exploring life in all its variety

February 17, 2009

2009 Tarot Study – Threes

As I mentioned previously, I’m doing something a little different in each segment of my Tarot Study. Today’s segment is long, but I hope it contains something you’ll find worth your while. I seem to have an awful lot to say about these cards.

I’ll start this time with a glimpse at some precursory artwork for my own Tarot. These images may or may not become part of an entire Tarot deck in the future, and if they do it will likely be for my personal use. (Click on the thumbnail images for larger views.) (Images updated to most recent versions on 03-28-2009.)

Three of Wands Three of Cups

Three of Swords Three of Disks

I’m conceptualizing, at this point, playing with some of my older scanned artwork and digital photographs, manipulating them in a paint program. The reason for the heaped on copyright markings is that some of my poetry was coopted from this blog a while back, so I’m leery now of posting creations without copyright notices, regardless of their quality or my future intentions for them. I’ve made the markings small enough that I think you can still see the artwork fairly well.

Threes and The Language of Tarot

According to Gail Fairfield in Choice Centered Tarot, a good way to think of the first three numbers in the Minor Arcana is to see them geometrically. One is a point, Two is two connected points forming a line, and Three is three connected points forming a triangular plane. When we move from the one-dimensional One and Two to the two-dimensional plane of the Three, something recognizable begins to take shape. Ideas, feelings, urges, or seeds of effort begin to develop into definite plans that seem to seek a solid form or shape.

Two can be seen as balanced polarities. That balance is frequently wrought with tension, conflict, struggles for dominance, or a stalemate between unresolved concerns. When we come to Three, things change, usually for the better, if only because that prior tension is released. Sometimes the change of the Three doesn’t appear to be for the better. The energies that built up in the Twos can move forward in a cohesive way at Three, or at Three they can fall apart, or merge or dissolve back into One.

The Threes in Tarot are mostly perceived as positive, and perhaps that has a lot to do with their relationship to the Empress of the Major Arcana, whose number is III and who is usually seen as benevolent, loving, prosperous, creative, nurturing. Even she can have her bad days though, and the negative side of the Great Mother archetype can be very bad indeed. For that reason it’s important to keep a balanced frame of reference when considering the Minor Arcana Threes.

In my opinion no Tarot card is entirely positive or negative. Each represents a spectrum of possible meanings that can be perceived as either positive or negative depending on the situation and point of view.

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s sometimes difficult to delineate the meanings of the cards’ suits, numbers, and correspondences in any clear-cut way, even to differentiate one card completely from others. Meanings and symbolism overlap, throughout the Tarot.

Sometimes the Swords are watery, and we all know the air can be quite humid at times. Sometimes the Cups are empty, or in other words dry. Wands and Disks can go either way as far as moisture content. Earth requires moisture in order to be fertile, but a flood is a problem, and most people know about the triad that makes fire (Wands), which requires oxygen (Air), heat (Fire), and fuel. Fire produces smoke (Air) and ash (Earth). Water can put out a Fire, but it can also cause it to produce steam, releasing potent energy. When hydrogen is burned, the resulting byproduct is Water. Seldom in Nature do we see the elements in their pure forms. But it’s sometimes useful to try to separate them out in order to understand a situation. That’s what happens in a Tarot reading.

The Tarot numbers may be more interdependent and overlapping than the suits and elements, if that’s possible. Threes relate to III The Empress, which in turn relates to all four Queens, as well as numerologically to XII The Hanged Man and XXI The World. One can think of IX The Hermit, as well as each of the four Nines of the Minor Arcana as equivalent to 3 x 3. See what I mean? What about XIII Death? The Empress represents gestation and birth, and in turn the Death card with its digit ending in Three, completes the cycle of life. Six, which numbers the Lovers card as well as all four Sixes of the Minor Arcana is the sum of 3 + 3. This begins to make sense when we consider the Three of Swords, the Six of Swords, and the Nine of Swords as a group and think how they might represent a situation as it develops.

A great way for a beginner to get to know the cards is by considering their suits and numbers in all these different combinations and variations. By sorting the cards first by suit and then by number, we can see they begin to reveal their full spectrum of meaning.

