Although I haven’t nearly the extensive collection of Tarot decks that some people
do, I do have quite a few decks -- more, in fact, than I typically ever read with.
Some I only use for meditation and affirmation work. A couple I find impossible to
work with in any way, but they are beautifully drawn, which is what impelled me to
buy them. (Of course, I told myself at the time that I would try to learn to use them,
and maybe someday I will.)
I never intended to accumulate so many decks, but what can you do when they
seductively whisper your name? Actually, I have often steeled myself against
temptation and resisted buying yet another deck, considering that I do not really
need another deck. After all, a new deck means I have to get a silk bag for it and a
crystal to keep with it (which is one of my little Tarot quirks). In addition, it would
take up more room on a shelf already suffering a minor population explosion. And
when would I find the time to explore its meaning and learn its dialect well enough
to do the deck justice?
Unfortunately, I have not always exerted such strong will power, and so every once
in a while resistance has been futile. However, I doubt that I have progressed to
the point of needing help, although sometimes I do have dark visions of myself
standing up in front of a group of people saying, “Hi, my name is James. I’m a
A student in a Tarot class I was teaching a few months ago asked me why anyone
would want to buy more than one deck. I didn’t take it personally. She didn’t know
how many decks I have tucked away; she just wondered why I was telling the class
how to find and choose a deck, in case they might want another one.
I explained that you might want to have a different deck for different uses, such as
divination, affirmations and visualizations, meditations, or magick. You might want
to have a special deck to use exclusively for yourself, keeping it untainted by the
energy of other people. Also, you might want to have different decks to read for
different types of people. For example, I use the Hanson-Roberts deck for an
entirely different type of person than would appreciate the Cosmic Tribe deck. And
of course, some of the decks are just plain beautiful and you just gotta have them.
This all made sense to me as I said it, and I thought it was a darn good
explanation. However, the blank looks on the faces of some of my students -- most
of them were quite new to the Tarot -- made me wonder if I was just trying to justify
my little addiction. As I thought about it more, though, I realized I had to give my
students time. Either they would come to understand, or they wouldn’t. A Tarot
addiction isn’t something you can explain; you just have to experience it, right?
I was content with this explanation until recently when I thought of an even stronger
argument. This one came to me when I considered that whenever I explore the
cards of a new deck I gain some insights into the corresponding cards of my other
decks as well. It is as though the conceptual, archetypal essence of each card is
an elephant, and whenever I get a new deck I’m a blind man examining it from a
new side. (You know that tale don’t you? A blind man touching the side of an
elephant thinks it is a wall, one at the back holding its tail thinks it’s a rope, one by
one of the legs thinks it’s a tree, etc.) It’s a crude analogy, but I think you get the
Each of the 78 Tarot cards has an ineffable essence, but any one version of that
card, due to the limits of physical manifestation, can only express a limited facet of
it. Or at least, I can only see a limited range of meaning for that card when I am, so
to speak, standing in the position of that particular version of that card. When I
explore another version of the card I see its underlying concept from another
perspective. Then I realize that the elephant has legs like a tree trunk as well as a
tail like a rope and a side like a wall. I am slowly getting the bigger picture.
With that in mind, I decided to try an experiment. I laid out and examined several
versions of a particular card all at once to see what different perspectives they
might provide. I thought it would be informative to see how the meaning of one
version of the card might affect and help interpret the meanings of the other
versions. I chose to explore the Five of Swords, and I decided to use the following
Sacred Rose Tarot
Tarot of the Ages
I picked those particular decks to try to get the broadest spectrum of meaning
possible with the decks I have, but without having an unwieldy number of cards to
consider all at once. What follows, then, are some of the thoughts and insights I
gained from this exercise.
In the Universal Waite version, a smug or gloating youth holds three swords, and
two more swords lie on the ground nearby. In the distance, stand two figures,
dejected and defeated (or so they seem to me). A wind blows the youths garb and
hair, as well as the ragged clouds overhead.
There are several levels of meaning that this card generally evokes for me. It
implies someone acting out of self-interest, unconcerned that others may get hurt
in the process. This can be seen in the “me first” attitude of someone who cuts you
off in traffic, sometimes even endangering you and others in his or her way.
People like this may win, but they usually do so dishonorably or not by the rules. It
can also indicate winning through betrayal or cheating, but thereby losing
something of greater value, which seems like the reverse of the Hanged Man,
doesn’t it? Thus this card can indicate either a Pyrrhic or a hollow victory.
With such considerations in mind, I looked at the other versions of this card. The
first thing that struck me is that they all seem to focus on the aftermath of the
conflict depicted in the Waite version. It is as if the Waite card is the first scene in a
play and the other cards are possible next scenes.
The Little White Book for the Sacred Rose Tarot (SRT) describes this card as
follows: “A man kneels, impaled by four swords. The fifth sword hangs ready to
strike. Blood streams into the ground before him.”
While the Five of Swords is rarely a "happy card" in any deck, the SRT version is
even more dire than usual. In fact, the SRT Five of Swords makes the guy in the
typical Ten of Swords card look comfortable by comparison. The cruelty of this
card makes you wonder if this was just about winning. Maybe it was also about the
need to win, or even the need to hurt someone else. There may be a pathological
psychology involved here.
