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Few things are more exciting to me than stumbling across a text or image that perfectly reflects a tarot card, especially when it makes me reconsider my ideas about that card.
Today I read the following in the mystery novel A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, says to a family at their annual reunion:
“We believe Madame Martin was murdered.”
There was a stunned silence. He’d seen that transition almost every day of his working life. He often felt like a ferryman, taking men and women from one shore to another. From the rugged, though familiar, terrain of grief and shock into a netherworld visited by a blessed few. To a shore where men killed each other on purpose.
They’d all seen it from a safe distance, on television, in the papers. They’d all known it existed, this other world. Now they were in it. . . .
No place was safe.
Ah, a perfect rendition of the Six of Swords! I was first struck by it being from the viewpoint of the ferryman, not the passengers. A ferryman who is compassionately aware of the deep emotional shifts of those he is transporting—but not partaking directly in those shifts. For a moment I thought, ‘But, of course, the Six of Swords is about the ferryman, not necessarily the passengers! A ferryman who again and again observes this shift taking place in those he ferries. A ferryman who is both separate and yet momentarily involved.’
There is no indication that the author, Louise Penny, had the tarot card in mind. Rather this is a common classical metaphor linking Charon and the river Styx to the family of a murdered person being ferried out of the world-as-they-had-known-it to a shore previously viewed only as a distant abstraction.
I often ask a querent, “Where are you in the card?” With the Six of Swords, the querent is always one of the figures, but it could equally be the ferryman or the hunched-over adult or the child. By contrast, with other cards, the querent occasionally sees him or herself standing just beyond the borders, behind a column, or, in the case of the Tower, still inside the structure—divorced from the action.
With the Six of Swords there is usually an eventual recognition that the querent is all three persons in the boat. As ferryman, the querent tends to feel he or she is in charge or at least doing something active that will lead to a better end. As passengers, anxiety or grief tends to trump hope, yet there is still a belief that the destination will be better than the “familiar terrain of grief and shock” that they’ve just left.
Interestingly, in the novel, the seven main suspects had, just the day before, gone out together in the lake on a boat—a passage fraught with animosity and repressed danger. The Chief Inspector/ferryman recognizes that the new world they are now facing will be more terrifying than the passengers ever could have imagined. Furthermore, they aren’t just visitors—blessed because they can leave—they will soon be inhabitants. There’s no going back. Grief and shock may exist in the land of the innocent. But, in the land of the experienced, as William Blake well knew, wrath and fear dominate, and the ferryman can’t stop it from happening.
How different the card looks to me now. It is full of foreboding, and yet there is calm in knowing that this is an inevitable journey from the false safety of innocence into the land of Blake’s experience where realities will finally be faced. As in all murder mysteries the truth will be revealed. But, in an actual reading, is the client always ready to hear such truths?
Doesn’t the admonition, “to know thyself,” mean that we have to come to know and take responsibility for the part within ourselves who “kills another”? Both the querent and the reader want the other shore to be better than the one from which they’ve come, but there are times when we have to go through much worse. What is the reader to tell the client? And, here there are no easy answers.
I hope this makes me stop and think before I blurt out cheerfully, “Oh, you are going through a transition from the rough waters of the past to smooth waters ahead.” Sometimes I, the reader, am the ferryman/chief inspector, who must recognize with compassion that real detection can strip the soul bare and set one in the dread grasp of Blake’s tyger and not in the rejoicing vales of the lamb (see poems here). The rest of the Sword suit (7–10) warns what may come from a detection of the wrongs, or what comes to light when one really wants to “know thyself.” Does the querent really want to go there, or is the querent trusting the reader to ferry them to a safe harbor?
Still, I think it helps the reader—the ferryman who steers the way through the cards in a spread from one’s familiar anxieties to a different shore—to consider what may be truly implied from such a scene in the suit of Swords. This new perspective reminds me that in a reading I am attempting to steer the course when I don’t always know what is lying in wait for my passenger on the other side or how prepared my passenger might be to meet that. It is a grave responsibility.
