Two Kinds of Thinking

“The right way to wholeness is made up, unfortunately, of fateful detours and wrong turnings . . . . not straight but snakelike, a path that unites the opposites in the manner of the guiding caduceus, a path whose labyrinthine twists and turns are not lacking in terrors.”

C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, par. 6

The first card in this Tarot Journey is the Six of Swords RX.  It is not the image I would have chosen to begin with.  The card itself is fine: I intend to write at length about the Minor Arcana, but I had hoped to leave off the discussion of RX cards until I had gotten a bit of traction.  However, I have discovered over the years that when dealing with the Tarot, my conscious intention is rarely the determining factor and seldom gets me to where I need to be when I stubbornly cling to it, so I will have to deal with reversals sooner rather than later.  However, before examining what an image portends when it is turned upside down, we have to figure out what it signifies upright, so I have rotated my initial card (which comes from the Conver-Ben-Dov Tarot de Marseille) for purposes of this post.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Six of Swords is the depiction of the swords themselves, for they do not look like swords in the least.  We see no pommels, grips, or cross guards – we do not see anything that even resembles a blade for that matter! – and were we to present this card to someone unfamiliar with TdM imagery, it is doubtful he would be able to correctly identify the suit to which it belongs.  This is not an issue we encounter with the other suits: in the Six of Cups, we see six cups; in the Six of Batons, we see six batons; and in the Six of Coins, six coins – there is no ambiguity.  Further, we do see swords that look like swords in the hands of the court figures, in the grip of the disembodied hand on the Ace of Swords, and in the three, five, seven, nine, and ten of the number cards, all in the center and caught within the mesh of the highly abstract arching “swords.”  Moreover, when we survey the suit from decks not inspired by Marseilles imagery, such as those devised by A. E. Waite and Pamela Colman-Smith, Aleister Crowley, and many others, not to mention the Sola Busca and Visconti-Sforza decks, the swords, though sometimes highly stylish, are all easily recognizable as swords.  Thus, if we truly hope to gain insight into this card, we must begin with the questions: Why don’t the swords look like swords?  What is the point of this abstraction?  Why is this level of abstraction an element of this one suit and none of the others?  What is different about this suit?

These are vast questions that ought to be dealt with thoroughly rather than quickly, which brings me to a few thoughts about the minor suits of the Tarot, such as why are there four of them rather than three, five, or seven?   Somehow four seems just right to compliment the Major Arcana.

Carl Jung discovered in the course of his studies a basic fourfold structure in the human psyche – to put it bluntly: this is how our minds tend to work; thus, the number four crops up over and over again in our interpretation of the world.  For instance, we recognize four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west) and four other ordinal or intercardinal directions (northeast, southeast, southwest, northwest), four seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter), four phases of the moon (new, first quarter, full, last quarter), four winds.[1]  The Pythagoreans believed four was a perfect number and symbolized God.  We still regard four as representing order and stability (traditional tables and chairs, for instance, have four legs).  Four is a number of completion, and in Western Classical ideology, there were said to be four elements – earth, air, fire, and water – which practitioners of the Tarot have linked to the four suits of the Minor Arcana – Coins, Swords, Wands, and Cups respectively.  Air is associated with thought; thus, Robert M. Place, in The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination, writes, Swords “is the suit of air and the thinking function.”  Thinking is one of the four conscious functions discovered by Jung through which people relate to the world (the others being Feeling, Sensation, and Intuition).  In her book Tarot as a Way of Life, Karen Hamaker-Zondag writes that Swords “represent the power of discrimination as expressed in thinking and logic.”  Yoav Ben-Dov in Tarot: The Open Reading continues in the same vein when he writes, “The suit of swords expresses ideas and thoughts, an ability to focus, decision-making…  In common language we often use the image of the rational mind as a blade which cuts and separates things”; and Clive Barrett (The Ancient Egyptian Tarot) states, “The element of air relates to the mind, thinking and communication – language both written and spoken.  This is the domain of the intellect, reason and clarity of thought, giving rise to inquisitiveness and idealism.  There is a love of the precision of mathematics, logic rules the imagination.”

