The (not so) Scary Suit of Swords

The Airy suit of Swords has a nasty reputation but it’s a largely undeserved one. In my experience, Swords is certainly a suit that engages and describes conflict, the downside of thoughtless competition and the consequences of our less well-thought through actions and interactions. But I’d argue that the Swords also tell us more about our capacity for cognitive dissonance than we perhaps want to know. 

Cognitive dissonance arises when you find yourself trying to cope with two contradictory facts, such as your belief that the election was stolen from Donald Trump versus the complete failure of his followers to produce any actual evidence to prove this assertion. Cognitive dissonance hurts. Deciding that you’ll accept the new, contrary state doesn’t help because you still have to process the discomfort of having ever held the previous belief. So most people take the sensible option. They find an explanation – any explanation – that allows them to continue without change. They invent conspiracies or assert that the lack of evidence is proof that it’s all been suppressed. And so on.

That’s the key difference between, say, the 10 of Swords and the 10 of Wands. The latter strains to deliver a whole world of fiery activity and delivery and allows for the subject to pretend that everything is under control, no matter overloaded they might appear. Admitting that something is wrong or that they might have taken on too much is quite out of the question. The former shows the aftermath of taking on too much and dropping the ball. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t a simple of matter of Subjective Wands versus Objective Swords either (though there’s certainly something to be said for that). 

The other problem with Swords is their tendency to show you what has already gone wrong as much as what’s going wrong or will go wrong. But along with this goes that Airy clarity which offers a solution, even if its rooted in a kind of tough love (yes, the universe loves you. It just has a funny way of showing it at times). 

One way of looking at the Swords is to see them as dramatising and analysing a difficult process. Think of the disruption of the 7, the stubborn refusal to accept facts of the 8, the anguish of the 9 and the moral devastation of the 10. At each point, the surrounding cards may offer a way out or  a solution or a road not taken but still (if you hurry) available.

To summarise, Swords are cards of conflict and thought and dishonest thinking is at the root of most of the conflicts they model. And asking yourself the tough questions is the only way to resolve their various dilemmas.

The Eight of Cups and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

In Pamela Colman-Smith’s classic version of the 8 of Cups, a figure in a red cloak, his or her back turned to us, is striding away from a bleak, rocky shore supported by a staff. In the foreground, eight cups are displayed in groups of three and five. Possibly he’s heading for greener pastures. In any case, the image is clearly that of someone resolutely turning his or her back on a situation.

Let’s break this down a little. Stepping away from the rather prescriptive picture (and all narratively focused pictures tend to be prescriptive which can be limiting for people who are at an early stage in their journey with the cards) , let’s look at what’s implied by the number ‘8’ and the nature of the Cups. When we looked at the Eight of Wands, we saw a kind of nervy over-commitment. Lots of things were happening with projects and decisions flying here there and everywhere. What was missing was a sense of things being grounded. Filtering this sense of ‘slightly too much’ through the suit of Cups, relating as they do to emotions, relationships and the instinctual, gives us the emotional kick-back to that situation: “Too much! Take it away!”

Coming at it from another angle, this Eight asks about the depth of your emotional commitment. There is confusion, a lack of satisfaction with one’s state which makes it tempting to down tools and walk away. You might see this Eight appearing when you’re over-worked in a job or doing tasks which take something of an emotional toll. Another context (look carefully at the surrounding cards) might be if you feel under-appreciated by managers or workmates or even customers. Does what you’re doing really mean enough to you to put up with all this? Hence an alternate possibility for the Rider-Waite-Smith illustration – of someone who’s downed tools and walked off. They’ve had it up to here and they are gone.

Reversed, the card could indicate a number of variations on this theme. It could refer to someone who needs to let go of a situation but can’t quite bring themselves to. Or someone who’s abandoned a dream or vision they’ve held onto for a long time – perhaps too long. Another way of looking at this is to go back and consider the meaning of the Four of Cups; one of its meanings is the challenge to make your mind up and commit to a particular vision. The Eight is the Four Doubled But Doubting – is this really worth it?

