The Four of Swords – A One Page Guide

Four of Swords - IsleVue One Page Guide to Card Derivations

The RWS Four of Swords might best be described with the phrase “still waters run deep.” Its depiction of the tomb of a Knight outwardly conveys soldiering and death. This would be perfectly consistent with the Golden Dawn group’s divinatory meanings. But Waite’s meanings vary considerably (though they’re not inconsistent with the illustration, either). If we look at the upper left, we see a scene that is likely to be an Annunciation scene. That is our first clue. Looking at the astrological and qabalistic influences, we can identify strong life-giving entities in Venus and The Empress. In addition, Waite’s writings on the Justice card give us another clue, pointing to the High Priestess. These female deities, then, are key, particularly Venus. The Transit of Venus is a celestial event in which Venus overtly switches from following the Sun to leading it. Venus at that time changes identity from evening star to morning star, Hesperus to Phosphorus. This change is the metaphor for the Divine Feminine rising—Aphrodite rising from the sea at Cypress. Waite’s divinatory meanings, centering upon solitude, repose and prayer communicate a fork in the road, a bi-directional path for his soldier. It is a path leading either forward to rebirth for the pious, or to the door out of life, the solitary tomb, for those who shall not receive God’s grace or mercy. Though this seems a bit heavy a sermon for a modern tarot reader to convey to a client, understanding Waite’s intentions may actually help us “translate” this card better to modern terms.

As usual, these introductory posts convey additional analysis, as well as a link to the PDF version at bottom, which is better to print from. This is number eleven in the series.

The Transit of Venus

Let’s start with the Gold Dawn’s divinatory meanings: “Rest from sorrow, yet after and through it. Peace from and after war. Relaxation of anxiety. Quietness, rest, ease and plenty, yet after struggle. Goods of this life, abundance.” Colman Smith’s image of the tomb of a knight, the military man at peace after war, illustrates that perfectly. Also, when contemplating the progress of the suit of swords, this card’s “rest from sorrow” following the thrice-pierced heart of the Three of Swords also makes sense. Indeed, most modern interpretations of the Four of Swords stress the need for meditation as a means of recovery.

Waite, however, concentrates upon repose, and the silence of the tomb. Apparently the sorrow was fatal! In looking at the card, however, the designer draws our eye away from the monotones of the foreground to the colored area that is a representation of a stained glass window. It appears to be an Annunciation scene… so death below and birth above? Is that it? Well, sort of.

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

When we look at the astrological influences, we do indeed find birth. It is in the person of the Empress, our pregnant monarch. But there are significant other factors there.

Libra is the only zodiac sign symbolized by an inanimate object: the scales. Every other sign is a mythological person or an animal. I suggest this is what gave the idea of an “effigy” or inanimate representation of the Knight to Waite and Colman Smith. Rather clever!


The Justice card, our goddess with the scales, was described by Waite elsewhere in the Pictorial Key as “the pillars of Justice open into one world and the pillars of the High Priestess into another.” While the High Priestess has little to do with birth, she has much to do with the feminine spirit, as well as with the next world.

Venus the goddess has everything to do with the feminine spirit. Both the goddess and planet have dual natures. The goddess also has something to do with tranquility. Though I haven’t seen any similar references, I discovered that Aphrodite was also called “Galinaie and Efrlia, meaning “the one who brings calm and the protector of safe journeys and ships.” Normally Venus/Aphrodite’s dual nature are noted as one type of higher love and a second type of lower, more common love. But it is Venus the planet’s dual nature that seems even more appropriate. Because its orbit is inside the Earth’s orbit, we sometimes see it as preceding the Sun, hence its being called the “morning star;” and sometimes it follows the Sun, as the “evening star.” Retreat and advance would be one way of looking at it. In fact, at first the ancients thought they were two separate planets. They had two names for Venus: Hesperus the evening star and Phosphorus the morning star.

