Radiant Rider-Waite-Smith, © U.S. Games Systems
The RWS version of the 3 of Swords is one card that I think can be easily 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. Tough-minded Swords are related to mentally exigent circumstances (very often aggravated disruptions or disagreements) and are decidedly less tender or emotionally vulnerable than Cups. Ever wonder why there is no blood dripping from the ends of those swords? There’s an old adage that says “you can’t get blood out of a stone.” I find the Sola Busca 3 of Wands (rather than its 3 of Swords) to be much more on-point: it looks like a migraine headache and an abscessed tooth rolled into one vivid image. Since Pamela Colman Smith cross-pollinated the RWS 10 of Wands with the overburdened figure from the Sola Busca 10 of Swords, she could easily have worked the same compelling magic with the 3 of Swords and come up with less confounding visual symbolism.
In esoteric number theory, the Threes indicate an opportunity for 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 mental block 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.” One less earth-shaking interpretation I’ve come across is “idle gossip;” I will now think of it as “third-party communication with malicious intent” when the context supports it.
“Mind over matter” is another good interpretation. I really like the idea of being given a chance to remove the swords, free up the heart and get on with your life. There’s no ambiguity about the situation; you know exactly where those painful piercings are and they’re not going anywhere until you decide to deal with them. You can choose to continue the self-torture (the image makes me think of that apocryphal medieval torture device, the “iron maiden”) or grow beyond it by gaining a fresh perspective on your situation. One geometric way of thinking of the number Three as an extension of the Two is to envision it as taking the terminus of the Line formed by the duad and rotating it around the “hub” represented by the initial Point. While also providing the generative principle behind the circle and the triangle, this creates the idea of a two-dimensional surface or plane. It also makes me think of a radar screen; everything that lies within its perimeter is “lit up” by its scanning action, leaving no stone unturned. The 3 of Swords shines a merciless light on any faulty assumptions about the cause of one’s unhappiness. Fanciful, I know, but it’s how my free-association circuits work. Challenge = opportunity. It’s the same epiphany I reached with the “crossing” card of the Celtic Cross spread ; it’s at once a challenge and an opportunity, so now I just call it a “major motivator.” The 3 of Swords fits the same mold.
I’m also taken by “conquest of fears” as a positive expression for this card, while reversal could suggest “succumbing to fears.” The 3 of Swords can be such an angst-ridden card in popular interpretation that I’ve always felt compelled to reconcile it with the Greeks’ idea of the number Three as the “first perfection” (the other two are the Six and Nine.) The 6 of Swords is comfortable in that particular skin, but making the 9 of Swords fit the paradigm is a decidedly tougher proposition. In qabalistic terms, however, Nine (a lunar number) represents a re-centering of the devolving elemental energy, so there’s hope there too. Aleister Crowley (among others) considered the Nine to represent the perfect expression of its suit (someone once called the Ten a “post-script,” which is about right), but again, the dismal 9 of Swords challenges that assumption. On the other hand, the 3 of Swords (“Sorrow,” Saturn, the “Dark Mother”) has no such built-in relief, so we have to find it for ourselves. Voyager Tarot creator James Wanless’ observation is instructive: “There are no negative cards, just opportunities.” This is sound advice that can be applied to any challenging card, or any card for that matter.
The Golden Dawn’s astrological correspondence for the 3 of Swords is Saturn in Libra, and its title is “Sorrow,” but I see it more as the incisive and mercifully brief sorrow of a summary extraction than the unrelieved anguish of a tormented heart. Since the number Three is about expanding boundaries somewhat uncritically, Saturn could give it some necessary structure and a channel for its expression so it doesn’t bleed all over the landscape. Cauterize the wound and move on. In the suit of Swords, the challenge would seem to be to not turn that energy against ourselves, since negative thought-forms can easily feed on their own misery. I tell my clients “Try not to hold Swords energy by the pointy end. Use the hilt.”