Three of Swords: Ally of Change

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There are few minor arcana cards as immediately recognizable and as well known as the Three of Swords. Maybe it is because of its bold symbolism, or because of the visceral discomfort and fear that comes with its visuals. Regardless, its claim to fame is being one of the most feared cards to get in a reading, one of the "bad cards" like Death or the Ten of Swords. But how do we see past this stigma and get at the core of its meaning? How to we confront the heartbreak and pain of the Three of Swords?

To start, the knowledge that it joins Death and the Ten of Swords offers some context. Those cards feature visuals of literal death, to express a theme of change and endings. The Three of Swords also does this, though less concretely. In most iterations, it shows a heart outside of a body, and unlike any anatomical heart. It is entirely symbolic, even within the world the tarot shows us. It doesn't beat in a chest, but rather is suspended in a stormy sky. This entire card is arguably fantasy, for how clear and concise the imagery is. It is visceral, but intangible. It is emotional.

Of course, we know this. Emotion is often the first thing we think of when we see hearts, let alone physically wounded ones. Typically, the imagery on this card seems to cause us to fixate on pain, and the wounds inflicted on us emotionally. In this sense we box the swords in, giving them the role of inflicting pain. This card has a lot of useful and logical associations with treachery, breakups, unrequited love, etc. All situations where we are the heart, and the swords are an outside force. There is also the meaningful recognition that the swords can be internal. In what ways do we wound ourselves? How have we denied our desires, suffocated our freedom, and so on? These are all worthy interpretations, and all contribute greatly to our fears of drawing this card. But what else do we know about the dreaded Three of Swords?

 
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Three of Swords in the Albino Waite, Smith-Waite Centennial, and Radiant Rider-Waite Tarot decks.

 

First, we know that it is a three, connected to the Empress. We also know it is a swords card, of the element air. The Empress represents growth, expansion, passion, and emotion driven action. The heart on this card is representative of that energy. It is an immediately recognizable symbol of emotions and instinctual reaction. It appeals to the Empress within us that seeks to act on what feels right, and what will keep us safe and happy. The swords, however, tend to represent logical, sometimes harsh, action. They are about concise communication, and control.  The swords on the card bring the air energy into the image, calling to mind the sharp blade, the weight of metal, and how with great skill the use of a sword becomes an art. Though both these energies are active over all, their methods of achieving change are very different. Here we find our conflict.

In the start of my tarot journey, I had pretty simple views of this card. It was about pain, and perhaps by association with other "bad" cards, was about change bringing pain. It was the Three of Swords from the Wild Unknown that changed everything about my relationship with this card.

 
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Three of Swords from the Wild Unknown Tarot

 

This card depicts the three of swords much differently from other decks. It still shows three swords, but instead of a heart, we see red string wrapped around them. There is an emotional impact of this visual that rivals that of the original Smith Rider Waite image. The red string stands out as being the only colored element of the image. The red that we saw on the original heart is present here, but it feels less natural. Instead of just thinking of love and emotion, we think of pain and blood. Red is coded into our evolutionary memory. We see red and think pain, danger, fear. It goes beyond the symbol of the symmetrical and completely unnatural heart, and taps into a knowledge of the real world. It commands the attention of our inner Empress, the part of us that needs to adapt and survive so we can live and grow. 

Beyond the world of color, the symbol itself holds new meaning. String here is used to bind the swords, which is a symbol we are not unfamiliar with in tarot. We see this on the Smith Rider Waite Eight of Swords, Hanged Man, and more. We understand that bindings normally represent confinement, lack of freedom, and stagnation. Interesting that this symbol that taps into our desire to be dynamic and adaptive would manifest as a tool for suppression. And what does it suppress? Three swords, symbols of our logic and language. 

It is at this point that I must note that the guidebook for the Wild Unknown seems to perpetuate a “heart-focused” perspective of this card. This isn't wrong, as I stated earlier this interpretation is just as valid and useful as any other. But I find it so interesting that I came to all this revelation about this card through an image that seemed to scream it at me, only to find that the creator (presumably) never intended to express this. This card could just as easily have contained a drawing of a real physical heart, an even stronger visceral symbol of emotion and vulnerability. For whatever reason, the string was the image that was chosen. And I am grateful for it. 

