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Even the most experienced tarot reader can feel their confidence deflate when they see a card in their spread that unnerves them. Many of us learned to interpret tarot through the aid of keywords found in the "little white book" that came with our cards. For some of the darker images of the tarot, the keywords provided were often bleak, such as: ruination, despair, destruction of your plans, and hopelessness! It's no wonder that spotting a frightening image immediately causes many readers to feel dread, especially when such a card appears in the "final outcome" position.
Often, we turn to tarot for healing and clarity. However, if you are left feeling hopeless about your situation because of negative keywords, the reading can feel like a tremendous letdown. Challenging cards that appear in a reading do not doom your hopes to end in calamity. If you are feeling disappointed with a reading's initial message, it may be that you just need to examine the image closer, allowing it to dialogue with your deeper awareness. Tarot is a language of symbols that can speak directly to the luminous spirit that resides deep within you. This awareness can be found far beneath the surface layer of your fears. To get the most from tarot imagery, you must look beyond the thin veil of your fears. One powerful archetype that has provided emblematic guidance for how I approach tarot symbolism is the wise High Priestess herself.
In the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, the High Priestess sits serenely before a vast sea. This sea is a symbol for the depth wisdom she has gained from many lifetimes of experiences. You also have a vast ocean of inner knowing within you. Can you sense it? Within these waters can be found all the answers to any question you could possibly ask. However, if your fear is triggered, it can be difficult to hear your ocean's oracular song. Obscuring the view of the vast ocean is the Priestess's thin veil. It is decorated with images of pomegranates, the fruit of the Underworld. The Underworld is where our fears dwell. It is a dark landscape that can frighten the ego into resisting change. However, more than just fear of death and transformation reside in the Underworld. It is also a symbolic realm deep within your consciousness, where unimaginable riches can be found. One name for the Lord of the Underworld is Pluto, which could also be translated as "wealth." When you have the courage to delve into the Underworld of your consciousness, great treasure can be found. Facing your shadow honestly can revitalize dreams long abandoned and restore courage once thought lost. By reengaging with the best parts of yourself, the answer to a rather mundane question is brought into focus with far more meaning. Like the phoenix, you are reborn to the waking world awakened, revitalized, and renewed.
The veil of the High Priestess can represent our fears of death and change, which obscure the sunken treasure found in the sea beyond. Although the veil is thin compared to the wisdom found in the vast ocean, it can obscure the deeper meaning of a challenging symbol we are confronting. We've all heard, "For the answer, look within." Tarot masterfully facilitates going within. However, for many of us, the first layer we encounter when we look within is a fear, or something that makes us uncomfortable. This is the veil. If we only stop at the veil, instead of going deeper, "looking within" can be an uncomfortable experience. If you find discomfort rather than a quick answer, it may seem preferable to retreat to the insincere world of the ego, hoping for concrete certainty. Black and White. Good and Bad. All or Nothing. The High Priestess knows that life's wisdom is not as binary as her black and white pillars. The reality of the situation is often more nuanced. Much like the Priestess' position between the pillars, the truth is found somewhere in-between.
The High Priestess asks you to go further than your initial judgment of a symbol and look at it through the clear waters of your inner wisdom. Picture the High Priestess card in your mind's eye. Imagine a tarot card that makes you uncomfortable printed on the veil of the High Priestess. How is that fear preventing you from connecting to what is deepest and wisest within? Do you have the courage to pull that superficial fear aside and apply your spirit's unfathomable inner knowing? The symbols that scare you will thinly conceal your where your greatest breakthrough is emerging.
For example, at first glance, the appearance of the Eight of Swords as your "final outcome card" can make your heart sink. This is especially true if you are asking your cards whether or not you will be successful with something you are working hard to achieve. They old keywords rifle through your mind. Despair, fear, failure. The ruination of your plans… Who wouldn't feel hopeless as the figure tied up on the image? Your initial reaction to this card could leave you feeling like you shouldn't even try. However, with tarot, you must follow the Priestess' example and pull aside your initial fear, facilitating a deeper perspective.
