To celebrate Valentine’s Day this month, I’ll be writing on themes of love, passion, and marriage in the cards. For each weekly post, I’ve chosen some of my favorite cards that speak to each topic.
- Love: The Lovers, 2 of Cups, 6 of Cups, Temperance
- Sex: Knight of Swords, Knight of Wands, Ace of Wands, Devil (Today’s post!)
- Marriage: 4 of Wands, Hierophant, Justice, Queen of Swords
- Lovers-themed tarot decks
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Passion in the Cards
Much of what I needed to know about tarot I learned from the course work for my degree in English Literature. If any one class stood out, I would say the class on The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost—half a term dedicated to each work. Spenser and Milton wrote during the time period of the first century or so of development of the tarot deck and their philosophies and symbolism reflect the ideas of the culture that also gave birth to the cards.
When I graduated from college in 1991 and moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, I almost immediately began studying with a spiritual teacher. My first experience with the cards was of a reading he laid out for a person who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent. This person was wondering if she should invite a high school friend over for Thanksgiving dinner—she had found out from a relative that the friend had also moved to Colorado and didn’t know very many people yet. My teacher selected a card and put it down for our nameless querent, saying it was her significator, the card that represented her. Then he placed another card on top of it—this showed a man on a horse at full gallop with his sword raised above his head! I knew exactly what that meant in the literature from any time period. I exclaimed, “Oh, you are so getting laid!”
That was my first tarot prediction and I’m happy to report that it was 100% accurate.
One of the difficult switches for me moving from literature to tarot was to learn the Wands suit as the primary phallic suit. Most literary and art symbolism uses the sword to represent the phallus. In fact, the Lovers card corresponds to the Hebrew letter zayin, which means sword—and is also a slang word translating as “dick.” However, Pamela Colman Smith drew the suit of Wands based on symbolism used in some magical traditions that associates the ceremonial tool the wand with priapic fertility. It doesn’t take a highly trained artist’s eye to notice the shape of the wands once one’s attention is drawn to it!
Nevertheless, even though the Wands are the primary masculine suit in the deck, the suit of Swords is still undeniably phallic. The shape of the suit icons for Cups and Pentacles classify them as feminine. It is interesting to note that the feminine suits tend to refer in relationship spreads to emotional connection and the security of commitment, while the masculine suits are more about sex and passion with a healthy dose of “Go for it!”
Let’s look at some cards!
Knight of Swords
As we saw above, this Knight has only one thing on his mind. He is riding full speed ahead with a laser focus. In readings I often compare this character to a consultant—someone who comes in like a whirlwind, makes a series of executive decisions, then is off to their next gig leaving us to sort out all the details.
In Waite-Smith lineage decks, the Kings are the highest rank, holding the most authority and offering stable and lasting counsel, while the Knights are lower down, on the move, growing and changing. They are ambitious and easily set off on the course needed to achieve their aspirations. The knights often represent teenagers or young adults with an urge for freedom and rebellion.
In relationship readings, the knights in general represent a new romantic partner or one unlikely to stick around. One exception to this occurs when the Knight is followed later in the spread with the King, preferably of the same suit (to indicate the same person and not a newcomer), meaning that a new lover grows into someone who is committed and stable.
In questions of love, The Knight of Swords represents a fling. He’s someone who comes in fast and surprising, whisks you off your feet, and then is off to his next conquest. This partnership, however short, is usually a lot of fun! But he’s not the marrying type.
Knight of Wands
I have noticed that many students misjudge the significance of the horse in this card. Compared to the Knight of Swords, the Knight of Wands looks like he’s standing still, and most students seem to describe him this way. But the horse is rearing, and that is expressive of the symbolism of this card in particular and the suit of Wands in general. Although there can be a variety of reasons for a horse to rear, one common healthy example of rearing is to playfully challenge another horse, symbolic of close combat considering wands as cudgels or quarterstaffs. Also, rearing can be associated with getting ready to bolt or change directions. In this case, the significance is that this horse and rider are starting to move—not already in full gallop like the Knight of Swords, but on the verge of beginning their run.
The idea of beginnings are important to the suit of Wands, associated with the element of fire. The elemental association is easy to see in this card, with the red, flame shaped plume on the helmet, the motif repeated at the horseman’s arm (probably the fringe of a short cape). The salamanders on his tunic are an esoteric symbol of fire. And the desert background with pyramids indicates a hot, dry climate. The budding wand and the delicate leaf motif on the bridle are symbolic of spring. In the tarot, the Wands are associated with the heat that germinates new growth in the spring. Not the exhausting heat of summer (summer is associated with the cool and verdant abundance of water and the suit of Cups), but the warmth that melts away winter and brings blossoms and baby animals. (For those curious, the suit of Swords in the RWS deck is air, seen in the Knight of Swords with the wing shaped plumes on his helmet, cirrus clouds in the sky, birds flying overhead and bird shapes on the bridle, and butterfly shapes on the collar. Look for such symbolism in the deck you use to determine which suit is aligned with which element.)