Tree of Life on the Tarot in the Four Worlds
I am delighted to provide this previously unpublished text, which is from a hand-copied manuscript of Sub Spe [John Brodie Innes] I apologize to those who will find many of the references difficult, but the information can help greatly in understanding the Golden Dawn approach to the Minor Arcana and also the Rider-Waite-Smith and Crowley’s Thoth decks. A glossary of Golden Dawn terms is available at The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn website (click on H.O.G.D. Dictionary in the directory).
The Breath of God passes down through the Four Worlds of the Qabalah from the purely Spiritual to the absolutely material. In each world there is a Tree of Life and the Breath passes down from Sephira to Sephira from Kether to Malkuth and thence to the Kether of the new lower World.
Atziluth, Yetzirah, Briah, Assiah (Wands, Swords, Cups, Pentacles).
Thus in Atziluth the Archetypal World it passes from Eheieh the Creative Breath to Adonai Malekh. This gives its impulse to Kether of Briah the Archangelic World, and in this plane it passes from Metatron the Male Kerub to Sandalphon the Female Kerub. This in turn gives its impulse to Kether of Assiah the Astral Plane where it is received by Chaioth ha Qadesh. The Holy Living Creatures, i.e. the Zodiac which is a wheel or Vortex and goes down to Ashim the Souls of Fire. The work of this Plane being to disintegrate the Astral Form that it may pass through the veils of Negative Existence and be reborn on the Material in Kether of Assiah. Here it is received by Rashith ha Gilgalim the Primum Mobile or Lord Kelvin’s “Vortex ring” and passes down to Cholem Yesodoth. Material Wealth. Malkuth of Assiah.
Thus we have four Trees one above the other containing 40 Sephiroth; i.e., the 4 Aces & 36 small cards of the Tarot arranged in 4 suits corresponding to the Worlds, each attributed to a Planet in a Decanate, and ruled by 2 Angels of the Shemhamaphoresch. This allocation of symbols gives the meaning ascribed to each card.
[The results and names of the cards are arrived at by combining the meanings of the numbers, with the meanings of the suits and interpreting by the Kabbalah. I have added clarifying material from other sources in brackets[ ]. Tarot card illustrations are from the Golden Dawn Whare Ra deck. —mkg]
Meaning of Numbers:
2. unites the Forces of the Positive and Negative, the King and Queen of the suit. Hence it signifies a beginning or Initiation.
[Unites forces of King and Queen, Fire & Water, Postive & Negative = reflection, love, pleasure, harmony. Chokmah is exalted above every head. Sphere of Wheel of Change and the Zodiac.]
3. produces the Prince. The Resultant of that union. A spiritual card.
[Produces the Prince (resultant (perfect manifestation) of union of King and Queen). Saturn = steadiness and restraint.]
4. produces the Princess. The Realization making the matter fixed or settled. Often taken as a new beginning. A material card.
[The Princess. Realization (4) of Power (Jupiter). Makes the matter fixed and settled. Chesed = the receptacle of all the Holy Powers and from it emanates all the Virtues).]
5. compounded of the first odd and the first even numbers denotes Opposition.
[Sphere of Mars. 5 = opposition, strife. Geburah = severity. Unites Wisdom and Knowledge.]
6. called by Nichomachus the form of form and by the Pythagoreans the Perfection of Parts, is taken to imply Accomplishment.
[Sphere of Sun = power, rank, rule. 6 = Accomplishment. Tiphereth = Mediating Intelligence for it causes that influence to flow into all the Reservoirs of Blessings.]
7. in Hebrew called ShBV Shibo or abundance unites the spiritual 3 to the material 4 and signifies a Supernal Force, also a possible result to be obtained by skill and courage.
[Sphere of Venus = external (outer) splendour. Netzach = the Refulgent Splendour of all Intellectual Virtues. Force transcending the material plane.]
8. The first cube of energy and the only evenly even number in the decade. Signifies material success, but sterile – not heading further. Solitary successes.
[Sphere of Mercury = Genius. Hod = Solitary Successes. 8 = Feeble Force, lacks initiative. Martial force without restraint.]
