Radiant Rider-Waite-Smith, © U.S. Games Systems, Inc.
The RWS 6 of Swords is the last of the Swords pip cards that I consider ambivalent in their expression of opportunity. The rest of the suit – Ace, Two and Four – are essentially neutral in that regard, and the Six nudges the dial close to dead-center as well. It is only the dejected look of the seated passengers in the boat that suggests anything amiss in their future. I often wonder whether the boat has just left the dock, and the travelers have still to shake off the malaise of their prior life and the pain of their departure. Is it a family of three making a forced pilgrimage, or are the two voyagers (who look like a woman and child) traveling alone and the ferryman is just that? It seems to me that if they were nearing their destination, their heads would be raised expectantly and their body language would show more anticipation than weariness. This is clearly not a joyous voyage, but – since the boat is aimed at a new horizon – it may very well be a worthwhile one.
Then there is the matter of the bank of six swords. Are they within easy reach to clear the way of any obstacles so the boat can travel on, or are they a barrier against anything threatening that might emerge from the deceptively placid water? It seems notable that the surface of the water to the right of the boat is turbulent, suggesting they are sailing into mental-emotion turmoil of some kind and are trying to get ahead of the wind. I’m reminded of the ancient nautical charts with unexplored regions marked “Here Be Dragons.” The woman’s cloak is yellow, the color of Thought, and her head is bowed as if in contemplation. The smaller figure may in fact be a “brain-child” she is nurturing. My personal interpretation of this card is that it represents a “mental voyage of discovery.” It’s an excellent card for any pursuit requiring innovation, ingenuity and curiosity.
The 6 of Swords – along with the 6 of Cups, the 6 of Pentacles and a few other cards – is another one that has succumbed to the “Pixie make-over.” The only aspect that has survived from the original Golden Dawn material is a parenthetical afterthought: “journey by water.” I see very little of the other attributions: ” Success after anxiety and trouble” (which may in fact be waiting on the far shore here, but you wouldn’t know it by the glum attitude of the travelers, who look like they’ve been summoned to an execution), self-esteem, beauty, conceit, but sometimes modesty therewith; dominance, patience, labour, etc.” It’s almost like Smith didn’t know what to make of those so she basically ignored them (well, there is a bit of modesty, but I see quiet suffering and not patience), and Waite didn’t care. The seated couple are humble and withdrawn; I’m hard-pressed to see any self-esteem, beauty or conceit there.
I’m much more a fan of the Thoth version of this card and Crowley’s title “Science.” It implies setting lofty intellectual goals and striving to achieve them. The sheer joy of discovery is the thing, not the destination itself. However, Crowley is careful to point out the transient nature of any implied success: “The perfect balance of all mental and moral faculties, hardly won, and almost impossible to hold in an ever-changing world.” Elsewhere, he says “the four Sixes are representative of their respective elements at their practical best,” and in the Six of Swords, “the element of success turns away from the idea of division and quarrel; it is intelligence that has won to the goal.” I can certainly read the RWS scene as reflecting a turning away from “the idea of division and quarrel,” but where is the visible satisfaction of having “won to the goal?” It looks more like relief at having escaped the headsman’s axe. On a brighter note, there does seem to be a learning experience ahead for the travelers; it may, however, be a more sobering than enlightening one.