When Things Go South

When browsing through the tarot-sphere one stumbles upon quite a diverse range of subjects. Whether it be tarot decks, explanatory tips on how to read cards, spreads, the history of the cards, philosophy, pataphysics, there is practically nothing you can’t find on the web. But when you want to learn about why a reading fails, well… things get a little more complicated. For sure, there are a few posts out there, always reachable within a click or two, but that’s it. I guess that people don’t really want to talk about it online (outside of forums and courses, where there’s always someone asking about this or maybe some advice about how a certain reading can go wrong).

Why people won’t openly talk about that would be an excellent question. Indeed, a question for the cards. But the reasons for that might be so varied that we would probably get lost. It’s usual to see readings presented as successful readings, for obvious matters. As tarot readers, we want to engage people, to bring them in. To show them that cards do work. This is why talking about the failures that we, as a person, might commit isn’t exactly the best of strategies. On the other side, boosting a high percentage of confirmed / successful / on point readings might do exactly that. Statistics are reassuring. A high percentage of good readings will lead people to believe that the reading they’re going to have will also be a good one. Which is one of the best publicities that a tarot reader might have.

It really isn’t about the statistics

And yet, no matter who good our statistics are, every single reading we do still places us face-to-face to someone. Do it wrong and you will still loose face before your client, and what good will those statistics be then? If that reading really goes south, it might make you second-guess yourself, which is something most people aren’t used to do. But something that is truly humbling.

I’m writing all of this because a few days ago I had one of those experiences. I was doing an online reading with no background whatsoever. Just three questions that were put on the table for answer. I drew some cards for them and started describing what I saw and, somehow it all went down the hill without me noticing it. By the end of the reading, the whole thing looked like one of those second-rate drama soaps. The kind you don’t really want to watch, because it’s just “oh! so bad!!”. But again, the reading made sense with the cards, and that was all that mattered. When the feedback came, I was faced with this spectacular shit-hits-the-fan-blow-in-your-face failure, and all of a sudden, a nice deep hole in the ground seemed like a very good idea.

Well, maybe it wasn’t really that bad. But it sure looked like it, probably all the more as I’m not used to these types of situations (ah… the power of statistics… how feeble its assurance really is…). And yet, here it was, as it was want to happen sooner of later.

The cards were wrong!

Because they are the ones that are telling us things, right? After all, our job here is just to interpret them and talk about them. So, if they are wrong, how can we say anything right? But if they are right, the merit is entirely ours, for we were the ones that actually decoded them successfully.

Yes, exactly! Blame it on the cards!

Admitting that the cards can be wrong only opens another shitload of problems, because then not only do we need to make sense of what they are trying to show us, we actually have to figure out when they are right and when they are not. And how do you propose to do that? Ask them in a parallel drawing? Invoking whatever help you deem necessary to assure that they are right? And why are you reading cards anyway, if you can’t even figure out that the cards are wrong in the first place? Better stick to some infallible divination system. God knows how many are out there!

On the other hand, if we admit that the cards are always right, then the problem lies entirely with how the reader choose to interpret what s/he saw. This means that not only you are not dependent on the whims of a few pieces of paper, it also allows you to identify and correct your mistakes, thereby becoming a better reader. Even if, in the process, you do have to admit to being wrong. And really, what is that going to hurt except our own sense of worth? The ego might be a useful thing, but we really shouldn’t have it keeping us from seeing what is right in front of us. That is, after all, what we proposed to do by becoming tarot readers.

So what went wrong?

Moon card, from the Tarot of Xul Solar

Maybe the querent was in denial or just out for some bad ride. Maybe I was in a bad day. Or there was one of those combinations of little things that made this happen. When stuff like this happens, we’re in Lunar territory, so the first thing to do is really to calm down and try to find our way in the middle of all of this

Which was what I did, just as soon as I dug myself out of that imaginary hole. I picked up the same deck that had so “miserably” failed me and asked it that very question



The reading was simple:

“Because you were too eager to get to the pot, you got yourself involved in your own theories so much, you didn’t step back to take a look at what you had.”

