Left to right: Tarot of the Pagan Cats, The Wild Unknown Tarot, Lumina Tarot
I got an email in the middle of June asking if I was interested in taking part in an investigation into the tarot cards ahead of International Tarot Day. I most definitely was and I was also intrigued as to which card I would be assigned – the universe can work in wonderfully intriguing ways. Anyway. The card was the 10 of swords. And earlier that week I had done a spread with a deck I rarely use and had got a very puzzling 10 of swords card so it was already on my mind and I jumped right in!
The way I get to know a random card is different to how I get to know a card when it’s come up in a reading. In the latter I’ll describe it, might attempt a drawing and will see what leaps out and what speaks to me that day. To get to know a card in detail like I’m doing today, I approach it from a few angles. I look at the suit and the number and I look at it across a number of decks. Once I’ve done that I might then have a look at astrological associations and the symbolism of the elements of the cards. So with that in mind, let’s get to know the ten of swords.
Swords are the suit of the air, of the mind, of communication and the mental realm. They are about matters of logic, knowledge and ambition. Strategy and planning, truth and justice are all sword qualities. Swords are about learning and thinking but as they are about the inner mind, they also deal with worries and nightmares, the shadow side of all that thinking energy. This suit, like the swords that represent them, have two edges; light and shadow. Creation and destruction. Imagination and anxiety. Decisiveness and indecision.
Being air cards, they are often depicted using feathers, birds and other creatures of the sky although the examples we’ll be coming onto contradict this.
Tens are about endings and beginnings. With the ten of swords, we find a very dramatic, painful end. We have hit rock bottom, but that only leaves us with one way to go. We have completed a journey and are now getting ready to move on, to go beyond and to start something new with the wisdom we’ve found.
I find it interesting to look to the five of a suit, a half way point on the longer journey. With swords, the five depicts chaos. Too many ideas, too many directions and getting stuck because of this. Too many thoughts result in non action with the five of swords and in the ten of swords we see these thoughts come to destroy us.
Another ten to consider is the ten from the Major Arcana, that is the Wheel of Fortune, another card about starting again, about turning the wheel, about moving forward.
Rider Waite Smith
As I’ve discussed before, I am not a fan of the RWS tarot deck but I do know it’s widely used and most people like it more than I do. For a lot of people there is a sentimentality as it’s a common first deck. Because I don’t have the deck myself and because I feel too much guilt if I steal images off the internet, here is a description instead.
It seems to be dusk or dawn, the sky is predominately black, with a strip of yellow under the clouds on the horizon. In the distance are the silhouettes of far off mountains, at the foot of which lays a flat lake. On the near shore lays a person with ten swords stabbed into his back. The head faces towards the mountains and blood drenches the lower body. A red ribbon of blood appears to lay under the head.
The words associated with the RWS ten of swords are ruin, destruction, defeat. There is a hopelessness to this card. I don’t think there can be much doubt that the person is dead, a sad realisation if you read the sky as clearing. Perhaps there was hope and possibility but this fighter couldn’t fight long enough. Sometimes light is just around the corner, it’s a cliché for a reason…
The Tarot of Pagan Cats
The nearest to a RWS deck I have is the Tarot of Pagan Cats which relies on RWS for imagery but portrays in slightly differently. Differently enough that I feel more comfortable using it.
I’m aware the photograph is hard to see the detail on this card, it’s hard to see it when it’s right in front of you, so I’m going to try and tell you what I see here and this is actually a good exercise with all cards, however clearly you can see them.
There is a stage with a statue holding what might be two bouquets of flowers and some stage decoration, all are dusty. The backdrop to the stage suggests a setting sun. In front of the stage lays a red, plush looking cushion with ten swords stuck through it. Unlike the rest of this deck, there is no cat in the image. The little white book that came with this deck says “surrender to unpleasant or unfortunate circumstances”, a suggestion that I don’t always feel comfortable with. But that does ask us a question – in whatever situation we find ourselves in, should we surrender or keep fighting?