9. The triple Three, the first square of the odd number, of the Spiritual three. No further elementary number is possible hence it is like the horizon. All other numbers are bounded by it. Hence it implies Fundamental Force.
[Sphere of the Moon which governs the Waters of earth, the feminine & negative. 9 = a strong fundamental force. Yesod – the Path of Pure Intelligence.]
10. The beginning again of the decimal scale. Completed Force.
[Sphere of the Elements/Earth. Fixed and completed force. Power exercised in material things only.]
The 4 Aces are always the Roots of the Powers of their element. For other meanings see “Extracts from Book T., given in Ritual N.”
YOD-HE-VAU-HE is the Supreme God of the Plane of Earthly life governing material, mental and psychic forces by immutable laws. The “God” of the Old Testament.
ELOHIM = the Guiding Spirits who under YHVH sway the material forces. Always used collectively and usually translated Lord.
The ELOHIM contact humanity. YHVH does not – directly.
ADONI = the Planetary God of Earth. To a certain extent answers to Christ when looked at from his Human aspect, but recognising His Divinity. YHShVH is His Divine Aspect.
Ace of Wands: (Kether of Atziluth, Root of the Powers of Fire) Eheieh is the Creative Sigh, the Divine outbreathing – the Eastern Hamsa. The Greek _?_. The Spirit of God in Genesis. By this Divine Life first enters the Kether of the highest of the Four Worlds and penetrates to Malkuth of the Lowest. In the Tarot this influence comes from the Keys to the Ace of Wands.
Two of Wands: (Chokmah of Atziluth, Lord of Dominion, Mars in Aries) Unites forces of King & Queen. The Union of Fire & Water. The Spirit of Yod [Jehovah]on the face of the Water. Chokmah is exalted above every head. Mars in Aries representing the decanate is absolutely powerful. Hence influence over others. Good or bad according to dignity.
Three of Wands: (Binah of Atziluth, Established Strength, Sun in Aries) Produces the Prince. Resultant of union of King and Queen. Here the union of the Earth God Yod-He-Vau-He with the Lords of Creation Binah Elohim is the basis of Primordial Wisdom. The forms of Faith and its Roots. Amen. Sun the center of Power to the Earth in the fiery Aries give realization of hopes of energy = Established Strength.
Four of Wands: (Chesed of Atziluth, Perfected Work, Venus in Aries) Produces the Princess making the matter fixed and settled. EL is the definite article. The absolute. Chesed is the receptacle of all the Holy Powers and from it emanates all the Virtues. Venus in the fiery Aries has her full fruition. Hence have we perfected work.
Five of Wands: (Geburah of Atziluth, Strife, Saturn in Leo) Opposition. Elohim Gebor is the Lord of Severity [and battles]. He intensifies opposition. Geburah is itself severity. It unites Wisdom and Knowledge. Here gloomy Saturn dulls the light of Leo hence we get Strife. Ultimate success or failure is otherwise [elsewhere] shown.
Six of Wands: (Tiphareth in Atziluth, Victory, Jupiter in Leo) Accomplishment. The dual influences of the Earth God and the Directing Lords of Creation Elohim [Jehovah Aloah va Daath] directed to NETZACH or Knowledge give absolute success to skill and courage. Jupiter power in the shining light of Leo completes the idea. Tiphereth is the Mediating Intelligence for it causes that influence to flow into all the Reservoirs of Blessings. Hence is Victory after Strife.
Seven of Wands: (Netzach in Atziluth, Valour, Mars in Leo) A possible result. A force transcending the Material Plane. Mars in Leo gives this a martial direction. Jehovah Tzabaoth the Earth God of Hosts shows terrific force but restrained. Netzach is the Refulgent Splendour of all Intellectual Virtues. The sum of all these gives Valour.
Eight of Wands: (Hod in Atziluth, Swiftness, Mercury in Sagittarius) Solitary Successes. The Name is the Lord of Armies Elohim Tzabaoth. Martial Force without restraint. Mercury in the fire of the Sagittarius Centaur also gives the idea of too much force suddenly applied. Swiftness of the horse but running nowhere. Success but leading to nothing.
