The Three of Swords – A One Page Guide

Three of Swords - IsleVue One Page Guide to Card Derivations

The Three of Swords is nobody’s favorite card. This post will not make it your favorite; but perhaps if we understand it better it will be a little less nasty surprise when it does show up.

Of the Three of Swords, Waite says the divinatory meanings include “all that the design signifies naturally, being too simple and obvious to call for specific enumeration.” While that may be true, like all things tarot, there are layers beneath the surface awaiting discovery. But start with the surface, we must. What we will find is a balance, as of the scale of Libra, between the masculine Saturn, ruler of the decan, and the feminine Venus, the planetary ruler of Libra. And though Saturn and Venus may be evenly matched, Binah, the very feminine qabalistic influence, tips the scales to the feminine. We’ll also find a very interesting male/female, lover/beloved dynamic in the upright and reversed divinatory meanings.

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-nine 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.

Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone

Sola Busca Three of Swords
Sola Busca Three of Swords

The first thing we note about the illustration of the thrice-pierced heart is that there is no human figure. Of the minor arcana corresponding to the 36 decans, it is one of only two such cards (the Eight of Wands is the other). It has been noted elsewhere that Colman Smith largely copied the design from the Sola Busca tarot, a late 15th century deck. The British Museum displayed a complete set of photos of Sola Busca in 1907. We can be certain that this influenced Waite and Colman Smith, but the question to be asked is “why this particular card?” The answer is simple and direct. Waite’s divinatory meanings of “removal, absence” couldn’t be better illustrated than by depicting the absence of a human figure and substituting that most abstract depiction of humanity, the heart.

Next we must examine the similarities and differences in divinatory meanings between Waite and the Golden Dawn. One interesting aspect of the Golden Dawn description is that they specifically stated that the middle sword “cuts asunder” the two swords of the previous card. There is a link between the Two of Swords and the Three of Swords. The balance, camaradie and trust of that previous card is split and broken. It’s easier to see in the Golden Dawn description, but it’s in Waite’s divinatory meanings as well. The statement is clear: the Two of Swords is about balance; the Three of Swords is about imbalance.

We should pause a moment to also note that the Golden Dawn is just more fun than Waite is, as far as this card is concerned: “mirth in evil pleasures, singing… selfish and dissipated, yet sometimes generous.” It would probably do both reader and querent well to take the hint from the Golden Dawn, and look for an element of black humor in the Three of Swords when it comes up in readings.

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

In any case, Waite concentrates on separation and loss in his divinatory meanings. Could something have been weighed and found wanting? Recall that the decan is under Libra, the constellation of the scale, and that Justice, the major associated with Libra prominently displays the scale. One of the personal qualities often ascribed to the Libra personality, since they are supposed to be calm and rational, is detachment, as in the detachment of the judge weighing the two sides of an argument.

Three of Swords

Is the illustration a representation of a detached and removed love? Yes, I think so, and in fact, I think we can even say that Waite implies a direction in that separation: the beloved left the lover. Waite includes “rupture, dispersion” among his divinatory meanings. In this respect “rupture” echoes the “cuts asunder” of the Golden Dawn description.

As the song goes, “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.” The Sun is the planetary ruler of the decan opposite this one, i.e, it is “in detriment.” It is as far away as it is possible for it to be. The rain clouds of the Three of Swords seem to hide a distant, diminished Sun. We note that the reversed divinatory meanings for the Empress (associated with Venus, the planet of Libra), have to do with light (“light, truth, the unravelling of involved matters).” Is this then a statement by Waite that only in the shadows can we see the mysteries that the feminine nature hides? It would be just like him. Waite associates mystery and obscurity with the feminine: “secrets, mystery” as in the High Priestess, “the unknown, clandestine” for the Empress and “darkness… occult forces” for the Moon, to cite a few. The qabalistic influence also reinforces that view. Binah is represented by the womb. It is internal and hidden. Then again, it is the source of all life and the first love, the mother’s love. The separation from the womb is the first and most profound separation.

I also think that Waite means to say that when a man (as in the case of this decan, Saturn) rules, the mysteries associated with the feminine go away; and that sadness and sorrow result from the loss.

A slight detour: as mentioned before, we have noted that some of Colman Smith’s illustrations, and some of Waite’s reversed divinatory meanings show a pattern of evoking the characteristics of the planet opposite the ruler, i.e, the planet in detriment for the decan. Since I’ve now mentioned it in two posts running, several posts overall, I feel it necessary to provide a short list of examples here. It is by no means a complete list; nor is this a characteristic of every single card. It merely shows that Waite in particular took this into consideration. We can assume that Colman Smith positioned the paper “upright” at her drawing table, so when looking at the illustrations it’s more a matter of finding what’s missing. It is an interesting clue to the composition process, though at the moment, I don’t see much application as far as reading these cards are concerned.



Five of Pentacles Mercury rules/Mars in detriment. Reversed divinatory meanings include “discord;” Mars was known as the god of discord.
Ten of Swords Sun rules, Saturn in detriment. Reversed divinatory meanings include “power and authority,” which Saturn had definitely wielded at one time.
Two of Cups Venus rules, Jupiter in detriment. Reversed divinatory meanings include “passion.” Jupiter qualifies for that!
Nine of Pentacles Venus rules, Jupiter in detriment. Reversed divinatory meanings include “deception.” Jupiter disguised himself for sexual adventure many times.
Three of Swords Saturn rules, Sun in detriment. Rainy, cloudy illustration.
Five of Cups Mars rules, Mercury in detriment. Reversed divinatory meanings include “news, alliances,” both falling in Mercury’s area.
Eight of Wands Mercury rules, Jupiter in detriment. Reversed divinatory meanings include “domestic disputes for persons who are married.” Jupiter frequently fought with Hera.
Eight of Cups Saturn rules, Sun in detriment. The illustration features a solar eclipse.

I also note that the case of the Empress, it is my first reference to a major regarding this characteristic.

Returning to the Three of Swords, to me, the illustration appears both too obvious and too clever. We must, however, make allowances for the novelty that the Sola Busca illustration must have had at that time. It is the earliest surviving example of a full 78 card deck in history. It is also the only deck before RWS to provide illustrations for the minor arcana instead of abstract designs; though it may have been virtually unknown before the British Museum show.

The bottom line is that Waite’s divinatory meanings imply more than just sorrow and heartbreak. Upright, it is not just emotional but physical separation, probably the effect of a specific action or actions. That could be where the darkly humorous, but ill behavior of the Golden Dawn fits in. Moreover, we can see in Waite’s upright divinatory meanings a view of the beloved in the process of leaving or being separated from the lover: “removal, dispersion, absence.”

Now note the divinatory meanings for the Three of Swords reversed: it is the opposite perspective, that of the lover who has been left behind: “alienation, error, loss, distraction.” This was mentioned in the table in the post regarding reversals and perspectives, of course.

I don’t think that if this card appears in a reading that we have to take literally that one person is doing the leaving, and the other the alienation. These things usually are not quite so cut and dry. But then, that is the murkiness and rainy day nature of the Three of Swords.

In this series on the minor arcana I have many times applauded the genius of Colman Smith and far less so Waite. In this case, though, Colman Smith has copied another design, and Waite has done something particularly original with the divinatory meanings.

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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?