A friend of mine, let’s call her C., often complains that she doesn’t understand the suit of swords. I find this interesting, as most of the times that I talk to her, she is behaving like a sword, always analyzing things and trying to find her balance in the midst of a hectic day. Even if it is not the dominant element, swords are there and definitely play a big part in her life. It is there in her decision making when she cuts to the chase (which she often does). It is there in the way she handles her disease (she has an autoimmune disease which can leave her quite impaired when it flares up), by carefully weighting her options and evaluating how her treatments are improving – or not – her condition. It is there in the delicate balance that exists between her own limitations and her life, both professionally and personal. In fact, her medical condition has such an impact in her life that if it wasn’t for her ability to correctly use swords, things would have turned out quite differently.
So, what does the suit of swords mean when we’re dealing with the tarot?
We start with the word. Swords are long, sharp blades capable of cutting things down. Since there are also other objects that can cut things – like daggers, knifes, sharp glass, razors, scissors, hatches, axes, paper or cold air – we can also place these under the suit of swords. Swords then indicate things with sharp edges, and indeed, sharpness is one of the first things that comes to my mind when there is a sword at play. However, there are other objects that are also sharp. Things like nails, needles and pins might not be able to cut, but they prickle. They can also open wounds just like a sword can. They don’t have a sharp edge, but possess a sharp point, which means that these two can also be grouped under the suit of swords. We can then say that this suit represents anything with either a sharp edge or point; anything that can open a wound, no matter how superficial or small. And, while most tarot decks do focus on swords, some do look beyond them, addressing this very concept of sharpness.
Swords then are things that can cut. That can open wounds and, if the cut is too deep, kill. No wonder that they are seen as the most negative suit of the tarot. They bring to mind such ideas as pain, trouble, tears and death. And yet…since nothing “is” only negative or only positive, there is another side to this suit. Cutting things down can be, in the right context, a positive things. A common example is a problem so big that it needs to be addressed in parts; it needs to be cut down in smaller pieces so that each piece can be addressed separately. This is known as reductionism and is probably one of the sharpest tools of reason. Another example is the “cutting of illusions” that while destroying a dream also gives us the ability to be pragmatic and rational; to look at things as they are and not as we wished them to be.
We also cut things down when we need to divide something – a cake, for example – into small portions so that everyone can have its fill. Think about sharing with friends and family, about things like charity (where we take a part of our possessions and give them to those in need) or even about the process of reproduction. Cells replicate by continuously dividing themselves and even in the phenomenon of birth, where the baby gets separated from its mother. In a way, it is as if the mother gives up a part of her body in order for it to have a separate existence. All divisions and all events under the suit of swords.
And then there is concept of equilibrium. If you’ve ever tried to handle a sword, even if just for a swing, you’ve noticed that that is not an easy thing to do. Swords are heavy things, but they should move as if they were weightless. The arm and the sword need to be in sinc if the swing is to have any effect. Sword practitioners spend years trying to perfect that balance between their arm and the sword that’s being held, all to get the clean, swift, graceful swing that can effortlessly cut things down. If you haven’t, go watch some youtube videos of samurais or sword practice and focus on the lightness and the fluidity of the movement. Here’s a nice video of Yoshio Sugino, 10th Dan Master of Katori Shinto Ryu.
Balance is also required to make a sword. The metal needs to be heated, hammered and bent, its proportions, curvature and bevels shaped into being, sharpened, treated with clays or other substances, quenched, tempered, sharpened and polished. The blade needs to be balanced in order to properly swing. The edge has to be sharp and hard, in order to cut through effortlessly, while the back of the blade has to be softer in order to absorve the shock of blows meted out by opponents. This means that the blade has to be both flexible and hard. For more on sword making, watch this video below:
So what does all this has to do with reading cards?
It’s easy to see how the ideas of flexibility, hardship, cutting down, and balance can be reflected in cards with the trumps most associated with swords, namely Justice and Death. It is when we get to the pips that things might become more problematic. And here we need to distinguish between the esoteric decks – like the Waite-Smith and the Thoth – and the Marseille style decks with its more down-to-earth approach.
With the esoteric decks, those concepts are present in both the drawings and the theory that goes with the card. If you can understand how an energy, for a lack of a better word, whose main purpose is to divide and to cut down, thus restoring balance where it is needed, changes along the suit, you’re all ready to go.
For the Marseille decks, however, a different approach is needed, since these type of decks are best read by looking at what they show us that to any cabalistic / magical / psychological / whatever theory. And what they show us is swords entwined in one another, forming oval structures which might contain – or not – something inside. When Swords appear in a reading, the first thing one needs to think is there’s something that needs cutting down and fast. Why fast? Because not only it’s the fastest weapon of the four suits, but also because once something is cut down that’s it. Problem solved. So, the higher the number of swords, the more urgent / pressing / complex / demanding / oppressive / painful your problem is. Or, to put it in another way, the more imbalanced the situation is and the faster you need to act and strike down everything that’s causing the mess in front of you. But it also means that the less options you have, because well, it’s the night of the long blades and something has to be done NOW! if one is to survive this.
This is backed by the cards, as when the numbers increase, that circle of swords grows and grows, expanding towards the centre and the flower that was inside wanes and wanes into oblivion. Besides, as the number of swords increase, so does that sharp cocoon thickens. What this means is that as the number of swords increase, so do things become tougher and uglier. There’s no more Mr. Nice Guy here; only the need of swift action and to hell with the consequences. If, however, the swords decrease, things become less pressing and more malleable. It’s easier to sort things out, to balance things out.
Whether one is using a Marseille-styled deck or an esoteric deck, swords take no prisoners. Taking the way of the sword is to take the warrior’s path. It is to fight every day with determination and calm; to meet any situation without strains and without being reckless. As I said earlier, my friend C. has a great deal of swords in her. It’s not her dominant element, as there’s also a lot of fire in there, which brings a certain recklessness, unpredictability and a kind of lust for life that no Sword could give. But swords are there, sharp and ready for whatever the day will bring.