Nine of Swords: What Aleister Crowley took from Edgar Allan Poe

I am delighted to share with you Celeste’s latest creation for the Swords suit of The American Renaissance Tarot.  The Nine of Swords is traditionally associated with a fruitless worry and anxiety, but the connotation of the number Nine with birth reminded me of the unnatural birth that takes place in Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale, “Ligeia” (1838).  In “Ligeia,” the narrator and his godlike wife, Ligeia, immerse themselves in occult studies until her death, at the scene of which she recites an unnerving poem about human mortality – the “Conqueror Worm.”

The narrator promptly marries again and sets up house with his new wife in a pentagonal ritual chamber.  In each corner of the room stands a “gigantic sarcophagus of black granite” hailing from Luxor.  Alas, wife number two, Rowena, begins to decline, and our narrator observes her demise from the clouds of his opium stupor.  The blond hair and blue eyes of Rowena give way to – “huge masses of long and disheveled hair … blacker than the wings of the midnight!”  Ligeia has successfully performed the ancient occult feat of metempsychosis, entering Rowena’s fresh corpse as a disembodied Soul to extend her term on earth.  She achieves immortality, and beats the Conqueror Worm.

  Detail of Ligeia's  “ gigantic volition" in the  Nine of Swords  for  The American Renaissance Tarot

Detail of Ligeia's gigantic volition" in the Nine of Swords for The American Renaissance Tarot

“Ligeia” is a horror story.  Most of us would not wish to see our dead lover return in the body of our current lover.  In this way “Ligeia” aligns with another prominent theme of the Nine of Swords: nightmare.  Perhaps Ligeia hasn’t really returned after all; perhaps the narrator’s deep longing for his exalted wife Ligeia (combined with his opium addiction) created the vision of her disheveled black hair rushing into his chamber with all the compelling force of a dream.     

 Sheppard Lee,  a nineteenth-century comic novel about metempsychosis by Robert Montgomery Bird

Sheppard Lee, a nineteenth-century comic novel about metempsychosis by Robert Montgomery Bird

Yet Poe is careful to lace his tale with numerous references to the occult traditions that fostered belief in metempsychosis.  Some would have Plato as the originator of this “transmigration of the soul,” but metempsychosis of the non-allegorical variety was more of a fascination to the 3rd-century Neoplatonists.  Metempsychosis was used as an explanation for the immortality of certain long-lived adventurers like the Comte de St. Germain, and in Poe’s day a comic novel was even written about the practice: Sheppard Lee by Robert Montgomery Bird (1836).

“Ligeia” opens with a quote on the magical Will by the seventeenth century philosopher of the supernatural, Joseph Glanvill:

And the will therein lieth, which dieth not.  Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor?  For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness.  Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.

  Detail of  “ Ligeia's" opium-addicted narrator from the  Nine of Swords

Detail of Ligeia's" opium-addicted narrator from the Nine of Swords

The 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley would employ a portion of the same quote in the preface to his rollicking 1922 novel, Diary of a Drug Fiend.  Crowley thinks he’s quoting Glanvill, but he’s not – he’s quoting Poe.  Poe made up the quotation; no literary critic has ever been able to find it in the original in any work by Glanvill.  In his book The Occult Sciences, A.E. Waite claims that the quote appears in Glanvill’s Vanity of Dogmatizing (it doesn’t), but Waite at least gives Poe credit for “disentombing” the selection … !  Indeed. 

The point here is not that Poe was a master trickster (he was) or that fiction about the occult was highly influential on actual occultists (it was and is).  Rather, the fact that Poe’s memorable statement about the magical Will would later be quoted by two major occultists points us to another little-known fact: Edgar Allan Poe was a sophisticated occult thinker.  His stories are “horrible” or productive of horror because they draw on centuries of occult belief in the god-like power of the human being.  “Ligeia” especially embodies that hidden force we all fear – our own “gigantic” human Will. 

  Detail from the  Nine of Swords  for  The American Renaissance Tarot

Detail from the Nine of Swords for The American Renaissance Tarot

I love how the decan for the Nine of Swords, Mars in Gemini, conjures up the idea of nightmare or “thought monster.”  Mars, the planet of hostility and aggression as well as sexual quickening, works in the verbal sign of Gemini to generate scenes and realities born entirely of paranoid catastrophizing.  To put it another way, when you see the Nine of Swords in a Tarot spread, it often means that your anxiety about the problem has eclipsed the problem itself.        

  The Rider-Waite-Smith version of the  Nine of Sw  ords , suggesting nightmare, worry, and anguish.

The Rider-Waite-Smith version of the Nine of Swords, suggesting nightmare, worry, and anguish.

In The American Renaissance Tarot version of the Nine of Swords, we’ve carried this idea a little bit farther to suggest that the horrible eventualities you spend the most time thinking about are given life by your morbid obsession with them.  A recurring theme in Poe’s corpus is the idea that thoughts become things, or that thought is constitutive of the reality you experience.  Perhaps this is no more succinctly put than in Poe’s “Power of Words,” which you could think of as kind of a high Victorian version of The Secret:

Did there not cross your mind some thought of the physical power of words?  Is not every word an impulse on the air?

  Detail of Edgar Allan Poe as the  King of Swords  for  The American Renaissance Tarot

Detail of Edgar Allan Poe as the King of Swords for The American Renaissance Tarot

So, yes, it’s true that we manifest experiences in the world with more than just our thoughts and words and minds (emotions, anyone … ?)  And yet the Nine of Swords acts as a cogent reminder of just how effective language is at designing and generating experience.  Anyone who has ever destroyed a relationship with her inner narration of worst case scenarios feels the truth of this.  We are always creating with mind, yet too often we project limiting scenarios tinged with failure and pain.  The Nine of Swords dares you to birth a magical creation instead of a nightmare.  You may not long to best the Conqueror Worm, but you can still allow yourself to be inspired by the “gigantic volition” (Will) of the immortal Lady Ligeia. 

Thea