We were discussing the Ten of Swords on AeclecticTarot’s forum so I thought I’d summarize my thoughts here. A person lies on land by a body of water with hills blue in the distance. I usually think of the water as a lake because there’s no movement indicated—the water looks placid or even lifeless. The sky is black overhead but, above the mountains, the darkness breaks to reveal a slit of yellow sky.
Contrary to their attributed qualities of Air and Mind, Swords both depict and evoke in the viewer very strong, mostly disturbing, emotions. I once did a Tarot and Emotions Research Project in response to this fact.
Here are the emotion words for the Ten of Swords (times the number of respondents who picked the word):
Waite says very little about this card in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot (PKT):
“A prostrate figure, pierced by all the swords belonging to the card. Divinatory Meanings: Whatsoever is intimated by the design; also pain, affliction, tears, sadness, desolation. It is not especially a card of violent death.”
His additional meanings include imprisonment and treason on the part of friends—which I interpret as ‘stabbed in the back.’
Waite was always very precise with his vocabulary. The key word in his description above is “prostrate,” which means “to cast (oneself) face down on the ground in humility, submission, or adoration; to overthrow, overcome, or reduce to helplessness.” For me, it emphasizes submission to something overwhelming either by choice (humility) or by being overcome. Victimization is a possibility.
He also uses “pierce,” meaning to penetrate or cut through, “by all the swords,” which correspond with mind and intellect. This suggests a kind of ultimate penetration, reaching the end of thought or an idea. This can also indicate pinning ideas down.
Waite’s main emotions are sadness and desolation. Of the latter, the Random House Dictionary says: “The desolate person is deprived of human consolation, relationships, or presence.” Is that why three people gave pity as their emotion in my research project? Has hatred of him by others rendered him desolate?
I have a copy of PKT that once belonged to a priest, whose notes are often enlightening. He points to Rev. 19:15: “And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.” The poor guy looks like he could be both the grapes that were pressed and the nation that was smited.
This priest also refers to Waite’s book The Holy Kabbalah, where we find: “The Flaming Sword which turned every way signifies angels set over the chastisement of man in this world.” This is in a section on the Fall of Man and the Legend of the Deluge [Flood] in which Waite talks about both Eve and Noah having pressed grapes into wine. “The fact that Noah pressed the grapes—as Eve is said also to have done—partook of the juice and so became drunken, is affirmed to contain a mystery of wisdom. . . . [Noah], having set himself to fathom that sin which had caused the fall of the first man, . . . raised a corner of the veil concerning that breach of the world which ought always to remain secret.” Waite then refers to the dangers of some kinds of knowledge. Could this be chastisement for knowing too much? To “chastise” comes from roots meaning “to make pure.” Are limiting thoughts being pressed from him so that what’s left are pure “spirits”?
In the Grail and Masonic Mysteries that Waite used when devising the Minor Arcana (see my article in Llewellyn’s Tarot Reader 2006), this card refers specifically to the death of the Masonic ‘Master Builder’ (murdered treasonously by his brethern), as well as the death of the many knights who perished on the Grail Quest. In the Welsh Perceval, it is the “Sword which broke and was rejoined, [and] in the stress of the last trial, was shattered beyond recovery.”
Waite specifically tells us in PKT that the Knight of Swords is Galahad (who was girded with the Sword of David). He explains how the Quest of Galahad tells how “the Warden of the Mysteries together with the Holy Things [the four suits/Grail Hallows], was removed once and for all . . . [because] the world was not worthy.” And, “The death pictured in the Mysteries is therefore in no sense physical, but is mystical, like the resurrection which follows it” (Waite, The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail). Remember that in PKT, he said: “It is not especially a card of violent death.”
This is the suit of Swords taken to an extreme—”to the nth degree.” Yet in reaching its ultimate conclusion, nothing further can be done in that direction through either thought or aspiration. Now there’s room for a new possibility to emerge [the rising of the black clouds revealing yellow light]—though it has to come from a new and different place. It is an ending that clears the way for new opportunity, but it is only when the ending is fully accepted that the opportunity can emerge. This card is about being pinned down and stuck and finding the blessing in that (note that his hand makes the Hierophant’s sign of benediction). Otherwise the new potential, the Ace (which is the sum of 1+0) cannot be perceived, much less appreciated.
Nevertheless, each of the cards is so rich that a single meaning can’t be the sum total of any card, including this one. I always go with how the querent sees the card at the moment of the reading. Some never see the hand of benediction, while others focus on it right away. Some are very frightened by the card. They think it means the absolute end of something they don’t want to let go of. Or they think it will hurt. Or that they’ll be stuck here forever. Alternatively, they ignore everything except the yellow light.
If I ask a querent to lay down on the floor in the exact position of the figure on the RWS card, something else always happens. Often there’s a feeling of relief and surrender. Some people find it’s like the “deadman’s pose” at the end of a strenuous yoga session, a position from which few want to move because it feels so-o-o good. It’s nice not to have to fight things any more. Others find that the sensation is like acupuncture that awakens the meridians or like the paralysis of spinal injury that numbs.
Essentially, I believe in understanding as deeply as possible the state and sensations depicted on the card as it is, before one rushes on to the yellow light that breaks through the dark clouds. As hard as it is, it is only by knowing the true state and feelings of the person on this card that we having any chance of knowing its blessings.