The Suit of Swords as “Opportunity” – 8 of Swords

Radiant Rider-Waite-Smith, © U.S. Games Systems, Inc.

One of the greatest challenges for a tarot reader is fashioning constructive advice out of what are patently difficult cards. As I’m fond of saying, I’m no fan of the insipid – and untrue – platitude “It’s all good” since, the last time I looked, “bad things” still  do happen to “good people;” we all must play the hand we’re dealt, so we might as well try to make the best of it and get on with our lives. Although some disagree, it’s unfair to our clients to deliver bitter news without at least a dollop of positive reinforcement. I see nothing wrong with the concept of empowerment if it helps my sitters better understand and cope with their plight, and not simply try to fit them with a pair of “rose-colored glasses. That famous “silver lining” is sometimes vanishingly small.

Which brings me to the topic of this post – the idea of the unsympathetic (nay, pitiless) suit of Swords as presenting opportunities for meaningful change. The minor cards of the tarot are all about incremental development as symbolized by the number sequence from One to Ten. Even those cards that work to move us out of our comfort zone (primarily the odd-numbered cards as explained by Joseph Maxwell in The Tarot) are only showing us the way to grow beyond our present limitations. Among the Swords, there are several cards that stand out as the most telling examples of this in the entire deck. They are the 3 of Swords, the 8 of Swords, the 9 of Swords, the 10 of Swords and, to a lesser extent, the 5 of Swords and the 7 of Swords. Today I’m going to tackle the 8 of Swords.

But first I want to express my customary reservations about the “standard” images in the Waite-Smith tarot deck. As a life-long student of the divinatory methods of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as exemplified by Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck and his Book of Thoth, I’ve always felt that Pamela Colman Smith’s visual scenes do little justice in many cases to the underlying theme of the cards. Even though Waite and Smith were both initiates of the Golden Dawn, Smith seems to have “hijacked” the original meaning of around half of the 78 cards and substituted her own vision. It often seems that she and Waite were on entirely different pages, a perception that I recently found supported by Robert Place in his tarot history, The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination. That said, her narrative vignettes for the Swords do a fairly good job of hewing to the original intent.

Regarding the Eights, I don’t adhere to the numerological assumption that they are about “power,” preferring instead the Tree of Life model of declining elemental purity and potency the farther a number descends the Tree from its root in the number One, the Ace, at the very top. Crowley’s assessment of the Eights (along with their counterpart, the Sevens) is that they are “doubly unbalanced; off the middle pillar and very low down on the Tree.” I’ve taken that observation and coupled it with the qabalistic connection of this number to the astrological Mercury, and reached the conclusion that all of the Eights have something to do with anxiety, along with an impulsive reaction to, and possible overcompensation for, the exploratory “testing” of the Sevens. (I’ve elaborated on these thoughts in an earlier post: In the 8 of Pentacles, that innate nervousness expresses itself as meticulous precision bordering on fussiness; in the 8 of Cups, it comes across as a kind of yearning emptiness; the 8 of Wands imparts a restless temperamental instability (Crowley likens it to electricity); and the woman in the 8 of Swords simply looks lost and forlorn.

But I sense a secret salvation in the desperate image of a bound and blindfolded woman who seems completely stymied in her efforts to escape her obvious anguish. She appears to have nowhere to turn for succor. The fence of swords behind her prevents her from going back the way she came, and she can neither see nor grope for a way forward, so she has reached an apparent impasse. All of my major sources of interpretation agree on this point (Mathers: Too much force applied to small things, too much attention to detail at the expense of the principal and more important points; Waite: Bad news, violent chagrin, crisis, etc; Crowley: Lack of persistence in matters of the intellect and of contest, the Will is constantly thwarted by accidental interference. The modern definition of this card follows the idea of mental malaise bordering on a total incapacity of thought and an inability to communicate. The figure in the card is completely self-absorbed and frustrated at all turns.

Yet there are two key elements in the picture that offer an opportunity for progress. First, the water flowing off the lower right corner of the card suggests an emotional outlet and the best chance for relief from the discouraging mental dead-end shown in the tableau, and second, her feet are unbound. In astrology, the feet are ruled by watery Pisces, the sign of intuition and psychic sensitivity, indicating that she has but to “feel” her way out of the cause of her distress. In advising my clients, I call this the “Follow your heart, not your head” card. Next time I will approach the daunting 3 of Swords.


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