Air energy in two modes

I largely approach tarot from an astrological angle, and build connections between the cards by incorporating astrological concepts like modality. When I get multiple cards in the same suit (which in astrology would simply represent the element), sometimes modality adds a useful piece of information about how that element’s energy will be expressed.

This week, for example, I pulled the Seven and Eight of swords to represent two back-to-back days. These are clearly in sequence (a useful pattern to note in general, with tarot) but there’s an important difference in their characters, due to what I call a phase shift that exists in between them, and the two different modes of air energy that each represents.

As I practice it, the numbered sequence of cards 2–10 (excluding the Ace) can be divided into three smaller groups that share what’s called modality. So all of the Sword cards are of the Air element, but the first three (2, 3, and 4) connect most strongly with cardinal air energy, which is to say Libra. The middle three (5, 6, and 7) connect with fixed air, or Aquarius. Finally, the 8, 9, and 10 connect with the mutable air sign Gemini.

Let me add a few notes about modality to illustrate how these phases are distinct from one another.

Cardinal signs make sense at the start of a sequence, because they are initiators and drivers of new things. They seek a direction, and once they find it, they go. Refreshingly simple, really. By the time you’ve mastered the lessons of these cards, which could also be thought of as a “nurturing” phase, you are ready to move on to what I’ll call the “governance and administration” phase where you put your principles into play.

Fixed signs, stuck in the middle, are governance — they’re just trying to make things work without falling apart. Loss is a constant theme within many of these cards, and adjusting to changes and challenges. There’s a heavy sense of responsibility in many of them. And ultimately, the responsibility grows until we learn to shift ourselves out from underneath and make room for new experiences — the mutable phase.

The mutable phase is even more about letting go and moving on. Rather than govern, you’re meant to explore, to find a sense of curiosity about what could be instead of fixating on what should be. They aren’t always happy cards; the end of the Swords suit is especially brutal. But when change is the only constant, these are especially important lessons to learn — that’s why they complete the suit (in the same way that mutable signs mark the end of seasons in tropical astrology).

So, back to the Seven and Eight of swords. The sequence here is bridging the fixed and mutable phases. With the Seven, we’re wrapping up our lessons from the fixed phase and may have adopted a philosophy that is self-serving and a bit shortsighted; there’s a sort of claustrophobic feeling in this card that I think approximates the feeling of having your defenses high, of fundamentally distrusting the others in your environment. I’ve heard it associated with putting your principles on a pedestal and refusing to compromise; it can also be associated with literally having something stolen from you.

Whatever the situation, it’s one where maybe you aren’t acting at your best, because the reality isn’t matching the way you think it should be. But it hasn’t occurred to you to move yet — that’s not the key to the fixed cards, not really. I think in some ways this is like a more active version of the Four of swords, where you can benefit from listening more than you speak, and observing more than you act on. You’re in a strange situation of having power but not a lot of personal agency, so your options may seem limited but your actions will be crucial to determining how you’ll encounter the situation represented by the Eight.

The Eight of swords is a rough start to the final act of the sword sequence, but its resolution is simple: it’s time for a change in mindset. Many interpretations of this card that use the Rider-Waite deck as their basis point out that the swords trapping the figure aren’t actually that firmly in place and could probably be nudged aside; likewise, the figure’s bonds aren’t tied that tightly and could easily be slipped. Maybe the boundary those swords demarcate seemed like a sensible one once, but now you’ve outgrown it. Where the Seven shows someone feeling persecuted by a system, the Eight shows someone who needs to learn that there’s more than one system to follow, and that they have options.

So what does it mean when you pull two cards that are in sequence, but represent different modalities? Of course it depends on which cards you’re looking at. In this case, I get a sense of the Eight representing the “consequences” of the Seven, like feeling overwhelmed by shame for something you did in a short-sighted attempt to “win” a situation. The message here is that there’s always a way out — but you may need to ask for help to see it, and be willing to change whatever’s been keeping you stuck.