The “Light and Shadow” RWS Storyboard

This is the third of my “storyboard” examinations of the Minor Arcana cards of the Waite-Smith (aka RWS) tarot. The suit of Swords is unquestionably the least encouraging  of the set since any light it emits is muted and often fades into gloom, so the title of this post may be somewhat optimistic. Swords encompass the realm of ideas and intellectual pursuits, so excursions of the mind are central to its nature; it moves from the “bright idea” to the bleak depths of mental anguish and the flat light of despair. There is little joy to be found in its script.


Since Swords often deal with disagreements and contentious legal matters, I will use the “everyman” paradigm in my narrative, which appears as the “reasonable man” principle in contract law. The RWS tarot is rooted in Victorian sensibilities, so I will stay with masculine pronouns although gender neutrality should be assumed in accordance with modern social values.

Ace of Swords: The “light-bulb moment.” A “bright idea” flashes into view, but it is rudimentary and must be fleshed out in concrete terms before it will gain any traction in reality and become more than an idle daydream.

2 of Swords: The fledgling notion immediately descends into ambiguity as various half-formed options present themselves and are rejected. There is a sense of inertia and futility about this card (the infamous “mental block”) that doesn’t bode well for constructive thought. It implies the alternating  flow of the electric current, shunting between positive and negative poles and vulnerable to a “short circuit” along the path. Another analogy is the wind-up mechanical clock: it feeds on its inner tension until it runs down and stops. In esoteric number theory, the Line bends back upon itself and returns to where it started, gaining little but experience.

3 of Swords: The pierced heart in this card is a “red herring.” The 3 of Swords  isn’t primarily about emotional heartache, it expresses disabling anxiety in mental terms. In fact, one of the sources for its design comes from the Sola Busca 3 of Batons, which shows a human head penetrated by three staves, looking like a migraine headache and an abscessed tooth rolled into one.  In number theory, all of the Threes represent progress and development, but the opportunity here is of the “no pain, no gain” variety. The “bright idea” is beset with hardships as it struggles toward realization of its initial promise.

4 of Swords: In Pythonian parlance, this is the “lying down and avoiding” card.  The protagonist must have a rest even though he has barely started; the trials of the 3 of Swords have completely enervated him and he has scant reserves of inspiration. The downcast expression “I’m fresh out of ideas” is relevant here. His mental cupboard is bare and he has to recharge his batteries.

5 of Swords: There is a whiff of desperation about this card, as if the issue must be forced in a “might makes right” way because the momentum of the mental juggernaut has become mired in a debilitating lack of direction and vision. The Fives are corrective in nature and can therefore be chaotic, bringing needed but often unpleasant change. The initiative gets back on track with a “kick in the pants,” shorn of any misapprehensions.

6 of Swords: The “betwixt and between” card, showing the mind trying to find its way in a sea of uncertainty. It isn’t clear from the image whether the boat has just left the dock or is closing in on the far shore, and whether the swords at the bow are defensive or offensive in their operation (fending off the phantasms of  doubt or cutting a path through the mental fog). All we can say with confidence is that it is on a “voyage of discovery,” and that – although unsettled in its outlook – it seems to be on an “even keel.”

7 of Swords: A card of conflicted intentions The two swords stuck in the ground suggest that he has unfinished business to attend to, but the man in the picture has his hands full trying to hold the other five by the “pointy end.”  He is gazing (with his eyes closed) back over his shoulder at an uncharted future but is stepping briskly toward the certainty of a known past.  This card amply illustrates Elizabeth Hazel’s observation that the Sevens represent a step in a new direction, but that the way must be thoroughly mapped  before the leading foot is planted. Here the devious-looking man seems to be in denial of that fact, instead intent on preying upon his enemy’s preparations. This suggests that the innovative impulse of the Ace has once again fetched up on the rocks of indecision and could stray from its course.

8 of Swords: A card of sensory deprivation; the figure in the card is at a standstill, prevented by the fence of swords from going back the other way but also unable to apprehend a rational way forward.  The key to escaping this impasse lies in the unbound feet and the water that seems to be flowing off the lower right corner of the card. In astrology, the feet are ruled by the intuitive sign of Pisces, so an opportunity presents itself to “feel” one’s way along the watercourse and thus depart the static scene. This is the “Follow your heart, not your head” card.

9 of Swords: The “nightmare without end” card, often called “the Dark Night of the Soul.” Rachel Pollock has pointed out that this card and the Devil are the only cards in the RWS deck that have a completely black background.  All light has been absorbed and no glimmer of hope can be seen. This is one of the worst cards in the deck; the only encouraging words that come to mind are “the night is darkest right before the dawn,” and the observation that the terminal points of the swords are cut off by the right frame of the card, implying that the answer lies just over the horizon.

10 of Swords: Unfortunately, dawn breaks on an entirely desolate tableau. This is the “scorched earth” card; no living thing remains to be seen and nothing can be salvaged, so there is no point in agonizing over what has been lost. Time to pick up the pieces of one’s shattered dreams and soldier on, not looking back. The “bright idea” of the Ace expires in a murky haze of disillusionment. But at least there is a sliver of rejuvenating sunlight peeking like a beacon over the distant hills.

The Swords as a group deliver grim tidings indeed, but all is not lost. In the “spiral” movement of the tarot suits, the depletion of the Ten doesn’t renew itself in the Ace of the same suit but in that of the next suit. Here the fecundating potency of the Ace of Pentacles can infuse the barren soil of the 10 of Swords, preparing it for replanting.

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