The 9 of Swords is a card of mental suffering. Running the entire gamut of quotidian “mental illness” — anxiety, worry, doubt, depression, bereavement, insomnia, self-cruelty, guilt, foreboding, etc. — the 9 of Swords is indicative of acute psychic anguish, intrusive thoughts, obsession, and compulsion. The monkey mind has run amok in a closed circle of what-if, what-if, what-if, and if-only which, although seemingly leading nowhere, may need to exhaust itself on its own accord… And that’s somewhere, right?
The Thoth deck represents this debilitating thought pattern as “Cruelty,” with nine bloody swords pointing downwards against a sickly drab background. Endless criticism. The menacing, mean-spirited weapon of the mind. Whereas the Rider-Waite shows a bereaved insomniac lamenting in the dead of night. The nine sword handles line up with the insomniac’s pillow on the left and point to the foot of the bed on the right, their tips a jagged zig-zag which must be projected in the imagination of the viewer because they fall outside the card’s frame. Which is the “point,” bad pun intended. To the extent that the future always exceeds one’s imagination of it within the present, there can be no purpose in such compulsive worry. No one can know what their current circumstance will mean for their future selves, much less for anyone else.
The 9 of Swords shows the hubristic pain of the would-be divinator who suffers from her/his own gloomy predictions. And yet, such a state is profoundly and uniquely human!
Dali’s rendition is beautifully fascinating, and yet slightly frustrating. Using Bernini’s funerary monument to the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni (1671-4), he echoes the traditional Rider-Waite imagery while foreshadowing the total collapse and ruin represented by the 10 of Swords. Nine swords point horizontally above Ludovica’s deathbed — from left to right — against a crisp, sky blue background. The swords are bisected, as is the figure of Ludovica Albertoni, by a dripping absence of paint, almost reminiscent of Color Field. And yet here we are permitted to see the jagged zig-zag of the swords’ points, what might lie beyond the frame of the original Rider-Waite. A lone sparrow darts upward to the left (Ludovica’s soul?), while the shadow of an angel kneels at her bedside, its head bowed and illuminated. Ludovica’s deathbed, so seemingly rich and comfy in the original sculpture, has been simplified to a coral and canary yellow striped pallet.
And yet I find this image frustrating because of what I read to be its comparative hopelessness. Ludovica Albertoni was a devout Roman noblewoman who was beatified for her work with the poor, her religious ecstasies, and her reported miracles. But she wasn’t a saintly superstar. Indeed, she wasn’t even canonized. And Bernini’s monument to her is but an echo of his far more famed sculptural work, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52), for which I initially mistook it.
Ludovica Albertoni is truly meant to be dying, so unless we’re meant to understand the 9 of Swords as a genuine ending, an ecstatic Saint Teresa of Avila twisted in mental prayer might have been a more compelling choice for this card. But then, perhaps such criticism is par for this card’s course…
When you pull the 9 of Swords you are suffering from obsessive thoughts, unable to let go of myriad abstractions over which you ceaselessly fixate. You may be hyper-vigilant and yet disempowered, a victim of your own mind’s relentless machinations and meanings. Worse, you may not even know that you’re doing it.
Be kind to yourself and ease up. Neither presume to know what people think of you, nor what your future might hold. And don’t worry! Because you don’t know, you couldn’t know, and you needn’t know. (And that’s OK.)
**While all manner of comments are welcomed, any further information pertaining to art history, symbolism, myth, cultural reverberations, and Tarot card meanings that traverse decks or lend especial light to the Universal Dali deck, specifically, are actively sought and encouraged. I’m not using a book for these descriptions, so I may miss a reference that bears mention in relation to a card. If you know something, please share it! Conversely, I actively negate the astrological significations of the Trump cards within the Universal Dali deck in favor of the more traditional Thoth. My plan is to tackle the astrological significations of the Universal Dali Trumps and their overt divergence from all norms in one article… after having described each card. That’s a ways off. ;)
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