All this means that we have to be on our toes and adaptable when assigning meanings to cards in a reading, and we need to keep in mind that their meanings can shift and flex, sometimes dramatically, from one reading to the next. Not only that, they can have multi-layered meanings within the same reading.

One of my recent favorite Tarot spreads is called the Dynamic Hexagramme. It can be found at FourHares.com. In this complex spread, which I’ve found can provide deep, profound readings, the cards are read in groups of three, somewhat like the trigrams in the I Ching. Instead of having moving lines, the trigrams in the Dynamic Hexagramme Tarot Spread overlap, showing the development of a situation from one stage to another. When reading a card as a clarification of the opening card it can carry one meaning, but it can take on another meaning altogether when viewed as part of the next trigram.

A significator in a reading works in a similar way, since when one is used every other card in the spread relates back to the significator, but each in a slightly different way. Reversals, when used, provide yet another dynamic in relation to other cards.

Does all this make the Tarot overly complex? Yes and no. It is a good reason to limit a reading to a spread of a few cards, just enough to answer the question or concern at hand or to get a feeling for what’s happening now.

Some people think of the Tarot as a symbolic language. Just as a word changes meaning with context or syntax, a card does as well. The word “blue” can represent the color of the sky on a bright, sunny day, or it can indicate depression. Even a sunny day can seem cheerful in most instances, but in a drought it can be negative. Language is tricky, too. Meanings can be subtle and hidden, or they get distorted or turned around, or we can fail to understand because we’re looking for what we want to see or hear. Sometimes, when we’re overcome with emotion, words escape us.

It can take years to build one’s Tarot reading vocabulary. But just as toddlers begin to talk up a storm as soon as they learn a few words, and manage to say quite a lot with those few words, it’s possible to start reading Tarot as soon as one begins to apply meaning to the cards.

The Threes in Three Different Tarot Decks

In order to share card descriptions, this time I’ll use one deck with pip cards based on the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot (RWS) scenes, which most Americans who read Tarot are familiar with, and two decks with non-scenic pip illustrations. Non-scenic pip decks are, as I understand it, less popular here in the US than in Europe. TheTarot de Marseille and many other older Tarot decks originated in Europe, where Tarot was and is used to play card games such as Tarock, French Tarot, or as far back as the fifteenth century, Trionfi. Some modern European Tarot decks, such as the themed decks published by Lo Scarabeo, are scenic but don’t use RWS-based symbolism. Then there’s the Sola Busca, a much older European deck, in fact the earliest known deck of 78 Tarot cards (dated approximately 1491), which was used as a basis for many of the Rider-Waite-Smith cards.

Today I’m using as examples the Threes from the Crystal Tarot and the Crowley-Thoth Tarot, both with non-scenic pips, meaning that the Minor Arcana numbered cards don’t show the elaborate human scenes that the RWS and its derivatives do. The RWS type deck I’ll use is the Golden Tarot by Kat Black. We tend to call such decks RWS-style, but that doesn’t seem right, since the Golden Tarot is not at all in the same style of artwork as Pamela Colman Smith’s. But the symbolism and structure of the scenes follows the RWS. Maybe a better term is RWS-structured.

The Thoth is steeped in esoteric symbolism and painted by Lady Frieda Harris in a crisp yet luxuriant Art Deco style.

The Crystal Tarot is in some respects more elaborate than the Thoth or the Tarot de Marseille, and in some ways less so than the Thoth because it lacks the more obvious esoteric depth. But there is a subtle depth to the Crystal, and one could call some of the Crystal Tarot’s illustrations almost scenic. That can limit or expand the possibilities for interpretation, depending on the reader. The Crystal differs from most decks popular in the US in that its Swords suit corresponds to the Water element and its Chalices (Cups) suit corresponds to Air.