Nine of Wands: (Yesod of Atziluth, Great Strength, Moon in Sagittarius) Strong fundamental force Shaddai el Chai = the Vast & Mighty One. Both are of the same character but less fierce than the 10. The gentle Moon somewhat restrains the fire of the Centaur Sagittarius – it giving great strength but benignly used. The Sephiroth is the Path of Pure Intelligence.
Ten of Wands: (Malkuth of Atziluth, Oppression, Saturn in Sagittarius) Fixed and completed force. Adonai Malekh = The Power of Earth as a King. The two give to the Fire of Wands an overpowering Force which = Cruelty. Gloomy Saturn rides but does not control the fire of the Centaur Sagittarius which is the Airy Fire. Such fierce blast of Fire whirls to the Male Kerub, Metatron, in Kether of Briah. [The Divine Impulse … by growing materially powerful becomes sheer cruelty and oppression.]
CUPS – The Tree of Life in Briah
Ace of Cups: (Kether of Briah, Root of the Powers of Water) The Right Hand Male Kerub [Metatron] receives the influences from Adoni Malekh. See Key Table for further information.
Two of Cups: (Chokmah of Briah, Love, Venus in Cancer) Unites the King and Queen. Positive and Negative forces of Love and Pleasure. Ratziel the Archangel of the forces of a Vortex or wheel gives Power. Venus in Cancer is especially Venusian. All the Ideas tend in the same way to the unmodified and uncombined ideas of Cups – Love.
Three of Cups: (Binah of Briah, Abundance, Mercury in Cancer) Produces the Prince. = Abundance resulting from Love. Tzaphkiel has to do with forces of Saturn giving the steadying quality to Mercury, the versatility which qualify the overstrong cup-action making it fruitful.
Four of Cups: (Chesed of Briah, Blended Pleasure, Moon in Cancer) Produces the Princess. Realisation. Tzadkiel is the power of Jupiter so far good, but Moon in Cancer gives change and instability. Happiness approaching an end. Too passive to be perfectly complete.
Five of Cups: (Geburah of Briah, Loss in Pleasure, Mars in Scorpio) Opposition neutralises the force of Cups. Khamael is the Archangel of the Mars forces. Quarrels and fighting – the antithesis of Love. Mars in Scorpio = the stirring up of stagnant water. All intensify the idea. End of Pleasure. Sadness. Deceit. Treachery in Love.
Six of Cups: (Tiphareth in Briah, Pleasure, Sun in Scorpio) Accomplishment. Raphael is the Archangel of the Sun. United influence brings to pass what is wished – e.g. on the material plane. Sensual Pleasure. The influence of Sun in Scorpio is enervating breeding corruption. If Sun is strong – vanity, etc.
Seven of Cups: (Netzach in Briah, Illusionary Success, Venus in Scorpio) A possible success. The Supernal Forces Haniel is the Archangel connected with the Venus forces. Success is only outward. Supernal forces bring it to nothing. Nogah the sphere of Venus represents external splendour. Venus in Scorpio the gleam on stagnant water. All repeat the idea.
Eight of Cups: (Hod in Briah, Abandoned Success, Saturn in Pisces) Solitary Success. Michael the Archangel of Fire is too strong for the feeble force of the 8. Saturn in the airy Pisces gives indolence and dispondency. The whole shows temporary success abandoned as soon as gained.
Nine of Cups: (Yesod of Briah, Material Happiness, Jupiter in Pisces) Strong fundamental force. Gabriel is the Archangel of Water on the material plane. He presides over birth and generation. Hence he was announcer of the birth of Christ and of John the Baptist. More material than Sandalphon as 9 is less complete than 10. Jupiter is not such a perfect combination with Pisces as Mars, so this card is almost perfect happiness.
Ten of Cups: (Malkuth of Briah, Perfected Success, Mars in Pisces) A fixed and Completed Force. Sandalphon, the Female Kerub, an Archangel yet Chief of the Angels. Showering influence of Chaioth ha Qadesh [Kether] – being the Female Kerub receiving its influence from above and transmuting it to the Zodiac, the Wheel of material creation. Mars gives the balance of Fire; Pisces that of Water. Hence this is an extremely good and fortunate card.
