The Six of Swords – A One Page Guide

Six of Swords - IsleVue One Page Guide to Card Derivations

It is no doubt a startlingly long leap from Charon, the ferryman of Hades who’ll leave your spirit wandering on the shore of the river Styx for one hundred years if you don’t have the penny for his fare, to a positive affirmation of life and continuity that foresees safe journey through the person of your child. It is odder still, in my opinion, to see A.E. Waite, in the Six of Swords, not only make that leap but also get away with it!

Clearly, we shall have to take this one carefully, in small steps.

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-three in the series. 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.

Not Your Average Gondolier

The Golden Dawn group cited the qabalistic influence for the Six of Swords as “Tiphareth of Vav. (Labour, work, journey by water.)” In fact, Binah is usually given a greater link to water than Tiphareth, but Tiphareth was associated with water for at least one rite (a rite of healing) which was important to the Golden Dawn group. We will find additional links between Tiphareth below. For now, we will accept the linkage of Tiphareth and water. Waite also seems to accept that link, as he states in his first words describing this card “a ferryman carrying passengers in his punt to the further shore.” We have agreement, therefore, on a ship or small boat and a water journey. This, of course, is the setting of Colman Smith’s illustration. We also note that Tiphereth, being near the center of the tree of life, is also said to provide “crossing over the middle path.” This would be consistent with a ferry crossing, as well.

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

We next note that the GD included “beauty” and a few similar words in its divinatory meaning. It is likely they also derived those words from Tiphereth, which is associated with beauty. The GD may also be referencing the story of Ganymede in this. Ganymede was the most beautiful young man in the world. He became the water bearer, and the Zodiac sign of Aquarius, commemorates him. It is the sign for this decan. The GD named the decan, “Lord of Earned Success” and described it as “success after anxiety and trouble.” I guess we can describe Zeus’ kidnapping, violation, and eventually, the granting of immortality to Ganymede in those terms. As we noted in the Five of Swords, Ganymede was the only one of Zeus’ human “conquests” granted immortality.

There is no “earned success” apparent in the RWS illustration, and only a very little trouble. If, however, we assume the ferryman was paid for this passage, we might say that there is “paid success;” but that would be an awkward construction.

Waite, however, sets up some hidden yet compelling textual clues regarding the identity of the ferryman. I believe he is meant to be the most famous ferryman of all, Charon, who escorts the souls of the dead. Let us turn to those clues now.

Waite includes a quite rare word, “commissionary,” among the divinatory meanings. In British usage, the word means an official appointed by a commission. In the real world, “commissionaries” existed only in British colonial India (though you can find them sometimes in contemporary Pakistani government pronouncements). Admittedly, the word might complement “envoy,” another of Waite’s divinatory meanings. Both of the two words, however, seem to come out of nowhere, at least at first glance. We also note that in American usage, “commissionary” means of or pertaining to a commission; as in commission upon a sale; it is an accounting term.

I had not realized that there are Christian qabalists. They ascribe to Tiphareth the terms “son,” and/or “Sun,” and/or “son of God.” That this goes back as far as Waite’s time is indicated by the fact that Aliester Crowley’s Thelema ideology includes this concept for Tiphareth. Moreover, Crowley’s organization actually utilized the term “commissionary” for some personnel with delegated authority. Though Crowley and Waite were competitors and enemies, as long as we don’t mix the interpretation of Waite’s divinatory meanings with Crowley’s, I see no reason not to include Crowley as contemporary evidence that Waite may have understood an organizational concept in a similar manner. After all, Crowley did make the cover of Sergeant Pepper! 😉

Gustave Doré - Dante Inferno - Charon herds the sinners onto his boat
Gustave Doré – Dante Inferno – Charon herds the sinners onto his boat (public domain)

In any case, we have now brought in the son of god as a possible sub-theme. And while Charon is not the “Son of God,” as Waite might be assumed to prefer, Charon is in fact the son of a god. He is the son of Pluto, the god of Hades. (He is also, by the way, grandson of Saturn, who is the planet associated with Aquarius.)

I accept this link as reasonable, though perhaps not definitive proof, that Waite and Colman Smith mean the ferryman to be Charon. Charon carries the dead across the river Styx to Hades via his boat, but only if he is paid his commission (which is the origin of the custom of placing a coin over the eyes or in the mouth of the dead). In fact, during the middle ages, Charon was often equated with Death. Had the Death major arcanum been associated with this decan, I would have called the identification definitive; but it’s not, so we’ll have to settle for the Fool… perhaps after he’s leapt off that cliff!

In his divinatory meanings for the Six of Swords, Waite seems to focus more on the journey than the destination. “journey by water, route, way, envoy, commissionary, expedient.” Mercury, the god of communications with the winged shoes could provide a starting point for the divinatory meanings such as “envoy,” “route,” and “expedient,” though I don’t think he does much for “commissionary.” Zeus was just not a commission kind of guy. It is possible that there could be a point made that Zeus, Poseidon and Pluto between them were a commission, but I can’t think of any instances that the three delegated authority to Mercury.

There also seems to be a slight “bow” towards another part of the GD’s point of view for this card in that the water in the foreground appears a little turbulent, and the water in the background calm. This might imply success after trouble. But is that Colman Smith’s idea or Waite’s? I suspect that the idea was Colman Smith’s because the “success after trouble” theme is missing from Waite’s description and meanings. This card could possibly be taken as “Exhibit A” for the case that Colman Smith was not just a hired gun for the graphics artistry of this deck, but instead was a co-author… possibly in spite of A.E. Waite’s desires sometimes! We note further that Wikipedia states of Tiphareth “in the transmission of gifts and goods from parents to their children, a sacrifice is necessary so a new form may be born,” but since Waite does not mention it, it merely buttresses GD as a source, further. How many parents have said they would go through Hell itself for their child? Are we seeing a variation on that here?

Six of Swords isolated figures

Getting back to our ferryman, Waite notes that “the freight is light, it may be noted that the work is not beyond his strength.” This appears to be a reference to the idea that Charon’s boat was often overloaded with souls. Therefore, Waite is pointing out that this ferry is not overloaded with the dead (whose souls, apparently, are very weighty!). Therefore, though it may be Charon and his famous ferry, the passengers in the Six of Swords are still alive. Are they perhaps “envoys” between the living and the dead? Therein Waite sets up a philosophical, yet very positive takeaway for what might otherwise have been an extremely dreary card.

The Golden Dawn group associated selfishness, beauty and conceit with this card. There is nothing similar in Waite’s divinatory meanings. As mentioned, Waite therefore took the GD’s work as a setting, but arrived at a completely different meaning. Where he took the meaning to, the far shore that the ferry journies to, is the interesting part.

I believe that to Waite, the Six of Swords is a metaphor for the journey through life. You are always accompanied by the ferryman of death, but you will cross over troubled waters and arrive at calm, where your offspring can live in safety. Such a takeaway is philosophical yet optimistic, facing towards life after death; it is exactly Waite.

In Greek and Roman literature, only certain heroes such as Hercules, Orpheus and Aeneas were able to ride Charon’s ferry and live. Their journies became important episodes within their heroic stories. Here Waite shows us that we all do the same. The true, modernized message for this card could be taken as “you are a hero for living every day while facing death, bringing your children safely across an infernal river. You will reach the other side, and once there, your children will carry on.”

For those who view this card merely as a journey to safety, perhaps you might wish to add a metaphorically heroic dimension.

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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?