On the Astrological Twelfth House and the Swords of the Tarot

The sixth house/twelfth house axis gives me heartburn. As a student-practitioner of traditional astrology, I know them as the places of “Bad Fortune” and “Bad Spirit” respectively, and where the Greater and Lesser Malefics rejoice — Mars in the sixth house, and Saturn in the twelfth. To me, these are not places in the chart where, in readings, clients want to go. The fifth house, tenth house, seventh house, and eleventh house, for various reasons, are the popular kids on the block. After all, these are the places where we interpret relationships and career successes, as well as our hopes, dreams, and wishes.

The other day, I was ruminating on the swords in the Tarot. Inspired by the work of T. Susan Chang and Mary K. Greer, among others, I alternatively try my hand at rhyming couplets (which I stink at, by the way), or imagining the cards as proxies for scenes in novels or pictorial summaries of the day I had. All of these techniques go towards my continuing efforts to deepen my understanding of and connection with the cards.

Sometimes, however, my favourite thing to do is ponder the Tarot astrologically. And, when trying to vainly choose my favourite sword card, I came up short. While difficult cards pepper all the Tarot suits, I’d rather draw the Seven of Wands than the Three of Swords on any given day.

Astrologically, the swords represent the various decans of Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius. In and of themselves, these are not signs of greater or lesser “difficulty” than the earth, water, or fire signs. Yet, a disproportionate number of challenging cards find their way into this suit. Upright or reversed, these cards offer insights into our state of mind: fears that keep us up at night, feelings of entrapment, conflict, sorrow, and burnout. When drawn, the swords are concerning because they represent areas of difficulty that may be hidden or unconscious. When I pull these cards, I am often reminded that I might want to pay more attention to my dreams, engage more deeply in shadow work, or meditate on whatever feelings of discomfort may be rising to the surface.

One particularly compelling case can be made for the suit of swords corresponding to the astrological twelfth house. Loss, affliction, alienation, restraint, limitation, exile, self-undoing, deception, sorrow, misery, misfortune, hidden enemies, and illnesses — these are some of our twelfth house significations.

In his Chart Interpretation Handbook, Stephen Arroyo presents a more constructive interpretation of the twelfth house, emphasizing its transformative and growth-oriented potential. He writes: “The twelfth house is the area of LEARNING on the EMOTIONAL or SOUL level. [emphasis his] This learning takes place through the gradual growth of awareness that accompanies loneliness and deep suffering, through selfless service, or through devotion to a higher ideal.” In Arroyo, although we can see the vestiges of traditional astrological interpretations of the twelfth house — themes of exile, imprisonment, and danger — the enemies that we see are, as he writes, “the ghosts of past thoughts and actions.” What better way to view some of the significations of the suit of swords as well?

Two of Swords — Moon in Libra — Peace Restored
Among a handful of exceptions to our general twelfth-house bonanza, the Two of Swords is largely “benefic” when upright. Weaving in the themes of balance and concord from the Justice card, the Two of Swords only assumes its more challenging significations when reversed, and even then, the themes of delay and indecision hardly seem all that bad when compared to the cast of cards that come after.

Two of Swords. Woman seated on a rock, holding two criss-crossed swords in front of her.

Three of Swords — Saturn in Libra — Sorrow
According to the traditional scheme of rulerships and dignities, Saturn is exalted in Libra. In this second decan, the Lord of Sorrow takes on more twelfth-house significations, despite Saturn’s exalted status. Secret love affairs, sorrow, and division all find their way into the upright reading of this card. Reversed, additional twelfth-house themes include loss, distress, and moving past pain and sacrifice.

Four of Swords — Jupiter in Libra — Peace After Strife
This is the first of our exile cards — the Four of Swords signifies solitude and retreat. Sometimes brought about by confinement, institutionalization, or a desire for isolation, these twelfth-house themes may be thrust upon us, or chosen as a result of excessive mental taxation. This is a card of stress, overwhelm and burnout; retreat and solitude may be required to recalibrate.

Five of Swords — Venus in Aquarius — Defeat
Among other significations, Venus is the great conciliator and diplomat, yet, in the Saturn-ruled sign of Aquarius, its capacity to achieve these ends is significantly reduced. A. E. Waite wrote that the divinatory meanings of this card, upright and reversed, include degradation, destruction, infamy, dishonour, and loss. This is a card of pyrrhic victories and hard choices around the need to win and at what cost.

Six of Swords — Mercury in Aquarius — Earned Success
Journeys can be found in the cadent houses of the zodiac, with the third, ninth, and twelfth houses representing short-/routine and long-/foreign travel (third and ninth respectively), as well as “forced” travel (twelfth house). The latter most commonly appears as exile in our astrological parlance. Literally and metaphorically, this card can represent us leaving painful circumstances behind. Reversed, delays in journeys are implied.

Seven of Swords — Moon in Aquarius — Unstable Effort
I have always associated this card with hidden enemies: deception, false friends, gossip, backstabbers, and people sneaking off with things under the cover of darkness. Of course, the card has broader correspondences, including manipulation and self-serving opportunism, but the deceptive qualities traditionally associated with the Major Arcana’s Moon card find their expression here in quintessential twelfth-house fashion.

Seven of Swords. A figure holding five swords with two in the foreground, appearing as though they are making off with them.

Eight of Swords — Jupiter in Gemini — Shortened Force
The theme of hidden things reappear in the Eight of Swords, except, this time, the strictures and limitations we impose upon ourselves are to blame. This is where the twelfth houses themes around self-undoing are at their most potent. Here we are predisposed to negative thoughts, or feelings of confinement in our current circumstances. This may be more perception than reality, but a blindfold obscures our ability to assess situations with clarity. Reversed, Jupiter has no remedy to the malefic nature of this card as accidents, illness, and other difficulties occasionally rear their ugly heads.

Nine of Swords — Mars in Gemini — Mental Cruelty
If we’re top-ten’ing cards to dread, this one makes my personal list. The card of sleepless nights, fear, anxiety and obsessions, the Nine of Swords earns its twelfth-house association by virtue of holding us captive to a far more destructive degree than the preceding Eight of Swords. The martial energies of The Tower are echoed here, pointing to the destructive capacity that mental anguish can bring.

Ten of Swords — Sun in Gemini — Ruin
This is the ultimate card of the twelfth house’s destructive tendencies. Ten swords in the back — a metaphorical death and harsh, even unwanted endings. While the sun always rises in the card’s reversal with the promise of a fresh start, upright this card can point to martyrdom and self-sacrifice, or separation in the form of divorce and breakups.

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Eclectic Occultista

Certified Hellenistic astrologer & Tarot lover. Writing weekly astrology forecasts and occasional Tarot thoughts. IG / YouTube: @theeclecticoccultista