The Suit of Swords

A card-by-card overview

Christine Payne-Towler: A Card by Card Review of the Swords Suit

The symbol of the sword, dagger, scimitar, or knife represents the world of mind, the realm of thought and ideation where we frame beliefs and values, personally and socially. It points to the rational mind, that faculty which compares, contrasts, balances, and names the processes governing relationships and ex-changes, from economic to romantic.

Parallel associations refer to the element air, indicating awareness, consciousness, clarity and insight. We look for a dispassionate objectivity in this suit to clarify mixed motives and mixed up emotions. This scalpel blade also exhibits the qualities of sharp analysis, verbal precision, the inquiring, critical mind in action.

Sometimes we experience the action of the blade as alienating because it can be surgical, distancing, or emotionally disconnected. At worst case, the Sword energy can exhibit a streak of insensitivity.

Because "Sword" is a cipher for "Truth," this suit-symbol cleaves through denial and obstructionism, revealing the underlying motives and actions that stand behind appearances. This is the reason for an undertone of contention and struggle that runs through this suit: people are not always truthful with themselves, much less with each other!

Translated into the common events of everyday life, the sword represents contracts and legal forms, the laws of the land, the judicial system, verbal agreements, and all of the shared assumptions it takes to make up our collective reality.

This suit is invariably the one used to register the potential for conflict built into every communication, whether it's one-on-one or debate in the Senate. Every conversation brings with it the risk of misunderstanding.

Yet there are still facts to be conveyed and information that needs to be exchanged. We must therefore strive for objectivity, subordinating our personal version of events to the greater truth. You must know there is a price to be paid in this world for attempting to tell the truth, and the two-edged Sword of Truth represents the trade-off. The sword is two-sided because its user shall be liable to the same judgment that he dispenses upon any other.

In the esoteric sense, the Sword represents the Holy Word, the act and art of naming things for what they really are. Spiritual sources from multiple traditions agree that when you find the real name of a force, a thing, a spirit, you have the power to command that thing. The inverse of this concept is that when you assert your fears as if they were realities, they are "empowered" through your breath, speech and/or imagining to come to pass.

Psychologists tell us that our subconscious believes every word that we say and take in! Perhaps this suit is calling us to accountability, reminding us to watch what we say, listen to, repeat, fantasize, or ruminate on in our unguarded moments. Beliefs can too easily limit what we are able to envision and what choices we perceive we have.

In those Tarots where the Swords are given to the water signs, the emphasis is subtly changed to reflect the ways we use our minds, our words, imaginings and beliefs in negative and disturbing ways. The Swords will be shown influencing the currents of the underground river (psychic and soul life), creating turbulence and upsetting emotional harmony. When the card shows the water in a relatively calm aspect, it is because the individual has gotten enough control over distracting and distrustful forces to have neutralized them, or at least put them in perspective. This version of the Swords demonstrates how easily our serenity can be upset when feelings are ruffled, how sharply and defensively we can react when our sensitive egos take offense.

So although the outer appearances in the situations reflected by the Swords cards may appear the same whether the Swords are air or water, the causes, motives and inner processes will be subtly different as you study the card in the spread. The water variation implies that the cause of conflict is rooted in interior psychic and spiritual phenomena; subjective currents are being stirred up as the inner life confronts new revelations from the deep dark unconscious.

This deviation from the standard pattern is one hallmark of the Spanish school of Tarots--El Gran Tarot Esoterico, the Dali Tarot, Balbi, the Euskalherria, and Pumariega are currently available examples of this type of Tarot.

Ace of Swords

The Ace of Swords, a single upraised sword, represents your prime motive or guiding ideal, that vision which guides you through the outer vicissitudes of life with a single-minded clarity. It is sometimes shown piercing a silver and/or laurel crown, an optimistic formulation implying evolution, progress, a sense of hope and victory. It is occasionally shown pointed downward, a darker message which refers to sacrifice, challenges, and a critical environment.

Two of Swords

The Two of Swords usually represents conflicting ideas or visions which must be reconciled by commu-nication to arrive in a harmonious place or complete strategic negotiations. Mixed signals prevail. While being under the impression of communicating, opposite sides are missing each other entirely, with possibly drastic consequences. In the best case, a frank discussion would clear the air and serve both sides, but one cannot expect that in every instance with this card.

