In Defense of the Swords

One of the great frustrations of Tarot is that the Swords get short shrift. Tarot decks contain unpleasant cards—they have to, in order to accurately represent the wide range of human experiences and emotions. A deck that has good vibes only is not actually terribly useful for divination, because it can never give you warning if something bad is headed your way. (This, of course, is one of the objections leveled most commonly against oracle decks, although I think that criticism is largely unfair; many oracle decks do a wonderful job of incorporating difficult themes.)

In mainstream Tarot, however, these negative cards are almost exclusively shuffled into the suit of Swords. The Three, Five, Seven, Eight, Nine, and Ten of Swords are all terrible cards (and arguments could be made for the Two and Four as well, depending on context). While there are other unpleasant cards elsewhere in the Minor Arcana, they’re not nearly as concentrated in any other suit as they are in the Swords. The Fives are all nasty cards, and each other suit has a couple of stingers (e.g. the Four of Cups or the Ten of Wands), but the Swords are unquestionably the nastiest suit in the deck. When you do a reading and see a boatload of Swords, it almost inevitably means that you’re in for a rough time.

To demonstrate what I mean, let’s look at the titles of the Minor Arcana in the Thoth deck. I’ve written the negative cards in red, so that it’s easier to see how many there are per suit.

For the Disks:

  • Change
  • Works
  • Power
  • Worry
  • Success
  • Failure
  • Prudence
  • Gain
  • Wealth

For the Swords:

  • Peace
  • Sorrow
  • Truce
  • Defeat
  • Science
  • Futility
  • Interference
  • Cruelty
  • Ruin

For the Cups:

  • Love
  • Abundance
  • Luxury
  • Disappointment
  • Pleasure
  • Debauch*
  • Indolence
  • Happiness
  • Satiety

And finally, for the Wands:

  • Dominion
  • Virtue
  • Completion
  • Strife
  • Victory
  • Valour
  • Swiftness
  • Strength
  • Oppression

Six of nine Swords cards (not counting the Ace) are negative. This in contrast with only two out of nine negative cards for the Disks and Wands, and (charitably) three out of nine for the Cups. The Swords don’t just get the short end of the stick; they don’t even get an end at all. And while the RWS and Thoth systems are different, the RWS is not any more balanced in this respect. (It’s just easier to show that imbalance with the Thoth deck because the cards have titles and are more unambiguously positive or negative.)

All the nasty cards from the suit of Swords.

I think that’s a real shame, because it reflects unfairly on the elemental attribution of the Swords—namely, the element of air. The four suits of the Minor Arcana are meant to express the four elements, each of which has beneficial and detrimental traits, but when one suit gets cornered as the “bad” suit, its corresponding element is likewise tarred.** Elemental air can be a lot of things: Freedom, intellect, curiosity, communication, innovation, language, mirth, wit, and so on. And yes, some of those things are bad: Cruelty, heartlessness, mercuriality, flakiness, and a complete disengagement from the world. Nonetheless, a lot of air’s qualities are good and necessary to human flourishing. Having the suit of Swords be so disproportionately full of pain and strife obscures that reality, and makes it seem like the other three elements are good, but air is something to minimize and avoid.

There’s no real way around it: The Swords in Tarot suck. But I wish they didn’t. (Admittedly, TdM-style reading avoids this problem altogether. It’s really only an issue with RWS or Thoth decks.) But by golly, I wish they didn’t, because they shouldn’t if we’re considering the Minor Arcana as a whole. Ideally, I would love for Tarot to be more elementally balanced, and not to pin “badness” as the exclusive domain of any one suit in the Minor Arcana.

(Then again, I’m a fierce traditionalist about Tarot and I staunchly object to radical restructurings of the Tarot deck, so it’s not like I’m going to do anything more than complain about it.)

That’s about all I have for today. Just sifting through some thoughts. What are your thoughts on the suit of Swords? Do you have the same complicated, thorny relationship with it that many people in Tarot do? Has this affected your perception of the other qualities associated with Swords in the abstract—things like thought, writing, or research? Let me know!

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*The title “Debauch” is not inherently a bad one, and this card isn’t obviously negative. But the color scheme is kind of sickly, and there’s a sense with this card that the debauchery has something unhealthy about it, so I’m counting it here in order to be as charitable as possible toward the elemental balance of the cards.

**Incidentally, this has long been something I object to about the TERF lady’s wizard books. Admittedly, I kind of grew out of Harry Potter and am no longer nearly as invested in it as I was as a child (independently of JKR’s violent anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, which is also reason enough not to be invested in her writing). Nonetheless, it’s a problem with the world-building: The four houses of Hogwarts are supposed to relate to the four elements, but Rowling needed an antagonist, so she took Slytherin (the water house) and made it evil. If we were actually going by elemental attributes, Slytherin would be the house of weepy poets, not of Nazis. Instead, Slytherin is unrecognizable as water; even if we look at non-Nazi Slytherins, their defining feature is ambition, which is a fiery quality, not a watery one. There is no place in Hogwarts for artists, dreamers, and feelers, and elemental water gets unwittingly slandered as the “bad” element. THAT’S NOT HOW ELEMENTAL BALANCE WORKS.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of the Swords

  1. Yup that’s one of the reasons why my recent switch to TdM decks after decades of RWS decks has been so freeing. Those Swords cards can still be harsh but not always now. Context is everything. Hard to ignore ten swords sticking out of someone’s back!

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  2. I very much agree. I have a problem, as well, with the way in which the progression from ace to ten is basically seen as a decline in all the suits except coins/pentacles. This seems to be a residue of bad metaphysics: manifestation bad. I switched from the Thoth deck to the Pythagorean Tarot a few years back because I felt that it had less of this, but I think my long-term trajectory is going to be to TdM. The problem, of course, is that then I’d have to essentially come up with a comprehensive set of my own interpretations for the pips, which would be time consuming, albeit satisfying.

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    1. Edward,

      I too prefer the TdM for the balance in the four suits, and the beauty and timelessness of the art. This “dialectic” method of pips interpretation has worked well for me:

      https://paulhughesbarlow.com/dialectic-papus/

      (The formatting is chewed up, but you can get the idea)

      I think it’s capable of just as much detail and gradation as RWS’s images. Also, it’s easy to remember.

      Liked by 1 person

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