Sunday, 24 October 2010

Bad rep well deserved? King of Swords

Coming to the last of the Swords court, we meet the King of Swords.  In the Rider Waite Smith image, we see a kingly figure holding a sword tipped slightly to one side.  He faces us directly from a landscape of mountains and clouds, and a throne engraved with butterflies.  Some suggested interpretations are of someone who does not hold so tightly to pure truth that he is unable to act, but rather who balances different ideas and then decides one way or the other.  Definitely not a procrastinator or someone to put off til tomorrow what can be done today!  The butterflies, native to the card's element of air, also imply the transformative power of resolving questions rather than letting them hang around.

Taking a historical perspective, drawing once again on Paul Huson's fascinating book, we see Etteilla interpreting the King of Swords as "A man of the judiciary, a man of law, a judge, an attorney...a senator, a businessman, an advocate, an agent, a doctor, a physician"  These views of the King of Swords as either judge or doctor are repeated by later tarot authorities such as Mathers, the Golden Dawn, and Arthur Waite.  Interestingly, when reversed Etteilla spoke of "wickedness, perversity... crime, cruelty, atrocity, inhumanity."  The Golden Dawn, while listing positive traits such as being "active, clever, subtle, fierce," also say, "but inclined to domineer."

This fits well with how the King of Swords has appeared to me in readings: as a plastic surgeon, a domineering tyrant of a husband, or (on a subtler level) as the querent's inner critic.  On the more positive side, though, he can represent taking decisions in a very calm, rational way, weighing up all the pros and cons without being swayed by emotion, a trait which has sometimes been called for in love readings in particular!

The Bohemian Gothic Tarot (1st Ed) version of this card shows this calm side, but seems to me to attribute it to being entirely closed off to others and to emotion.  After all, he wears a heavy suit of armour, completely protecting and enclosing him.  In fact, we are hardly sure there is a real person in there at all!  This coldness is one of the more negative traits we can potentially see in the King of Swords, but alternately, it may sometimes be good for someone to protect themselves this way.  This is implied by the red that shows through the armour - underneath is a soft, warm core, a passionate person who may feel overwhelmed without this protection.

I find the golden crown on this King interesting, worn on top of his helmet.  This may just be to differentiate him from any other armoured warrior, but it speaks to me of his wisdom, of fighting for what he believes is right.  This is not the hasty charging in of the Knight of Swords, but a much deliberated choice.  That doesn't make him always right, but I would hope it makes him less prone to rash decisions, more open to researching the question before rushing in.

I really like the Gay Tarot's take on the King of Swords, renamed the Sage of Swords.  Here, following traditional interpretations but unbound by the need to show a King, we see a judge with his gavel.  This also highlights, for me, the unconscious competence aspect of this character I discussed in my previous post.  This person is so used to making decisions and weighing up different aspects and arguments.  There is a suggestion of wisdom, of having a vocation to help make tough decisions.

However, not everyone may have such positive associations to this kind of authority figure, and there are certainly valid questions about how often justice and judgement coincide!

After this little glimpse of different variations, and look at a number of interpretations both historical and modern, what are you left with?  How do you interpret the King of Swords?

Images: Radiant Rider Waite Tarot, Bohemian Gothic Tarot (1st Edition), Gay Tarot.


  1. Hmm.... this was a helpful me various symbols to look at consider...Today, the K/swords feels like one who is decisive and clear. One who "cuts through stuff" (like the BS) and gets to the core of the issue. And the butterflies?--this King's decisions transform...

  2. I feel that the crown (in the BGT) is indicating his authority over everything else and the armour shows he will not be affected or swayed by emotions or, in fact, anything else. What he says will be done, in a fair and just manner, sticking firmly to the facts which also connects to the image of the judge. There could be a more vulnerable side, suggested by the red showing through the armour and (in the RW) the red under-robe showing but he would want to keep this well hidden. He wants to be seen to be cool, calm, collected and in charge.

  3. Hi mzzlee,
    I like your comment about cutting through stuff (especially BS) ;-D And I also found the butterflies at first surprising for this King, but then quite powerful.

    Hi Lori,

    Ooh, I hadn't noticed that the RWS King also has a red under-robe! And of course, you're right about the crown on the BGT King representing authority, as well as wisdom. His soldiers would have to be able to recognise him easily, even when in his armour, so he could direct strategy. That would be another of his strengths: strategy and having an overview/wider perspective.

    Thank you both for joining the conversation!

  4. Thank you for sharing your views on the Tarot Court. These are always hard for me to read and I'll take any extra views I can get, lol.

    I've recently reduced the court to short phrases. The King of Sword would be : Having control over mental aspects. Moving this further to seeing the King as a person, I would say that this is an intellegent man who is in control of his self. Angered, he would not explode, he would calmly examine the situation and discuss it. Sorrow would not bring this man to his knees, but most likely send him to a chair to think things over and construct a new plan to move forward. He would be a good man to have in any political office, but not all his words would ring true. He is also a planner and weaver and could make his own outcome no matter the method.

  5. I love the King of Swords - he's the guy that takes the King of Wands' Big Picture idea and works out all the details.

    As hard on himself as he is on others, he could probably do with cutting himself a bit of slack. A great, fair boss - but one that expects you to put the hours in because he does too.

    Love that BoGo King of Swords, but he does look a great deal more detached and closed off than he does in other decks.

    Great post Chloe ;-)

    Ali x

  6. Hi Cher,

    Hmm, not sure I agree about the King of Swords not turning to anger. I think his is a cold, calm rage, fuelled by his sense of moral certainty, but I can see him having very strong emotions, though he'll claim it's only rational. In sorrow, I think he would turn to judgement, blaming the other and listing all their faults.

    Just my take on the King of Swords' relation to emotion...

    Hi Ali,

    Like your take on him as a boss, and also the idea of not cutting anyone any slack - good swordsy metaphor :-D