I’ve written previously about what I consider one of the greatest difficulties in Tarot: So many of the cards seem to mean the same thing. There’s a smattering of cards that mean change. There’s a handful that mean new beginnings. There are several that speak to polarity, or intuition, or personal growth. And when so many cards are so close to each other in meaning, it can be hard to sort out the nuance. What makes the Six of Swords distinct from the Eight of Cups, and makes both of them distinct from Judgment? How is the Queen of Pentacles different from the Empress? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask ourselves in order to access the Tarot deck with any real depth.
I’ve always felt that one of the most interesting pairings in Tarot is that of the Three of Wands and the Nine of Pentacles. Both of them tell the querent, “After a period of anticipation, you are finally seeing the things you were waiting for”. But these two cards have wildly different placements in the deck, and that context lends them each an individual significance that it wouldn’t otherwise have. So let’s look at these two cards together, and try to tease apart what makes each one special.
The most striking difference between them is, of course, in their suits. The Three is in the suit of willpower, determination, and passion. The Nine is in the suit of hard work, steadfastness, and prosperity. So our first-pass understanding of these cards tells us that even though both of them are promising us that we’ll begin to see the things we’ve waited for, they promise things in different domains of our lives. The Three of Pentacles is the kind of reward we get from something that we’ve poured our souls into–a passion project, or something that required a great deal of planning and effort to accomplish. The Nine of Pentacles, on the other hand, is a much more material kind of reward. It’s the return we get on a financial investment, or the health that comes from sticking to a diet and exercise routine.*
Put another way: The Three of Wands is the achievement we feel when we get something we really, really want. The Nine of Pentacles is less about the wanting, and more about the measurable benefit that we get when something pays off. In this sense, the distinction between the two cards is one of orientation; the Nine is outward-looking and concerned with the tangible world, while the Three is inward-looking and concerned with the satisfaction of our own drives and desires.
We can also think about the relationship between these cards in terms of where they fall in their respective suits. The Nine of Pentacles is a Nine.** It’s a card of completion, coming near the end of its suit as the energy of the Pentacles coalesces. The Nine of Pentacles is the reward we get after we’ve made an investment with the Seven and before we share the fruits of our labor with our friends and family in the Ten. It’s the prize waiting for us at the finish line, and there’s a sense in which the Nine of Pentacles signals that a project has ended. We put in our time and effort, we brought everything to full fruition, and now we’re done.
The Three of Wands is nothing like this. It comes fairly early in its suit. We get inspired in the Ace, we make plans in the Two, and then suddenly we’re seeing those plans fulfilled in the Three. But after the Three, we still have to get through the rest of the suit–and boy, are the Wands a slog.*** Once we’ve seen the first glimmerings of payoff, we have to fight very hard to hold onto the things we’ve achieved. Everything is not signed and sealed the way the Nine of Pentacles is. The Three of Wands offers us a much quicker return on investment than what we saw with the Nine, but it is also more tenuous.
We can see this in the way the cards are illustrated. Look at the Three of Wands in the RWS. The figure depicted here is standing atop a hill, watching his ships come in. Yes, he has his eye on the prize, but he is still physically removed from the situation. The ships are visible, but they’re not in port. The man (for some reason, I think of him as a textile merchant; probably because he’s so fabulously dressed) doesn’t yet have his hands on his merchandise. In the Nine of Pentacles, however, the woman depicted is standing in her garden, literally surrounded by the golden coins she’s managed to grow there. She’s proximate to her success in a way that the man in the Three simply is not.
So we have two potential ways to shade the difference between these cards. There’s the outward/inward distinction, and the complete/in-progress distinction. Part of me wonders if these two layers of understanding overlap each other. When we set out to accomplish a task with a concrete, measurable goal, it’s very easy to say when that task is finished. You buy a bond, you wait twenty years, and then the bond pays off. Khalas. But when it comes to matters of inner life, questions of motivation and desire, we can have a harder time identifying that point. The nature of the will is constant striving; it’s not like we accomplish one thing and then never want anything else for the rest of our lives. When we reach goal A, we want to build on it and start working towards goal B–we never put a pin in our desires and call them done. Because of this, it makes sense for the inward-oriented rewards of the Three of Wands not to have the sense of finality and completion that we get with the tangible world of the Pentacles.
That’s about all I have for today. I might not get a post out next week, because I’ll be visiting my parents for the holidays (and I have to write a damn thing about combinatory logic and Frege’s puzzle), but if I don’t, I hope everyone reading this has a happy New Year.
*Yes, there’s a great deal of willpower involved in diet and exercise, but I’d categorize the reward involved as belonging to the suit of Pentacles rather than the suit of Wands.
**Gee, thanks for the tautology, Jack. What a thoughtful and insightful blog you run, with original content that I wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere in the online Tarot community. Keep up the good work.
***I know everyone hates on the Swords for being negative, but how do the Wands get a free pass? Sure, they’re not outright ugly in the way that some of the Swords are, but the Five, Seven, Nine, and Ten are not exactly cards of joy and peace.