How to make friends with the unfriendly cards.
As tarot readers, whether seasoned or new, there are certain cards that rouse a hiss when they appear. From the much misaligned Death card, to the dramatic imagery of the 10 of Swords and the Tower, even someone who has never clapped eyes on a tarot deck before can assume the cards don't carry messages of sunshine and rainbows. Yet, for these seemingly scary cards, there are positive aspects. There’s no doubt some messages are harsher than others, and seeing certain cards appear can prompt anxiety, but I’m here to allay those fears by showing how even the at-first-glance scary cards have a friendly side.
Before I get into the subject, let me point out that while tarot is a divinatory tool, the only force responsible for your life is you. Tarot offers a snapshot of the current path, forged by your current mindset and actions, but how you react to obstacles and suggestions is where you’re in control.
A tarot reading is never a certainty; it draws on the energies of a present situation, and while it brings clarity, offers guidance, and (should!) help the seeker face into the right direction, it’s not a fixed prediction by any means. The only energy that has the power to impact your life, is you. Change comes from within, so it’s your actions, and not what the cards reveal that dictate your life.
The Death card has a bad reputation, and unfairly so. It’s not uncommon to see the card woven into a movie scene where the reader flips it over and—gasp, horror!—wretched doom is predicted. In reality, Death signifies transformation, the end of one cycle and the beginning of an another, which makes it a positive card. Expectant mothers will often have the Death card appear in a reading as they move from one phase of life to another. A change in job, relationship, or home—even a change of perspective, or an approach to a situation covers the theme of Death’s transformation.
What often comes with the Death card is an increased sense of self-awareness as something comes to an end, hence the theme of metamorphosis as the seeker moves from one stage of their life to another. So does Death ever indicate physical death? Personally, I would say no, and I know many tarot readers would agree with me.
With themes of addiction, co-dependency, and harmful influences, the Devil carries an important lesson on self-restriction. It’s a prickly card, as it demands serious and difficult action, the kind that requires a lot of honesty, and can be uncomfortable to work through.
The Devil is a master at deception. He tricks us into believing we are trapped by external forces, when in reality, the restrictions are of our own making. One of the most effective questions to ask when the Devil appears, is ‘What are you afraid of?’ and if the seeker can face this fear, and take action to overcome it, they will cast off the Devil’s chains.
Another aspect of this card is wealth, where the seeker’s focus is so fixated on achieving status, they neglect relationships and themselves in the process. Financial security is important, and drawing the Devil doesn’t suggest this drive for abundance is wrong. What it highlights is how that stability is available, but to take caution on how its achieved. So, in essence, a green light in terms of gathering abundance, but an amber light flashing for the process behind that gathering.
Although it may not seem so at first glance, the Devil brings hope for freedom. When it appears in a reading, it’s asking the seeker to face their fears—with a promise those fears can be conquered if the seeker is prepared to do the work. The opportunity to unshackle is present. Note how the chains surrounding the figures’ necks are loose enough to lift off, and also how the horns growing on their heads are small. This indicates it’s not too late to take back control; positive change can be made. See? Not so scary after all.
Major upheaval comes with the Tower. Keywords such as disaster and catastrophe don’t help its bad reputation, but when it comes to revelation for the greater good, there’s no better card. When the Tower appears, considerable, and unexpected change is coming. Like the image of the burning tower and falling figures suggests, it won’t be easy change, but from the rubble, a better situation will arise, even though it may leave you feeling utterly humbled.
The Tower is the Universe’s way of noting how we’ve grown too confined and stagnated within a situation, and because it no longer serves our better good, the Powers That Be swing their rather large booted foot, and we get a sharp and sudden kick up the butt. The result is bruised emotion as false beliefs, thoughts and maybe even actions are revealed. You may find yourself wondering how you didn’t notice the sham sooner, or why you allowed yourself to be so naïve. It can also highlight how stuck you’d become in a situation, and the time had come for that situation to end.
