The Two of Swords – A One Page Guide

The RWS Two of Swords appears to be a case in which both subject and viewer are unseeing, at least at first. A blindfolded swordswoman can only be a metaphor, but for what? Questioning the illustration’s components may help us understand what Waite intended:

  • Why is the swordswoman blindfolded?
  • Why two swords, when a swordsman fights with just one sword?
  • And, why is the Moon the only unbalaced element in what is otherwise a symmetrically balanced composition.

Waite’s “reservation” in the Pictorial Key to the Tarot’s description of this card stands out like a clue in a mystery novel:

The suggestion of harmony and other favourable readings must be considered in a qualified manner, as Swords generally are not symbolical of beneficent forces in human affairs.

Not to leave anyone in suspense, I believe that Waite wishes us to perceive the Two of Swords as being about the harmony and balance that exists when both worldly and divine justice are present. This would align with his divinatory meanings. It would also align with his Christian mysticism, though without being too in-your-face, for a change.

Two of Swords - IsleVue One Page Guide to Card Derivations

There may be a secondary message regarding Pax Romana, which not only answers our question regarding the Moon, (it was said that Rome was established when the Moon was in Libra), but also may convey a message regarding Waite’s nationalistic feelings for the the British empire.

The message of the RWS Two of Swords may therefore be understood as that the balance of both types of justice manifests itself in peace and harmony; that even though both types of justice can countenance cruelty, if inside oneself and one’s circle of friends we maintain balance and harmony, such a balance can be a “beneficent force.”

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 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.

Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun

The decan of the Two of Swords is located under Libra, as is the major arcana card for the classical virtue Justice. Justice was depicted in Roman mythology with the attributes of the balance and the sword. The balance symbolizes the weighing of evidence to us. It may actually date back to the Eqyptians’ belief that after death, the deceased person’s heart would be weighed against the feather of truth (which would be a case of divine justice). The sword represents authority.

Two of Swords isolated figure

We note the similarities between the swordswoman of the Two of Swords and the RWS Justice. The swordswoman has a sword, is seated, and wears a long robe. Though Waite’s Justice isn’t, the swordswoman is blindfolded like the modern (but not Roman) depiction of justice. The balance is also there, but not as a scale. When you view the illustration, if we ignore the Moon for a moment, the left and right side have a skewed symmetry. Shadows, rocks, waves and land appear on both sides, just slightly different; a little higher on one side, or slightly more pronounced on the other. It evokes a balance scale when one side is just slightly heavier than the other side. Additionally, we note the swordswoman sits on a cubic bench, the type that Colman Smith usually places “demi-royalty” on, as in her illustrations of the High Priestess, Justice and oddly, the little Burger King of the Four of Pentacles.

If then, there is a visual relationship between Justice and the Two of Swords, we must ask why does the latter have two swords? First we must note that the Romans merged the identities and responsibilities of the two goddesses of Justice of the Greeks and made them one person. These Greek goddesses were mother and daughter, whose names were Themis and Dike, respectively. Themis means “divine law” rather than human law. Therefore she is the justice that derives directly from creation and the gods. In fact, we could characterize Themis as “what is right and proper.” It is sort of an acceptance of the justice of the state of creation. Though the Greeks also had the concept of “natural law,” what we think of today as “natural law,” for example, as expressed in The Declaration of the Rights of Man, may have been a subset of this divine law.

Dike, on the other hand, represents the type of justice made by men. It is she who is represented by Libra. Waite links his Justice, the major arcana, to Astrea, who is either closely associated with Dike, or is an epithet for her.

Justice isolated figure

We can thus see that Themis and Dike held separate authorities for justice in two separate realms. What better way to represent the two authorities than by two swords, which we previously noted were symbols of authority. We can trace some of the divinatory meanings that Waite assigns for the Two of Swords, “conformity” from Themis, and a regulated “state of arms,” from Dike. Or “harmony,” which is the state that the just man lives in under divine justice. This would certainly have appealed to Waite’s sense of Christian mysticism. Note that there is also a tie to Jesus, but we will return to it. The reversed divinatory meanings, “imposture, falsehood, duplicity, disloyalty,” represent the worst part of the society under human law. This brings us to Dike/Astraea, who left the Earth at the end of the Golden Age, disgusted with humans who had become vile and cruel. Her departure signalled the end of the agrarian Golden Age, when there were no wars or diseases and food was plentiful, and the beginning of the bronze age.