Ouch! Talk about being sharp! The good thing, though, is that “a-ha! I could still read that damned cards!” Well, it might not be much, but it sure is a positive thing. I mean, nothing like some self-validation to raise the morals, right? But there’s a whole lot to unpack from this snappy sentence. So let’s see where this leads.

“You got yourself involved in your theories so much, you didn’t step back to take a look at what you had”

This is basically what the Page of Coins is saying. There he is, coin in hand showing what he got from his work, while also pointing at another coin that just isn’t there!”

So what happened here? There I was looking at the cards searching for a point of entry to the story before me. As usually happens, the images trigger some ideas, and you go with these ideas trying to figure out how they fit the cards. In a way, I was spinning theories and then looking for evidence in the cards to prove it. There’s nothing wrong with this. But again, one needs to be aware that theories are dangerous things to have, as they can lead us down in the wrong direction and thus, distracting us from what is really going on.

The best thing, then, is to avoid the whole thing altogether. To just stick to the spread lying there on the table and take it all in. To not just look for an answer, but rather to let it come to us. This takes time, obviously. In a good day, it might be as little as 30 seconds. Or it might be significantly more in a bad day. Obviously, when we have a face-to-face reading every second counts, as there’s someone right there in front of us waiting for an answer. But that was not the case with this reading, as it was to be delivered in written form.

This leads nicely into the second part of the the reading,

“You were too eager to get to the pot”

Again, we all want to deliver that snappy sentence that will answer the one in front of us. That is, after all, what we all work for. And, with enough time to think about what is right there in front of us, most of us get there. The problem arises when we convince ourselves that we need to do this fast, for that is when shortcuts are usually taken. Shortcuts like not giving the answer enough time to get to us, as said above. Or shortcuts like not checking our facts, which is one of the most essential things we can do in a card reading.

There are many ways to check the facts. The simplest one was already given: “step back and look at things from a distance”. If, however, one is not able to do this for whatever reason, one can always draw some more cards to see how things got to the point where they are now.

This means looking at past events and trying to figure out what happened. To get the narrative behind the question. Which is all the more important when we don’t have any background or context besides what is given by the question itself. The easiest way to do this is with a past / present / future spread, but there are other ways / spreads that can bring something to the table. And no matter which spread you end up using, the more data you have, the better your conclusions are. Something I was just talking about a few days before, but actually forgot to do it this time around.

Building up the narrative has other advantages, like making the querent realize how things played out; something that s/he might not even be aware of (most of the times, they aren’t). And it has the added advantage of empowering us before the querent: if the querent can check what we say against what he already knows of the situation, well… we just made our work easier. On the downside, if we fail to do that, well… there goes our face again.

It really isn’t about saving face either.

Because, at the end of the day, even with all precautions taken, shit just happens. And we will get a reading wrong now and them. We are, after all, humans, succeeding as humans and failing as humans. And a bad reading is actually the best thing that can happen to us, since it makes us stop and really look at what we are doing. Because, let’s face it: we all have a system to read the cards. A system that was built according to what we learned about card reading from books, talks, blogs, actual readings and tips from extraneous sources. If it’s a bad system, it will regularly fail; if it’s a good system, it will fail less. A really excellent system, is worth its knowledge in gold and you can start marketing it with great success!

But the only way to test this system is to read the cards. So what a bad reading really does is to point us exactly which things need to be addressed and corrected.

In a way, a bad reading is the best thing that could happen to us as a card reader, because it allows us to grow. To grow in understanding and in depth. To address what we got wrong and find a better way to deal with the cards. The cost we have to pay is a lesson in humility. Our ego will get stabbed, for sure. But the ego… ah!!! there’s so many things to say about the ego, and we really don’t have the time. There’s work to be done on accurately reading those pesky cards!

The Elemental Roulette

[Being the fifth part in our four-part special series on the nature of the tarot card suits For the previous parts, do check out Isabel’s Much at Stake: Vampires on Fire, Paulinnhhoo’s On Coins, Miguel’s To a Queen of Swords and Shelley’s The Fool’s Journey Through the Tarot Suit of Cups.]