Change is good for the soul. It grants us a new perspective, and in the Tower’s case, a fresh start. With that new beginning, outdated behaviours and habits can be released, making space for more positive energy. There’s no doubt the Tower makes its mark when it crashes into our lives, but the outcome typically allows us to look back and agree the change was for the better. I’ve had three instances of drawing the Tower throughout my tarot reading years, and each time experienced first hand the disruption of sweeping change followed by a far more beneficial situation. Did I want to shove that card back into the deck and pretend I didn’t see it each time? You bet. But did I emerge the other side and agree it was the best thing to happen? Definitely.
3 of Swords
Another card packing a solid gut-punch is the 3 of Swords. The card of sorrow, rejection, betrayal, and loneliness, even a glance at its image of a heart being pierced by 3 Swords is enough to make us wince. But this tough card does offer an olive branch. Generally speaking, when it appears, it’s a warning of heartache to come, so offers the opportunity to mentally prepare. If we know hard-to-swallow news is on the way, we can emotionally brace, and therefore stand a little stronger in the wake.
A second important aspect of this card is the power of ‘feeling your feels’. When the 3 of Swords appears, it’s a reminder to acknowledge hurt because shoving it down, or masking it beneath negative behaviours won’t ease out those swords.
When this card appears, it offers the chance to learn from both hurt and healing. Think of your first real heartbreak. How did you deal with it? If you faced it head on, sobbed for hours, and maybe even swore you’d never open yourself to that kind of hurt again, how did that shape you? Chances are you now look back at that time and smile softly to yourself. It hurt, but you grieved, and eventually moved on, and if it should happen again, you know you’ll survive. But when such strong grief is masked by harmful self-soothing, and emotion is denied a chance to manifest, the prospect of facing that hurt again is likely to fill anyone with dread. Much like the Devil, the chains cast by the refusal to face the pain are of the person's own making, and the only way to break free, is for them to acknowledge the fear and face it.
At its foundation, the 3 of Swords offers us the lesson of healing and growth. So when it appears, give yourself permission to grieve. Feel all those feels, and when you’re ready to brush yourself down, you’ll do so knowing you’ve strengthened your spirit and added a valuable tool to your emotional toolkit.
9 of Swords
The card of intense anxiety, nightmares, despair, and depression, turning over this bleak image would make anyone want to shove it back in the deck. The 9 of Swords is that godless time in the wee small hours where worry has us wide awake, staring at the ceiling, our thoughts running in wild and catastrophic circles. ‘What If?’ runs on a loop, and it’s never a What If contemplating a happy outcome, but one of ever increasing negativity. When the 9 of Swords appears, it’s a warning that anxiety is close to overwhelming the seeker, and they’ve greatly exaggerated the negative side of a situation.
The truth behind this card is that the troubles are psychological, and do not exist to such a grave extent in the external world. In other words, it’s what in your mind that’s causing anxiety, not actual circumstances.
When you catch yourself getting worked up over your worries, pause and ask yourself if what you fear is actually happening in that moment. Chances are, it isn’t, because when the shit does hit the fan, we’re generally too busy taking action in the moment to think about anything else. And there’s nothing better for alleviating worry than actually doing something about it, because in those moments, we claim control. Where’s the doing or action in stewing over your worries? Nowhere; it doesn’t exist.
I have a friend who had a terrible fear of getting a puncture and being left stranded at the side of the road. It weighed on her mind every time she climbed into her car. Bad weather would make her even more anxious, and if she was travelling in a car that wasn’t her own, she felt even more out of control. One evening, she did get that puncture. She pulled over, called roadside assistance, made a start at changing the tyre, and within the hour was on her way home again. To this day, she laughs at herself. When she found herself in the moment, action took over, she didn’t have time to panic, and all the things she’d feared, turned out to be baseless worry.