Three of Swords

The Three of Swords has traditionally signified separation, termination, a breakup of a relationship or family, and all the tragic emotions attendant upon such events. Some cards show the horizon in the upright position filled with storm clouds and lightning flashing ominously, while the reversed horizon is clearing and brightening, ready for sunny weather. The positive side would be finally ending a draining and frustrating association, and becoming free again. Cords to the past are cut as you release loved ones to their own recognizance.

Four of Swords

The Four of Swords sends a strong message to take some time out, surrender worldly concerns and retreat to a place of serenity sheltered from the hustle and bustle. The oldest images suggest a visit to "the sepulcher of your ancestors" to contemplate your mortality and breathe in the dust of those who brought you here. On a vision quest or pilgrimage to your own center, you can contemplate your roots, values and goals. Here you will see your own place in the flow of time and unfolding generations.

Five of Swords

The Five of Swords traditionally references the grim and sobering process of cleaning up the battlefield after a rout. The war as a whole has not yet been won or lost, but in this skirmish there were grievous losses. The advice connected with this image admonishes the loser to study carefully what went wrong so that a new strategy can be devised and further setbacks forestalled. There is a need to regroup and rethink the game plan, discover your blind spots, the weak links, and take corrective measures before getting back into the field for another round. In these modern times, when the "battle" is more often being "fought" with words, laws, and contracts instead of weapons, we have even more reason to examine our approach, style, strengths and weaknesses. If we have underdeveloped communication skills or lose our objectivity in tense moments, our ability to reach our goals and dreams will suffer.

Six of Swords

The Six of Swords has been associated with science and its objective methodology employed through the generations to sift fact from superstition, build facts into theories and theories into laws we can trust and use to improve our lives. One early title for this card was "The Navigator" who has learned enough about the relation between Earth and the Heavens to be able to set a course across trackless oceans and arrive at a chosen spot on distant shores.

At the time of the first Tarots, this skill was considered akin to magic, so few were the individuals who understood the principles involved. So the person who draws this card is typified as a person with special knowledge, an insight into sophisticated techniques that may be powerful enough to effect a rescue in a dangerous time. Other related titles common to this card are "The Path" (out of danger) and "The Way Through."

Seven of Swords

The Seven of Swords is the card of mental preparedness, acquired through the use of imagination, the rehearsing and visualizing of desired achievements. A representative phrase might be "the habit of mind of a natural winner."

The image most often associated with this card is that of a canny warrior who has infiltrated the enemy camp on the eve of a fateful battle and is checking out their preparations and stealing their swords--a move guaranteed to demoralize them and undermine their performance in the upcoming confrontation. Putting it in modern terms, those who draw this card need to "work smarter, not harder," think long and deep, study all the angles, and put themselves in the shoes of their competition. As a result, they will have such a thorough grasp of the whole situation that there will be no surprises, and no excuses for anything but success. Advance preparation justifies the optimism of the "natural winner."

Eight of Swords

The Eight of Swords, often called "The Test," usually pictures a warrior running a gauntlet, subjected to harsh examination, who finds out just how tough he is or isn't in the process. Life provides us with plenty of experiences that put us in situations of close scrutiny, whether it's an entrance exam for college, a decisive job interview, or even the tough conversations that follow upon a breach of trust in a primary relationship.

Sometimes the challenge or obstacle course has nothing to do with other people, as when an inventor has to face the question "Does it really work?" This card shows what happens to that good idea in real time, where the rubber meets the road. The Test represents your chance to vindicate the time and energy spent in getting ready for this big moment. In most cases, you will either pass or fail, with little middle ground.

Nine of Swords

The Nine of Swords has special resonance with the Middle Ages because it figures the plight of a woman who is alone in the world during the centuries when women had no personal rights, no ability to inherit property or use the law in their own defense. So we see her sitting up in bed weeping, grieving and in fear of abandonment because of her vulnerability, wondering what will happen to her now that her protector (father, brother, husband, or son) is gone.

The swords above her head may indicate that the loss has come through warfare or some other cruel conflict, the outcome of which has left her behind as chattel, the spoils of war. What we are really looking at is the price of pride, which creates losers as a side effect of idealizing the winner. The woman in the picture represents the concerns of the heart, the damage to the soul and to the vulnerable ones when the ego-mind becomes so invested in control and domination that it does not count the human costs. A sensitive, subtle, heartfelt approach to nature (the "feminine") is trampled and thrown aside in service to a "winner takes all" mentality.

