The Eight of Swords – A One Page Guide

Eight of Swords - IsleVue One Page Guide to Card Derivations

In at least one way, the RWS Eight of Swords may be the cleverest Colman Smith layout we’ve analyzed thus far. But there are three things to grasp before understanding why it’s so clever, or indeed, before understanding the Eight of Swords itself:

  • The story behind the Zodiac sign of Gemini, the twins.
  • The Golden Dawn group’s characterization of this card.
  • The meanings of the word “trammel.”

“Brother from another mother” has been a popular Internet meme for quite a while. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a meme like “twin from another father,” but that’s what Gemini is all about. I don’t expect we’ll be seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in a film version of the story of Gemini anytime soon. Yet the story of Gemini reads like a biological experiment theme better than most sci fi comedies.

As usual, these introductory posts convey additional analysis, as well as a link to the PDF version below, which is better to print from than the bitmap above. This is number twenty-five in the series. Two thirds done! The series traces the influences shown in the Zodiac Tarot Wheel, pictured below, to the divinatory meanings and storyboards of the minor arcana cards numbered 2 through 10 of the RWS deck.

Twin Sons of Different Fathers

Though the Zodiac sign is much older than the Greek civilization, Greek mythology names the twins of Gemini as Castor and Pollux. They were two famous heroes, members of the Argonauts (which we mentioned in the Three of Wands). Interestingly, they were brothers of Helen of Troy. They are sometimes said to have inadvertently set off the siege of Troy (mentioned in our discussion of Five of Swords), because while off on another adventure, little sister was left at home when Paris paid a visit!

It is certainly interesting to note that the interwoven stories of astrology/mythology parallel the interwoven divinatory meanings and characteristics of the individual cards of tarot and how they relate to one another. For the Five of Swords, Waite seemingly notes the sword pointed to Earth for no discernible reason, and in the Eight, we see the swords pointed into the Earth. In the Three of Wands he notes the staves are “planted in the ground.” Perhaps we have found a visual link. There are other cases in which wands or swords are “planted,” so we may have to explore that further.

But let us get back to Gemini. Even though they were twins, Castor was the son of a mortal king, and Pollux was the son of Zeus. As you may guess, the myth is a little confused about the actual mechanics; not to mention the fact that Zeus impregnated Leda, the twins’ mother, while in the guise of a swan! Though the characters pictured in the feature image above may produce a chuckle or two, as you consider the story of the parentage of the Gemini twins, thinking back on Twins (1988) may actually shed some light on the myth. I shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if the screen writers had not thought of the myth at one point or another.

In any event, Castor was mortal, and Pollux was immortal. Pollux was known for his great strength and famous as a boxer. They were both known as great horsemen (which may be a legacy of older stories of Gemini being connected to Asian horse cultures), great hunters, and inseparable.

As was inevitable, one day the mortal brother, Castor, died. Though there are variations in the stories, the gist of the plot is that Pollux was inconsolable. He didn’t want to live anymore. Such an attitude must be quite inconvenient for an immortal, of course. His father, Zeus, felt sorry for him. So Zeus offered Pollux the option, which Pollux accepted, to donate half his immortality to Castor. They would spend half their time in Olympus, and half their time in Hades, always together. This may be a remnant of the Sumerian story of Gemini, in which they were twin gatekeepers of the underworld. As a bonus, Zeus placed the brothers in the sky as the constellation Gemini. (We note also that to the Romans, Mercury, the planetary ruler for Gemini, was the link between upper and lower worlds).

We therefore are left with the core story of an immortal with great power (Pollux) voluntarily giving up part of that power (his immortality). That brings us to the Golden Dawn’s description of the Eight of Swords.

IsleVue Tarot-Zodiac-Element-Sephiroth Wheel of the Golden Dawn

The GD assigned the decan/card the esoteric title of “Lord of Attenuated Force.” Interestingly, their first divinatory meaning is increased rather than decreased force. It reads “too much force applied to small things.” Though it may be a case of the glass half full vs. half empty, it’s clear we’re dealing with the characterization of a dual nature in which one side outweighs the other. In other words, it’s just like Castor and Pollux. We note also that Gemini is ruled by Jupiter, but Mercury is exalted in this decan, while Jupiter is exalted the opposite decan. So we have another instance of unequal force or strength, where one side is attenuated. This then is the core meaning: one thing, of two parts that are the same but unequal. Sounds like the U.S. two party system. Perhaps Castor and Pollux ought to be the mascots, rather than donkey and elephant!

