The call is coming from inside the house...

by Charles Olbert in


A reflection on the 8 of Swords

    Not long ago a close friend asked me what my read was on the 8 of Swords. As luck would have it I had just drawn this card in consultation with the deck regarding someone dear to me (needless to say I didn’t like what I saw in the draw – fitting for a card depicting a blindfolded figure). Time soon revealed the truth of my own draw (let’s just say things got downright chaotic there for a spell—but fear not: it turns out that it’s possible to reverse into morning what once was night). The double-appearance of our blindfolded friend above sent the message loud and clear: rip off that blindfold and figure this card out! So without further ado: a reflection on the 8 of Swords.

    No matter our good intentions, careful plans, and clever stratagems fate has a way of blindsiding us. Work was going great until your colleague threw you under the bus; you had everything planned for that important presentation or meeting or date, then you forgot to set your alarm clock; your date was magical until you put your foot in your mouth; and you just had to bring up that recurring family argument at Thanksgiving dinner, didn’t you? No matter how spectacular your life seems to be going, the 8 of Swords is standing nearby in the shadows (hood)winking at you saying, “Sure, buddy, sure – just you wait.” 

    The Golden Dawn attribution for the 8 of Swords is The Lord of Shortened Force, as in: to be pulled up short. It signifies not situations that are objectively terrible, but rather ones in which our balance has gone out of whack. Recall that the suit of Swords represents invoked force (as opposed to Wands, which represents natural force); the 8 of Swords symbolizes those situations where for one reason or another we’ve invoked force—channeled our energies—in the wrong direction. We may be trying to force the issue, engage in pursuits that feel forced, or suddenly be forced to reckon with the flaws in our plans. Too much smoke, not enough fire; and before you know it, the heat source goes cold.

A hint toward a psychological reading of the 8 of Swords lies in A. E. Waite’s divinatory meanings, which include ‘crisis’ and ‘sickness.’ From a psychoanalytic perspective, conflict doesn’t mean disagreements with other people, but rather the competing incompatible wishes within us. Sometimes, yes, the alarm clock doesn’t go off because the power went out during the night; but sometimes we forget to turn the alarm clock on because we’re terrified of success (oh how we learn to love our faults) or out of resentment for someone who’s depending on us to show up tomorrow (revenge is oh so sweet). In the latter case, unconsciously forgetting to turn on the alarm represents a compromise solution, allowing you to maintain your self-image as a good and caring person while simultaneously letting you get back at your colleague (with a handy alibi in hand, no less). Symptoms (psychological ‘sicknesses’) arise when we repetitively fall into maladaptive compromises.

    In this psychological way of looking at the card, the 8 of Swords represents those situations in which we fail because we set ourselves up to fail—often (but not always) inadvertently or unconsciously. Because we need to fail. Because we set our sights on impossible goals. Because we can’t separate fantasy from reality. Because we can’t let go of fears and desires that no longer serve us. On my reading, the blindfold and ropes in the 8 of Swords image signify not external barriers to success, but rather the ways in which our own desire not to know ourselves sets limits to our development and how we tie our own hands because we can’t reckon with our own power, fantasy, and desire. The 8 of Swords alerts us to the symptomatology of putting too much faith in our conscious intellect and strategizing while not properly attending to the deeper currents running within.

    These dynamics—these symptoms—play out dramatically in intimate relationships (a common source of questions that querants bring to tarot readings!). Romantic partnerships provide fertile ground for examining how our complexes and impossible fantasies trip us up and keep us blind to ourselves. The Jungian psychologist James Hollis in his book The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other describes the cycle that so many of us repeat as we stumble in, through, and out of relationships. First there’s attraction, then infatuation and the blaze of romance. In time, however, attraction and romance start to flicker out; and soon you’re arguing over whose turn it is to do the dishes when not so long ago you were giggling into each other’s necks – that, or all of a sudden you flame out in a spectacular fight that arose apparently out of the blue.

    Hollis’s diagnosis is simple: all relationships begin in projection: 

“What we do not know about ourselves, or will not face in ourselves, will be projected onto [our partners]. We project our childhood wounding, our infantile longing, and our individuation imperative onto [our partners].” 

In other words, what we’re really seeing in the sparkling newness of impassioned love is not the fundamentally withdrawn solitude of another human Other in all their astonishing, unique mystery. What we see in distorted, fantastical form is our own longing to be completed, healed—returned to paradise. For this reason, so many relationships bring us to the point of saying, “you’ve changed,” or asking, “how did I not see this about you before?” But your (ex-)lover didn’t change. You merely took off the blindfold.

    The problem with seeking the Magical Other that we hope will complete us is, of course, that only you can be in charge of you. No one else can complete you. No one else can relieve you of your suffering, even if they wanted to (and wouldn’t it be sadistic to truly ask others to martyr themselves for us?). No one else can carry your cross. Just as no one can swallow your breakfast for you, no one can take responsibility for you becoming yourself. Unconsciously desiring this inevitably leads to conflict and disappointment. Hollis again:

    “Since [our partners] cannot, and should not, bear responsibility for our wounds, our narcissism or our individuation, the projection gives way to resentment and the problem of power. The only way to heal a faltering relationship is to render our going home project conscious and take personal responsibility for our individuation.”

    It’s fitting, I think, that the astrological attribution for the 8 of Swords is Jupiter in Gemini, corresponding to the Major Arcana cards The Wheel of Fortune and The Lovers. Apart from its more obvious interpretations, The Lovers can signify our agency in choice: in choosing whom or what to love. When we are not clear on (or honest with ourselves about) what we want and need, and when we don’t take responsibility for our own desires, fantasies, and fears, then we will inevitably find ourselves subjected to the fate inherent within all projections and illusions: reality setting in. In the mirage of a love based on the shifting sands of projection it’s all too easy to be comfortable in our apparent reign; soon, however, the Wheel has turned and we’re without a kingdom. Love ungrounded in a true and clear sense of self ultimately goes the way of Ikaros – from “I’m king of the world!” to the Titanic sinking. 

    It doesn’t have to be this way, though—success in love doesn’t have to come down to chance, to a spin of the Wheel. Remember, the 8 of Swords represents a temporary situation, not permanent deprivation. We can transcend our complexes and repetitive failures through self-understanding, through individuation—by becoming ourselves. Hollis tells us that “the greatest gift to others is our own best selves. Thus, paradoxically, if we are to serve relationship well, we are obliged to affirm our individual journey.” In the case of romantic relationships, Hollis provides us with a roadmap in the form of six questions to ask ourselves (and “if we do not ask them of ourselves, then our partners will, or we will hit some wall which obliges us to begin”):

 "(1) Where do my dependencies show up in the relationship? (2) What am I asking my partner to do for me that I, as a mature adult, need to be doing for myself? (3) How do I repeatedly constrict myself through my historically conditioned attitudes and behavior patterns? (4) Am I taking too much responsibility for the emotional well-being of the Other? (5) Am I living my life in such a fashion that I will be happy with the consequences of my choices? If not, when do I plan to start? What fears, lack of permission or old behaviors block me from living my life? (6) In what ways do I seek to avoid suffering?”

    If these 8 Swords seem always to hang over your head, step back, take a deep breath, and take a hard look at the ways that you’re participating in the patterns that continually arise in your relationships; the ways in which you’re failing to take responsibility; the desires and fears you’ve refused to see that keep getting in the way. When you take off the blindfold you may find that what’s keeping you from the life and love you desire comes from within.