Ten of Swords

The Ten of Swords represents finality, as in "It's over." As is easy to grasp from the picture, there is no hope for revival here. The limit has been reached, a line has been crossed, and there is no turning back. In some situations this may be felt as a tragic loss, but it often brings with it a paradoxical sense of release and closure. The waiting and wondering are over, there is no more ambiguity. You can rightly let go and move on because there is no more progress to be made here.

Emotionally and psychologically, this card appears when one is exhausted and used up, at the end of the line of caring and responding and trying to make a difference. When a person feels like this card looks, they have reached burnout and can no longer be held responsible for anything, and therefore can be forgiven for caving in or ceding the fight. The simple instructions are: Go no further along these lines!

Page of Swords

The Page of Swords represents a messenger, an emissary or liaison between separate camps, charged with faithfully representing one side's communications to the other.

Because of this role, we do not think of this Page as a servant but rather as a diplomat, facilitating sensitive negotiations, often under difficult conditions. He is acting as the "eyes and ears" of his employer, so he is sometimes called 'The Watchman." Even kings are powerless if this Page chooses to use his access to sensitive information for his own gain, as is implied by his other name, "The Spy." He could even be working as a double agent, playing both sides against each other to serve his own agenda.

His title of Page is really camouflage in itself, serving as protective coloration so he can move among the people unrecognized, collecting information anonymously. His vigilance often conceals an ulterior motive. He is a watcher who must himself be watched, because he dreams of someday taking matters into his own hands, preempting the plans of his employers.

Knight of Swords

The Knight of Swords portrays the restless mind, aroused by thoughts of offense or defense, storming around searching for a target to pounce on. He often feels slighted, has a chip on his shoulder, and bristles with a hostile attitude. His usual method is to look for someone to blame for his irritation. Then, in an attitude of righteousness, he gives himself the job of "correcting" the offender. Jumping easily to conclusions, he "shoots first, asks questions later," and is therefore often guilty of overkill.

This is not to say that he does not have his heroic side; a single-minded combativeness can have its value. However, even when he is doing the right thing, he is likely to be doing it for the wrong reasons. Apt advice for this card is to deeply question your motives for what you are about to do. Forethought will help you discriminate between righteous and unrighteous causes. Discipline any traces of impulsive judgmentalism!

Occasionally you will see, implied by the detail on the card, that the person inside the armor could be a woman rather than the expected man. There is some evidence that the tradition of knighthood included a certain number of "anonymous knights" who took mythic names and veiled their true identities. Living on the road with few or no servants, they served as freelance defenders of travelers, champions of the little people against the exploitation of both highway robbers and the wealthy classes. Odds are that some of these knights errant were camouflaged women, and that idea is preserved with this unusual treatment of the Sword Knight.

Queen of Swords

The Queen of Swords was traditionally known as the widow, crone, or divorcee, the woman "no man would have." Nowadays we see her as a model of self-sufficiency, independence, and high intellect. She often has extremely high standards due to her subtle sensitivities, which can be perceived by those around her as being critical and hard to please. Her true motive is to refine the world, to upgrade people's understanding so everyone can have the space they need to individuate, to become truly themselves. She is not interested in conforming, which may be why she has a reputation for "being difficult." She is too intelligent to be confined to the role of housewife or nursemaid, although she is perfectly competent in those areas when she wants to be. She chooses her associations, and her aloneness, to serve her own agenda, and is seldom caught up in dependency relationships, at least not for long. Her critical intelligence is not always comfortable to be around, but she can be counted upon to see through superficialities and put her finger on the truth of the situation.

King of Swords

The King of Swords is the adjudicator, the wise judge, a mediator. He helps parties in conflict discover common ground and build upon it, and guides societies to see their greater good. His archetype is Solomon, ancient law-giver and philosopher of the Jewish Old Testament. Sometimes appearing cool and detached, he can be misunderstood as not caring.

But emotional displays are simply not his medium, nor is he moved by appeals to sympathy or pity. With the philosophical overview that comes from long experience, he listens deeply, watches closely, and speaks last. In the end, his evenhandedness and objectivity have earned him the respect he receives from his community, and those who cannot work out their problems come to him voluntarily for advice.

Occasionally this King is subtly detailed to imply that he is a woman in male armor. If you notice this theme in your deck, it is a reference to Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, archetype of a devout and inspired woman warrior, who was mystically led to abandon her social role to defend what she saw as the greater good. Although she was martyred young, her model crystallizes the message that sometimes the good of the whole is more important than the good of the individual, and in that case, even if you lose, you win just for being there.

Read more exerpts from The Underground Streams: Esoteric Tarot Revealed: 

History of Tarot
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