Whenever I talk to people about the tarot cards they dislike, the suit of swords comes up. Sure, The Devil, The Tower and The Emperor often appear in those roundups of ‘most hated tarot cards,’ but people’s fear or dislike of those major cards pales in comparison to our bad feels about the swords.
It’s easy to understand why. Swords are often referred to as ‘the suit of sorrow’ and it explores themes such as insecurity, heartbreak, worry and pain.
As I explained a while back when I wrote about the four tarot suits and corresponding elements, swords relate to the element of air and thus to our minds, to our intellectual selves. This encompasses truth and justice, our capacity for planning and foresight, but also the stuff that swirls around in our heads when we feel anxious or insecure, grudges that play on our minds, and the mental walls we put up for self-protection. In my experience, a big part of being human is learning to get out of our own way — to quiet those overactive brains of ours so we can get to our feelings, or let go of the dark stuff that so often clouds up our minds.
I’m not in the business of sweetening up tarot or trying to pretend that every card has a happy message when it appears in a reading, but I do believe that every card is there to help you in some way. Too often, we see a load of swords and think ‘ugh — it’s all going to shit.’ As a professional tarotist providing readings for clients, the temptation is to shuffle and deal again when I see a high number of dark-looking swords cards — after all, I don’t want to scare my clients!
Nope, the swords are not often gentle, or particularly kind. But those mind-related cards have plenty to teach, starting with encouragement to take an honest look at ourselves and the way our thinking is affecting our behaviour. Here are a few ways you might interpret some of the trickier swords cards so that they can provide you with genuinely useful advice… as long as you’re prepared to hear it.
Eight of Swords
This card often appears to let you know that you are your own worst enemy. It enables you to stand back from your situation and see yourself from the outside. It helps to see the swords themselves as representing your thoughts – and in this card, they seem to have built a wall around you. The message is that your thoughts are trapping you, your insecurities are holding you back, but if you can gain a little perspective on your situation, you might see that they are more in your mind than reality. You do have the choice of pulling of your blindfold and seeing that ‘cage’ for what it really is — a collection of insecurities which you can overcome with a little work.
Three of Swords
With its connotations of heartbreak and woe, I reckon this is one of the most disliked cards in the deck… though a friend of mine has it tattooed on her arm. Why? Because it’s about resilience in the face of hardship. In the classic (and truly beautiful) Rider Waite Smith card, a huge, bright heart, pierced by three symmetrical swords, hangs in the air, a fierce thunderstorm raging all around. But despite the puncture-wounds created by those swords, it isn’t broken, or bleeding. It’s strong. It will bear scars, but it won’t be broken.
The Three of Swords carries an important message about the pain you may be experiencing: it’s bad, there’s no doubt about that, but you’ll get through it. Your heart is stronger than you think, and one day, you’ll wear those scars, those battle wounds, with pride.
Nine of Swords
A little like the Eight, those nine swords represent thoughts that weigh heavy on our minds. This time, the context is the middle of the night, and this is a card of those fears and worries that come to us at our most vulnerable moments. If you’ve ever had insomnia or lain awake at night with your mind racing anxiously, you’ll be familiar with the feeling of loneliness in this card. When the whole world is sleeping and you seem to be the only person awake, in the dark, with so much on your mind. The Nine of Swords can gently remind you that things aren’t as bad as they seem right now, that in the morning light, everything will seem easier and more manageable. If you feel overwhelmed by your anxieties, it may help you to write a list, to get stuff out of your head and onto paper, or take another practical step towards tackling everything that is hanging over you so oppressively.
Knight of Swords
Here’s a clue that you might be holding on to a grudge too tightly, or being single-minded in your thinking. The Knight of Swords tends to take a blinkered view of things, getting hung up on one fact or element, rather than seeing the big picture. I often find that this can indicate that a person is focusing on the past, just like the owl in the picture shown, who, when they appear in readings, often appears to be flying towards the past.
On the other hand, sometimes this Knight’s fixation on that one detail can be just what you need. Maybe they’ve identified the specific point of injustice in a situation and are determined to solve it, or they represent a willingness to state or tackle something tricky that others are afraid of.
Seven of Swords
Recently, I’ve come to love this card in a new way. Partly, it was speaking to Leah Lakshmi last year for that wonderful Fool’s Journey interview — she provided a new perspective on this card that I’d never considered. The Seven of Swords is often concerned with secrets and theft, but rather than leave it there, it asks us to consider our motivations. This card doesn’t have to signal bad behaviour — although it might. Is someone witholding information from you? It may be time to dig a little, to stop ignoring the signs and challenge what’s going on. Or are you the sneaky one here? Check yourself — check in with your motivations. Is it time to come clean? Or is this something you simply have to do? As Leah described to me, sometimes underhand tactics are the only way for you to move forwards, escape or overcome your situation. When you see the Seven of Swords, take a deeper look at what’s going on and why.
