At its most basic, tactile, and visual, a sword is an instrument, a weapon with a pointed edge used to cut. Swords are sharp and bring pain and division to whatever encounters its sharp edge. Held aloft if protects from the other, from what is at the other side of the pointed edge. It can also be carried on oneself.
To protect, injure, or cut, the sword is held and thrust forward, giving it a forceful, assertive, and authoritative quality.
In the past•, this suit has been assigned to soldiers, nobility, and the law. Given the nature of the sword, as an instrument of war, in defense and offense, I find this connection precise for a foundational framework. Moving beyond war entails extracting more from this base.
Approaching the suit, involves understanding the dynamics of a sword in action. A sword in action means one of the following: it is cutting, it is defending, or it is dividing. It is a forceful action requiring discernment and alacrity as a wrong move or an incorrect judgement can be detrimental for the desired outcome.
When I align this perspective of the sword in action with approaching the suit in its entirety, I extract the qualities the suit itself has to offer. Emanating from the sequential order of the suit, from one to ten, is momentum, strength, escalation, choler, obfuscation, pain, and imprisonment.
The ace portrays a hand holding a sword aloft, with the edge pointed upward, piercing an empty crown with leaves hanging to the side. This is the killing of hesitation, a decisive action that moves the narrative forward in a forceful way. The two of swords generally sees a type of flower encased between two curved swords. Just as the narrative has been pushed forward, the two sees a coming together on an agreed plan of attack and defense. The open flower here is protected as well. Moving on to the three we find the situation at odds, an interference has imposed itself, the battle plans have gone awry.
The number four denotes a quality of stability, as a table has four legs, and a home traditionally has four walls. The four of swords sees the foundation of defense set in place. It is a stable position, encompassing, once more, a stemmed flower in the center. The four of swords can also indicate a house of law or government building. With the five we take a look at the heart of the matter. Just as we have four limbs and one heart, so the five has four limbs and one heart. Here there is a refocusing and realignment of the center, the purpose, whether for good or ill.
The six and seven sees an opening that leads to obstacles. With the eight complicating and suffocating the matter as the once healthy flower is left diminutive and trapped. The nine and ten sees the ending on a defeated note as two swords meet in the middle.
Now, where did I get all this? The swords are a warring suit, one of force and action, with a decidedly martial essence, demanding we ask ourselves, “How do I defend my self from others, and how do I protect my self and those I love?” Consequently, swords concern themselves in a twofold pattern with strategy and application, force and resistance. Swords are also swift in reaction, and this is derived from the tool itself, which is swift in reacting and in cutting. When there are only a handful of swords on the table, one can generally consider the strategy unambiguous. In turn, when there are many swords on the table, confusion ensues, anger flares up, and warring begins. There is danger afoot.
My initial approach is strongly bound up with function. Specifically, what swords are vis à vis my self, as a participatory event with the image. Modern life nullifies general sword use, but one is still able to know what it is to handle a sword. It is from this focal point that I begin to pull the threads of potential meaning for the suit. What does it mean to hold and wield a sword? Moreover, what does it mean from the perspective of the sword wielder, as well as for the other that looks on at the sword wielder? In other words, meaning here is participatory and dynamic, instead of just unidirectional.
Enrique Enriquez’s excellent compendium of interviews, En Terex It: Encounters Around the Tarot Volume One, published by Eyecorner Press includes an illuminating conversation with Jean-Michel David, tarot scholar and educator, and here is a snippet I find harmonious with what I’m illustrating:
“In my local courses, I usually bring along an accurately weighed replica of a mediæval sword. Similarly, in both my online and local courses, I suggest going to a zoo (or, better if you have the opportunity, a safari) to actually observe and behold a lion. To visit, when opportunity arises, European museums and come as close as possible to an actual Imperial crown – and to wear a replica, or even a real one, and be seated wearing such. To engage in Lectio Divina.
There’s no way that the suit of swords, or, in order of those cards I just mentioned, Fortitude, the Empress or Emperor, or the Papesse, remain imagery of something remote. Seeing the card image anew becomes a living experience…”(142)†
(Of course, this applies to the entire 78 cards in the tarot, or any other divinatory tool for that matter.)
With Enriquez adding a couple lines ahead, “meaning is experiential.”
Bringing all this back down to earth and to ourselves, encountering the suit experientially means engaging with the suit (whichever swords come up in the spread during a reading) from your own perspective as the reader coupled with the question. Asking yourself reflexively and with a keen eye for the cards on the table, “How do these swords interact with the other cards?” Furthermore, “How do these swords contextualize (frame) the question?”
When the reader and the question interacts with the cards in this suit, the related fields of possibility unfold, and the numerological progression becomes the weighing factor. The amount of conflict, action, strategy and force will be descried by the amount of swords on the table and what they are pointing toward.
Taking this one step further, swords do not remain at the merely martial level. To be martial involves several elements, such as, vigor, strength, precision, strategy, and mental acuity. Therefore, the suit of swords does not remain at the level of pain and discord, it extends to encompass the possibilities encapsulated by the weapon itself. In other words, when encountered in a reading swords can denote the range of significations encapsulated by the weapon itself, from the functional, such as swords being a weapon that brings pain, to the characteristics inherent to the wielding of the weapon. Hence my suggestion, begin with the function of the image, then pull the threads of meaning from there outward.
To mirror one of the 21 trumps…
Justice calls forth, with her balance and sword, an upright virtue of discernment. With the balance she weighs the seen and unseen. While her sword cuts through all that is superfluous, unwavering. She is resolute in her actions. Inclined only to what is equal and just. Despite not being a warring spirit, she is one of decisive action, adamantine in firmness, qualities that illustrate the suit of swords. She also embodies the nuanced characteristics of the sword in action. Justice is both martial and sagacious. She does not act out of not knowing, her actions are grounded in knowing. She executes the action of cutting, enforcing her sword to act and to cut, to divide. Yet she does so in conjunction with her balance. The balance here can be taken to indicate a weighing of what will and will not be cut, of possibilities. Taken as a whole, Justice embodies the art of discernment, in that she knows (through the act of weighing) what to cut. Where she manifests the more virtuous qualities of the suit itself, is in commanding the martial impulse into subjection of a weighing and balancing act, making all things equal. Afterward, the cutting can begin.
If you’d like to encounter other ways of reading the suit of swords, then I wrote a little ebook some years ago on the suit of swords focusing on the magical path. You can download it by clicking on the image below. (Please note, it is formatted in PDF 6×9)
The next part in the series will be on the suit of cups, Heart of Life, which will be posted next month leading up to the summer solstice.
∞If you’re catching this post/series midway, Animating the Tarot Pips, the introduction along with a master list (with links) of the installments can be found here.
∆ All images from this series, unless otherwise noted, are taken from pixabay.com
•”The sword represented the sovereigns and all the military nobility.” Stuart Kaplan, Tarot Classic, U.S. Games, Inc., (Stamford, CT, 1972) 38. Excerpt taken directly from Robert M Place, The Tarot: History, Symbolism, And Divination (New York: Penguin Group, 2005) 29, kindle.
† Enrique Enriquez, En Terex It: Encounters Around the Tarot Volume One (Roskilde: Eyecorner Press, 2012), 142.
Animating The Tarot Pips by Natalia L Forty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at mistandether.wordpress.com.