Last year my husband and I decided to stay a night at the opulent Mission Inn in Riverside, California, to celebrate our five-year wedding anniversary. It was the first night we would spend away from our then one-year-old son, so we were very excited. Upon arrival, we were awed by the early twentieth-century Mission Revival architecture, and spent the afternoon exploring the property and taking pictures.
Traditionally, married couples exchange gifts of wood on their five-year anniversaries. I had already purchased a new piece of wooden furniture for my husband and had had it delivered to the house, and I was curious about what kind of wooden knick-knack he had picked out for me. It was small enough to be resting on the table at the lovely courtyard restaurant at the Mission Inn where we were enjoying our anniversary dinner.
After dessert, my husband presented the gift to me, and while I tore away the wrapping paper he explained that my gift was a handmade wooden box for keeping Tarot cards. The enigmatic Queen of Cups of the 15th century Sola-Busca Tarot deck appeared before my eyes, beautifully affixed to the top of the box, and this unique gift combined with the romantic atmosphere and the wine in my system all contributed to me thinking my husband was a very thoughtful man indeed.
I opened the box and sucked in air. My husband later told me a look of frozen horror came over my face that didn’t relax for several minutes. The image inside the box was – the THREE OF SWORDS, the Tarot card associated with heartbreak and betrayal. Was this some kind of a sick joke? Who would want a keepsake featuring the Three of Swords? Was my husband cheating on me? Had this heretofore blissful celebration of our marriage just been revealed as a farce by a Tarot card?
Symbols can carry enormous power. While my husband apologized profusely, I tried to catch my breath and talk myself out of my “superstition” around this card. But my logical mind wasn’t getting much traction with the rest of me because, as a long-time reader of Tarot cards, the Three of Swords had only ever shown up for me when I was feeling heartbroken or had experienced broken trust.
Ultimately I recovered my composure and was able to salvage the night, though I’m pretty sure I looked up the astrological placement associated with the Three of Swords on my phone while we were still seated for dinner. The numbered suit cards in the Minor Arcana (with the exception of the Aces) are each associated with one of the thirty-six decans, an ancient method of dividing up the astrological wheel that splits each 30-degree sign into thirds. (When you divide the 360 degrees of a circle by 30 degrees, you get the 12 signs. When you divide the 360 degrees of a circle by 10 degrees, you get the 36 decans). The decan for the Three of Swords is given to Saturn in Libra, the sign in which Saturn is traditionally exalted … Well that was a head-scratcher! Why would the place where Saturn experiences more power and effectiveness than anywhere else in the chart produce such a dismal image? Was it just because negative associations cling to Saturn even when he’s on his best behavior? Had some lovelorn medieval artist projected all his dashed hopes into this card and thus begun an unfortunate tradition?
Professional astrologers, psychics, and Tarot-card readers are all too familiar with the phenomenon of the sudden failure of objectivity when it comes to reading for oneself. I found myself grasping at straws, wondering if those three daggers through the heart could represent something positive about the depth of a Saturnian commitment (feel free to guffaw). It was true that my husband and I had been married when Saturn was passing through Libra in 2011, so in that sense the card was a fitting emblem for our relationship. I guess, the superstitious part of me grumbled. In The American Renaissance Tarot, the as-yet-to-be-illustrated Three of Swords will be a visual ode to one of Poe’s darkest stories, The Black Cat, in which the disturbed narrator not only betrays but also murders his wife – and this is to say nothing of the unspeakable things he does to the cat. I put on a good face for the rest of the weekend but my husband could tell that the Three of Swords had gotten under my skin.
Unbeknownst to me, my husband later contacted Marc, the creator of the box, and arranged to have another box sent, this one featuring Strength from the Etteilla deck of the nineteenth century. I appreciated the gesture but also felt a little silly for having gotten so ruffled. Marc apologized for the fiasco but defended his choice on the grounds of the visual impact of the Sola-Busca's Three of Swords, as well as its striking similarity to the image created by Pamela Colman Smith for the Rider-Waite deck. He further commented that in Kabbalah the lesson derived from this card is “understanding gained from strife.”
Some months later, I picked up Austin Coppock’s book on the decans, an invaluable resource because he compiles the interpretations given by a multitude of ancient and medieval writers, instead of deferring to a single source. I was surprised and somewhat mollified to learn that the decan of Libra 2 was traditionally associated with the bonds of a happy marriage, a clear reference to Saturn’s exaltation in Libra and the magic that can happen when the planet of enduring commitments passes through the sign of love and relationships. It was only later occultists who overlaid the meaning of “sorrow” onto this decan, perhaps in some kind of homage to the powerful and often disturbing imagery we have inherited from the Sola-Busca deck.
Coppock concludes his chapter by claiming that the decan of Libra 2 is “nearly ideal for the binding of two things together, whether they be people in marriage, business entities, or merely a promise to oneself. It contains the formulae not only for knitting together, but continuing in happy union, and is therefore an Arcanum of wonderful power.” Well! It would seem that my husband could not have done better than to choose a keepsake box bearing the image of the Three of Swords as a tribute to our five years of married life. Before the marriage we had enlisted our healer friend’s help in a cord-cutting ceremony to sever our energetic ties to past lovers. We each performed the ceremony separately but used images from the same Tarot deck to define our vision for a shared future. I jumped over a flame and into a circle festooned with flowers and the Queen of Cups – the same card which graces the top of the Tarot box my husband presented to me on our five-year anniversary.
I've been casting around for a way to close my blog because, truth be told, I still get the heebie-jeebies when I pull the Three of Swords in a reading, and start looking over my shoulder for the person who's going to stab me in the back. Often times the card serves as a reminder that I am my own worst enemy or saboteur, and yet that interpretation is hardly more comforting. I did, of course, get to meet Marc of Warlocks Boxes through this minor debacle, and he has been a pleasure to work with, creating objects of exquisite craftsmanship and old-world charm that perfectly suit the tone of our nineteenth-century-themed project. I suppose if a moral can be taken from my journey with a Tarot card that may be interpreted to mean anything from betrayal to the bonds of a happy marriage, it is the importance of knowing your occult history. Too often we trust entirely in modern redactors or, on the other end of the spectrum, a single idiosyncratic medieval text, when the true object of occult study is to see beyond the dross left by human interpreters to the magnitude of the pure archetype. I imagine my journey with the Three of Swords is still unfolding, and I hope this has been helpful in evolving yours.