There’s a trend in some of my blog posts, where I introduce a card, briefly outline how “most of the Tarot community” reads that card, and then reject the alleged mainstream view and offer my own interpretation. Of course, I never really offer evidence to support my claims about what constitutes most of the Tarot community, so really I’m shadowboxing with an ill-defined boogeyman most of the time, and not with actual quantitatively identifiable trends in the way other people use Tarot.
But we’ll just ignore that methodological misstep for now, and talk about the Eight of Swords.
This is a card of feeling stuck. The traditional RWS image depicts a woman, blindfolded and bound, standing amidst several swords that someone has, for some weird reason, decided to stick in the beach like the pins on some giant pincushion. The conventional narrative with this card (which, as usual, I’m just going to assert without support) is something like the following:
“You feel stuck, but it’s really all in your head. Look at the woman in the image. She’s tied up, but she can use the swords around her to cut herself free. Just like her, you have resources around you that you’re not seeing. Find a way to use these resources to free yourself.”
That narrative is dumb.
For one thing, nobody who is blindfolded and bound should be trying to cut herself free in that manner. That’s just a recipe for severe lacerations and fatal blood loss. And this very literal interpretation of the card hits on a deeper truth that we Tarot readers tend to ignore. The woman in the card actually is trapped. She is in a compromising and extremely dangerous situation, and it’s entirely possible that any attempt she makes to free herself will only make things worse.
Because Swords are associated with the element of Air,* it’s easy to read the blades in this card as purely symbolic. The woman we see here isn’t really surrounded by razor-sharp slicey things that could cause her significant bodily harm. She’s only metaphorically surrounded by razor-sharp slicey things. They’re representative of her doubts, her anxieties, her general overthinking, and she can get out of her precarious situation simply by conquering these negative thoughts.
Sure, that reading works for this card, and it’s a reading I often find appropriate. It’s especially important because it gives the querent some kind of agency, some ability to extricate herself from seemingly hopeless circumstances. (And there is nothing we Tarot readers love more than giving our readers a sense of agency, even if it’s false.)
But at the same time, sometimes querents really are trapped. Sometimes their circumstances actually are hopeless, and the swords we see in the card are representative not of internal insecurities but of genuine external factors that restrict the querents’ freedom to act. Sometimes, the woman in the Eight of Swords is surrounded by actual swords.
Sometimes, when you feel trapped, it’s not all in your head.
I often think of the character in this card as Andromeda, from the myth of Perseus. For anyone who doesn’t know the myth, the Cliff’s Notes version is that Andromeda was a princess whose kingdom was being ravaged by a terrible sea monster. (Why, you ask? Because her daddy pissed off Poseidon.) The only way to keep the monster from destroying the kingdom was to offer Andromeda up as a human sacrifice, so she was chained to a rock on the shore and left to die.
Ultimately, she didn’t die, but only because Perseus (on a completely unrelated quest, having just killed Medusa) bumbled along, saw her, and said, “Hey, you look like you need some help.”**
When the Eight of Swords comes up, I often take it as a sign that the querent has problems she can’t fix on her own–that her hands really are tied (although probably not literally so, unless I start reading at escape artist conventions).*** And the message I offer to my querents is that it is okay to be stuck. It’s okay to have insurmountable problems that you don’t know how to fix on your own. Needing help (or, to put it in more extreme fairytale terms, needing to be rescued) doesn’t make a person weak. There are times that we really are helpless, and when those times come along, the smartest thing we can do is hold still, try to keep from making things worse, and call in the cavalry. Or, you know, the demigod. Whatever works.
This reading of the Eight of Swords, with its implicit rescuer arriving from stage left, resembles the Six of Pentacles to a certain extent. They’re both about an offer of aid, although the aid in the latter card is more explicitly financial. However, in the latter card, we see the act of charity explicitly depicted; the focus of the card is on the rescuer in the act of rescuing. In the Eight of Swords, our implied Perseus hasn’t yet arrived. We see the moment of desolation, of hopelessness, before we know for sure that help is going to arrive. We see Andromeda on the verge of giving up. That feeling is what the Eight of Swords is all about.
Sometimes, when you feel trapped, it is all in your head, and you can free yourself by altering your perspective. Sometimes, it’s not, and you have to bow your head and hope that help finds you. The Eight of Swords occupies an overlap between these two feelings. But at the core of both readings of this card, we find the same message: You are helpless right now. You cannot see a way out. But eventually, you will get out of it. You may not be able to make it happen on your own, but one way or another, your circumstances will change.
This is a shorter post than usual. Every now and then I feel the need to sit down and talk about a single card, without loading on any of the overwrought analytical tools I’m so fond of using. When I do, the posts always come out shorter, because I have less backtracking and qualifying to do. I hope you enjoyed today’s post. Do you agree with the way I read this card? Disagree? As always, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
*SHUT UP, WICCA, YOU’RE WRONG ABOUT THIS ONE.
**To which she naturally replied, “Gee, ya THINK?”
***Escape artist conventions are a thing, right? Surely they are. There are conventions for everything.