When I’m dealing with this card, one of the key questions is where is the cat?! Where is the reader? Are you being present for this reading or are you distracted? Is your mind elsewhere? I’m also interested in the stage aspect – what play are you performing or watching? What stories are you telling about yourself or to yourself? Given that it looks as though the play is over, perhaps you need to leave some of these stories behind, perhaps you have got stuck in an old story that’s no longer relevant but you’re still standing on the stage, without an audience, getting dusty whilst you hold onto old achievements. As a ten, this card is saying you’ve completed something and it’s time to move on.
The Wild Unknown
This is my favourite ever tarot deck, possibly because it was my first, but I also love the lack of people and how much you can read into the images. For the ten of swords, we have a bull or buffalo (the angle and darkness makes it hard to be sure the artist’s intent) with nine swords piercing into his shoulders and one sword extending through both eye sockets. The bull looks like he could be falling and it would be blackness he would fall into. The use of lines in the background suggest rain to me.
Where one single sword could have blinded or killed the bull, ten have been used, this is overkill, it is like a death by a thousand papercuts. No one person or reason is to blame for how you’re feeling here and you can’t fight every loss or hurt. You can’t beat a tsunami by looking at each individual water droplet. Sometimes in our society it can feel like you need to examine each aspect of what has hurt you and that certainly has it’s place, but sometimes you just need to lump it all together and move on.
As with the pagan cats, there is an important focus here on what you’re telling yourself. Are you repeating each hurt and wound you’ve received over and over in your head? Are you telling people over and over of each of your little pains? Are you playing the victim or being a martyr? I have a hard time saying this – being told I’m being dramatic is a trigger for me – but are you being melodramatic?
I am put in mind of something I figured out with my therapist. We looked at a range of different things which caused me pain and suffering and then generalised the incidents. So instead of focusing on someone not waving to me, I could reframe it as realising that it had pressed my trigger around being invisible. Instead of looking at your ten thousand papercuts, could you look at the themes? Perhaps you take it to heart when people are late and that’s ok, but it’s easier to carry that around than to carry each memory of each person being late.
Remember too that we are in the realm of the swords, of the mind, so the stories you are telling yourself, the thoughts you are spinning, are not necessarily true. They are thoughts. They are real thoughts but the truth of them is not necessarily accurate. How are you responding to your thoughts? How are they shaping how you act? If we think we are terrible people then we can either accept that and do terrible things or change and become better people. If you think all our pains are other people’s fault, we will stay stuck here but if we accept responsibility for how we react, we can move on. We are not saying that what we’ve experienced is ok, we are saying it has happened and we are taking back our power and not letting the thing control us. With the disclaimer of course that terrible things do happen in the world, this isn’t a just snap out of it card, this is a card which is saying go and find a therapist, get some medication or talk to a friend. It is a card which is saying make a single step, right now, however small. In taking that step, you are gaining some control over your situation, you are taking some responsibility for the future.
Here we have a gnarled, bare stump of tree standing upright despite ten bloody swords stabbed through it. On the top perches a vulture with blood dripping from his beak. Everything is greyscale except the rich red of the blood.
The keywords for this card are traumatic endings and sudden change. Probably not something of a shock given what we’ve seen for our other decks. Again, there is pain, hurt, possibly betrayal. Wounds are raw and you feel like you’ve been knocked off your feet. Stability is hard to find.
Where other cards have talked about creating your stability, about taking responsibility, the book for this deck speaks of letting time take over, that you may not have control over where things are headed so you may way to stop resisting. It does however clarify that by saying that whilst playing the victim may feel “temporarily rewarding, long term it will erode your sense of Self and leave you powerless, leading you to rock bottom.” This adds an interesting dimension to the other characters we’ve seen – they have already been at rock bottom, but here we haven’t quite got there – do we keep falling or do we fly? Swords are the cards of the air after all…
We’ve certainly got a lot of food for thought here. We’ve seen the general characteristics of swords and tens as well as different personalities of the ten of cards in different decks. Next time I’ll be looking at a few things associated with the ten of cards, including the symbolism of the buffalo and vulture which we see in the Wild Unknown and Lumina decks.