This is the sixth article in a series of analyses of the art with which Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the 36 cards of the decans, as a supplement to the previous charts. These posts will attempt to recount the stories—mythic or otherwise—that contributed to the concepts with which she imbued her illustrations. When we understand the stories that underlie them, we can not only better interpret but we can also better communicate a cohesive story out of several cards laid down in a spread. Indeed, these are stories that have fascinated humankind for millenia.
You’ll find the format consists of a column of text, at right, consisting of the stories and interpretation. At the left you’ll see a sort of quasi baseball card arrangement that provides reference information. The paper size is standard letter, but with space at the left margin should anyone wish to three-hole-punch the paper. Note that the Acrobat file, accessible through the download button below, will be better to print from and easier to read onscreen.
Madame Sosostris’ Darkest Hour
A dead man with ten swords stuck in his back lies by the shore. The sky is pitch black. A precocious dawn arrives. We recognize it’s dawn, not sunset, by the yellow color usually reserved for noon in RWS. Clouds form a border between dawn and the dark that preceded it.
The Sun is in Gemini; Malkuth is the qabala emanation. Perhaps the high contrast and border separating bright and dark symbolizes that this decan ends Spring, and the solstice will arrive immediately after.
The drama and visual contrasts of the composition make this one of Colman Smith’s most memorable illustrations. They may also fool us into focusing too much on the "negative" side of the Ten of Swords.
Waite states "It is not especially a card of violent death." Instead, he describes mental pain: "…also pain, affliction, tears, sadness, desolation." He clearly internalizes the external "Ruin" that the Order of the Golden Dawn ascribed to this card. The Book T states "Undisciplined warring force, complete disruption and failure. Ruin of all plans and projects. Disdain, insolence and impertinence, yet mirth and jolly therewith. A Marplot, loving to overthrow the happiness of others…"
The story of Gemini may help explain Waite’s "internalization." Castor and Pollux were twin sons of Zeus, by an extramarital liaison with a mortal. Instead of being demi-gods, as was Hercules, one twin was mortal (Castor), the other immortal (Pollux). The twins were best friends, inseparable. They had many adventures, including being Argonauts and fighting at Troy. Helen was their sister. Siblings!
Castor eventually was killed in an altercation during one of their adventures. Pollux was beyond grief. The depth of his grief can explain why Waite "internalizes" the pain in a way that the Golden Dawn had not. Pollux wanted to renounce his immortality. Zeus proposed a 50/50 stay in Olympus and Hades, the same as Persephone. Pollux held out and got a better deal. Colman Smith has illustrated the moment at which Castor has died, but Zeus has not yet placed the twins in the highest celestial sphere as Gemini (making them both immortal).
Swords are the suit of action, sometimes conflict. To Waite and his contemporaries, the Kaballah emanation of Malkuth represented a result or ending. As the third decan of Gemini, and last of the Swords’ minor arcana, conflict and cycle are ending. All is accounted for if we consider that this is the moment just before the Sun’s arrival. The Sun brings us life and energy. As the next cycle delivers the solstice, it will also deliver renewal, exemplified by the new lovers of the Two of Cups. Visually, they will be a reborn Castor and Pollux: different, yet a pair, one in classical dress, one in renaissance dress.
Some believe the RWS Ten of Swords is drawn in a reading described in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. (We know it was the RWS deck because Eliot included a footnote about the "man with three staves." Other decks at this time had abstract designs for the minors.) Bear in mind that Eliot stated he takes "liberties" in his descriptions of the cards. The dead man is Phlebas the Phoenician, the drowned sailor, with whom the narrator of the Wasteland identifies. "Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!" says Madame Sosostris. The Hanged Man, mentioned but not drawn, is linked by Eliot with The Golden Bough’s analysis of spring fertility rites. "April is the cruelest month" because Frazer’s dying and reviving solar god is currently dead in the ground, to be reborn shortly.
Which brings us back to the central meaning of the Ten of Swords: it is our feeling of anguish and despair at the nadir, the darkest hour before dawn. The sacrificial god of fertility and life is dead, but shall be reborn. But we sometimes forget that.
Ten years after its publication, the greatest poet contemporary of Waite and Colman Smith recognized in the RWS deck a common theme: the agricultural cycle, the dying and reviving god, Pluto and Perephone… whatever you wish to call it. With poetic license, Eliot "sampled" it. Testimony to the power of Waite and Colman Smith’s tarot.
As a last word, it may help to understand the reversed meanings of the Ten of Swords by considering it from the swords’ viewpoint: they wield power and authority. That might be to someone’s advantage.
Copyright Information:The article above is copyright ©2021 by John Iacovelli, All rights reserved. Note: I am holding off putting a Creative Commons license on this text, as I may put it to multiple uses in the future. Please don’t let that stop you from generating ideas based upon this text.