It happens. You’re reading a book on the tarot. Or just going through some threads on some online tarot forum. Or maybe you pick this up in a course on tarot. Sooner or later, there comes a time where you will find a mention on how the four elements correspond to the four suits of the minor arcana. If you’re like me, the first time you read anything about the subject, this will seem like a huuuuge breakthrough, as it will open the door to a new understanding on the blasted minors and, perhaps, an easier way to deal with the damn cards. This will open the door to all kinds of esoteric subjects: kaballah, alchemy, mysticism, philosophy, and everything but the kitchen sink. Out of nowhere, there are huge amounts of knowledge that needs to be studied, perceived and assimilated in order to read the cards. Or at least to understand what the hell everyone is talking about.


As if that wasn’t enough, not everyone seems to follow the same system. Cups are the easy ones. Everyone more or less agrees that they are associated with Water. The other suits, however are mined field. Are batons Fire or Air or Earth? And what about spades and coins? And why can’t anyone agree on something like this? Are we to follow the western esoteric tradition and assign Fire to batons, Earth to coins and Air to spades? Or should we take the cunning folk tradition and see Fire associated with coins, spades associated with the Earth and batons associated with the element of Air? Or maybe some other combination?

And, again, why don’t people agree just with any of this???

Well, you can blame the ancient Greeks for this whole mess. They’re the ones that had the idea that the whole Universe could be explained as a combination of four elements, namely Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Granted, other cultures has similar concepts. The number of elements might vary, or even the substances considered elemental, but older civilizations like the Egyptian, the Babylonians, the Hindu or the Japanese all had similar concepts. More recently, science has taken a spin on the concept, with the notion of states of matter. According to scientists, matter can not be described by a particular combination of the four elements — since there are some things called atoms (about 120 different kinds of atoms, just to complicate things) —, but they can appear in one of the following states: solid, liquid, gas and plasma. These scientists then entertained themselves with trying to find other possible states of matter, most of which occur at extreme conditions of temperature or pressure. Still, for the most part, under normal conditions the only observable states are solid, liquid, gas and plasma. These states are due to similar behavior of different types of matter at similar energy levels, and not due to having a certain type of some substance.

Or, to put it in another way, the states were assigned by observation. Just like in the old days, the elements were defined by observation. Aristotle, for example, related each element to two of four possible qualities. Fire is both dry and hot; Water is both wet and cold; Air is both wet and hot; Earth, both dry and cold. However, there were people who would not agree. For Proclius, a neoplatonist,  Fire is sharp, subtle and mobile, while Earth is blunt, dense and immobile. Air is blunt, subtle and mobile, and Water is blunt, dense, and mobile.

So, as you can see, right there at the beginning, people also didn’t see eye to eye with this. And things really haven’t gotten better since.

As most of the western culture comes from ancient Greece — with Plato and Aristotle being the two main pillars on which everything else got build, if these two currents can’t agree, we’re in for some deep trouble. And again, if the correspondence is to make any sense, there should be something in both the element and the suit that can be related. Which means, that we need to observe the same qualities in both the material element and the object that lends its name to the suit in question.

Since the last four posts have been devoted to the suits, we will start with the elements. So let’s take a look at all of this and see where it gets us.

Fire is warm and bright. When controlled it can be used as a source of heat and energy as well as a transformation tool, enabling us to cook thinks and manipulate matter, whether it be glass making or metal crafting, amongst other; however, when uncontrolled, it can easily destroy everything in its path. Fire is then a source of creation and destruction. But the most interesting thing about the element is that it is both the strongest and the weakest element, due to a very interesting characteristic: it is the only element that cannot sustain itself. It constantly needs feeding in order to survive. Take out the source of nourishment and it will easily be put out. But can just as easily be brought back or rekindled with the right spark. This gives fire something that no other element has: the capacity of regeneration. In a sense, it lives to consume and be consumed, only to rise again from its ashes when the time is right. It is also the only element that is constantly changing, its flames constantly dancing in accordance to its own volition.

Associating Fire with the batons is easy enough: not only does wood burn, but if you rub two sticks together, you will create fire. Wood (and thus batons) can then be seen as a seed of fire but also as the carrier of fire. Which is why most people make this association. But that is not the only one.

For coins warm our palms just like fire. Also like fire, money doesn’t like to be still, but instead to spread as fast as possible. In a way, money is just as nervous as fire. And just as restless.

