Running Towards, Running Away: The Six of Swords and Eight of Cups

I’ve written before about themes that seem to dominate the Tarot deck. Viewed from a certain angle, it seems like every card in the Tarot means “change”. Or, alternatively, that every card means “balance”. Or “growth”. And so on. As a reader, this can be useful, because every now and then you get a reading that just hits you over the head with a frying pan’s worth of symbolism. You draw the Devil, the Six of Pentacles inverted, and the Four of Pentacles, and you can’t help leaping up from the table, tearing your hair out at the roots, and screaming, “Jesus, I get it already!”

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But it can also be a challenge. When every card seems to mean the same thing, it can be hard to differentiate the nuances of individual cards, and to pull out a unique story beyond a generic one-word theme of the sort that you might see on an inspirational poster in a youth pastor’s office. Today, I want to look at two cards in depth, and talk about the ways their meanings are similar but importantly different. Those two cards are the Six of Swords and the Eight of Cups.

Both of these cards are about shifting perspectives. They’re about changing who you are, how you see the world. In that way, I think of them as lesser versions of the Hanged Man, although—as might well be expected of a Major Arcanum—the Hanged Man often teaches much harder and longer-lasting lessons than what we get from the Minors. Both of these cards visually represent journeys, and while they can sometimes mean literal travel,* they represent a broader theme of changing where you stand, literally or figuratively. Both the Six of Swords and the Eight of Cups take you from one place to another.

However, there’s a major difference between these two cards, or at least in the way that I’ve always read them. Both of them are about motion and changing perspectives, but the Six of Swords is moving to something new, and the Eight of Cups is moving away from something old. There’s a difference in emphasis between these two, a question of why you’re changing perspectives in the first place. Are you searching for something, or are you leaving something behind?

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In reality, of course, these two things almost always happen concurrently. We never quit something that’s not serving us unless we’re also looking for something that does serve us; and likewise, we don’t need to go search our fortune on the horizon if everything we have is already farting rainbows. But it’s a question of framing. When either of these cards comes up, it’s a sign that the querent needs to change her circumstances or the way she thinks about them, but the question is, why? From her perspective, what is the impetus for this change? Does it come from what’s in front of her, or from what she’s leaving behind?

There are few visual cues in the cards themselves to indicate this distinction. To be honest, I’m not even really sure where I got it. My earliest Tarot books never talked about these cards in conjunction with each other, but the individual descriptions of the cards were just too close to each other for my taste, and I sought a way to differentiate them. One thing we can note is the placement of the suit item in each card. With any of the Minor Arcana, we can pay attention to the placement of the relevant objects (i.e. Pentacles, Swords, Cups, or Wands) as an indicator of where the focus of the card lies.

In the Eight, the Cups are behind the figure walking into the distance. They’re what this person is leaving behind. In the Six, on the other hand, the Swords are placed in front of the cloaked figures in the boat, leading the journey forward to the opposite shore. The suit objects in each of these cards pull us in different respective directions, anchoring us to the past or standing in the prow as we sail forward into the unknown.

We can also think about these cards from an elemental point of view. Cups are emotions; Swords are thought. When we change perspectives emotionally, it can often be a long, challenging, tearful process, all about learning how to let go (e.g. of toxic behavioral cycles or abusive relationships). When we change perspectives intellectually, it’s often in the spirit of discovery and paradigm-shifting revolution.** After all, the title of the Six of Swords in the Thoth deck is “Science”.

I see these cards as the before and after of any major shift. They act as bookends. When one shows up in a reading without the other, it’s an invitation to think about the nature of the change requires and the reason for pursuing change in the first place. When they both show up, I like to look at them in context. Sure, there’s an overwhelming (frying pan-level) message of “Move!“, but you can still get more than that. What are the cards near the Six? Near the Eight? Which positions do these cards show up in? How do they behave relative to the rest of the spread? If the Eight of Cups is overlaid with the Ten of Cups reversed, and the Six of Swords appears to be steering towards the Four of Wands, that says a great deal.

There are, of course, other cards in the deck that talk about the need to shift oneself, either literally or as a matter of perspective. I’ve already mentioned the Hanged Man, but the Chariot is another obvious example, as are all of the Knights. Nonetheless, I’ve always felt there was a special affinity between the Six of Swords and the Eight of Cups.


*As the Six of Swords did in Live and Let Die, for any James Bond fans in the audience.

**Of course, this generalization doesn’t always apply. Falling in love is an emotional shift that’s all about embracing something new, and anyone who ever struggled with math homework in high school will give me a side-eyed look for my “thrill of discovery” spiel.

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