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.