As for the suit of Spades, Swords are quick and destructive. In fact, they’re the most destructive suit of the pips, just like fire is the most destructive of the elements. As Proclius also pointed out, fire can sting, just like a sharp needle, which again brings it closer to Spades.

Air doesn’t have a particular shape or a definite volume. It can freely flow and expand or contract according to need. It’s main quality is thus movement. It contains oxygen, which is vital to human needs, but also carbon dioxide, which can be poisonous. It is what we breath in and what we breath out, so in a way, what connects us to the outside world; a bridge if you like. But at the same time, and much like Fire, it is a vital force. Even though we can not see it, we can feel its effects. With the breaths we take, but also in the wind and hurricanes and how it seems to bend things to its will, sometimes going as far as ripping them off the ground and just carry them away. As a carrier, there really isn’t a better medium, since air can carry both physical things as well as sound. It carries words, thoughts, ideas and it is what allows us to communicate with one another, no matter how far we are. In a nutshell, it is the element of interaction.

Esoterically speaking, the element of Air is attributed to Swords. This might seem like a strange attribution, but just think of the previous sentence: it is how words and ideas travel from one place to the other. How rational thoughts get spread. If you want a more down-to-earth approach, cold air cuts just like a sword does. Which, granted, is not the most elegant idea, but practical enough.

The attribution to coins isn’t a better one. It requires that we see money as a spirit, as fickle as air. Money comes, money goes. Like air, money is both a way to carry things forward and something as insubstantial as air.

As for batons, trees grow upwards. They take what they need from air and give it the oxygen other living beings require for sustenance. Batons are related to air because wood was once alive as trees. But not only that. As the suit of batons are related to the concept of will, it is also easy to relate  them to air. Just think of how the same breath that can nurture a flame can also extinguish it if we so will it. We just put our intention on the act, and just like magic! — well, there is also a scientific explanation to this, but onwards — the flame either puffs up or blows out.

Water is fluid. It doesn’t have a particular shape, even though it has a definite volume. It can flow from place to place. Sometimes it is crystal clear; other times, murky, thick and opaque. It can be still and peaceful, as the water in a pond or fierce and strong as in a tempest. And beware of undercurrents. They’re always there, even when they are not felt. An interesting property of water is that it will hit you back with the same strength that you hit it with. If you want, try this as an exercise. fill a bowl big enough to fit your hand with water. First, place your hand as softly as you can and gently push it underwater. You will find that it offers no resistance. Next, take the hand out and repeat the exercise, but faster. If you don’t feel any pain, gradually increase the speed you hit the water with until it does. You will find that the faster you hit the water with your hand, the harder it will hit you back. Physicists know this as the Law of Action/Reaction, which basically states that the higher the force you apply in an object, the higher the force that object will apply on you.

But that is not all about water, as water is at the root of life. Our whole bodies are made of water. Every cell that exists is made of water. And water is necessary for most of the chemical processes that occur in our bodies. Simply put, without water, there’s no life. Water was there at the beginning when life first appeared and not only provided the base material for life, it also provided shelter from the harsh conditions outside — the sea becoming a barrier from all the nastiness that was happening, while supporting and nurturing the life within.

From all the four suits, Cups seems the most obvious. Cups are a container, a vessel and that’s what we need to hold water (as otherwise it will flow away). If we look at how water and cups are related in the same way as blood and the heart, things become even more obvious. And more obvious still if we replace the word water with feelings, which traditionally are related to the heart. So much so, that the other suits aren’t even considered. And yet… water can hit just as hard as a baton and ice can cut just as sharply as a sword, so maybe there is something here?

Earth has a definite form and volume. It is the most stable and inert of all the four elements. It is hard and cold and at first sight doesn’t seem to be of much use. After all, it is just there. But appearances can be deceiving. Everything that we get comes from the earth. All our food; all our metals and shiny things; all the materials we need to build and create stuff come from the earth. In a way, it is at the root of everything we do. It is the base material for things like glass, concrete, clay, and others. It is where trees and plants root themselves and the provider of all the minerals and nutrients they need to be able to grow. It is also where things break down and become available to re-enter the cycle of life. Or, perhaps just remain there until they are extracted for fuel. So where all the riches come from. Like water, it can also provide shelter from the elements, and even though we stopped using caves, we still build our own particular holes to live in.