We can now address the question of why the Moon is the only unbalanced element in the composition. We note that Rome was said to have been established when the Moon was in Libra. We have already seen a link between the Two of Swords and Rome, which consolidated the two goddesses of justice into one. The other link is the Pax Romana; when the balance of world power resided in Rome, and two centuries of relative stability ocurred. At the time during which Waite and Colman Smith created the RWS deck, Britain fancied itself at the center of a “Pax Britannica,” based upon its role as global hegemon. That World War I began within five years of the publication of the deck merely underlines how wrong-headed such an idea was, but the fact remains that they believed in it. The divinatory meanings of the Golden Dawn group might be said to align better with the Pax Britannica than Waite: “Sacrifice and trouble yet strength arising therefrom,” as well as “Peace restored, truce, arrangement of differences, justice.” Waite’s divinatory meanings include “concord in a state of arms,” as we had indicated. That Waite, with his British nationalism, usually expressed in the Celtic imagery in which he “dipped” the deck, would see a comparison between the British and Roman empires would not be surprising.

I therefore believe it very possible that more than just serving as a visual clue of the Moon’s influence upon the decan, the prominence of the Moon in the layout of the RWS Two of Swords is meant to recall Rome, and consequently the British Empire. The Moon’s influence upon Waite’s divinatory meanings is relatively small, compared to Venus’. In fact, we don’t usually find the ruling planet’s influence in the reversed divinatory meanings in Waite’s Pictorial Key; it’s usually the opposite planet.

There is an additional link between the Two of Swords and Rome. As previously mentioned, the two swords may evoke a comparison between divine and Earthly justice, separating the two that Rome had joined. What would be the most important representation of the two justices to Waite? Clearly, it would be the saying attributed to Jesus, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Historians tell us that the actual coin to which he would have referred was almost certainly the Roman denarius, which at that time, besides having Tiberius’ head on the front, had a representation of Pax (cf. the Pax Romana, which at that time would have been in appoximately its 55th of its approximately 200 years).

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

Before concluding, we should, as an aside, note that the qabalistic influence, Chokmah, plays minor roles at more than one level. First, as seen in the Golden Dawn’s interpretation of Chokmah as “Quarrels made up.” It is likely that Waite and Colman Smith carried over interpretations such as these. Additionally, Chokmah as divine wisdom is described in the Book of Wisdom as a quality within a person that “maketh them friends of God, and prophets” which may be the source of Waite’s “friendship” divinatory meaning.

One of the key takeaways that I have gotten from this series of deep-dive one-page-analyses of the minor arcana is the many layers of symbols and meanings, the stories-within-stories which Waite and Colman Smith packed even into the minor cards of the RWS deck. In today’s culture in which graphic novels can be considered intellectual, it may seem impossible that such complication should be placed into a piece of popular art. But Waite didn’t look upon his deck as popular art. He looked upon it as a very complicated divinatory art being popularized. At the time Waite worked upon the RWS deck, James Joyce was writing his Ulysses. Besides covering some of the same mythical themes, Joyce densely embedded symbols and meanings deep within his work. It would not be in the least bit strange that Waite and Colman Smith sought to “pack” in as many stories, symbols and references to external legends and stories into this amazing deck as they could. In fact, I think that is the central lesson of these one-page-guides thus far: one can’t dig deep enough. If one “pauses” at a superficial visual reading, or a short paragraph in a book, much may be neglected. We must look at every card deeply with fresh eyes, curiosity, and a willingness to look up references.

And as for reading the Two of Swords, this is a case in which the stories-within-stories coincide with the divinatory meanings. The balancing of divine and human justice manifests itself in peace and harmony, even though both types of justice can countenance cruelty. But if inside oneself and one’s circle of friends we maintain balance and harmony, such a balance can be a “beneficent force.”

Background of the feature image by skeeze from Pixabay

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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?