Let it be said right up front: I’m not a huge fan of the Waite-Smith (aka Rider-Waite-Smith or “RWS”) deck. I think that, in many cases, the narrative vignettes embedded in Pamela Colman Smith’s scenic “pip” cards – the minors with their ready-made stories – hijack the deeper esoteric meaning that lies at its core, and that stems from the same Golden Dawn (GD) source as the Thoth deck. This can lead down a much more prosaic, narrowly-framed path, so in most reading situations I ignore the scripted offerings and just use Thoth meanings. While an occasional flash of insight may arise from the RWS images, for most practical purposes it is much more reliable and productive to stick with Thoth definitions since they hew more closely to the original bases.
Although many of them are carrying far too much anecdotal baggage, the RWS pips aren’t uniformly weak, just often overly melodramatic in their reach. The 3 of Swords is a good example. In number-theory terms, the Threes are all about progress and opportunity; the 3 of Swords is no different, although it implies a “no pain, no gain” scenario in both decks. But the pierced heart on the RWS 3 of Swords strikes me as something of a “red herring” that invariably speaks of “heartache” to the novice reader. This is, after all, a Swords card, the province of mental states and conditions, so the discomfort should be more thought-provoking than viscerally traumatic; disappointment and delusional thinking are reasonable assumptions. It can indicate the need to carefully rethink something as opposed to falling into an emotional funk over it. An implied invitation to remove the swords and free up the heart is always present. There’s no ambiguity about the situation; you know exactly where they are and they’re not going anywhere until you decide to deal with them. You can choose to continue the self-torture (the image reminds me of that apocryphal medieval torture device, the “iron maiden”) or grow beyond it by gaining a fresh perspective on your circumstances.
I once wrote a forum post on this very subject (please pardon the repetition of some of the above points in this historical essay):
“The 3 of Swords (at least in its RWS incarnation) is one card that I think can be badly misinterpreted. It has a heart on it, so it must be about heartache, right? But I see that heart as something of a red herring. Swords are related to mental circumstances (very often disturbances) and are decidedly less effusive emotionally than Cups. Ever wonder why there is no blood dripping from the ends of those swords? I find the Sola Busca 3 of Swords to be much more on-point: it looks like a migraine headache and an abscessed tooth rolled into one vivid image.
“In esoteric number theory, the Threes indicate growth and progress, expansion beyond the reciprocal and sometimes claustrophobic give-and-take of the Twos. In this model, the 3 of Swords suggests a ‘no pain, no gain’ scenario, maybe a painful test or ‘trial by fire.’ At its best, the 3 of Swords could be seen to break the impasse implied by the 2 of Swords. I also see this Three as more of a short-term trauma than a state of lingering distress; it may be debilitating while it lasts, but it’s not a permanent setback. In this sense, I often interpret it as nagging discomfort or anxiety rather than actual psychological or emotional heart failure.”
Two of the RWS Sixes present another case in point; except for the rather morose 6 of Swords and the celebratory 6 of Wands, the RWS Sixes suggest something other than what the GD intended as their core meaning. The 6 of Cups was originally the “Lord of Pleasure” (“Beginning of wish, happiness, success or enjoyment”). It had absolutely nothing to do with “nostalgia for childhood innocence” although the two young people on the card have led to that misinterpretation – which Waite seemed to agree with although it was probably Smith’s contribution. The 6 of Pentacles was the “Lord of Material Success;” there was not a whiff of “generosity and charity” in it, although that is what the RWS image with its two beggars would have us believe. I can live with the 6 of Swords, the “Lord of Earned Success,” since there is the idea of a “journey by water” buried in the GD literature, although I prefer to see it as “a mental voyage of discovery” that is about seeking new horizons. At least the GD interpretation of “success after anxiety and trouble” fits the rather downcast demeanor of the two passengers in the RWS boat. All things considered, though, I most appreciate the Thoth title of “Science” since it implies the fruits of mental acuity. The 6 of Wands in GD parlance is the “Lord of Victory,” so I have no quarrel with the RWS rendering.
There is one humorous note in all of this: the RWS 10 of Cups always cracks me up. I call it the “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” card because it looks just like Desmond and Molly Jones in their “home-sweet-home” with a couple of kids running in the yard.