Let us now turn our attention to the word “trammel.” We have seen previously (in the Four of Cups, for example) that when Waite uses an unusual word in the Pictorial Key for a divinatory meaning it’s a hint that there’s a deeper meaning. In this case, we see the phrase “power in trammels.” I freely admit that I did not know this word previously.

Eight of Swords isolated figure

The word trammel has several meanings, but in this case two are appropriate. The first is as a tool for drawing ellipses. It consists of two nails or pegs and a string in its most basic form, though it can also be a device made of wood. The nails constrain the string such that you can draw a perfect ellipse. As a pre-computer-age commercial artist, Colman Smith must certainly have known this term. More importantly, “constraint” is perfectly in sync with the GD term, and shows that Waite was in agreement with their thinking for at some part of the divinatory meaning.

We note the layout of the Colman Smith Eight of Swords shows us the swords planted in the ground, arranged in a partial ellipse, and the rope around the loosely bound woman. It’s a form of a trammel! If she wriggles herself loose and uncoils the rope she could walk round the swords to make an ellipse! Colman Smith has cleverly illustrated Waite’s divinatory meanings with an elegant yet obscured example of the meaning itself! This probably shows us two things: one, of course, that Colman Smith was a genius who contributed far more to the RWS deck than simple paid graphics design services. And two, that there was some degree of “give and take” between Waite and Colman Smith in the design of the layouts/authoring of the divinatory meanings. Did Colman Smith do the layout first, and then told Waite that she used a trammel, and Waite then placed the word in the Pictorial Key? Or did Waite come up with the term (we don’t know if he would have known what a trammel was) and Colman Smith cleverly pictorialized it? Who cares? The Eight of Swords is a far more interesting card than one might have thought, and a far less depressing card for it (but we’ll address that further).

There is another relevant meaning of trammel: a constraining device consisting of net and weights. There are trammel nets in fishing, fowling, and gladiator fights. There is trammel device for teaching a horse to amble (recall the connection between Gemini and the horsemen!) Even a ball and chain for a prisoner is considered a type of trammel. In each case, the device limits the force of that which it “traps,” be it fish, fowl, horse, gladiator or convict.

Therefore the first usage (graphic artist’s tool) is a voluntary limiting. The second usage (net) is involuntary. In much the same way, Waite transforms the voluntary usage in the Golden Dawn group’s meanings to involuntary. Recall we characterized the GD “viewpoint” as “glass half full.” They even included a positive meaning or two, such as “generous, clever, acute” doubtlessly referring back to Castor and Pollux.

But our captive of the RWS Eight of Swords was “hoodwinked.” Waite gives us “Censure,” not even self-censure; plus sickness, chagrin, bad news and other unavoidable types of binding. At least he allows them to be temporary, not permanent problems. In this I think we see the influence of Hod, the qabalistic factor, and Waite’s seeming mission to inject a greater religiousity into tarot. Wikipedia states of Hod:

Hasidic Judaism’s view of Hod is that it is connected with Jewish prayer. Prayer is seen as form of “submission”; Hod is explained as an analogy – that instead of “conquering” an obstacle in one’s way, (which is the idea of Netzach), subduing oneself to that “obstacle” is related to the quality of Hod.

Which I think leads us to the reason why Waite made the Eight of Swords a “glass half empty.” Clearly the woman bound in the Eight of Swords is subduing herself (the blindfold), and I believe that the emphasis on the unavoidability of the “durance” stems from Waite’s view of original sin and Christianity. In fact, we note that the major associated with Gemini, the Lovers, was turned into a parable of Adam and Eve, original sin, and the expulsion from Eden. That was a bit less “temporary” a “durance.” I suppose the woman of the Eight of Swords should be happy she’s not tied to a flaming sword!

So what does it all mean for a modern reading of the Eight of Swords? Unless you share Waite’s view of original sin, I would say that we need to concentrate on the positive side of Pollux’s sacrifice which showed extraordinary generosity, and call the glass half full: the ability to free oneself from one’s bindings, the power to survive sickness and calumny, the ability to weather bad news. These make for a much more palatable read for this card and align far better with its influences than Waite’s divinatory meaning. I believe that Colman Smith may have left the ropes loose, as well as giving the captive the ability to free herself by wriggling the rope against the sword holding them just for this reason. In the end, Pollux’ problem was resolved by Pollux’ choice.

Twins ©1988 Universal Pictures
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John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot?