Pondering grim cards

When I was at the North Star Tarot Conference, I got the Orbifold Tarot. The pictures in this deck are abstract patterns of colored circles. The number of circles depends on the number of the card: six circles for the Lovers and the Sixes, nineteen circles for the Sun. The cards are colored depending on the elements involved. It’s a great deck if you habitually consider numbers and elements in your readings, but the patterns mask the emotional impact of a card. For instance, the Three of Cups is often seen as a positive card of friendship and celebration, while the Three of Swords depicts grief and sorrow. In the Orbifold Tarot, however, the Three of Water and the Three of Air have identical patterns of three circles, the former in blue and the latter in yellow.

Three of Water and Three of Air from the Orbifold Tarot

Despite their reputation, I like the Swords, not because I adore misery, but because Swords are the rational, logical, intellectual suit and that describes a lot of my approach to life. I love the tarot, but I’ve never been thrilled at how the Swords have been saddled with a large number of dread-inspiring cards when that hasn’t been my experience of rationality and reason. Also, my favorite color is yellow, frequently associated with the element of air and the suit of Swords. So imagine my reaction to a deck with a beloved suit all in my favorite color,* and the higher the number, the more yellow on the card. The Orbifold Tarot’s Eight, Nine, and Ten of Air are…pretty.

The Eight, Nine, and Ten of Swords from the Thoth and Waite-Smith decks, with the Eight, Nine, and Ten of Air from the Orbifold Tarot between them.
Top row: Thoth Tarot. Middle row: Orbifold Tarot. Bottom row: Waite-Smith Tarot.

It hasn’t been easy for me to leap into reading a deck without concrete illustrations. I’ve needed to think to recognize the cards. Between the lack of familiar illustrations and my unexpected reaction to commonly dreaded cards (“ooh, nice!”), I started wondering about a few things. Like, are the Eight, Nine, and Ten of Swords innately grim—that is, the combination of number and element mandates grimness—or do we think of them that way because of how they are illustrated in the most influential decks?

The pictures on both the Waite-Smith and the Thoth decks do lead one to think of unpleasant things, as do the card titles. In the Eight of Swords (“Interference”), the two vertical swords in the Thoth deck are willpower and firmness, but they’re under siege from all the problems symbolized by the other six swords. The woman in the Waite-Smith deck cannot make much progress either, being bound, blindfolded, and hemmed in by swords.

The Nine of Swords? Ah, “Cruelty.” In the Thoth illustration, nine swords drip blood. Those lighter-colored drops? Poison. Meanwhile, over in the Waite-Smith illustration, in addition to the sleepless figure clutching their head in the night, notice that the scene on the bed frame is of someone running a sword through a seated victim. Good times.

And the Ten of Swords—”Ruin.” Personally, I love the color scheme of the Thoth Ten of Swords, but it’s not peaceful and calming. (Also, never trust jagged, sharp background patterns in a Thoth card.) Still, bright colors, no dripping blood or poison…things are looking better than in the Nine of Swords, right? Well, those ten swords form the Tree of Life. While you can’t really see it in this photo, nine of the swords are breaking the tenth sword, the one with a heart on its hilt. The heart is at the Tiferet position on the Tree of Life—the Tree is losing its heart. This is not good. And the Waite-Smith illustration is of someone who’s been stabbed ten times. In the back.

It’s not that life never delivers situations this serious. But there are situations not nearly as harsh as the illustrations in these cards suggest which are Swords/Air situations, yet not easily described by the more moderate cards in the suit. The Orbifold Tarot and its emotionally neutral cards led me to consider if there were less dramatic ways to interpret these cards in any deck while staying within range of the common meanings.

One theory is that the higher the number on the card, the closer it is to manifestation. Cards early on in the suit are more like ideas and inspirations, but as the numbers increase, the situation becomes more fixed and committed, harder to change. Traditionally, water and earth are said to be more comfortable in the higher numbers than fire and air, so the Nines and Tens look a lot more positive in the Cups and Pentacles than they do in the Wands and Swords. Another approach is that the Nines are the culmination of the suit, while the Tens go overboard. When you’re at the Ten, the situation has developed as much as it can—it may even have gotten a bit stuck—and it’s definitely time to end this cycle and start a new one. Keeping these two approaches in mind, here are some thoughts on what the Eight, Nine, and Ten of Swords/Air might mean if they show up in a reading when the end of the world is not nigh:

Eight of Air: Constraint. If you make a commitment, you’re constrained. If you have things to do at work, you’re constrained. Planning to keep to a schedule today? Drive at the speed limit? Cross things off your to-do list? You’re constrained. It may not be fun, but it’s necessary. Often, that schedule or to-do list or those laws are mental/intellectual creations, which is why I see this as fitting for Air/Swords. Many people have pointed out that the woman in the Waite-Smith Eight of Swords could free herself if she tried. Many times, the only force holding you to your commitments is yourself. Is it wise to do so? Only you know.

Nine of Air: Lost in thought. The Waite-Smith picture suggests that if your mind is racing in the middle of the night, it must be because of horrible thoughts. Not necessarily. Me, I’m more than capable of lying awake working out some interesting idea or thinking about something intricate and fun. But this late in the suit, at the level of the Nine, things should be manifesting, becoming real. In the Nine of Air, they’re not. This is one of the downsides of Air: keeping everything theoretical and perfect** instead of making the commitment to earthly, flawed reality. Do something.

Ten of Air: Bringing something to an end, letting it go. Which can be painful: just one more edit, okay? Let me just tweak this one thing, proofread one more time, redo this one bit here, it’s not ready… In the Ten, the idea has become reality, and now there’s no denying that it’s not as perfect as the original inspiration was back at the Ace. On the other hand, it at least exists, which is more than can be said of that first idea. You can’t really commit to new projects if you never bring the old ones to an end. Even if it feels like killing something, say “The End” and move on.

*To be accurate, the ten pip cards have yellow designs on white backgrounds and the King of Air (Air of Air) has a yellow circle on a yellow background. The other Air Court Cards have yellow backgrounds with circles of different colors for the other element in the card: a green circle for the Page of Air (Earth of Air), a red circle for the Knight of Air (Fire of Air), and a blue circle for the Queen of Air (Water of Air).

**”Perfect” could mean perfectly horrible. Nightmares of how awful something could be are no more rooted in reality than the beautiful fantasies of how wonderful it could be.

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