These quotes (and many others scattered through countless Tarot books) identify but a single kind of thinking which Jung termed “reality thinking,” thinking which is the result of conscious effort and is outwardly directed: thinking which begins with a leading idea, follows a clearly defined train of thought and generates, when “successful,” a logical conclusion.  Clarity is of paramount importance; and when we are intensely engaged in this purposive activity, we begin to think in words, especially when we are trying very hard to figure things out.  We may refer to this as “sword thinking,” using the sharply honed mind to slice through the most tangled and difficult of problems, the way Alexander the Great “solved” the Gordian knot, for instance.  This is also thinking which is adapted to the outer world: it mimics the external world and is aimed at working within (perhaps extending) the limits that world.  Reality thinking makes sense to us, particularly since it makes sense.  We can speculate how such thinking came about: our earliest ancestors, living in small groups, depending for their survival on their capacity to function together, needed a means by which they could communicate to one another an approaching danger or where food was to be found.  As their cognitive abilities developed, their languages became increasingly complex, and that complexity stimulated ever greater advancements in their cognitive range and proficiency, leading to the development of tools, philosophy, the rudiments of science and technology, always drawing us out of ourselves and into a more objective existence.

However, Jung also identified a second type of non-directed “dream-thinking,” which manifests itself in a highly subjective symbolic language that frequently makes no sense when outwardly (and literally) applied and which directs us into our own depths and has exercised a powerful influence over us since the arrival of Homo sapiens on the scene, some 100,000 years ago; it led early man to ritually bury the dead with flowers, food, and the tools they would need in the next life, and 70,000 years later, impelled him into pitch black crawlways, literally risking life and limb, to paint images of animals on the cave walls, as well as other magical figures that have never existed anywhere but in the imaginations of these shamanic artists.  Even today, though we devalue this non-linear, non-rational “dream thinking” in our Western world, we remain in thrall of its symbols – religious, nationalistic, and otherwise – to such as extent that we willingly, even enthusiastically, go to war over them; they are, as Robinson Jeffers wrote in his 1925 poem Roan Stallion “the phantom rulers of humanity that without being are yet more real than what they are born of, and without shape, shape that which makes them.”

Two forces are constantly at work within us.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe referred to them as systole – the heart contracts and pumps oxygen-rich blood out into the arteries to be dispersed throughout the body – and diastole – the heart relaxes and is filled with oxygen-poor blood from the veins which is then sent to the lungs to be reinfused with oxygen, to be sent by the heart once again throughout the body.  Jung called these mechanisms within us extraversion – the flowing of interest from the individual outward into the world – and introversion – “movement of interest away from the object to the subject and his own psychological processes” (C. G. Jung, Psychological Types, par. 4).

 “Ars totum requirit hominem,” is the alchemist’s admonition to any who would pursue his secrets: “the art requires the whole man.”  Systole and diastole function together to make life possible.  Extraversion and introversion, reality thinking and dream thinking function together to elevate us from hominid to Human.  When systole, extraversion, reality-thinking become preeminent values as diastole, introversion, dream-thinking are diminished through neglect, as in Western culture, the result is an overriding focus on details, an emphasis on delineations and distinctions while the greater pattern, of which these particulars are but expressions, is lost.

In the introduction to his autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung writes, “Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome.  Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome.  The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer.  Then it withers away – an ephemeral apparition.  When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity.  Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux.  What we see is the blossom, which passes.  The rhizome remains.” 

The Tarot de Marseille seems to me unique in that the number cards are more closely related and interdependent than their counterparts from other decks.  This is the aspect of the TdM minor arcana that is not stressed nearly enough (if it is even addressed at all) in the books I have read purporting to provide commentaries on these all-to-often overlooked cards.  Before we can hope to discover meaning in the Six of Swords, we must discern how it fits into and contributes to the overall suit – a task rendered unnecessary in the vast majority of decks.


[1]       This observation of groupings into fours is true only in a general and not an absolute sense.  For instance, most countries near the equator acknowledge only two seasons (wet and dry); Sweden identifies three seasons (summer, autumn, winter), while Bangladesh has six (Summer, Monsoon, Autumn, Late Autumn, Winter and Spring).  In a similar vein, while many classical civilizations recognized four elements which made up all the things of the world, some ancient cultures added “the void” or “spirit” as a fifth, while Aristotle argued that since the heavens appeared to be unchanging, they had to be composed of something else entirely, which he named aether.   

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