The Seven of Swords – A One Page Guide

Seven of Swords - IsleVue One Page Guide to Card Derivations

The Seven of Swords draws us in deeply. It makes us wonder what the story behind it is: is it simple theft or a military operation? It holds drama: will he be caught? Colman Smith illustrates Waite’s divinatory meanings, centered around a cunning but risky plan, taking the story of Zeus and Ganymede as her cue. Hence the youthful appearance of the protagonist of the Seven of Swords. There is a lot going on.

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. It’s been fun forcing myself to look at each of the minor arcana as if I’d never really looked at it before. The Seven of Swords was a particularly fun one.

A Small, Mobile, Intelligent Unit

First the story of Zeus and Ganymede, from Wikipedia:

The water carrier represented by the zodiacal constellation Aquarius is Ganymede, a beautiful Phrygian youth. Ganymede was the son of Tros, king of Troy (according to Lucian, he was also the son of Dardanus). While tending to his father’s flocks on Mount Ida, Ganymede was spotted by Zeus. The king of gods fell in love with him and flew down to the mountain in the form of a large bird, whisking Ganymede away to the heavens. Ever since, the boy has served as cupbearer to the gods. Ovid has Orpheus sing the tale.

I suppose we could say then that Ganymede became poolboy to the Gods. More importantly, the story links Aquarius and Netzach‘s quality of “follow through on your passions.” Clearly this is more than a simple theft for a few bucks… the protagonist steals it practically under the noses of the soldiers. He’s more than a thief, he’s a spy and saboteur. The scope indicates he had a plan or design. The daring nature illustrates Waite’s “The design is uncertain in its import, because the significations are widely at variance with each other” perfectly: high stakes, low probability of success. But it appears he has the gods on his side.

Saturn is one of the oldest of the Greek gods, and to the Romans he was more important for teaching agriculture to mankind than being Zeus’ father. By his other name Cronus, whom we now call Father Time, he carried a scythe. (Yup, the guy on New Year’s Eve is Saturn. The Romans called their New Year’s Eve party “Saturnalia,” only being Romans, they really knew how to celebrate, and partied for a week). Saturn had two wives or mistresses, and one of them was customarily offered the swords of fallen soldiers. While it is unlikely our protagonist is carrying his swords as an offering to her, it is another link to the storyline in the illustration. (By the way, the painting in the feature image/mashup at the top is Bouguereau’s The Youth of Bacchus).

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

The astrological influences therefore appear to drive the scene. The cards related to Aquarius and Saturn, the Star and the World, tie into the theft and flight as well. The links are through Waite’s divinatory meanings for those cards. The sneaking away, particularly the exaggerated depiction of the movement of the protagonist’s legs, may tie into the identification of Netzach with the right leg or foot. No doubt he’s “legging it” away. The fact that he seems to be leading with his left may indicate the deceptive nature of his plan. “Legging it” may also be a visual reminder of the Fool, striding along without a glance. In fact, like the Fool, this youth has fancy clothes: fur trimmed hat and matching boots.

Seven of Swords - the isolated figure

I think the curious note that Waite makes about two of the swords remaining stuck in the ground may be a reference to the Golden Dawn description, which mentions “Two hands as before, each holding swords.” GD mentions a third hand holding a sword in the center; it may be that Colman Smith gave that honor, along with all the other swords, to our protagonist, perhaps as reward for his cunning and audacity. That the two swords remain stuck in the ground may illustrate the divinatory meaning of quarrelling, which would also be in line with the GD meanings.

Where Waite and Colman Smith differ from GD as far as the success of this caper goes. GD says “Partial success, yielding when victory is within grasp, as if the last reserves of strength were used up.” Yet that is a much more negative view than the general meaning of Netzach (though sometimes the GD had a somewhat different view of the sephiroth meanings; it may be that Wikipedia has benefited from wider input than the GD may have had). That Colman Smith depicts the thief at a moment when it looks like he’s going to pull the job off adds a positive spin to the divinatory meanings of the Seven of Swords. This is like a modern heist film in which the gang of thieves are the heroes, like the Italian Job or Ocean’s 11. (I confess I’ve only seen the originals of both, not the remakes). Colman Smith “directed” this like a 1960’s anti-hero movie.

And that I think is the bottom line for me. Previously I had looked on this as a card only of sneakiness and theft. But now I look at it as something that speaks of planning and intelligence, possibly bravery; definitely high risk, high gain. It brought to mind something Robert Fripp, a musician more influential than famous employed as a sort of guerrilla art marketing strategy back in the 1970’s: a band of musicians touring as a “small, mobile, intelligent unit.”

This is a very modern card. In fact it’s perfect for our society today, which, let’s face it, is based on theft. I don’t think Waite would have liked that, but perhaps Pamela Coleman Smith might have filled Angie Dickinson’s role just fine.

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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?