SWORDS – The Tree of Life in Yetzirah
Ace of Swords: (Kether in Yetzirah, Root of the Powers of Air) The Holy Living Creatures [Chaioth ha Qadesh], represent the Zodiac itself as Chokmah of Assiah represents its sphere. Hence a vortex receiving the influence through the veils of the negative from Malkuth of Briah which is Perfected Happiness.
Two of Swords: (Chokmah of Yetzirah, Peace Restored, Moon in Libra) Unites King and Queen thus producing Harmony. Auphanim is the Wheel of Change. Thus the Angels of the Revolving Symbolism restore peace. The gentle influence of Moon on Libra fiery air, restores and pacifies.
Three of Swords: (Binah of Yetzirah, Sorrow, Saturn in Libra) Produces the Prince. = The beginning and ending. Giver of Death. Aralim called Thrones more properly. Heroes intensifies the Prince. Hence Sorrow. Gloomy Saturn in fiery Air repeats the idea.
Four of Swords: (Chesed of Yetzirah, Rest from Strife, Jupiter in Libra) Realization. Chasmalim = a brillant metal, perhaps gold or silver. The Angels characterised by brightness [Shining Ones]. The realization of Brilliance. Thus = Rest after Strife. Jupiter Power in Libra fiery Air. Holds its heat restrained. This repeats the idea.
Five of Swords: (Geburah of Yetzirah, Defeat, Venus in Aquarius) Opposition. Strife. Seraphim = Angelic Beings whose character is burning or Fire [fiery serpents]. There is nothing to modify the fiery heat of strife which must bring defeat. Venus in the soft nature of Watery air succumbs to any Force.
Six of Swords: (Tiphareth in Yetzirah, Earned Success, Mercury in Aquarius) Accomplishment. Malachim – King Forces & those who obtain success by commanding it. Hence success not by luck but by effort. Mercury = Genius. Versatility acting on the plastic material of watery Air strives for and obtains success.
Seven of Swords: (Netzach in Yetzirah, Unstable Effort, Moon in Aquarius) Forces transcending the material Plane. Elohim = the idea of strength; hence effort but Supernal Forces overcome & render it unstable. Aquarius – Watery Air acted on by the inconstant Moon increases this result.
Eight of Swords: (Hod in Yetzirah, Shortened Force, Jupiter in Gemini) Solitary Successes. Beni Elohim = Sons of God. A lower and inferior order of Angels. Not able to prevail against the restrictions of the number 8. Jupiter = Power, but having only the Airy Air of Gemini as a basis, cannot exert Power to the full.
Nine of Swords: (Yesod of Yetzirah, Despair and Cruelty, Mars in Gemini) 9 = A strong fundamental force. Cherubim = Sphinxes compounded of the Elements. The supporters of Diety who fly with a swooping or circling motion, the beginning of a whirl, outcasting answering to Rashith ha Gilgalim [Kether’s First Swirlings]. The strong force tending to break up, appears like cruelty & despair. Mars has his full unmodified sway in the Airy Air of Gemini.
Ten of Swords: (Malkuth of Yetzirah, Ruin, Sun in Gemini) 10 = a fixed & completed force. Ashim = the Souls of Fire. These complete their work, which is to break up, disintegrate and ruin the Astral form that it may pass through the negative veils to be reborn in Kether of Assiah. Sun = very fiery energy, destructive unless it acts on very solid material & is modified. Acting on Gemini the tenuous or most Airy Air it is destructive. Compare the deadly arrows of Apollo. [Here the ideas take form, but the Astral Shells are broken up in Ruin by the Souls of Fire that the forms may be reborn in the Material.]
PENTACLES – The Tree of Life in Assiah
Ace of Pentacles: (Kether in Assiah, Root of the Powers of Earth) All Aces are the roots of the Powers of their Element. The Primum Mobile [Rashith ha Gilgalim] Beginning of Whirlings = Primary Vortex Ring. This is the Germ of all Matter (vide Lord Kelvin).