None of this matters, or has to matter, in how one uses a Tarot deck. One can read the Crystal Tarot using Swords for Air and Chalices for Water. I do, and I’m throwing the Crystal Tarot’s Swords in with Swords from other decks further on in this post. It’s entirely up to the reader. I’m offering my thoughts on meanings here, but another reader can assign any meanings they want to the cards, and they need not change the meanings they use when switching from one deck to another. There are readers who call their method intuitive and derive meaning from what stands out in the images for them in a given reading rather than using traditional or book interpretations. When reading this way, meanings change constantly and are always in flux. This is because in one reading the tree in the 3 of Wands (Crystal Tarot) will stand out, while in another reading the dog will seem most prominent, and another time the snakes/caduceus, and so forth. Some readers use different meanings for different decks depending on the deck creators’ intentions. Some use a combination of traditional meanings, intuitive image reading, and deck-specific meanings — or any combination of these as they see fit in a particular reading. Again, it’s all up to the individual. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to Tarot.

Three of Wands

The Three of Wands in the Crystal Tarot shows three batons superimposed over a picture of a round shaped tree. A caduceus with two spiraling serpents forms the tree’s central trunk, reminding one of the Tree of Life, the symbol for Mercury/Hermes (and the medical profession), or of Kundalini rising through the chakras. Above the tree is a dog’s head in profile. He gazes sweetly to the left as if with love toward his master. The colors are greens and teal blue, with the batons golden and copper brown. The batons are arranged in an upward pointing triangle. The two upper batons each have a knob at one end with the knob pointing upward. The third baton forms the base of the triangle. It has two knobs, one at each end, which reminds me of someone burning the candle at both ends.

The Crowley-Thoth Tarot’s Three of Wands shows three crossed yellow wands each with a lotus blossom at the upper end. The lotuses are like flowers seen in ancient Egyptian pictographs. The wands are superimposed against a flaming orange background. The symbols for the Sun and Aries indicate the astrological correspondence, and the card is titled Virtue.

In the Golden Tarot’s Three of Wands, a man stands on the shore, in the foreground, watching a ship at anchor toss in rough seas. The ship is in port, and a town lies beyond, as well as a castle on a hilltop in the distance. The man, who is barefoot, holds onto one wood sapling bearing a few leaves, and two saplings stand upright on their own nearby.

Interpretation: The Three of Wands is Fire times three. If we look at the Two of Wands as a tense balance between two equally dominant fiery forces, and we think of Fire as passions, will, or strong feelings or influence, then we can see that one’s desires may begin to manifest as something tangible at this point. The RWS version of this card is often interpreted as one’s ship coming in. One’s luck may be turning, but that is likely due to one’s own efforts and work in the world, or one’s own influence in the situation. Perhaps that struggle for dominance has been won, or one has defeated one’s own inner conflicting feelings in order to make something happen. Another traditional interpretation is of help being offered from an unexpected and sometimes suspicious source. The neighbor who disputed the property line suddenly offers to pay for a new fence, or something of that sort. Sometimes it means an inheritance, or a settlement finally comes through. Things are moving forward.

Three of Cups (Chalices)

The Crystal Tarot’s Three of Chalices has three ornate golden cups in an upright triangle, with two cups tilted upright and one at the base lying on its side. In the center of the triangle there’s an egg shape shown in cross section with a red “yolk” and above the two upright tilted cups a butterfly rises in flight. I suppose the egg could be a cocoon just broken out of by the butterfly. There are flowers all around, and verdant greenery.

The Thoth Three of Cups takes the form of a fountain made of three cups that look as if they’re formed of red berries, with eight yellow lotuses on slender curving stems forming the cups’ pedestals as well as the four fountains that pour over them. Two lotus fountains pour into the top most cup, which also has a double lotus pedestal. The cups overflow onto a wet blue surface below. This image is full of radiant light as well as bright streams of water. This card has a much less Egyptian look to it, with the lotus pedestals reminding me more of Hindu or Buddhist religious artwork. The card is titled Abundance. The astrological correspondence is Mercury in Pisces.

In the Golden Tarot the Three of Cups shows an idyllic scene, with three maidens standing or dancing in a small circle in a meadow near woods or an orchard, each with a cup of wine in hand, as if celebrating something special. Two musicians stand performing in the background and a dog looks on.