This relates to a final possibility for this complex, challenging card whether upright of reversed – the Eight of Cups as the Angel of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. The Sunk Cost Fallacy is a classic business problem to which there is no good answer for everyone. Let’s say you’ve spent most of your department’s budget on a shiny new customer relationship management system. It’s a risky, innovative tool and a project that could possibly bring a you lot of prestige. But there’s a problem. Eight months in and it still doesn’t work. Your IT manager, a wise old bird whom you perhaps didn’t consult in as much detail as you should have done when the project started, suggests dumping it and going with an off-the-shelf product that’ll deliver 90% of the benefit for a smaller cost, though admittedly that cost will have to be added onto the huge amount you’ve already spent on the Turbo-Dino-CRM ™. It’s at the point you find yourself saying the deadly words…

“But we’ve already spent so much on this and it’ll all go to waste!”

That’s the sunk cost fallacy, the idea that money already spent somehow counts for more than money that might be spent in the future. “We’ve spent so much already in cash, time, ideas…we can’t stop now!” It’s a scarily common position in politics, business, relationships…A couple of particularly brutal examples are outlined in this article.

The point is that you can stop now. Money spent on a bad idea is sunk. It’s gone. Grit your teeth, pick up your staff and put on your red cloak. Leave those chimerical dreams behind you and move on.

The Pope and the Emperor walk into a bar…

It’s roughly towards the beginning of the 14th century. The Emperor says, “I’ll have Europe please.”

The Pope says, “I’ll have two of whatever he’s having.”

The Emperor, feeling this is a bit cheeky, knocks the Pope over the head and drags him off to Avignon. Thus begins the notorious Avignon Papacy.

Of course, medieval specialists will know that it wasn’t the Emperor who kidnapped the Pope but Phillip IV of France. It was one attempted solution to a problem that had bedevilled (or be-Devil-ed) Europe ever since a canny political operator forged a document supposedly bearing the signature of the Roman Emperor Constantine handing over most of Western Europe to the Pope. The result? Hundreds of years of war and bickering, during which the peasants always lost, no matter which side they were on.

What, if you’ve got this far, does this have to do with tarot? Well, you can’t escape the fact that Tarot originates as an early Renaissance artefact rooted in late medieval thinking and imagery.

The Pope and the Emperor. The best of friends. Not.

The Pope and the Emperor are both authoritarian figures representing two very different authorities. The Emperor wields secular, military and economic power. He’s good at it. But at his worst (and the archetypes of the Trumps can stand for any gender, remember)? Tyranny, strip-mining and the sociopathic wielding of power for its own sake. Joe Biden vs Donald Trump. The Pope wields religious power, though there’s no reason why this can’t be a secular expression of an essentially religious (but agnostic) impulse. At its best, the Pope stands for kind of spiritual authority developed through an ordered, disciplined live as part of a wider structure – the Dalai Lama or Bernie Saunders, say. At its worst, dogma and, yes, tyranny – Jerry Falwell and Iranian theocracy.

In a reading, expect to see these cards appear in the contexts of bosses, teachers, leaders, parents or powerful structured influences in your life. If they appear together? Tread carefully. Dante, author of the Divine Comedy, loathed the idea of the unity of church and state and large chunks of the Comedy are spent excoriating various emperors and popes. He was exiled from his native Florence under threat of being burned alive for his views and was never able to return.

And if you want a tarot reading to explore the influence of these and other interesting forces in your day to day life, you only have to ask.

The Star, Love and Tonglen

Tarot Reversals are scary and my simple little ‘Strength’ layout just handed out four of them. It was tempting to just turn them all the “right” way up but I gritted my teeth and set out to deal with yet more Tarot ‘tough love’.

The first card asks simply “What is my strength?” The 2 of Cups reversed suggests my strength is defined by its absence, by the suppression of ‘soft’ strengths like loving-kindness, giving and receiving joy and relationship building.

Four scary reversed cards!

The second card build on this by asking where my strength is to be found. The Queen of Swords suggests I find strength in the heights – in intellectual strength and providing decisive action and leadership. But reversed, the card suggests a slide into solecism and pride. Pride comes before a fall and the Queen of Swords, enthroned on high, has a long way to fall

What nurtures my strength? The third card, the 3 of Disks or Pentacles reversed offers an answer. Failure or the fear of failure. Reversed, the pyramid of the Thoth version of the 3 of risks is precariously balanced.  I nurture my strength by measuring its material impact or through unnerving myself for fear of the lack of it. And that is unlikely to end well.

Finally, the question “What do I use my strength for right now?” offers up the transcendence of the Star. Even reversed, the hopefulness of this card shines through. But it still has a tricky message – I’m using my strength against myself, blocking off the flow from a more numinous place. It’s striking that the ‘What’ card is the Two of Cups reversed – in this reading, I cannot help but see them as the cups The Star is holding. 