The image of this card packs a punch, but beneath all of these visual changes, we get an interesting perspective on this card. Perspective is a key word here for me, because this card illuminates something about the way we view the suits. In most minor arcana cards, the scene is set to show us an experience with the suit. In the cups, we are meant to think about emotions first and foremost. Whether or not the experience is pleasant, we use the cups as a lens to view it through. Our perspective is through the suit the card belongs to. Same with pentacles, wands, and swords. All of the suits tell a story or express an idea through their particular perspective. Even the Ten of Swords demands that we consider the origin and purpose of the swords that kill the person. It is sad that someone has died, but the point is not the emotional impact, but rather the action and consequences, something that is very resonant with the spirit of swords energy. 

The Three of Swords stands pretty much alone, in that it is a card that is almost constantly viewed from an alien perspective. Our immediate emotional reaction is much more cups than swords, or if you see it as passionate and fearful, perhaps much more wands. The inclination to peg the swords as an outside force, representing undeserved pain or misfortune is bazaar. In comparison to our approach to the rest of the cards, this major perspective shift begs the question: What would it look like to see the Three of Swords through the perspective of the swords?

The answer to this perspective question came to meme through the Wild Unknown. This visual change did not remove our ability to relate to the emotional symbol (the string), but rather made it less likely to be seen as the vessel for our experience in the card, like the heart seems to do. It is less inviting, less familiar, less comfortable. A heart is a symbol we fall into with glee, but red bindings are immediately seen as uncomfortable. And as a result, we are forced to explore the idea of embodying the swords.

The swords, as mentioned before, correlate with air, and the ideas of logic, decisions, communication, and control. It is an active suit, one depicted as the cause of pain and discomfort in nearly every swords card. This brings us to a pretty well accepted truth: change and logic can often wound us. There is a certain level of discomfort we are always combating when it comes to change, and so it seems natural that the swords would illicit feelings of discomfort and even sadness when viewing them. But we tend to stigmatize truth as always harsh, and never liberating. Change as always unwanted. The debate of the Two of Swords can be uncomfortable, or perhaps a peaceful meditation on logic and direction. The Nine of Swords can be a nightmare, but the recognition of truth and illusion informs our judgement and decisions. Although we may react to these scenes emotionally, they have value that we can often recognize.

Embodying the swords means seeing the value in logic, reasoning, truth, and even endings. Within the structure of established interpretations, truth and logic help us navigate our relationships when we have been hurt or betrayed. Keeping a clear head, and acknowledging truths outside of our emotional alliances makes us less likely to be taken advantage of. The ending of a relationship can be beneficial to our emotions long term, but we may not see it in the moment. Logic is here to guide us in the right direction, demanding that we rip the band-aid off and get to healing instead of staying with what feels comfortable and safe. Even when it feels bad, or perhaps especially when it feels bad, we must consult our practical thinking. 

The Wild Unknown imagery opened up a new interpretation for me with its use of bindings. The swords are our truths, our plans, our direction, our words. The string could perhaps be the emotional minefield of interpersonal interaction (looking at you, Mercury retrograde). Would being completely honest cause pain for someone else? Would what makes sense as a logical progression for you go against the feelings and beliefs of another? Furthermore, are your emotions standing in the way of your progress or truth? Sometimes we build emotional shields around ourselves, set barriers by creating attachment. We love something so much, or the idea of it so much, we don't want to let it go. If this persists long past its usefulness, we continue to stay emotionally attached when it doesn't serve us. We have effectively disarmed our logic. This is why often the best wisdom comes to us from those outside of the situation. They have not bound those swords, so they can speak more or less freely about what they feel is hurting us, and what we should do. 

Swords seem to have an inseparable connection to our emotions. We see most of the suit as necessary, but painful. Even the symbol itself, a tool made for wounding or killing, references our mortality and ability to feel the consequences of a sword's actions. But beyond the literal image, it alludes to control and action. It represents things that we all use, whether we acknowledge it or not. Truth, communication, and decision making are all daily experiences for us. The vilification of the swords, and the Three of Swords in particular, speaks to an inclination to side with the visceral. We want to guard ourselves from the experience of blunt truth and the pain it can cause. In an attempt to preserve ourselves, we can shy away from what we anticipate to be painful. 

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Decks from left to right: Pagan Otherworlds Tarot, Ethereal Visions: Illuminated Tarot, Tarot Mucha, Spolia Tarot, and The Fountain Tarot

 

This calls to mind the most recent connection I have made with this card. Seeking to be less problematic requires unlearning of the problematic things we have been taught. Unlearning requires us to be aware of the problem in the first place, something that many times comes from an outside source. I know when I am informed that something I said or did was problematic or offensive, I have immediate reactionary emotions. My heart, which harbored only good intentions, asks me to explain. I want to say "I didn't mean to! I just thought X. Someone else had told me Y. I wasn't thinking!". But the reality is, statements like these aren't just useless, they are counterproductive. 