From what was said, the Element of Earth could be attributed to the suit of coins. It is a place of riches after all. It could also be attributed to spades. The metal thing won’t helps us here, as it is also a reason to associate this element with coins (coins being made of gold or silver or some other metal). But because it is the place where things get broken down; divided into such tiny pieces they can then be of use to other living beings. And cutting things down is what swords are known to do; cutting things to the bone. Just like the earth.

So what do we make of all of this?

Well, the first thing we make is that logic can’t really help us here, as there’s always a logical reason for every attribution that we can think of. As we just saw, for each set of attributions, there are some very strong reasons. And again, for each set, some very weak ones. In a way, as Robert Anton Wilson said, “what the thinker thinks, the prover proves”. So if there’s a way to make this happen, it will happen. (For more on R.A.W. and the tarot, see our previous post here).

So if logic won’t help us, it all comes down to how we see each element: how do we perceive it; what functions does it serve and how can we best fit it with the way we perceive each of the suits. And the truth is, for most readings you won’t even need to bring the elements into play. Again, just go back to out previous posts on the suits and see how, even though they’re slightly mentioned, for the most part we didn’t even mentioned it.

Does this mean that they aren’t useful, then?

Not exactly. They do serve a function. Specially in health readings and to describe personalities, as the elements can be associated with temperaments and health functions. But that’s it. So the best thing to do is to find the set of correspondences you relate the most and work with it. Just stick to a system. This way, the cards will always communicate with you in the same language.

As for what system to use, well, I personally tend to favor the esoteric system, simply because that’s the one closest to heart for me — meaning the one that best worked with the Thoth deck, which was my main deck for close to twenty years. As I moved to the Marseille, I’ve found out that the esoteric system still held, but wasn’t as precise as the cunning folk one. So grudgingly, I ended up switching to the cunning folk whenever I read the Marseille [I mean, who am I to argue with hundreds of years of use of a system? If it really didn’t work, it would have been discarded by now, right?]. 

Thankfully, and as I said previously, the elements really aren’t that necessary in a reading. Just looking at the suits and its functions will get you there most of the time, as I’ve personally found out by comparing my Marseille readings with the ones given by more traditional readers.

So, look into it, see what system catches your fancy and stick with it. Don’t complicate stuff and, specially, don’t start shooting in every direction. Card readings should be precise and accurate. And for the most part, we actually don’t need the elements thrown in there. Even if it can help. So keep it simple.

Four Tarot Readers Enter a Bar …

Actually, three board a plane and one meets them at a train station. But still.

This weekend I am proud and happy to announce that your fearless readers here at Maelstrom Tarot convened for our first in-person summit. Shelley flew in from Rome, Miguel and Paulinnhhoo from Porto, Portugal, and we all convened in The Hague.

Why is this relevant to you? Because we are planning many exciting things and we want to involve you even closer each step of the way.

Maelstrom was born in 2013 when Shelley and Miguel met at what we affectionately refer to as TarotCon – a rather unfortunate name, really, if you consider how many in the tarot world are considered con artists (and btw EE has a brilliant essay on that: Peeking Through the Bars of the Tarot’s Occult Prison). It was run by Marcus and Tali over at Tarot Professionals, which I think is now simply Tarot Association – or Tarosophy; in any case, it was a fated meeting and a magical friendship was born.

We set the blog up shortly thereafter, but it lost steam due to – well, life.

Now, however, the pieces of the puzzle have come together and we have a foundation team that is energized, committed and ready to fully engage with a community of our own creation.

You are part of that community. Not only that – you are a FOUNDING member of that community simply by virtue of the fact that you’re reading this right now.

Part of our Den Haag summit (besides enjoying the moscatel that Paulinnhhoo brought us from Portugal) was making a sacred and solemn pledge to grow our site, ourselves, our clients, and our community.

That being the case, we’d like to ask you a dear favor: will you share our site and our community with your online networks?

We know we’re not for everyone – and that’s just as it should be. But we want to connect with the ones who resonate with what we are doing, with those who make up part of our tribe, our people – in short: others like you. And you can certainly help us with that.

