In the 15th century, a deck of cards called tarocchi emerged in Northern Italy, the very same region my ancestors descended from. This cosmic coincidence didn’t occur to me when I got my first download in Tarot knowledge at age nine, from a Romani-descended family friend — I was simply focused on learning a new card game, one with much higher stakes than Hearts or Crazy Eights.
Of course, tarocchi — or as it’s now called, the Tarot — isn’t an idle game. The cards help us gaze into our futures and selves. Whether they were introduced to the Italians by Romani (as they were similarly introduced to me) or evolved from Islamic or Kabbalist roots, no one knows. Regardless of their true origin, they remain a favorite divinatory tool of seers, mystics, and witches around the world.
In my two decades learning, researching, and performing readings with the Tarot, I’ve come to identify a subset of the cards as the “Scary Tarot.” Eight cards whose presence tends to provoke a visceral, negative reaction in those I’m reading for, and sometimes even in myself. But with witches waking and paradigms shifting, it’s time to unpack, redefine, and celebrate all facets of the cards — and ourselves. Even the “scary” bits.
This week, the Ten of Swords.
Under anguished skies, a figure, pinned to a blood-stained field with 10 blades, succumbs to their injuries and dies.
For many, many years, the Ten of Swords appeared regularly in my personal readings, almost always pertaining to my flailing love life. It didn’t seem to matter whether I was asking about a crush, a fling, or a full-blown relationship. I’d take the cards out of their box, holding and shuffling to imbue them with my sense of excitement for this new person, then I’d ask what the future held for us. And, without fail, out came the Ten of Swords. A mostly-dead dude who’d been stabbed. Repeatedly.
So, pretty much exactly the omen you hope for in a new romance.
My frustration with this card culminated in full-blown denial. I reached a point where, upon seeing the Ten of Swords, I’d simply pack up the deck, not bothering to complete the reading. What for? The message was clear: doom, gloom, and better-luck-next-time, girl.
Like playing cards, a Tarot deck traditionally contains four suits. Each suit tells a different story, an arc that unfolds over the course of 10 cards. Cups take us on a journey of emotion; Wands through different means of action. Coins teach us about material gains and losses. And each represents a different element: Cups representing water; Wands, fire; and Coins, earth.
I’ve always enjoyed the balm of Cups, the encouragement of Wands, and the grounding of Coins — but Swords have appeared to me as enigmatic and challenging. They represent the element of air, and they tell the story of thought. To me, they became an inevitable and unwelcome negative balance to the rest of the deck.
The Swords challenge us: We humans are brilliant beings, but what do we do with all that light?
But, one day, in a reading so innocuous I can’t even remember what was asked, I noticed something: nearly all the Swords in my deck are depicted as ghostly, non-corporeal objects. In other words?
They aren’t real.
This was a humbling moment for me. Of course they aren’t, Sasha.
We already know Swords represent thought. They are the unseen ways we move through the world, the processing and packing plant of our experience. Which means they are also wholly reliant on us. We invent them. We choose what to do with them.
The narrative arc of Swords goes a bit like this:
- We have an idea, the glorious moment of inspiration.
- We choose how to move forward with that idea.
- We stumble, hit a roadblock; a disappointment.
- We rest and recover.
- We make another attempt; there is conflict and we do not conduct ourselves at our best.
- We attempt to move on with our lives.
- We reengage, but fearfully, reluctantly; something isn’t working.
- We become the victim, our own victim.
- We stress, we worry.
- Finally, we reach anguish.
The tenth card is an amalgam of all the lessons learned before it. The card obsesses. It self-flagellates. The Ten of Swords indicates we have let our ego run rampant, causing discord in our mind and driving us to desperation. The Swords challenge us: We humans are brilliant beings, but what do we do with all that light? Where do we take our thoughts, our ideas?
We call the Ten into our readings with the parts of us we’ve been ignoring, the internal warnings silenced, and the subconscious rejection of our own choices.
And when it shows up? It’s time to move. The. Fuck. On.
Close the door.
Turn the page.
Flip the flapjack.
Whatever you need to say to calmly acknowledge the thing you’re turning over in your mind, quietly obsessing over, soaking yourself in, and walk away from it.
I write, at great length, about the half-had relationships, ill-begotten flings, and downright idiotic romantic choices I’ve made. Each time I’ve pulled the Ten of Swords and been disappointed, even angry, that what I wanted so badly was decidedly not going to work out, I later looked back with a mix of relief and chagrin. As Timothy Kreider recently wrote, “In my own experience, a recurring attraction to people who are unavailable usually means you’re not ready to fall in love with someone who is.”
Of course it didn’t work out with these people. They weren’t what I wanted. I wasn’t what they wanted. There was so much else filling my life. Filling their lives. The Ten of Swords showed up not to tell me they were wrong for me, but to remind me that I knew this, that I was forcing it, and that I was the mastermind of my own unhappiness.
When the Ten of Swords shows up for me now, it is welcome. I immediately ask myself where I am anxiously self-sabotaging, what feelings I am neglecting to allow, and whether what I’m asking about is what I really, actually want.
Of course, this follows an eyeroll and sassy Yes, I know I bring this upon myself, thankyouverymuch, in the direction of my deck.
I am still human, after all. In all my brilliance, and all my darkness.