9 of Swords: Gemini II
Decan ruler (Chaldean): Mars
Hermetic Title: Cruelty / Despair and Cruelty
Corresponding major arcana: The Tower [Mars] + The Lovers [Gemini]
In the 9 of Swords we see a moment of tremendous stress. In readings for others, I've found it to be a strikingly relatable card, often prompting clients to jab the card with a finger and exclaim "That's me!". This is perhaps because people visit tarot readers in difficult times. In the same way that a firm diagnosis can give a patient relief from uncertainty, the 9 of Swords can validate the experience of someone whose pain has been dismissed by themselves and others.
That said, it is no walk in the park. Anxiety, regret, and insomnia are common symptoms. When we look at the card's related majors - The Tower (Mars) and the Lovers (Gemini) - we obtain some clues as to why.
The Fall from Eden
In the 8 of Swords, we saw the moment when Adam and Eve exercised their free will, choosing to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
In short order, the angel with the flaming sword arrives to send them into exile. We see this angel, minus the sword, in the Lovers card, but what angel is it? It might be Raphael, who is associated with the element of air (swords) in the Golden Dawn tradition. It might be Michael, sword-bearing angel of fire. It might be Uriel, said to guard the gates of Eden. And at the same time as all these, the angel refers back to the Eros/Cupid figure on the Tarot de Marseille card.
Angels are messengers, and the message could be one of warning, expulsion, or benediction. As always, tarot speaks to us on multiple levels at once. The angel's ambiguity only makes the Lovers card more striking. But when we add the Tower card in to stand for Mars, the decan ruler, the message becomes harder to misinterpret: it is a punishment for disobedience.
It's all in your head!
Everyone needs a coping mechanism for the 9 of Swords, and the first one we usually turn to is this: "It was all in your head! Aren't you glad you've woken up?" We rationalize away our discomfort and minimize our anxiety by saying, it's only fear - it's not real. For some clients, it's helpful to hear this. But it's also important to remember that the anguish brought on by warlike Mars is very real.
In ibn Ezra's Beginning of Wisdom, Gemini II's decan image is: "a black man with his head bound in lead, and a weapon in his hand, and an iron helmet on his head"; in the Arabic Picatrix, it's "a man .... armed with a helmet of lead upon his head." Mars is associated with iron, and also with the head (in fact, it's not uncommon for me to get a migraine when I draw this or any other Mars card).
The black background of the 9 of Swords is certainly as claustrophobic as the inside of an iron helmet. But it is the weight of our poor friend's thoughts that's so unbearable, causing her to clutch her head. In many renditions of the expulsion from Eden, we see a similar gesture. It telegraphs dismay and lamentation, even regret. It can also certainly stand for the great martial affliction: PTSD.
Questions of remorse
In older traditions, the 9 of Swords was not nearly so dire ("...the card traditionally does not seem to deserve the extremely negative spin placed on it by the Golden Dawn" - Paul Huson, Mystical Origins of the Tarot). It was a card of religion, of ecclesiastical ceremony, even of conscience. Perhaps what we see here is conscience run amok - regret for past actions, fear of future consequences. Often we see the Tower indicate the breakup of a partnership due to one person's actions (some of us literally call it the "affair card"); and freely taken actions, as we know, are a matter for the Lovers card. Setting aside any questions of morality for the moment, we recognize that anyone so suspended between regret and fear is bound to suffer.
Furthermore, Mars is relentless in his pursuit. In the lower left panel beneath the bed, we see a scene that's difficult to make out, but which conveys a sense of violence; one antagonist hounding another with a weapon. The decan images are filled with similarly determined figures - some are hunting with "bow and arrow," some "digging with a curved implement," or "searching with labor" (inquirendi res cum labore). All these figures of speech recall the obsessive, inescapable cycle of thoughts that can keep one awake and in despair.
And yet - if we can open our eyes and see past our mental anguish - we live in the blanket of protection that is the physical world (symbolized by the roses and zodiac symbols on the coverlet). It may not always be obvious, but where there's life, there really is hope.
Cruelty toward self = cruelty toward others
Ibn Ezra's decanic spirit is said "to like ridicule and mockery," and the Thoth version of this card, the "Lord of Cruelty" seems to imply that kind of cruel behavior toward others. The Waite Smith card, by contrast, is easier to read as cruelty toward the self. But I think it's important to remember that the two, if not identical, are deeply linked. Those who are cruel to themselves are often cruel to others, and vice versa.
Failures of empathy do not exclude oneself (except maybe in the case of psychopathy). Many times I have discovered that someone I initially found unkind was merely, in fact, in pain. But even when that's not the case, I've found it's rarely a bad idea to treat unkindness as if it is indeed suffering in disguise.
Special note for writers
Mercury rules the sign of Gemini, meaning that writing and speech are specialties of the 8, 9, and 10 of Swords. If you are a writer, you undoubtedly recognize in the agonized figure of the 9 of Swords the demons of writer's block, self-criticism, and insecurity. What was it the sportswriter Red Smith said? "Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed." Something similar goes for those who make their living by the spoken word - stand-up comics, for example.
Working with words is a special kind of mental torture, but we wouldn't do it if it weren't worth it at some level. For creative types, the 9 of Swords is a kind of badge of honor, if a rather dark and tormented one.
When you draw the 9 of Swords, hunt for the roots of your pain that lie within yourself rather than outside. If you can, be kind to yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others. Care for and protect your body and remind yourself of your positive contributions to this world. (This is treating the 9 of Swords with its elemental opposite, the 9 of Pentacles) If there is remedial action you can take to resolve the problem that's troubling you, take it. (This is treating the 9 of Swords with its balanced partner above it on the Tree of Life: the 6 of Swords).
Finally, you may find helpful these twin thoughts, shared with me many years ago by my husband. I think he was paraphrasing from a Buddhist text, but I'm afraid I don't know which one. Ultimately, I have found few problems fall outside these two categories.
If you can do something about it, why worry?
If you can't do anything about it, why worry?