Q: If there is anything I should be mindful of today, what would it be?
The traditional meanings attributed to the card include “journey,” “travel,” or “passing over” as to Hades or the underworld; the gray and somber mood of the image conveys a mournful mood, as though the shrouded passengers in the boat—typically interpreted as a mother and child—are proceeding to a funeral or memorial. There is an alternative meaning, however, that is suggested by the card preceding it in the suit of Swords:
This is a card of violence and aggression, of scars inflicted and battles unwisely waged. Viewed this way, the Six of Swords can be seen as a sign of safe passage, a retreat from danger in order to heal, and a suggestion for the querent to seek solace in a quiet and private place. Perhaps the querent is dealing with an abusive domestic relationship or a despotic boss at work. In any event, the Six of Swords advises her to “get away”—to find a spiritual sanctuary where she can be at rest with her own “inner child.”
There’s an important condition, however, and it is found in the figure of the oarsman plying the waters. To get to that “safe space,” we, like the mother and child in the boat, may need the hands-on assistance of others—and in order to receive the full measure of their help, we must be willing to ask for it. Many of us are conditioned to “bottle up” and internalize our less flattering emotional impulses, not wishing to “be a burden” unto others. This is an unfortunate manifestation of ego-consciousness that achieves the exact opposite of what we are consciously seeking; for when do this, we only build walls between ourselves and others when we should be building bridges instead. “Ask, and ye shall find”: Don’t ask at all, and we exact a needless sacrifice from ourselves.
This is but one side of the coin, however; for while we all need the help of others at some crucial point in our lives, we too must be willing to perform the same assistive function, freely and selflessly, for others whenever we are asked. All of the Sixes in the Minor Arcana depict scenes that suggest or imply acts of giving unto or serving others:The victorious ruler in the Six of Wands serves his subjects by using his powers of strategic thinking (“Wands” power) to lead his regiment to triumph in battle. The young boy in the Six of Cups uses his powers of love (“Cups” power) to give a cupful of flowers to the little girl beside him. And the wealthy merchant in the Six of Pentacles uses his powers of material wealth (“Pentacles” power) to give alms to poor mendicants.
Which brings us to the oarsman in the Six of Swords. What “Swords power” does he employ to serve his passengers? In short, it is will power—the determination to see a thing through to its conclusion, no matter how inconveniencing or burdensome, or how long and thankless the task may seem at the time. This is as true for ourselves as it is for our apocryphal oarsman. There will undoubtedly be critical episodes in our lives when we will be asked—even begged!—for help and support in a matter involving a friend, a family member, or even a perfect stranger over whom we have little apparent responsibility. It could be the onset of an illness, a financial crisis, a messy divorce or a struggle with substance abuse. We may be suddenly thrust into a position of leadership at work or in the home, as with the Six of Wands, or required to look after a needy dependent, as with the Six of Cups, or to dip into our savings as with the Six of Pentacles, even if it spells hardship for ourselves. We can rest assured that there will be no throngs of grateful subjects singing our praises at the time, no sweethearts to kiss us in exchange for our affections, or grateful beggars to thank us for sharing our good fortune—only a work to be accomplished and a destiny to fulfill. In these events; we take on responsibility for the wellbeing of others, regardless of outcome or reward, because we know that it is the right thing to do—because we have been called to act in that moment by a power greater than our own. It is the parable of the Good Samaritan; it can happen anywhere to anyone, and while it appears to impose a burden upon us, it actually affords us the opportunity to work miracles.
We also know that an important law of the universe is fulfilled when we act in service to others in this fashion, expecting nothing in return; for the odds are that one day that we, too, as with the beggars in the Six of Pentacles, will need the support and guidance of others in our own time of emergency—and having been willing to step forward and serve others in like manner, we invite our own deliverance as well. Happy Twelfth Night to all.