The 9 of Swords offers us the opportunity to reform negative thinking into positive. Think of what could right instead of wrong. Visualise a happy ending, and how it will make you feel. Acknowledge all the skills, experience, and wisdom you possess that can help you move through difficult times. This card is a reminder to stop giving your power away. The next time you find yourself staring up at a shadowy ceiling, start by visualising one positive event that could turn the situation around, then picture a second, and so on. One by one the swords will vanish and you'll soon come to see the situation from a new, and more positive, perspective.
10 of Swords
Another card of endings, but with the 10 of Swords, it’s a more brutal one than Death. It’s a painful experience that brings pain, loss, and endings, but also release. With the 10 of Swords, a new awareness comes; an understanding that difficulties will soon be over and a fresh start can begin.
Rebirth is a theme of this card, despite the often harsh depiction of a figure speared by 10 Swords. Tens are cards of completion, so while the ending may hurt, it also brings hope of brighter days. Whatever the ordeal, it draws to a close, and what may have felt like permanent trouble, will soon conclude.
Letting go is another message from this card. Sometimes, instead of fighting against external forces, it’s best to stop resisting and accept the circumstances. With the ten representing the end of a cycle, accept the end is coming and allow it to happen. Renewal demands change, so, yes, it may hurt, but once you’ve worked through it, a new day dawns.
Note too that with Swords being cards of intellect, it will be beneficial to analyse the situation; reflect upon what happened, and why. What can be taken from that experience? External forces may have felt all-powerful to bring such a harsh ending, but the real wisdom and strength is within you, so take the opportunity to reflect upon the experience and know that should it happen again, you’re now better equipped to deal with it.
So, despite the dramatic imagery and keywords of this card, it really does hold a positive message. Wisdom can be drawn from defeat, and the pain endured hasn’t been without reason. Again, this card is not an indication of physical death, but an impending ending of a situation no longer serving your better good.
5 of Pentacles
This final card is one Benebell Wen refers to as ‘Personal Winter’ in her book Holistic Tarot*, and it’s a description that has stayed with me ever since. With themes of isolation, financial loss, poverty and insecurity, it’s a bleak message indeed. Material misfortune is something most people have experienced; unemployment, loss of funds, illness, homelessness, and solitude.
But when this card appears, it’s not all doom and gloom. It also carries valuable reminders. Firstly, there are people willing to help, proving there’s always a solution no matter how dire the situation. The seeker can reach out externally, or shift internally to seek guidance from their inner light. By reaching out to those with experience—which will of course demand the seeker swallow their pride—valuable lessons can be learned. And from that, the seeker can forge ahead with a new-found respect.
The second reminder focuses on how one’s own emotions may have lead to this situation. Greed can cause loss, anxiety can initiate error, and possessiveness can bring about solitude. Too much of the external, material world can create a disconnect between the internal, spiritual world, so this card reminds us of the power within balance. Charles Dickens’ Scrooge is a perfect example of 5 of Pentacles energy manifesting in the external world. His tale teaches us to place less value on the material, and more on the spiritual.
So, although this card is typically a pessimistic one, like the others ‘scary’ cards, it does have positive aspects. Have you noted the snow in the image? It’s there to remind us of how Spring follows Winter. The snow and ice thaw, and once again warmth returns, and with it, growth and abundance. Fives are cards of challenge, but holding half the power of tens, they don’t indicate a bruising end, but a halfway point that grants the seeker an important opportunity to learn from their mistakes, brush themselves down, and move on wiser and stronger than before.
Are you now more open to making friends with the 'unfriendly' tarot cards? They each carry an important lesson, but one that brings enrichment and expansion to our lives. Facing our issues builds inner strength, so the next time you flip a card and the Devil or one of his scary pals winks up at you, wink back. They're not really unkind, just misunderstood. (Aren't we all?)
What are your experiences with the prickly cards of Tarot? Are you a ‘shove-'em-back-in-the-deck’ reader, or do you accept the message and its lesson? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
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