When I try and pull this together the theme that unites the Star and the 2 of Cups is love and the power of love. What are we without love? When we are separated – or separate ourselves – from love, the love of loved ones or perhaps the infinite love that powers our world and universe, we dry up. Our powers wither or turn inwards to bite and wound us. Our achievements feel transient and wobbly. At those times, the Star reversed asks us to just drop everything and pour out a little compassion for ourselves and for others.

In times when every channel on every device is telling us to separate, not to touch, to stay apart, this is a difficult message to hear. Perhaps one thread through this arid, invisible labyrinth can be provided by the Shambhala Buddhist practice of ‘tonglen’ . I first read about this in a book by Pema Chödrön. In this article https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-tonglen/ she summarises the “sending and taking” of compassion:

“Tonglen practice, also known as “taking and sending,” reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we become liberated from age-old patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.”

How arid, how blocked might we too easily be becoming without our realising it? At what point does all this isolation risk turning our strength into a kind of damaged immune system, one that eats itself? The Tarot is, as ever, a stern but compassionate teacher for me, reminding me that those forms of strength built for dealing with the outside world and its challenges need work and adjustment and perhaps a little humbling when we have to live alone with ourselves. 

The Tower

Earlier today, I Instagrammed about the Haindl Tarot’s version of the Tower, the Tarot Trump traditionally numbered 16. The usual Tower shows a quasi-medieval building at he moment lightning blasts off its roof. A man and woman are falling, presumably blown out of one of the upper floors.

The Tower, from the Handle Tarot

The Haindl version, on the other hand, is a lot sparser whilst presenting a far more dramatic, modern rendering. In fact, it looks like a skyscraper out of a sixties science fiction magazine. The Hebrew letter on the upper left of the Card is Peh, usually translated as ‘mouth‘. Many commentators (including Haindl’s collaborator, Rachel Pollack) see this as an ironic association on the Tower with the Biblical Tower of Babel, a tower built to reach to the heavens which Yahweh (easily affronted) demolished. At that time, the story says, mankind had one language. After the disaster of the Tower, everyone spoke with a different tongue – a babelogue.

I also see the Tower as an outpouring of energy, often repressed energy. The Handle version works well for this, showing the origin of the explosion as internal to the devastated skyscraper (perhaps some sort of nuclear fusion? Or a miniature singularity of the kind that drives starships in space operas?). Prior to the Tower, the sequence of the Major Arcana offers many warnings about repression of all kinds – intellectual, sexual -and the risks of failing to maintain a proper balance in one’s life. Think of the tension of the Chariot with its wheels heading in contrary directions. Or the Devil, notoriously presented in the Thoth deck as a rather phallic tower in its own right. And the phallic element of the Tower shouldn’t be ignored (though it equally shouldn’t be overstated).

Depending on the surrounding cards, the Tower is either a warning to deal with rising tensions or an indication that some sort of explosion is imminent and quite possibly unavoidable. It can also appear after the event, suggesting that a necessary (if drastic) release of energy has taken place and that the questioner now has no choice but deal with the consequences. The many colourful banners surrounding the explosion wrenching apart the Haindl’s version of the Tower also reinforce the idea that, hard though it may be to accept at the time, this kind of drastic upset in one’s life might be very much for the best in the long term. One should also contemplate the Star, the card that traditionally follows the Tower, a card of clarity, purity and optimism. And one unique aspect of the Haindl Tower is the suggestion that what is actually happening in the depths of the image is the birth of a star.

Note: I should say something about the rune lurking in the upper right of this card. Pollack identifies it as ‘Err’ and doesn’t provide a translation but instead relates it to the symbol used for the European Peace Movement (The Haindl Tarot Vol 1, 1990). Alternately, R.I. Page (An Introduction to English Runes, 1973, 1999), the great authority on English (or Anglo-Saxon) runes names it ‘kalc’ and relates it to the letter ‘k’. Calc most likely means chalk, he says. However, he provides two further alternatives in the Old English ‘loan word’ calic, translated as cup (chalice?) or slipper. One might make a case for relating the idea of a chalice to the tradition yoni/lingam imagery associated with the Grail but that would require a deeper dive into the Haindl and the possibility of its Wagnerian heritage than I have time or space for right now!