Usually, when Venus “passes” the Sun relative to our motion, it is behind the Sun. Twice during a 243 year cycle, however, this passage occurs in front of the Sun, and this is referred to as the “transit of Venus.” It is a special event for astronomers. In fact, this phenomenon helped us to estimate the distances within our solar system. It is also a special event for astrologers, who see a pentagram in its motion between the first and second transits during that cycle. In more general terms, it is described as the rising of the divine feminine.

Four of Swords highlighting the swords

This might be an odd theme for an illustration of a dead soldier, but only if we see only the soldier. First of all, Venus’ “bi-directionality” throws light upon Waite’s divinatory meanings: retreat, obviously, but “vigilance” as well, because besides noting the usage of “vigil” for the dead, “vigil” has a meaning in a context similar to “preceding,” as in the vigil for a holy day, that is the eve of a holiday. Additionally, Venus as the root word for various latin words includes the traditional “vene” in its connotations for love, but also “vene” as in poison: venomous. It is the same root, opposing meanings. So Venus has meanings of life and death, movement forward or movement behind. How do we apply this to spiritual meanings? We may need a little more information.

As we move onto the Empress, the major arcana card influenced by Venus, we see the connection to life: the Empress’ pregnancy, and the pregnancy of Mary, mother of Jesus, as exemplified in the reference to the Annunciation. Moreover, Waite says of the Empress, “the Empress signifies the door or gate by which an entrance is obtained into this life, as into the Garden of Venus; and then the way which leads out therefrom, into that which is beyond, is the secret known to the High Priestess: it is communicated by her to the elect.”

The door into this life is birth; the door out, death. But the path to the beyond is the spiritual knowledge of the High Priestess, the “Secret Church,” the spiritual depths that the Hierophant’s Earthly church can only hope to open up to using its keys. It is the true divine feminine.

It is when we turn to the qabalistic influence, Chesed, we see the “mechanics” of the process. Chesed can be said to represent another “bi-directional” arrangement… a contract between God and the people. This is the “piety of people towards God, as well as grace, favor or mercy of God towards people” which is said to be defined as Chesed.”

All these taken together, I think, are the key to understanding the changes that Waite made to the divinatory meanings. The “retreat” and “repose” of the soldier, who has put down his weapon so that he can pray. It’s actually a very latin (lower case “l”) theological viewpoint, by which the mother of God, the divine feminine, represents the path to the life which is beyond. The card is a “snapshot” of two movements, of two vectors in the “lives” of the dead Knight, his earthly life, and his life everlasting. And the transit of Venus is a metaphor by which we depict two opposing movements in the same snapshot—or two opposing divinatory meanings!

I strongly doubt that most modern readers have much allegiance to Waite’s divinatory meaning for this particular card. I expect most gravitate to the “meditation” meaning mentioned before. Berti, Goodwin et al, in the Tarot Fundamentals encyclopedic compilation distill several decks’ meanings down to “Reflection, Waiting, Stability, Withdrawal” and several related meanings. For myself, now understanding Waite’s intentions a little better (I hope), I think I am beginning to see the RWS Four of Swords as a sign of birth and death, either physical or spiritual (actually, we should call it rebirth in the latter case).

There may be a down side to this analysis of the Waite Colman Smith deck’s minor arcana. Perhaps in trying to reconstruct every thought that Waite put into composing his divinatory meanings, I find that I sometimes wholly disagree with his underlying messages and motivations. My ultimate goal is to understand the messages so that I can reinterpret his divinatory meanings into my own modern framework. What then, shall I do if I disagree with the underlying messages completely? I don’t know the answer to that yet. My feeling is that ultimately the stories—Sol Invictus, Persephone, Ganymede, Venus, Gilgamesh—are what the divinatory meanings should really be about, for after all, they are the forerunners of the archetypes encapsulated by tarot that we say are important. But there’s no need to come to any conclusions just yet. It’s early.

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? 😉

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