The “Barbarians at the Gate” RWS Storyboard

This is the second in a series of “storyboard” studies of the Minor Arcana cards of the Waite-Smith deck, this time examining the Wands. The quote in the title originated in Roman times, although modern readers will connect it more readily to the story of rapacious corporate greed portrayed in the book and movie of the same name.


The suit of Wands in the RWS deck is a schizophrenic beast. After the initial, enthusiastic spark of the Ace it takes a detour into more measured contemplation and deliberation, – the Two and Three, which exhibit little of the trademark vigor associated with Fire – then turns celebratory with the Four and Six; the contentious Five seems antithetical to the overall benign mood of these cards, but some writers view it as showing a youthful “mock battle” or children at play. The Golden Dawn and later Aleister Crowley associated the suit with work and business, probably due to its demonstration of initiative, aspiration and enterprise, while French writer Joseph Maxwell related it to the industrious element of Earth. Waite retained the connection with Fire, but the early cards suggest more of a cautiously “banked” blaze than one in its full, fierce prime as we might expect from their proximity to the “root” of the elemental power.

The last four cards descend into conflict and difficulty, seemingly as a reaction and sobering corrective to the overconfident assumption of victory displayed in the Six. Here is a play-by-play narrative of the “story in the cards” as I see it. Note that the 19th Century tarot writers invariably described the querent with the pronouns “he, him and his,” so I will use that convention here for simplicity; I staunchly refuse to employ “they, them and their” as singular pronouns for grammatical reasons.

Ace of Wands: Man yearns for action (like a “burr under the saddle” that goads him).
Two of Wands: Man hesitates, with one foot in the past and one in the future, considering his options.
Three of Wands: Man launches his initiative and patiently waits for it to yield its rewards. (Note, however, that he has his back turned to the world and is so absorbed in his own affairs that he is vulnerable to “blind-siding.”)
Four of Wands: Man revels in early success (but he has yet to venture outside the boundaries of entrepreneurial prudence and needs a challenge to continue advancing).
Five of Wands: Man tests his strength in the fray of competing ambitions. (Here is the stimulation he has been craving).
Six of Wands: Man sees nothing standing in his way and basks in the acclaim of his (perhaps envious) peers.

As an aside, I see the next four cards as a plot shift that ultimately derails the protagonist’s apparently assured “train to glory.”

Seven of Wands: The victorious hero sallies forth on a new campaign, perhaps without sufficient advance mapping of the contested territory. It suggests a military scout who has encountered more resistance than he bargained for and is hard-pressed to extricate himself. (But he’s holding the high ground in the skirmish, giving him a “fighting chance.”)
Eight of Wands: The scout rapidly “beats feet” back to the main camp, barely ahead of the “slings and arrows” of the outraged  – and markedly superior – foe.
Nine of Wands: The erstwhile hero takes a stand at the perimeter, valiantly defying the first wave of the assault but not entirely unbloodied in the onslaught. (The battle may have been won, but not the war.)
Ten of Wands: The distraught survivor of the conflict gathers up his possessions and trudges away from the battleground in defeat, a refugee in his own land. (Is that salvation in the distance or only a marginally secure way-station in his flight? I’ve never been convinced that he will be able to lay his burden down just yet.)

The upshot of this scenario is that what started out with unfettered optimism winds up in considerable distress, presenting a cautionary tale that reflects overweening pride going before a fall. Wands is sometimes described as the suit of Spirit, and here we see spiritual innocence losing its virtue in the often brutal give-and-take of adversarial  competition. Waite and Smith give this ostensibly most positive suit in the deck a decidedly morose undertone.

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