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The better side of the Ten of Swords

January 21, 2014

There are no “good” cards or “bad” cards; they all have a spectrum of meaning.  Here are some thoughts about positive aspects of a card that is typically seen as being negative.

Ten of Swords -- Tarot of the MastersFirst, here is a review of the negative side of the Ten of Swords.  This card is typically seen as a warning of all sorts of dreadful things, such as loss, ruin, defeat, hitting rock bottom, and being stabbed in the back (based on the RWS imagery for it).  It also indicates taking logic to extremes, and so it can indicate those times when reasoning leads us to a dead end.  Another negative connotation that I see in it is expressed by the phrase “Death from a thousand cuts.”  Basically, this means a failure or destruction that is a result of many smaller problems or defeats.

So how can we find anything good in this card?

Let’s start with “Death from a thousand cuts.”  This phrase was originally a literal reference to an ancient form of torture and execution, which makes it sound even more like a bad thing.  However, this can be a very helpful suggestion when taken metaphorically.  It says that we can deal with a large problem that is too difficult to overcome all at once by picking at it bit by bit, by taking small cuts out of it so that eventually it will fall.

The interpretations for this card of loss, ruin, and defeat seem pretty bad too, of course, and generally they are.  However, we can see a silver lining in even this when we consider the following quote:
“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” — Randy Pausch
This says that we should learn from a loss.  After all, successful people are not people who never experience failure; they are people who learn from the failures that they experience.

Next, this card’s meaning of hitting rock bottom means there is nowhere to go but up.  Also on the RWS version of it, the man’s hands are held in a ritual gesture of good fortune and he is facing toward what may be the dawn, so the implication is that “it’s always darkest before the dawn” and things will get better now.

When we consider the rather melodramatic image on the RWS version of this card, we see that this card may indicate that the problems we are facing have been exaggerated in our minds, perhaps as a result of our incessant dwelling on our fears, as seen in the previous card, the Nine of Swords. Thus, this card may suggest that we are being melodramatic and have blown our problems out of proportion.

We may also use the numerological meaning of the number Ten as “endings that lead to new beginnings” and the Swords suit association with thoughts, beliefs, and ideas.  Thus, this card can say that we need to let go of old concepts and ideas in order to embrace new ones. It can herald the realization that some things cannot be explained or understood; they have to be taken on faith. And it may say that after reason has been exhausted, we will find the value of our intuition.

While this card can indicate the problems of over-analyzing things, we should also remember that as a Ten card, it might indicate the end of such over-analysis. To expand upon that, here is an excerpt from my book, The Soul’s Journey, about the Ten of Swords:

This card’s suggestion of an end to over-analysis points out a beautiful interpretation of it. …  We must remember that this card is not in the suit of Pentacles, so it is not primarily about physical manifestations.  Instead, it is in the suit of Swords, which is concerned with thought (among other things).  Thus, we may view the fate of the man on this card … symbolically as the end of the tyranny of what is called “Monkey Mind.”  As a result, this card says that when we finally put an end to the tyranny of our thoughts (which should be our servant, not our master as they usually are), we will find silence and stillness … and bliss.

We can find a similar view of this card by considering a version of it in another deck.  It is always instructive to consider versions of a card in other decks, especially ones that have imagery very different from what we are used to.  With that in mind, let’s look at the Ten of Swords in the Osho Zen deck.  You can read what the accompanying book for this deck says about this card here, but in brief, it says that “this card depicts the evolution of consciousness as it is described by Friedrich Nietzche in his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra. … In Zen you are coming from nowhere and you are going nowhere. You are just now, here, neither coming nor going. Everything passes by you; your consciousness reflects it, but it does not get identified.”  And so this card can suggest the death of the ego, which liberates us from dysfunctional illusions about life as we “die” to our old delusions and awaken to a new reality.

Finally, all those swords in the man’s back may indicate being stabbed in the back, but a creative interpretation is to see this as “the acupuncture card,” which presents a therapeutic suggestion when taken literally.  Taken metaphorically, this may suggest the strategic application of minimal force to correct the flow of vital energy in a system.

You can find more blog posts about the other side of the cards listed here:


  1. This is an excellent blog on the Ten of Swords… thanks, James!

  2. This is a very informative post. I like the line “Death from a Thousand cuts” and like the idea of having to work something out bit by bit.

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