In the case of the Eight of Swords we see a despairing woman whose hands are bound. At first glance, her situation looks hopeless. But we can't stop there. The Eight of Swords is a Swords card, linking it with the element of Air. This element corresponds to your thoughts. In the case of the Eight of Swords, thoughts of hopelessness may be keeping you bound and paralyzed. By replaying past traumas in your mind, you could be reinforcing a belief that you are a helpless victim to whatever circumstance has been unfairly thrown at you. However, look even closer at the woman on the card. There doesn't appear to be anyone with her anymore. She is all alone. Although she is tied tightly with bindings, she could so easily use the swords that flank her to cut herself free. The Eight of Swords could be interpreted to mean that although you may feel defeated, bound up, and abandoned in your mind, you must repurpose your thoughts (swords) to your advantage. The very same thoughts that are limiting you can be redirected to liberate you. However, you may need to open your eyes and see the opportunity right before your very nose. The Eight of Swords can be interpreted in a manner that is empowering you to act, rather than making you feel that you are doomed to a bad end. Bad things can happen in life, but we still get to choose how we are going to respond in the moment. This is the power you wield, no matter what is currently happening around you.
Another "scary" card that we are often loathe to see in a reading is the Nine of Swords. Here we see an individual trapped in shadow thinking. The imagery is dark, and we can't help but remember feeling that same way, when our mind was overrun with past worry or grief. This card could also indicate that we are submitting to the attacks of the saboteur within. The Nine of Swords has been called by some, "the worst card in the deck." It represents the power of mental shadows, which can shatter your perspective. When stuck in this dark place, it can be so hard to see the light. The man on the card is clutching his eyes closed. He is overcome with despair. But look closer at the image. He is not really in danger. He is safe at home in his bed. The battle is being played out in his mind. The person on the Nine of Swords is covered with a blanket richly decorated with red roses, a symbol for vitality. Blankets are protectively wrapped around babies when they are first born. They are also handed out in disaster relief to comfort people who have experienced a traumatic event. Blankets are symbols for the comfort and protection that is available, even in your darkest moments. Interwoven with the red roses on the blanket are the astrological symbols, placing this situation in a universal context. Despite his worry, he still has a whole vital life of limitless potential ahead of him. He may just have temporarily lost his perspective. The symbols on the blanket remind us that he still has an integral part to play, in a grander design. The Nine of Swords can remind you that your spirit also has great purpose, regardless of what your inner saboteur tells you. The Nine of Swords may advise you to stop mentally catastrophizing and speak your worst fears out loud and into the light. Sometimes when fears are spoken with a sympathetic loved one, we can recognize how irrational the fear sounds. The Nine of Swords can advise us to stop isolating and communicate our troubles with those who care.
If you go beyond the initial knee-jerk reactions to the cards you see, you can deliver much more profound readings for yourself and others. Dialoguing with the dark cards can become a cathartic experience, where old hurts are finally healed and released, rather than being interpreted as harbingers of disaster. You get to choose in what context you want to view your current situation. Will you choose empowerment or fear? You also get to choose your future by changing your choices in the present. If you show up in life as a victim, you will most likely continue to get victimized. If you shift your energy to be empowered and courageous, you are more likely to succeed.
For more information on how to interpret tarot symbolism without anxiety, check out Fearless Tarot: How to Give a Positive Reading in Any Situation. In the book I show how to constructively apply even the harshest tarot imagery to get the most from your deck. Armed with new perspective, you can transcend the hopeless fears that may have been preventing your breakthrough. Your tarot deck is a peerless tool for dialoguing with your resilient spirit. It can provide a therapeutic salve for soothing our deepest wounds.
Elliot Adam is the author of Tarot in Love and the award-winning Fearless Tarot. He began his professional tarot career at the age of 16. At age 20, he opened his own tarot shop, Athena's Oracle, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. ...