Two of Pentacles: (Chokmah of Assiah, Harmonious Change, Jupiter in Capricorn) Unites King and Queen. The Sphere of the Zodiac counter charges all. All forces acting on Earth. Jupiter = Calm Power on Capricorn = Barren Earth. Gives Harmonious Change but no product.
Three of Pentacles: (Binah of Assiah, Material Works, Mars in Capricorn) Produces the Prince = The perfect manifestation of the forces of Earth. The Sphere of Saturn [Shabathai= rest] restrains his influence. Mars shining on Capricorn the barren earth brings about material works and no more.
Four of Pentacles: (Chesed of Assiah, Earthly Power, Sun in Capricorn) 4 = Realization. Sphere of Jupiter = Power [Tzadekh = righteousness]. Thus the realization of Power. Sun = Power and force on Capricorn = a barren and desert land. Dominates, but leads to nothing beyond.
Five of Pentacles (Geburah of Assiah, Material Trouble, Mercury in Taurus) 5 = Opposition & Strife. Sphere of Mars [Madim = vehement strength] accentuates this. Mercury = Genius but etherial and erratic. Quite unable to deal with the dull heavy earth of Taurus.
Six of Pentacles: (Tiphareth in Assiah, Material Success, Moon in Taurus) 6 = Accomplishment. Sphere of Sun = Power, Rank, Rule [Shemesh = Solar Light]. These give abundant success. Luna in her exaltation of Taurus. The Mistress of the Floods. Breaking up the dull heavy earth under the influence of Sun = Great fertility.
Seven of Pentacles: (Netzach in Assiah, Success Unfulfilled, Saturn in Taurus) Force transcending the material Plane. Nogah = Sphere of Venus = External Splendour. The outside fair, but Supernal Force destroys the promise. The gloom of Saturn on the heavy dull earth of Taurus gives no success in farming.
Eight of Pentacles: (Hod in Assiah, Prudence, Sun in Virgo) Solitary Successes. Sphere of Mercury = Genius [Kokab = The Stellar Light]. This when only ocasionally successful is over careful. Sun = prudence and punctuality in Virgo the fertile earth gives success in farming. Mercury unrestrained by the forces of 8 lacks initiative energy.
Nine of Pentacles: (Yesod of Assiah, Material Gain, Venus in Virgo) 9 = A strong fundamental force. Levanah = Sphere of the Moon which governs the Waters of earth. A force which governs the feminine & negative is usually termed luck. This = gain. Venus the generative power in Virgo the fertile earth = material increase.
Ten of Pentacles: (Malkuth of Assiah, Wealth, Mercury in Virgo) 10 = Fixed and completed force. Sphere of the Elements [Cholem Yesodoth] = Power exercised in material things only . Mercury extremely versatile genius employed in Virgo = the fertility of the earth. Therefore successful completion of material gain = Material Wealth. Malkuth of Assiah. There is nothing human below this. [The acme of worldly prosperity and progress.] (Hereafter it must take an upward curve or pass out to The Qlippoth.).
[Note: the following zodiacal attributes relate to the elemental qualities of the decanates and the cards associated with those decanates. mkg]
Aries: Ascending Flames. A Great and Ruling Force.
Leo: Rushing Flames. A Force Wise.
Sagittarius: Darting Flames. A Force Great and Potent.
Taurus: Fertile land in a valley. A Force Exalted.
Virgo: Undulating land and low hill. A Force Just.
Capricorn: Precipitous, rocky and barren land. A Force Strong and Mighty.
Gemini: Cirrhous and flecked cloud. A Powerful Force.
Libra: Cumulo-stratous clouds. A Force Illustrious.
Aquarius: Rain descending from clouds. A Force Manifesting and Manifested.
Cancer: Eddies of swirling water. A Force that renders Powerful.
Scorpio: Undulating surface of water. A Wisely Dispensing Force.
Pisces: Breaking waves of the sea. A Force Avenging.
Added: The Major Arcana of the Whare Ra Golden Dawn deck can be seen here. The closest modern version is the Classic Golden Dawn Tarot (now out-of-print).
