Confessions of a Tarot-holic
Using Multiple Decks to Gain Understanding of a Card
(c) 2001 James Ricklef
Although I haven’t nearly the extensive collection of Tarot decks that some people do, I do have quite a few decks — more, in fact, than I typically ever read with. Some I only use for meditation and affirmation work. A couple I find impossible to work with in any way, but they are beautifully drawn, which is what impelled me to buy them. (Of course, I told myself at the time that I would try to learn to use them, and maybe someday I will.)
I never intended to accumulate so many decks, but what can you do when they seductively whisper your name? Actually, I have often steeled myself against temptation and resisted buying yet another deck, considering that I do not really need another deck. After all, a new deck means I have to get a silk bag for it and a crystal to keep with it (which is one of my little Tarot quirks). In addition, it would take up more room on a shelf already suffering a minor population explosion. And when would I find the time to explore its meaning and learn its dialect well enough to do the deck justice?
Unfortunately, I have not always exerted such strong will power, and so every once in a while resistance has been futile. However, I doubt that I have progressed to the point of needing help, although sometimes I do have dark visions of myself standing up in front of a group of people saying, “Hi, my name is James. I’m a Tarot-holic.”
A student in a Tarot class I was teaching a few months ago asked me why anyone would want to buy more than one deck. I didn’t take it personally. She didn’t know how many decks I have tucked away; she just wondered why I was telling the class how to find and choose a deck, in case they might want another one. I explained that you might want to have a different deck for different uses, such as divination, affirmations and visualizations, meditations, or magick. You might want to have a special deck to use exclusively for yourself, keeping it untainted by the energy of other people. Also, you might want to have different decks to read for different types of people. For example, I use the Hanson-Roberts deck for an entirely different type of person than would appreciate the Cosmic Tribe deck. And of course, some of the decks are just plain beautiful and you just gotta have them.
This all made sense to me as I said it, and I thought it was a darn good explanation. However, the blank looks on the faces of some of my students — most of them were quite new to the Tarot — made me wonder if I was just trying to justify my little addiction. As I thought about it more, though, I realized I had to give my students time. Either they would come to understand, or they wouldn’t. A Tarot addiction isn’t something you can explain; you just have to experience it, right?
I was content with this explanation until recently when I thought of an even stronger argument. This one came to me when I considered that whenever I explore the cards of a new deck I gain some insights into the corresponding cards of my other decks as well. It is as though the conceptual, archetypal essence of each card is an elephant, and whenever I get a new deck I’m a blind man examining it from a new side. (You know that tale don’t you? A blind man touching the side of an elephant thinks it is a wall, one at the back holding its tail thinks it’s a rope, one by one of the legs thinks it’s a tree, etc.) It’s a crude analogy, but I think you get the picture.
Each of the 78 Tarot cards has an ineffable essence, but any one version of that card, due to the limits of physical manifestation, can only express a limited facet of it. Or at least, I can only see a limited range of meaning for that card when I am, so to speak, standing in the position of that particular version of that card. When I explore another version of the card I see its underlying concept from another perspective. Then I realize that the elephant has legs like a tree trunk as well as a tail like a rope and a side like a wall. I am slowly getting the bigger picture.
With that in mind, I decided to try an experiment. I laid out and examined several versions of a particular card all at once to see what different perspectives they might provide. I thought it would be informative to see how the meaning of one version of the card might affect and help interpret the meanings of the other versions. I chose to explore the Five of Swords, and I decided to use the following decks:
Sacred Rose Tarot
Tarot of the Ages
I picked those particular decks to try to get the broadest spectrum of meaning possible with the decks I have, but without having an unwieldy number of cards to consider all at once. What follows, then, are some of the thoughts and insights I gained from this exercise.
In the Universal Waite version, a smug or gloating youth holds three swords, and two more swords lie on the ground nearby. In the distance, stand two figures, dejected and defeated (or so they seem to me). A wind blows the youths garb and hair, as well as the ragged clouds overhead.
There are several levels of meaning that this card generally evokes for me. It implies someone acting out of self-interest, unconcerned that others may get hurt in the process. This can be seen in the “me first” attitude of someone who cuts you off in traffic, sometimes even endangering you and others in his or her way. People like this may win, but they usually do so dishonorably or not by the rules. It can also indicate winning through betrayal or cheating, but thereby losing something of greater value, which seems like the reverse of the Hanged Man, doesn’t it? Thus this card can indicate either a Pyrrhic or a hollow victory.
With such considerations in mind, I looked at the other versions of this card. The first thing that struck me is that they all seem to focus on the aftermath of the conflict depicted in the Waite version. It is as if the Waite card is the first scene in a play and the other cards are possible next scenes.
The Little White Book for the Sacred Rose Tarot (SRT) describes this card as follows: “A man kneels, impaled by four swords. The fifth sword hangs ready to strike. Blood streams into the ground before him.”
While the Five of Swords is rarely a “happy card” in any deck, the SRT version is even more dire than usual. In fact, the SRT Five of Swords makes the guy in the typical Ten of Swords card look comfortable by comparison. The cruelty of this card makes you wonder if this was just about winning. Maybe it was also about the need to win, or even the need to hurt someone else. There may be a pathological psychology involved here.