Interpretation: The Three of Cups can be about releasing emotions long held in, as if in relief from stress or in hopes realized and celebrated. It could indicate a public announcement of happy news or a celebration. Things are looking up, and everyone is happy about it. There are good feelings to be shared. Traditionally it can mean the start of some kind of healing or psychic work. There’s healing and renewal here, and sharing of good feelings with friends or family, neighbors or coworkers. It can also mean a kind of coming out — of young women into adulthood, of a Tarot reader into reading for others, or something of that nature. There’s a spring or summer feeling to this card. Perhaps the fruit has set on the trees and the weather has warmed up. Cause enough in themselves for celebration.

Three of Swords

In the Crystal Tarot the Three of Swords shows a water scene, with underwater plants, and a fish. At the bottom, beneath all that blue water, is a strip of red, with green underwater grass and crustaceans dwelling on the bottom. Above, three swords are arranged, again in an upward pointing triangle, this time superimposed over what appears to be a large bubble, or at least a circle of different looking water, and between and around these swords are three heart shaped leaves. On the surface a fish floats belly up, apparently dead. What I like most about this card is that when reversed, the traditionally more positive position of the card, the red strip is on top, and the fish appears to be right side up, swimming happily underwater above deeper blue depths. Since the Crystal Tarot assigns the water element to this suit, one could easily see this card as representing a relationship, where in one case anger (red) seethes beneath the surface and in effect kills the relationship. In the reversed position the anger or other negative feelings are on the surface, communicated openly so that they don’t have the secret, festering, and possibly killing effect that they would if hidden.

The Thoth Three of Swords appears more dire. Its background looks like dark gray pleated, ruffled fabric or possibly the undulations of the surface of a brain, with angular blade like shapes scattered over its surface. The colors are dark and stormy. Superimposed over this is an overblown, faded white rose that appears about to lose its petals, with three swords pointing at its center. The two upper swords are shorter, with curved blades. The third is a long straight sword, its point aiming straight upward and appearing to come between the points of the other two blades. The card’s astrological designation is Saturn in Libra. Its title is Sorrow.

The Golden Tarot’s Three of Swords shows a woman seated on a plinth or pedestal. Her arms are crossed and she looks unhappy, possibly grieving. Above and to her left, the direction in which she faces, hovers a large red heart that appears ornate as if fabricated out of satin brocade. Three swords pierce it. The background of this card is dark with storm clouds.

Interpretation: The Three of Swords is the Three most often seen as negative. The Three of Swords can bring relief or release of a troubled situation before it goes too far. Even a difficult change of heart or mind in regard to something can turn out to be for the best, especially if it comes before one has invested too much time, effort, emotions, or resources into a situation. While in the Three of Swords mentality, though, no matter how positive the eventual outcome may be, we tend to feel as if we’re at our wits end, or that something is ending that shouldn’t, or that whatever interferes or interrupts is at fault. Swords govern communication, writing, speaking, and ideas or the intellect. Logic or truth seems to be involved, sometimes uttered too bluntly for others to bear, sometimes too devoid of emotion. But as we all know there are times when the truth has to be communicated openly and honestly, even bluntly, no matter how much it hurts, in order to get us or another to listen, or to get back on the right track. I sometimes see Three of Swords as a need to stop and listen or think before rushing forward, even to listen for what is not being said, or to read the fine print. Possibly there’s a need to examine a plan more closely to understand it on all levels. There may be obstacles that we don’t see unless we pause to go through some mental calculations. Maybe it’s just a bad idea. Here is a need to set aside one’s emotions in order to see a developing situation and its potential more clearly before committing oneself or going any further, without letting go of one’s compassion. At its mildest, sometimes it has to do with miscommunication or misunderstanding, someone wearing their heart on their sleeve or having a bad day and taking something entirely the wrong way, or a blip or hiccup in communications that must be rectified before moving forward. Sometimes it’s the decisive end of a stalemate, in one direction or another, and a relief to all concerned.

