Another curious phrase used by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn describes the 8 of Swords as the “Lord of Shortened Force.” To me, “shortened” implies too little of something, but in Liber T Macgregor Mathers had this to say: “Too much force applied to small things.” I just can’t see it in that light; it seems to suggest an inadequate display of force that fails to achieve its goal, an arrow that falls short of the target and nothing remotely like trying to hit a gnat with a sledgehammer. I suppose it could mean unfocused force that hasn’t found the range and is overshooting the mark, in which case its aim needs to be shortened to come within striking distance; think of it as requiring a “measured stoke” rather than a full-on “roundhouse” swing. However, Mathers’ text doesn’t support that conclusion, although the title does connote an effort that is under-powered such that it falters in its execution. My thesaurus gives these synonyms for shorten: “lessen; minimize; reduce; shrink; curtail; abridge” and similar expressions of cutting back. In my own practice I’ve settled on the esoteric title “Lord of Restrained Force” for the 8 of Swords.
In The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Waite doesn’t use Mathers’ definition and doesn’t even acknowledge it directly; the woman in the RWS 8 of Swords looks like she is being prevented from exerting any force, having been reduced to cautiously feeling her way with her feet. Crowley’s Thoth version carries the title “Interference” and he observes that the force of Will is blunted by accidental misfortune. Of the two, Crowley’s seems better aligned with the original title in that the force is “brought up short” by unexpected opposition. The same might be said of the RWS card but Waite chose not to use the allusion to “shortness,” instead offering the more oblique reference to “power in trammels” (that is, in check or encumbered).
Modern interpretation ignores the implication of mundane force entirely and sees this card in terms of cognitive impotence or a debilitating “mental block.” The advice, in keeping with the RWS image, is usually to avoid overthinking the dilemma and trust your intuition. As I’ve said before, the fascinating thing for me in Smith’s scene is that only the woman’s feet are unbound, and the feet are associated with the intuitive and sensitive Water sign, Pisces. The water in the picture runs off the lower-right corner of the card, giving the impression that the woman can escape the encircling swords by using the feeling in her feet to sense and track the flow, in essence “following her heart” without knowing where it’s going to lead her. (Unfortunately, it drops her in the 9 of Swords – “Lord of Despair and Cruelty” – where she still has to confront her unresolved anxieties; talk about “jumping from the frying pan into the fire!”) At least for the moment it suggests uncommon finesse in maneuvering out of a bind as the best approach rather than attempting to reawaken dormant force.