The Arthurian grail myths are a chronicle of opposites: Of nobility and treachery, courtly love and adultery, brotherhood and fratricide, altruism and intrigue, vice and virtue: Medieval “soap operas,” we might call them today. This is one reason why these stories still resonate in our lives—because we can see elements of our own psyches in the characters, including those elements that are not so flattering or favorable. That is the challenge the suit of Swords poses to us, for it forces us to confront the often combustible and destructive powers of ego and will that so often dominate and distort our conscious waking existence.
Throughout the history of man, the sword has served as a powerful symbol of transformative change: In Genesis, for starters, we read of the flaming sword “which turned every way” that God orders to be set down east of Eden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve; in Chronicles, King Saul “falls upon his sword” rather than surrender in battle to the Philistines; and in Matthew, Jesus claims to come not to bring peace but a sword while also warning those of us who live by the sword that we shall perish by it. In Teutonic mythology, the god Wotan embeds a magic sword in a tree; the hero Sigmund is the only mortal who can retrieve it. Emboldened by his accomplishment, he challenges the gods, and his sword is shattered by Wotan’s staff. Sigmund’s son Siegfried reforges the sword, and uses it to cleave the staff in two, breaking Wotan’s power and heralding the twilight of the gods and the ascendency of man. And of course, there is the sword in the stone of Arthurian legend, the retriever of whom becomes the rightful king of the Britons, and who in turn surrenders the sword to nature upon his passing.
Swords represent the “reaction” that emanates from first action—that is, the response to a call, the counterforce to an initiating force: a “Newtonian Third Law” applied to the psyche of man. Used rashly or in haste, these counter-forces can have terrible consequences. But we must bear in mind that a sword is an extension of man over which we have complete control at all times; outside of our hands it has no power whatever. We should also bear in mind that it is just another type of a blade: a double-edged tool that can divide and rend asunder, but which can also heal, as with a surgeon’s scalpel. It can purify, as with the act of shaving; and it can even nourish and sustain us, as with a knife chopping food into pieces we can digest.
Kabbalistically, the suit of Swords corresponds to Yetzirah, the so-called “formative world:” the state of consciousness that serves as a “bridge” between the archetypal world of receptivity signified by Cups and the earthy, material world of man that is signified by Pentacles. It is the process of the formation of will and ego that we will need to establish our own “names” in the world, just as Adam “established names” for all the creatures in the Garden; these elements of our psyche are the ones we need to stake out our sense of identity as we grow up. We will also see, however, the limitations of will and ego, and the need to eventually transcend them in our adulthood if we are to live happy and fully individuated lives.
Swords have traditionally been regarded by Tarot scholars as the “dark suit,” for many of its images are unsettling, and their interpretations are generally ominous. We should approach these cards in honesty, and fear not if they ask us to examine our own “dark side.” As with the characters of Arthurian lore, we all have our demons and dragons to slay; we can’t begin the process of vanquishing them, however, until we can admit their presence within us.