Three of Disks (Pentacles, Coins)

The Crystal Tarot’s Three of Pentacles shows three gold coins, one above ground and the other two under ground. Just beneath the surface, beneath the central upper coin, a red rose sends leaves upward into the light and encircles the upper coin with its stems, as well as the coins beneath with its roots. Each coin bears an astrological symbol. The one above bears the sign of Virgo, the mutable Earth sign, indicating flexibility or adaptability in earthy matters and the end of summer. The two coins below the surface bear the symbols of Taurus and Capricorn.

The Three of Disks in the Thoth Tarot shows what seems to be an aerial view of sand dunes, or possibly beach sand left in ripples after the tide recedes. A three-sided crystal pyramid sits on a smooth portion of the sand landscape. Each corner of the pyramid rests on a red twelve-spoked wheel that lays flat on the sand. This image bears the astrological symbols of Mars in Capricorn and its title is Works.

The Golden Tarot’s Three of Coins appears to be set inside the nave of a church, where a workman on a ladder does work with a hammer on one of three gold coins that decorate the ceiling. Three women seated nearby are doing needlework, while a monk stands nearby watching them.

Interpretation: The Three of Disks is sometimes about working with others. It can also mean gaining positive attention and appreciation for one’s work. In some decks this card shows workmen and architects consulting plans, as if they’re discussing changes even as the work progresses. Earth has to do with the material plane, which can relate to the body or physical health, to nature, to finances, or to any practical matter. In Discovering Your Self Through the Tarot: A Jungian Guide to Archetypes & Personality, Rose Gwain associates the Earth suit with the Sensing function of the personality. This is the more physical, social, and practical side of us that likes to make things and keep our living and work spaces in order. It perceives through the five senses and understands the world from a primarily physical perspective. Since Three is usually about taking an idea or plan to the next stage, it can indicate trying out an idea by putting it into action, learning by doing, creating a prototype, or making adjustments to a work or plan in progress. On the positive side, there’s a certain amount of confidence and self-esteem involved in taking the plunge into a project before all the details are worked out. On the negative side it can indicate blundering or naiveté, someone not having all the necessary skills, experience, or resources needed to make a project work before jumping in. Sometimes it’s at least in part a matter of luck or synchronous events, seemingly unrelated but all coming together to form a cohesive whole that works relatively as intended. This card can also indicate artwork or craftsmanship, projects for which there’s often not a well defined shape in mind but an idea that in essence creates itself, with the artist providing the energy, materials, and skill necessary to bring his inspiration into physical reality. One might think of a sculptor seeing a form in wood or stone and chipping away the unnecessary portions to reveal it. His first cuts are well represented by the Three of Disks. Remember the Greek Muses were originally said to be three in number.

All the Threes, it seems, can have to do with trying something out, or just starting out on a new course, taking the first decisive steps to bring something into being. The suit indicates how this is done or what problems may arise. The Swords and Disks seem to differentiate between book learning, calculating or careful planning and learning by doing, or experimenting. Wands and Cups take a more passionate, emotional, or intuitive approach to something new, letting one’s heart or sixth sense, or concern about relationships guide one in the first steps along a new path. The Threes indicate a certain degree of commitment, and the first shift in direction or adjustments made along the way. Sometimes the Threes are false starts, learning what doesn’t work, and possibly giving up on a given direction to return to Two and let the energies or ideas build and reform, or returning to One again to invite in something entirely new.

Copyright © 2009 Barbara W. Klaser. All rights reserved.

2009 Tarot Study Index

File: — Barbara @ 6:23 pm PST, 02/17/09

2 Comments

  1. Holy Gukamoli! I’m coming back to this blog! So much intresting information on the tarot. I’d never thought of treating the suits like natural elements working together, that’s smart. I also particularly like your take on the 3 of swords. Recently I’ve been getting it a lot and thinking about it; and only considering it symbolic of heart ache and pain just isn’t doing it for me.

    Thank you.

  2. Marion says:

    Wow, Barbara, there is so much in to take in in your post. How the numbers of the cards relate is something I had not been using. And also, I tended to discount the threes as being too minor to give much aid to my question.

    That’s all changed now. Thank you!


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