If the querent is asking about love, the Knight of Wands can represent someone new and exciting, passionate and charismatic, someone who loves adventure and is eager to experiment. If this is a good match for the personality of the querent, then it has the potential to be a lasting relationship. But because this knight loves to keep it fresh, he has a tendency not to be able to settle down. This horseman is the most thrilling and passionate, but he might be too hot to handle.
Ace of Wands
The Aces represent new beginnings. Wands as fire offers meanings such as an exciting new adventure, embarking on a journey, initiating a project, taking the first action. Because one of the traditional meanings of Wands is business and enterprise, this is a great card for a new job, business promotion, or entrepreneurial endeavor.
In questions of romance, the suit of Wands most often focuses on passion and physical chemistry. Watch the suits that come up in a love reading—in addition to the suit of Wands just mentioned, Cups show love and affection as well as wining and dining; and Pentacles represent security, stability, and commitment. Although Swords can represent conflict, they also indicate long philosophical talks and a meeting of the minds. They can also show an ability to have healthy, productive arguments. The more negative cards in the suit swerve these meanings accordingly.
I was reading for a woman once who asked in general terms about relationships. We drew the Ace of Wands and I excitedly told her about the new lover she was getting. “What will my husband think?!” She exclaimed. Ever since then I remember to ask if the person is currently in a relationship before doing the interpretation! The Ace of Wands doesn’t have to be a new partner; it can represent bringing fresh life to an existing relationship, or be a suggestion for increasing the sexual aspect of the relationship.
In the Ace of Wands we can see Priapus fully engorged! Reversed can only mean one thing—sexual dysfunction. This is important to be able to discuss with clients because their partner might be hesitant to bring it up. And sometimes when we whitewash a problem but a disinterested third party sees it so clearly, it can be a wake-up call to deal with it.
Incidentally, the exploding Tower, associated with the planet Mars, symbolic of sexuality among other things, can indicate many of the same meanings as the Ace of Wands when applied to romance questions. However, due to the destructive nature of the Tower—I want to retain the negativity so I have a card that honestly tells me when something bad will happen—I tend to reserve it for break-ups, unexpected disruptions, or sudden revelations of disturbing news.
Despite his bad rap, the Devil is good for two things: a high powered career (his astrological association is Capricorn) and feisty sex! Most tarot readers note the similarity in design layout between the Devil and the Lovers. In both cards a winged being rises above a couple, male on the right, female on the left. Some of the imagery of the Garden of Eden is retained, the tails of the chained couple alluding to the trees they stand next to in the Lovers card.
The Devil frequently represents an affair or adultery. First note the surrounding cards to discover if this is the case in this situation. Two common examples of adultery in the cards are the Devil plus the Moon as a hidden affair, and the Devil plus the Tower as the shocking discovery of an affair. But if the other cards are mostly neutral or even positive, the Devil can represent a relationship that is built purely on sexual compatibility. This may or may not be good for long term success of the relationship, but it’s a giddy stage to be in.
The Devil can represent alternative sexual practices as well. Again, look to other cards, or simply ask your querent, to see if both parties are happy with the arrangement. Problems with sexual addiction or sexual manipulation, current or past depending on layout position, can also surface, which not only are less fun, but can be a roadblock to a healthy, mutually supportive relationship in the present or future. Remember to have hotline numbers handy if the reading takes a turn past your area of expertise. In Denver, dialing 2-1-1 connects with the United Way for referral to a wide array of services, such as substance abuse and mental health issues, including sexual assault counseling.
Affairs, assault, and adultery–this doesn’t seem like a good card for sex at all! As with all tarot reading, it’s all about the querent, the question, and the context. A reader I know told me a story of being unexpectedly propositioned by a man who had been a friend for a long time. She didn’t know how to proceed. She excused herself to the bathroom for some privacy and pulled out her trusty tarot. The card she pulled–the Devil. Sleep with him and see if you’re a match! She has been happily married to him for many years now!
What are your favorite cards to represent sex and passion in the tarot? Please share in the comments! And tune in next week for a discussion of cards that represent marriage.
If you’d like to learn to read the tarot with no memorization or books, simply letting the cards speak for themselves, check out my upcoming Magician’s Tools: Beginning Tarot class, Sundays, February 12-March 19, 2017, 2:30-4:30 p.m. at Isis Books and Gifts, 2775 South Broadway, Englewood, CO 80113.
If you’re getting started and want to know the best beginner deck, please take a look at my post on 50 Beginning Tarot Decks.
Joy Vernon is widely recognized by tarot professionals as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty years’ experience teaching energetic and esoteric modalities, Joy brings expertise and practiced familiarity to her specialty of esoteric tarot, which layers astrological and qabalistic symbolism onto the traditional tarot structure. Under her leadership, the Denver Tarot Meetup has grown into one of the largest and most active tarot-specific meetups in the world. Joy works as a tarot reader, astrologer, and teacher at Isis Books. To learn more, please visit JoyVernon.com.