Understanding the Tarot Swords

If you’ve used the Rider Waite deck or its derivatives, the suit of Swords probably triggers images of heartbreak and despair. But why? Aren’t the swords supposed to correspond to the element of air? Why are the images so discouraging?

To understand the swords, let’s put aside the Rider Waite tradition for the moment. Let’s go back farther in history and visit the Marseille Tarot. This is the grandfather of the Rider Waite, and the oldest complete deck still in existence.

Let’s pull the ace of swords. Throw away everything you know about the suit, forget the keywords, and look at the image. A disembodied hand grasps a sword. The sword is straight, long, and pointed. It pierces a crown, from which pours a palm frond and an olive branch. What can we understand from this image? To grasp the symbol, we must first ask what it means to be a sword.


Getting to the Point

What is the nature of a sword? What qualities make a sword a good sword? It must be sharp. It must be strong and hard. It can be straight or curved, but never tangled. A sword is best when it is smooth, and a very fine one is clear and reflective. It has a very definite point.

What does this sound like, metaphorically? Is there a part of the human being that shares these qualities? As you may have guessed, the sword represents the intellect.

The intellect is the part of the person that deals with language and thought.

Draw Your Weapon

If you continue the metaphor, you find that the intellect and the sword have still more in common. They are forged, meaning they strengthen under intense heat and pressure. Their purpose is to delineate, particularize, and to cleave. This is true of the mind when we separate and analyze data, or process mathematics. You can wield the intellect as a weapon, to attack, defend, wound or even destroy. You know the pen is mightier than the sword. The Tarot says the pen is a sword.

Rhetoric and debate are very much like swordplay. You thrust and parry, defend and counterattack. Agility, surprise and precision are key. Ideally this is like a fencing match and not a struggle to the death. Arguments can be stimulating exercise, or a stressful ordeal.

So watch your language. The swords are the Tarot’s most destructive suit because words can be damaging. Behind every word is a thought, and thoughts are things. So to gain control of your reality, you must first gain control over your thoughts. The suit of swords teaches us how to do this. To control your thoughts is to sharpen your mind and find your true will.


Most people have a will that is stuck in dullness and base desire. Their sword is stuck in a stone, so to speak. To draw out Excalibur, which is depicted on the ace of swords, you must be the true and worthy ruler of your inner domain. You must master your thoughts, perfect your will, and speak with precision and justice.

Only then you will be crowned rightful monarch, and your inheritance shall be the olive branch of peace and the palm frond of victory. So though the sword is a weapon, its goal is peace. A perfect intellect is focused and placid.

Stay Sharp

Spend some time with your swords cards, bearing this in mind. The Rider Waite deck paints them as tragic and distressing. But the power of swords can be stimulating and sharpening if used correctly. Don’t worry about elemental correspondences. There is a strong case for swords being the suit of fire, not air, but for now it doesn’t matter. The important thing is the image: a hand grasping a sword. You in total command of your thoughts and will. Through careful study of the Tarot and self reflection, you can attain this peace and victory.

The suit of espades–Spanish for swords–is the origin of the playing card suit of spades.



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