom for the journey ahead. On the one side the water is choppy, but on the other side, calm. We’re moving forward in search of something better than what we’re leaving behind.
Seven: Tip-toeing around is usually a sign of trying to get away with something without anyone finding out, and that’s what is going on here. Perhaps there was a tempting opportunity and we decided it had to be ours, regardless of how we got there. Sometimes we know that what we are doing isn’t entirely ethical, moral, or “right” according to our inner values and conscience, and yet, we go forward with it anyway, in the hopes that “no one will find out.” But carrying the tips of five sharp swords in our bare hands is a risky venture. Sooner or later, those swords are going to cut into the flesh of the hands and blood will likely get spilled.
Eight, Nine, Ten: Binding, Despairing, Ending
Eight: The swords are increasing exponentially now, and here we see shades of what we were trying so desperately to do consciously in the Two of Swords, in a way, coming back to make us prisoners by our own hands. It looks as if all those swords in the Eight of Swords are forming a cage or a prison around the woman who stands blindfolded in the middle of them. And yet, there aren’t any swords in front of her that would prevent her from just walking away. The ground is nearly dried up, there isn’t much here to nurture her, and she doesn’t want to see something that is evident to everyone around her. What’s more, she feels her hands are tied, but still, she isn’t so bound that she couldn’t simply take the steps necessary to get out of this situation that makes her feel so trapped. In the end, perhaps this is a mind game, an intellectual belief that keeps her stagnant in a place that makes freedom feel so far away.
Nine: The mind games increase to the point where now, insomnia reigns, and the snowball effect begins. The “dark night of the soul” is an apt description of the Nine of Swords. Everything feels more dramatic and difficult in the middle of the night, and our minds start to spin out of control, with one dire scenario leading to the next, in an unending chain of anxiety, worry, and despair. When this stage in the Fool’s Journey hits, it truly seems like there is no way out, no solution, no light at the end of the tunnel. Hopelessness would not be overstating the feeling here. However, the blanket has small traced outlines of the zodiac symbols, reminding us that life is a continual wheel of different events, characteristics, beliefs, and actions. Just when something seems too much to bear, it changes and shifts. Nothing stays the same forever. “This too shall pass.”
Ten: And in fact, as if to prove the point, the Ten of Swords shows us when something is definitely, unequivocally, and indisputably over. The man on this card is pinned down with all 10 swords, the most of any card in the suit, ensuring he can no longer get up from this situation. In essence, this card shows us when something has already been over for some time, we just perhaps failed to consciously realize it and act accordingly. When we reach the 10 of Swords, we are faced with the reality that there is no life left in the situation, regardless of how we wish to move forward. We must absolutely admit that this is an ending. And keep in mind that every ending inevitably brings a new beginning.
Page, Knight, Queen: Idealizing, Pursuing, Stabilizing
In the court cards, we see the maturation process of intellect, objective reasoning, and direct communication in the service of truth and justice.
The page holds his sword over his shoulder, looking towards the proverbial past but with his foot pointed towards the future. He recognizes where he has come from and all that he has been through, and is once again ready to raise his sword aloft and fight. There is a bit of innocent naivety in his stance, because he hasn’t yet fought the toughest battles, but his youthful enthusiasm is inspiring. The clouds here indicate that there is a lot of mental activity going on, and that things may not be entirely clear just yet, but the wind is blowing strong as shown by the trees in the background and his hair, and things are moving towards a clearer picture. Here we have strong intentions and are committed to a search for what is true and just.
With the knight, our stance is no longer in preparation, but we are going full-on into battle. Perhaps something happened to really rile us up, to stir our sense of injustice and our desire to speak for those without a voice. Now we are taking action and nothing will get in the way of our desire to cut through what isn’t important and get down to the heart of the matter. This has become more like a personal mission, like an ethical or moral vocation, to do the right thing as far as we define that, and to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.
As we reach the upper royalty, with the queen and the king, the excitable impulses of youth are beginning to calm and fade into a sense of intellectual balance and wisdom. The Queen of Swords sits on her throne holding her sword straight up into the air. She isn’t pointing it at anyone except for the sky, as if to say that justice will be served regardless of how she personally feels about the situation. She wears a crown of butterflies and a cloak of clouds, as if to show that she has personally overcome the challenges of uncertainty and ambiguity, of the restlessness and “flitting about” of her younger years, and has now found a stability grounded in intellectual reasoning and emotional detachment.
King: Reaping What You Have Sowed – An Ending (For a New Beginning)
The King is facing us directly, in a final triumph and actualization of the promise that was shown on the Ace of Swords. He is now wearing the crown that was on that initial card, after the hard-earned journey through the challenges that the suit of swords presents. It is as if he is now ready to hand his sword over directly to whoever stands before him, to pass on the knowledge and wisdom he has gained through his life experience. He has nothing to prove and can sit on his throne, confident in the knowledge that he has slain his inner dragons. In fact, the wind is no longer stirring, because the inner landscape is calm. The angel that was depicted on the queen’s throne has now risen to the level of the crown, showing that this is the pinnacle of what can be achieved in the suit of the swords: rational thinking, objective decision-making, impartial examination of the facts, a search for truth, clear communication and direct expression. Now that the wind has died down and the mind is calm, it is preparing to depart once again for a new level of conquest on the intellectual plain.