Ten of Swords
Oh dear lord — here’s a dire scene. Some poor fellow lying flat on the ground, and not one, not two, but ten huge swords in their back, blood running everywhere. If you’ve been reading tarot for even just a short while, however, you’re probably familiar with the more humorous ‘melodrama’ interpretation of the Ten of Swords, in which this card tells you that sure, things are tough, but perhaps you’re being just a little bit OTT about it all?
In that sense, you can use the Ten of Swords as a springboard. There are black clouds above, but on the horizon the sky is clear and bright. The Ten (in all four suits) represents the ending of a cycle, and when you get to rock bottom like this, the only way is up. In it’s harsh, no-bullshit way, the Ten of Swords is the card that tells you to pull yourself together, to stop feeling sorry for yourself and get back on your feel and look for a fresh approach with a brand new attitude.
Want more? Here’s a Fool’s Journey post on ‘good and bad cards’.
The Rider Waite Smith 3 of Swords always reminded me of this bit from a Latin hymn about the Virgin Mary watching her son die on the cross that I have seen translated as “through her heart, sorrowing and grieving, pierced by a sword” and in art the Seven Sorrows of Mary are represented by swords in a heart.
Now from this column I know the resemblance isn’t just skin deep.
I want to say something about the goofiness of applying good and bad binary thinking to tarot or any form of “divination” really, but we humans can hardly help ourselves from using binary thinking with almost everything that exists. Additionally facing the less the positive bits are just things we gotta do.
Sorry if I’m intruding or something with my sorta tarot related offshoot. I feel like I should be making scholarly conversation or what to make up for it. Possibly a comparative analysis with “bad” and “good” runes but they lacks the same profile as tarot and the startling graphics.
I love this. I’ve always associated closely with the sword suit, but it can be viewed as a downer at first. It’s all about perspective, which I love. I feel like Tarot should and does make us look at our lives from a different perspective and that can get a little lost sometimes when it comes to the suit cards.
Oh Beth thank you thank you. This moment and this second this is what I needed to read.
Really enjoyed this, thank you Beth! You’re reminding me to go back to my cards…
I’ve actually always liked the 7 of Swords, it seems to me to represent choosing to go your own way or taking an unconventional style of thinking in addition to the selfish or sneaky interpretation that seems to be more common
I like the 4 of swords too, it’s restful and contemplative
I think it depends on what deck you have too. Mine usually shows me the eight of swords when I’ve been holding my tongue about something important (it depicts a woman behind a cage of swords covering her mouth), or the ten of swords when a karmic pattern is about to reset (the figure is standing upright with an aura around his head, the swords pierce him from all directions. It looks like a cross between martyrdom and execution). Knight is usually about coming to the point (literally, on the card, the point of a sword is highlighted) and the seven is usually about taking stock of what belongs to you and what belongs to others (a figure in lotus pose with seven swords laid in front of him).
In any case, people usually don’t like the swords because if you’ve been deceiving yourself, the swords cut through the bullshit.
The swords are already my favorite suit, and you’ve given me some real goodies mull over here, Beth! Like, after this comment, I’m gonna read this 3 more times..and probably take notes.
As someone with chronic pain, the swords have both been really supportive when I’ve needed to push (3swords) and also supportive about when I need to break (4swords, 10swords).
Also, the ten of swords has forewarned a day of binge writing-all-the-things multiple times last year. I hadn’t seen it in a while, but then it appeared as my theme for December during my mid-year check-in spread..so either I will be in a lot of pain or doing a lot of writing this winter. Or possibly both since they sometimes go hand-in-hand, hah.
Hi there, I enjoy reading all of your astrology article. I like to write a little comment to support you.
What an interesting article, Beth! I was really surprised to learn about the general aversion to swords. They hadn’t really shown up in my erratic self-administered readings over the years until last year. It was such a boon, actually, because I’m a very indecisive person – prone to inertia. A sword card has always been positive for me because it cuts a clear swathe, if that makes sense. It cuts to the bone, leaving little room for ambiguity (inasmuch as you can say that about a tarot card, of course).
I love your writing and your interpretation of these cards! Thank you for your viewpoint. I am new to tarot reading, but not to being read. I enjoyed this so much and happened upon it by accident!???
Id like a reading please
In addition to everything you said, sometimes the seven of swords can be a call to use strategy in your situation. Yes, question motivations, and maybe take a roundabout route to get wherever it is you are going.
The three of swords sucks. But I’m also considering getting it tattooed on me. The Mary El Tarot says about the 3 of swords, “The agent that wounded your heart was a divine gift to begin with.” Reminding us to seek the medicine in every interaction. And probably there was something shaky in the foundation, causing this to come apart. As it follows directly after the blindfolded 2 of swords, it suggests there was some denial about reality and once the blindfold was taken off the cold hard reality of heartbreak was the thing being avoided – as the fools journey goes.
The Devil card holds many negative associations, but also positives in that it is merely Pan, the satyr, the God of the Forest who looks after all natural life and death. Depending on the circumstances at the time, this could simply mean that Pan energy is strong – masculine, earthy, lusty, possibly kinky asf ;)