Here are three easy things you can do right now to help. And we thank you in advance in our four (and maybe more) languages: THANK YOU and GRAZIE (Shelley), OBRIGADO (Miguel and Paulinnhhoo) and last, but certainly not at all least, DANK JE WEL from our country host, Isabel.

Please take just a minute now to do the following:

  1. Share our website with your social and online networks: maelstromtarot.com
  2. Share our Facebook page with your networks, and if you haven’t already, LIKE US!
  3. Subscribe to receive updates of our blog posts by email.
  4. Follow us on Twitter too @maelstromtarot

The cards are on the table and there are lots of good things to come.

When four readers get together, lots of cards get pulled and lots of spreads tried out. Enlightening for all!

To see more photos, visit our Facebook page!

A Reading of Bones

Once, on a beach, I found a bird skeleton. This was the first time I found some animal bones. For a moment, it felt like being in an adventure movie, suddenly finding some lost treasure. Excited, I picked up the whole thing and happily brought it home with me, regularly checking on the bones to make sure that it was real. My adventure, however, ended badly, as I soon developed an acute rash in the skin and had to be brought to the hospital for a cortisone shot. The lesson was simple: treasures might be cursed and bones found in the wild are to be left alone, lest they bring some pestilence with them.

I never thought of going back to bones. In fact, I quite forgot the whole thing until today, when it came back to mind as I was writing this text about the newest tarot deck to grace my doorstep. A deck with one of the most interesting concepts I’ve seen in quite some time. A Tarot of Bones. As a recent Marseille convert, the idea of “reading to the bones” has become increasingly familiar, and in some cases, a mantra. How then would a set of cards which depicted only bones do, when one wanted a tarot reading?

Enter Lupa, a Neo-Pagan author who has been working with animal parts for some years now and published some work on the subject. For this deck, she has amassed an incredible amount of animal parts (both real and replicas) and assembled them into artistic installations that incorporated tarot symbolism. For the deck, skulls, rib bones, vertebrae, teeth and jaws and long bones from the legs and feet have been amassed, each particular sort of  bone attributed to either the Major Arcana cards or one of the suits of the Minor Arcana. Hence, we find Skulls in the trumps, while rib bones were used for the suit of cups, long bones for wands, vertebrae for disks and teeth for swords. For the court cards, skulls and the bone that was attributed to a particular suit are present, so for example, the Knight of wands shows us the skull and the wing bone of an American Turkey.

Assorted cards from the Tarot of the Bones. Artwork and conception by Lupa

Browsing through the deck, each card is both unique – with a particular background that agrees with the image depicted – and easy to identify, the name of the card plainly visible in the cards. The pictures are pleasing to the eye and invite us to return to a more natural world or, at least, a more nature-friendly world. This is, I think, one of the strengths of this deck. To let go of usual images that populate our human mind, with all the symbols and images that we use to stand apart from Nature and open the door to the natural world which lies all around us and let it in. I’ve been taking this deck with me for walks in beaches and parks and lying random cards on the ground to look at and meditate. They connect well with the natural world and, in fact, they seem stronger with this little exercise, speaking with a louder and clearer voice.

As for reading, well… skulls and bones don’t make for an easy reading if you, like me, can’t tell a hyena skull from a wolf skull. When I first opened the deck, and started looking at the cards my first thought was “how in hell am I going to read this?”. My problem was that I never got used to rely on keywords and when you’re used to work with images, it helps to actually be able to tell what you’re looking at. This is where Lupa’s companion book comes in handy (since there is no LWB accompanying the deck), by giving us both a description of the card and a peek behind the making of each assemblage as well as the reasons for a certain animal being selected. The book also tells us how the Waite-Smith system was used as the inspiration of the deck so expect to find some Waite-Smith inspired imagery.

But there is another way to read with it, and one that I found to be more fulfilling, which is to forget about everything you know about the tarot or, indeed, about the animals represented here and just let the images soak you. To let them come forth and freely enter your mind to tell you their story. My first question to the deck was “How can I work with you?” After laying three cards on the table, I got:


“What is tied needs to be let loose. Spread us around your space and watch the ripples as they unfold.” Oh! This was easy, I thought. To forget about meanings and  traditional depictions and reading systems. To forget about bones and animals and everything related to them and just let it flow. But then, what was I to expect from a deck that prompt us to reconnect with the rhythms of nature? To just let go of everything and go with the flow. If you want a reading to the bones, strip out all the meat and fat to focus on focus on what’s necessary.