When we react like this, we are prioritizing our emotions over the knowledge we have of the situation. We know that the information we are receiving will help us grow and be a better ally. We know that the most important and logical course of action is to apologize, correct ourselves/change our wording/etc., and move forward with a commitment to change our behavior. This is a proper response, because it prioritizes the truth about your ability to change. You acknowledge your capability to adapt above your feelings. 

Far too often we use excuses as an emotional reaction. We want validation, someone to say "I understand. I don't blame you. You didn't do anything wrong." This is that emotional shield, that symbolic symmetrical heart. Our projection of our feelings is a social signal for validation. We are asking the person, who just provided emotional labor to explain to us how we have messed up, to pardon our mistake.

It is likely this person already understands this place you are coming from. As someone who has been in that position many times as a trans person communicating with allies, I know it well. Often times a simple "Actually, it's 'he'." is met with "I'm sorry. You have to understand, this is so hard for me. You have to be patient. I'm not used to it.". A timid explanation often provokes an emotional, sometimes panicked, reaction about how difficult this experience is for them. This is a perfect example of this take on the Three of Swords. Allies of trans people, who seek to not be transphobic, inadvertently build emotional barriers to protect themselves from feeling transphobic. This prevents them from effectively internalizing the truth, and learning from it. Repeating over and over that you are not transphobic, racist, sexist, homophobic, ablest, etc. is non-productive. It reiterates an intention, but without a commitment to change it is meaningless.

The Three of Swords to me references our ability to set aside the emotional shields and our fears. It references the brave and virtuous act of allowing truth to come into our lives. It is asking “How did I hurt you? What can I change about my behavior to do better?”. It is opening up our hearts and finding the outdated and unhelpful things living there. “Where have I bought into lies that were easier to believe than the truth? How do I benefit from ignorance and denial? What is keeping me from empathizing with those who suffer because of my actions?”. It is a conversation with your emotions, instead of emotional projection. It is honest dissection of your wounds, and the slow, careful act of healing them.

We all do this, whether it is with social justice or just hearing out a partner, friend, or family member. This gut instinct to push away truth and assert our emotional validity is not bad per say, but can be unhelpful for growth. Emotional validity has its place over in the cups. But when it comes to swords, we must prioritize concrete change and truth. The Three of Swords is a unsung hero of this journey. Returning to the Smith Rider Waite imagery with this knowledge, we are able to see the symbols in a much different way than before. The swords are not the enemy, but rather the influence of truth and change on us. The heart now embodies our emotions, or the emotions of others, as a barrier to change and adaptability. It still feels a little sour, but instead of being downright evil, the card feels triumphant as well. As upsetting as it can be to dissect our emotions and see the truth, it is necessary for our advancement in our journey. We take the good with the bad, but all through the eyes of the swords.

 
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Inspired by the role the Three of Swords plays in our own growth and improvement, I created a spread for exploring the truth it brings.

Three Truths Spread

1 2 3

4 (crossed by 5)

6

1, 2, 3 - EXTERNAL TRUTHS: What are three external truths that are entering your life? What are their sources?

4 - INTERNAL TRUTH: What internal truth do these reveal? What do we learn about ourselves through this experience?

5 - BINDINGS/SHIELD: What keeps us from accessing this truth? What constructed beliefs and emotions keep us comfortable in ignorance?

6 - CONCLUSION: Where do we go next? How can we honor the truth and advance in our journey of growth?

The Three of Swords may still be a card that we don't care to see. The implication that pain is an inseparable part of our path to truth and action isn't ideal, but it is important. By facing this truth so early on in the suit, we arrive at the Ten of Swords prepared. The death we see there is the ultimate change and disruption, and it will illicit emotions and fear unlike the cards before it. But if we are aware that change can be painful, we will not be surprised by our emotions. If we are aware we can shape our emotional responses, we will not be as timid. If we are aware that our autonomy in the steps that follow is based in our awareness and knowledge, we will be excited to leap into the unknown. The Three of Swords isn't just a breakup card, bur rather a foundation for our perception of the rest of the suit.

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What do you think about the Three of Swords? How has it been an ally to your journey? I would love to hear about it! If you post about a reading with this spread, please tag me as @hjtarot on Instagram, or link to my website for proper credit. If you enjoy the spread please let me know! As always, blessings and best wishes!