In her book The Tarot and the Tree of Life, Isabel Kliegman goes to some length to justify why we need both the Two and Three of Wands in a pack of tarot cards when – at least in the Waite-Smith deck – they seem to be almost identical in appearance. For me there has never been any question about their unique and separate identities: the 3 of Wands shows a fait accomplit; the ships have sailed and personal action is suspended until they return, so all that can be done is to wait patiently for what they may bring back. The 2 of Wands, on the other hand, is a card of incipient action; the man in the image has decided what he wants to do (shown by the lower staff that he has turned away from) and now he must determine how he intends to do it (obviously by bringing the staff of inspiration and initiative in his left hand to bear on the outer world represented by the globe in his right hand).
The man in the Three is thoroughly immersed in his “own little world,” to the point that he has turned his back on all external distractions, while the man in the Two has one foot in the past and one in the future, seemingly balanced on a knife’s edge between two worlds. The former cannot be easily deflected from his purpose while the latter is vulnerable to redirection at any time. All of the Twos are cards of reciprocal or compensatory action, give-and-take, tension and compromise, so the man here is shown in an uneasy state of indecision while he ponders what to do next. At least in the suit of Wands he won’t sit on his hands forever, instead exemplifying Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s exhortation to “above all, try something.” While the man in the 3 of Wands seems to be the “captain of his own destiny,” the 2 of Wands portrays the “navigator” who is still attempting to chart the voyage ahead. If we think of them as gamblers, the man in the Three has confidently placed his bet while the one in the Two is still struggling to put his hand in order.
Kliegman describes all of the Threes as the “fulfillment” or “perfection” of their suit from a Tree of Life perspective. (This runs counter to Pythagoras, who considered Ten to be the “perfect” number.) She seems to be implying that “it’s all downhill from there.” This makes sense to me since the higher a number is on the Tree, the more unsullied by association with matter it remains. According to the Hermetic Qabalists, spirit fully immersed in mundane reality sacrifices much of its purity and adaptability, becoming trapped on the wheel of “cause-and-affect.” With the Three, the oscillations of the wheel have been temporarily brought into “steady-state” harmony, with all forces in alignment and advancing in the same direction, while the Two is still traveling between polar opposites with no distinct coordinates to mark its present location. The Three isn’t about to change course as it strives for the “safe haven” symbolized by the Four; the Two, on the other hand, can “jump the track” without warning and try to return the way it came. If you get the impression that I’m comfortable with the 3 of Wands and dubious about the 2 of Wands, you’re right!