All good and dandy then. Time to go to the next question, I thought. “What do you have to tell me?”


This one took me a bit longer than the previous one. Which, to be quite honest, I liked, as it tells me that there’s things to explore in here. Mysteries to be discovered. So I went with the theme: 9 sets of bone shards are spread all around the tableaux. They might be teeth but spread out this way they will hardly cut anything. What good then, does to be sharp, if you can’t exercise that sharpness? In the next card, the four of pentacles, four vertebrae are joined together in a cross. It almost seems as if all those shards came together to form these larger structures. Where previously there was chaos and entropy, now there’s stability; there’s a sense of order. And then, as we look at the ace of wands, we can easily see how each branch of the bone cross rose and melded to form the long bone visible in the last card. My snappy sentence would then be “What is separated needs to be put together. Do this in steps, looking first for stability and then for unity.”

The progression from Swords to Pentacles to Batons tells me that there are advantages to this approach. Swords turn into coins, loosing their sharp edges and bringing in rewards which can then be used to build a wand. Batons being associated with work and might, this tells me that by bringing focus to my work, things will be able to grow faster and stronger (notice how the size and the volume of the bones increase from card to card).

Looking up to the first reading I can see how they complement each other. One telling me to let go and become looser, the other, to concentrate and focus. If anything, I’m again recalled of the rhythms of nature. Of things expanding and contracting and how important it is to stay in the flow of things. Nature has seasons, after all, and these seasons teach us that there is a time for everything. It’s back to the basics then, remaining open and aware of what lies in front of us. 

The Tarot of Bones can be ordered from the author here. Be sure to pass by her site and check all the cards of the deck as well as the sculptures that were made for each card. There’s great work there. For more about Lupa and her work, just visit her site.



To a Queen of Swords…

Queen of Swords by Martha Pawlowna Sachidowitz. Part of a playing card set drawn for Pushkin’s Queen of Spades story. 

A friend of mine, let’s call her C., often complains that she doesn’t understand the suit of swords. I find this interesting, as most of the times that I talk to her, she is behaving like a sword, always analyzing things and trying to find her balance in the midst of a hectic day. Even if it is not the dominant element, swords are there and definitely play a big part in her life. It is there in her decision making when she cuts to the chase (which she often does). It is there in the way she handles her disease (she has an autoimmune disease which can leave her quite impaired when it flares up), by carefully weighting her options and evaluating how her treatments are improving – or not – her condition. It is there in the delicate balance that exists between her own limitations and her life, both professionally and personal. In fact, her medical condition has such an impact in her life that if it wasn’t for her ability to correctly use swords, things would have turned out quite differently.

So, what does the suit of swords mean when we’re dealing with the tarot?

We start with the word. Swords are long, sharp blades capable of cutting things down. Since there are also other objects that can cut things – like daggers, knifes, sharp glass, razors, scissors, hatches, axes, paper or cold air – we can also place these under the suit of swords. Swords then indicate things with sharp edges, and indeed, sharpness is one of the first things that comes to my mind when there is a sword at play. However, there are other objects that are also sharp. Things like nails, needles and pins might not be able to cut, but they prickle. They can also open wounds just like a sword can. They don’t have a sharp edge, but possess a sharp point, which means that these two can also be grouped under the suit of swords. We can then say that this suit represents anything with either a sharp edge or point; anything that can open a wound, no matter how superficial or small. And, while most tarot decks do focus on swords, some do look beyond them, addressing this very concept of sharpness.

Swords then are things that can cut. That can open wounds and, if the cut is too deep, kill. No wonder that they are seen as the most negative suit of the tarot. They bring to mind such ideas as pain, trouble, tears and death. And yet…since nothing “is” only negative or only positive, there is another side to this suit. Cutting things down can be, in the right context, a positive things. A common example is a problem so big that it needs to be addressed in parts; it needs to be cut down in smaller pieces so that each piece can be addressed separately. This is known as reductionism and is probably one of the sharpest tools of reason. Another example is the “cutting of illusions” that while destroying a dream also gives us the ability to be pragmatic and rational; to look at things as they are and not as we wished them to be.