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.
Elemental Dignities is the most misunderstood topic in Tarot. It is a method of giving importance to cards in a spread that is based on the relationship between the cards’ elements (fire, earth, air, water) and used to identify cards that strengthen or weaken each other.
It was first discussed by MacGregor Mathers, for members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in a manuscript called “Book T,” which included his instructions on reading the cards. The problem is that few people study “Book T” and really look at the examples that Mathers gives for using Elemental Dignities.
The system was a way for determining how ‘strong’ (i.e., powerful and important) each card or set of cards was in a reading and, therefore, which cards to pay most attention to. It was also a way to eliminate irrelevant cards. It was designed to go with specific spreads in which the cards were read in pairs and triads.
You need to actually lay out the cards he used as examples and follow closely what he did if you want to understand the GD system. For one thing, Mathers used the terms “neutral” and, in a different context, “neutralize,” and they signify two different but important things. Secondly, the term ‘friendly’ does not mean that the cards act nicely toward each other. Any combination can be for ‘good or ill’ depending on the cards!!!
Here are Mathers’ basic rules (see my book 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card for a more complete explanation):
1) Cards are “Strong” when the suits/elements are the same; they are “very strong for either good or evil, according to their nature.”
In other words, two swords cards are like-minded and egg each other on. They can greatly increase either the good or ill in each (depending on their individual meanings).
2) When the suits/elements are both masculine/active or feminine/passive, they are “moderately strong because they are friendly to each other.” [Fire+Air; Water+Earth.]
They increase the power and strength of the other, but whether this is good or bad depends on the specific cards.
3) When the suits/elements complement each other, they are “somewhat friendly” (also called neutral). [Fire+Earth; Air+Water.]
They show relatively ineffectual interactions. (Personally, I like to think of them as irritants that can be mildly correctional and therapeutic to each other but without great impact as to whether they strengthen or weaken the other.)
4) When the cards are of contrary elements they tend to “weaken each other greatly for good or evil, and neutralize [cancel out] their force.” They are sometimes referred to as enemies or ill-dignified. [Fire+Water; Air+Earth.]
In practice, Mathers often cancelled out the effect of cards with contrary elements. He simply did not read PAIRS that were of contrary elements!! (They could not co-exist in the same room so BOTH would leave.)
In TRIADS, if the two cards flanking a central one were contrary to each other, he simply didn’t read those flanking cards but, instead, concentrated on the center card as if it were alone.
However: “If the contrary element is only in one flanking card, then the other becomes a connecting card so that the first [center] is not weakened, but is modified by the influence of both cards and is, therefore, fairly strong.” In other words, the center card overcomes the neutralizing force of its contrary flanking card through the support of the flanking card that is more ‘friendly’ to it – for good or ill.
If both flanking cards are contrary to the center one then they dominate it completely; the effects of the central card become extremely weak.
People have modified this system to make sense to themselves (and often because they didn’t understand the original). It’s fine to modify the idea to your own use, just understand that you are doing so, and that none of these adaptations are “right” while others are “wrong.” The important thing is what works for you.
When looking at a spread in terms of pairs, what you end up with are, if it were a book or movie:
1) Strong: the leading characters (they can be lovers or antagonist and protagonist). The focus of the action is on them.
2) Friendly: supporting actors – secondary characters – the best friend, a mentor, the malicious co-worker: those who further the action of the story through support or by throwing a spanner in the works.
3) Somewhat Friendly/Neutral: those who add in a little but aren’t terribly significant: brief encounters, comedic relief, etc.
4) Weak (neutralizing): non-speaking parts: crowd scenes, background at a restaurant, faces on the street, etc. If these people are alone in a room (without the characters mentioned above) then simply NOTHING happens.
This is not an exact analogy, but it should get the point across. I want to emphasize again that you can devise a system of elemental dignities that goes beyond this, using psychological, astrological or even alchemical principles for the interaction of elements. But, then understand that this is a personal adaptation of the original idea.
Want more? Step-by-step instructions for reading all variations of Elemental Dignities with three-cards can be found at Tarot Elements.