“The Wall Was Too High” – A 9 of Swords Comparison

I’ve been reading Barbara Walker’s excellent 1984 book, The Secrets of the Tarot: Origins, History and Symbolism, and have been gaining some valuable insights and inspiration from her brief essays on the Minor Arcana. In it she applies the Thoth title of “Cruelty” to the 9 of Swords while discussing it mainly in terms of the religious Inquisition that terrorized Europe in various incarnations for 500 years. The Waite-Smith version is usually interpreted as showing extreme anxiety or misery, the stuff of sleepless nights and the blackest of nightmares; it exemplifies the aphorism “The night is darkest just before the dawn” and symbolizes the “Dark Night of the Soul” of Spanish poet St. John of the Cross. I read somewhere that it is the only card in the deck with a totally black background.

Recently, I used it to illustrate a verse from the Pink Floyd song “Hey, You” that goes “The wall was too high/As you can see” since the horizontal “ladder” of swords suggests having to “scale the wall” of one’s personal drama in order to be able to look over the top at what lies ahead, even if after hauling oneself up there the view only shows being impaled by ten more swords. (As an aside, this theme of aching, unresolved self-doubt is echoed by the fact that the sword-points terminate outside the frame of the picture, implying that no relief is in sight.) The hopelessness in the image is palpable.

By way of contrast, next to it is one of my favorite versions of the card from the Victorian Romantic tarot (a pricey deck I don’t own but wish I did). It shows an apparently sleepwalking woman sure-footedly navigating a steeply-pitched rooftop in the moonlight. I see it as portraying an introspective way to overcome the wrenching mental/emotional trauma usually associated with this card. (She has already scaled the wall and is now calmly walking the very edge of the roof, a much more uplifting image). While the women in the RWS cards is clearly in the throes of mental anguish, the figure here exudes deep concentration and a placid, meditative demeanor. There is danger here to be sure, but it has been acknowledged and accepted as part of the experience, to be respected but not feared. Unlike the paralyzing torment of the RWS version, this is something that can be worked with.

In the esoteric tarot, each ninth card of the Minor Arcana is said to represent the “perfection” or “completion” of its suit. The elemental energy has reached its full ripeness and can now only dwindle in the Tens. (This Qabalistic viewpoint is markedly different from that of Pythagoras, who considered 10 to be the “perfect number” and not merely the enervated “postscript” of the occultists.) In the suit of Swords, the restlessness of Air has reached a peak of nervous agitation and is “bursting at the seams” with foreboding. A noted tarot scholar of my acquaintance once said “A single sword means trouble; a lot of swords means ‘big trouble.'” In the RWS card that trouble is still brewing in the form of extreme apprehension bordering on paranoia, while in the Victorian Romantic version it has been mediated and brought under the control of the Will. It is this taming of the more acute effects of uncertainty that gives the woman the self-confidence to stroll the eaves so nonchalantly in her bare feet. She has become bigger than the petty concerns that have accumulated to overwhelm her RWS counterpart, and she has relegated them to their proper place in her existential risk analysis. There is absolutely no fear that she is going to fall; forgive me, but we might call it a case of “mind over splatter.”

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