This version of this card also looks like you could be in a no-win situation, a lost
cause. Thus it advises you to avoid this conflict, or at least to cut your losses and
get out while you can, for this may not be a simple case of probable loss. It could
also indicate that there is no way you can win, such as a situation where you are
“damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”
The figure on the SRT card seems to have been martyred, which sheds light on
another implication of the Waite version. The youth in the Waite Five of Swords
card potentially has created a couple of martyrs, and this could be why his victory
may be Pyrrhic or ephemeral.
On a concrete level, the SRT Five of Swords can indicate a physical attack or
injury. I sometimes see the Seven of Swords as indicative of theft, but of a subtler,
and less physical or direct means -- a cat burglar, perhaps. Also, the excessive
force depicted in this SRT card may also imply that the attack was cruel, or
perhaps it was not worth whatever was gained. For example, I was robbed at knife-
point once long ago, but since I had very little cash or jewelry at the time, the thief
probably got less than $100 for his efforts, although he risked being caught and
sent to jail for that effort. (Luckily, I escaped relatively unscathed, faring much
better than the fellow in the SRT Five of Swords.)
Finally, considering the Waite and SRT cards together reveals that the Five of
Swords might indicate hate crimes, even though that term was unknown when
Pamela Coleman Smith created the Waite version, and perhaps even when
Johanna Sherman created the SRT deck. This interpretation is especially
remarkable considering how vividly the SRT version of the card calls to mind the
murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay student who was the victim of an infamous
hate crime in Wyoming in 1998.
Next I considered the Alchemical Tarot, with its much more positive view of the Five
of Swords. In this card, a blacksmith hammers into shape a red-hot sword. On his
wall hang two repaired swords (pointing upward) and two damaged ones (pointing
downward) that are in need of repair.
This version of the card is about reclaiming losses, which leads to advice as to how
to deal with the situation discussed in the Waite version. (I always like to find
encouragement or advise when a card shouts a warning, as the Five of Swords
often does.) The Alchemical Tarot Five of Swords thus adds the advice to mend
fences after discord in a relationship. It also urges you to salvage what you can
out of a defeat, or to learn what you can as a result of a defeat. And it lends the
encouragement that anything can be fixed if you know how and are willing to work
According to the Alchemical Tarot book, this card also advises you to “strike while
the iron is hot.” (See page 144 of that book.) This comment might give us some
insight into the victorious youth on the Waite version. Perhaps he just took
advantage of a favorable situation. Sure, it may have been unscrupulous to do so,
but the temptation may have been too great.
In the Cosmic Tribe Five of Swords there are five downward thrust swords that
seem to form the bars of a jail cell. Gripping two of the swords are a pair of hands,
which are cut and bleeding. The man inside the cell can be seen dimly. His eyes
are shut and his head is tilted dejectedly, resting on one shoulder.
This version provides a different take on how you deal with defeat in the aftermath
of a Waite-style Five of Swords conflict. The man in the Cosmic Tribe card is
holding on (psychologically speaking) to a harsh defeat, an attitude that has
created his self-imposed prison and that continues to wound him. This point of
view suggests that the Five of Swords may depict an internal conflict in which your
own dark and negative thoughts threaten to destroy you, making you your own
worst enemy. While I sometimes consider the typical Five of Wands card in an
internal, psychological way, it was not until I compared the Cosmic Tribe and Waite
versions that I considered the Five of Swords that way as well.
The Cosmic Tribe Tarot book provides an excellent comment on both the “win at
any cost” attitude of the foreground victor in the Waite card and the dejected losers
in the background: “Winning isn’t the object; the object is experience...” (See page
77 of that book.) This is good advice for any querent when this card comes up in a
Lastly I turned to the Tarot of the Ages deck. In this version of the Five of Swords,
the scene is shrouded in snow and ice, and the sky looks like it is clearing after a
storm. A man sprawls atop a rock in which are imbedded three swords, point down,
and he shakes his fist at the heavens. Below him, another man cringes in pain
(which, presumably, is more psychological than physical). Two swords lie on the
These two men depict two different responses to defeat: angry defiance vs. self-
pitying withdrawal. Neither approach seems very effective, since the victor is no
longer in evidence. Again, all is not lost though, as there are five swords left. The
advice, then, is that after defeat don’t let either anger or self-pity blind you to the
options you do have left.
But even when you have lost everything, “you have nothing to lose,” as noted in
the Little White Book for the Tarot of the Ages deck. And so the defeat indicated
by the Five of Swords may be a liberating experience as your options are opened
up. Indeed, just as the victory indicated by the Five of Swords may be ephemeral,
the defeat may be too.
As you can see, I found this exercise to be illuminating, adding depths of meaning
to my understanding of this card. This also suggests that when a card in a reading
stumps you, you might try laying the corresponding card from another deck next to
it to see if you can get a clearer vision of the first card based upon what is being
said by the second card.
Using both the similarities and the differences between different versions of a card
to illuminate the meanings of those disparate versions may be one of the best
justifications for having multiple decks. I am not sure if this argument would sway a
group of novice Tarot students, but it is satisfying to me. May it be helpful to you
Note: If you are interested in the process described here, you might
want to check out the Comparative Tarot Yahoo Group's Home Page.
Comparing Tarot Cards
James Ricklef -- Tarot and more ...