We also cut things down when we need to divide something – a cake, for example – into small portions so that everyone can have its fill. Think about sharing with friends and family, about things like charity (where we take a part of our possessions and give them to those in need) or even about the process of reproduction. Cells replicate by continuously dividing themselves and even in the phenomenon of birth, where the baby gets separated from its mother. In a way, it is as if the mother gives up a part of her body in order for it to have a separate existence. All divisions and all events under the suit of swords.

And then there is concept of equilibrium. If you’ve ever tried to handle a sword, even if just for a swing, you’ve noticed that that is not an easy thing to do. Swords are heavy things, but they should move as if they were weightless. The arm and the sword need to be in sinc if the swing is to have any effect. Sword practitioners spend years trying to perfect that balance between their arm and the sword that’s being held, all to get the clean, swift, graceful swing that can effortlessly cut things down. If you haven’t, go watch some youtube videos of samurais or sword practice and focus on the lightness and the fluidity of the movement. Here’s a nice video of Yoshio Sugino, 10th Dan Master of Katori Shinto Ryu.


Balance is also required to make a sword. The metal needs to be heated, hammered and bent, its proportions, curvature and bevels shaped into being, sharpened, treated with clays or other substances, quenched, tempered, sharpened and polished. The blade needs to be balanced in order to properly swing. The edge has to be sharp and hard, in order to cut through effortlessly, while the back of the blade has to be softer in order to absorve the shock of blows meted out by opponents. This means that the blade has to be both flexible and hard. For more on sword making, watch this video below:



So what does all this has to do with reading cards?

It’s easy to see how the ideas of flexibility, hardship, cutting down, and balance can be reflected in cards with the trumps most associated with swords, namely Justice and Death. It is when we get to the pips that things might become more problematic. And here we need to distinguish between the esoteric decks – like the Waite-Smith and the Thoth  – and the Marseille style decks with its more down-to-earth approach.

With the esoteric decks, those concepts are present in both the drawings and the theory that goes with the card. If you can understand how an energy, for a lack of a better word, whose main purpose is to divide and to cut down, thus restoring balance where it is needed, changes along the suit, you’re all ready to go.

For the Marseille decks, however, a different approach is needed, since these type of decks are best read by looking at what they show us that to any cabalistic / magical / psychological / whatever theory. And what they show us is swords entwined in one another, forming oval structures which might contain – or not – something inside. When Swords appear in a reading, the first thing one needs to think is there’s something that needs cutting down and fast. Why fast? Because not only it’s the fastest weapon of the four suits, but also because once something is cut down that’s it. Problem solved. So, the higher the number of swords, the more urgent / pressing / complex / demanding / oppressive / painful your problem is. Or, to put it in another way, the more imbalanced the situation is and the faster you need to act and strike down everything that’s causing the mess in front of you. But it also means that the less options you have, because well, it’s the night of the long blades and something has to be done NOW! if one is to survive this.

Tarot de Marseille by Jean Noblet, as restored by Jean-Claude Flornoy

This is backed by the cards, as when the numbers increase, that circle of swords grows and grows, expanding towards the centre and the flower that was inside wanes and wanes into oblivion. Besides, as the number of swords increase, so does that sharp cocoon thickens. What this means is that as the number of swords increase, so do things become tougher and uglier. There’s no more Mr. Nice Guy here; only the need of swift action and to hell with the consequences. If, however, the swords decrease, things become less pressing and more malleable. It’s easier to sort things out, to balance things out.

Whether one is using a Marseille-styled deck or an esoteric deck, swords take no prisoners. Taking the way of the sword is to take the warrior’s path. It is to fight every day with determination and calm; to meet any situation without strains and without being reckless. As I said earlier, my friend C. has a great deal of swords in her. It’s not her dominant element, as there’s also a lot of fire in there, which brings a certain recklessness, unpredictability and a kind of lust for life that no Sword could give. But swords are there, sharp and ready for whatever the day will bring.