This version of this card also looks like you could be in a no-win situation, a lost cause. Thus it advises you to avoid this conflict, or at least to cut your losses and get out while you can, for this may not be a simple case of probable loss. It could also indicate that there is no way you can win, such as a situation where you are “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”
The figure on the SRT card seems to have been martyred, which sheds light on another implication of the Waite version. The youth in the Waite Five of Swords card potentially has created a couple of martyrs, and this could be why his victory may be Pyrrhic or ephemeral.
On a concrete level, the SRT Five of Swords can indicate a physical attack or injury. I sometimes see the Seven of Swords as indicative of theft, but of a subtler, and less physical or direct means — a cat burglar, perhaps. Also, the excessive force depicted in this SRT card may also imply that the attack was cruel, or perhaps it was not worth whatever was gained. For example, I was robbed at knife-point once long ago, but since I had very little cash or jewelry at the time, the thief probably got less than $100 for his efforts, although he risked being caught and sent to jail for that effort. (Luckily, I escaped relatively unscathed, faring much better than the fellow in the SRT Five of Swords.)
Finally, considering the Waite and SRT cards together reveals that the Five of Swords might indicate hate crimes, even though that term was unknown when Pamela Coleman Smith created the Waite version, and perhaps even when Johanna Sherman created the SRT deck. This interpretation is especially remarkable considering how vividly the SRT version of the card calls to mind the murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay student who was the victim of an infamous hate crime in Wyoming in 1998.
Next I considered the Alchemical Tarot, with its much more positive view of the Five of Swords. In this card, a blacksmith hammers into shape a red-hot sword. On his wall hang two repaired swords (pointing upward) and two damaged ones (pointing downward) that are in need of repair.
This version of the card is about reclaiming losses, which leads to advice as to how to deal with the situation discussed in the Waite version. (I always like to find encouragement or advise when a card shouts a warning, as the Five of Swords often does.) The Alchemical Tarot Five of Swords thus adds the advice to mend fences after discord in a relationship. It also urges you to salvage what you can out of a defeat, or to learn what you can as a result of a defeat. And it lends the encouragement that anything can be fixed if you know how and are willing to work at it.
According to the Alchemical Tarot book, this card also advises you to “strike while the iron is hot.” (See page 144 of that book.) This comment might give us some insight into the victorious youth on the Waite version. Perhaps he just took advantage of a favorable situation. Sure, it may have been unscrupulous to do so, but the temptation may have been too great.
In the Cosmic Tribe Five of Swords there are five downward thrust swords that seem to form the bars of a jail cell. Gripping two of the swords are a pair of hands, which are cut and bleeding. The man inside the cell can be seen dimly. His eyes are shut and his head is tilted dejectedly, resting on one shoulder.
This version provides a different take on how you deal with defeat in the aftermath of a Waite-style Five of Swords conflict. The man in the Cosmic Tribe card is holding on (psychologically speaking) to a harsh defeat, an attitude that has created his self-imposed prison and that continues to wound him. This point of view suggests that the Five of Swords may depict an internal conflict in which your own dark and negative thoughts threaten to destroy you, making you your own worst enemy. While I sometimes consider the typical Five of Wands card in an internal, psychological way, it was not until I compared the Cosmic Tribe and Waite versions that I considered the Five of Swords that way as well.
The Cosmic Tribe Tarot book provides an excellent comment on both the “win at any cost” attitude of the foreground victor in the Waite card and the dejected losers in the background: “Winning isn’t the object; the object is experience…” (See page 77 of that book.) This is good advice for any querent when this card comes up in a reading.
Lastly I turned to the Tarot of the Ages deck. In this version of the Five of Swords, the scene is shrouded in snow and ice, and the sky looks like it is clearing after a storm. A man sprawls atop a rock in which are imbedded three swords, point down, and he shakes his fist at the heavens. Below him, another man cringes in pain (which, presumably, is more psychological than physical). Two swords lie on the snow nearby.
These two men depict two different responses to defeat: angry defiance vs. self-pitying withdrawal. Neither approach seems very effective, since the victor is no longer in evidence. Again, all is not lost though, as there are five swords left. The advice, then, is that after defeat don’t let either anger or self-pity blind you to the options you do have left.
But even when you have lost everything, “you have nothing to lose,” as noted in the Little White Book for the Tarot of the Ages deck. And so the defeat indicated by the Five of Swords may be a liberating experience as your options are opened up. Indeed, just as the victory indicated by the Five of Swords may be ephemeral, the defeat may be too.
As you can see, I found this exercise to be illuminating, adding depths of meaning to my understanding of this card. This also suggests that when a card in a reading stumps you, you might try laying the corresponding card from another deck next to it to see if you can get a clearer vision of the first card based upon what is being said by the second card.
Using both the similarities and the differences between different versions of a card to illuminate the meanings of those disparate versions may be one of the best justifications for having multiple decks. I am not sure if this argument would sway a group of novice Tarot students, but it is satisfying to me. May it be helpful to you as well.