Stepping away from the mirror – the Threes in tarot

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Editor’s Note: If you want to experiment with tarot cards and don’t have any, we provide a free tarot spread generator using the Celtic Wings spread, which is based on the traditional Celtic Cross spread. This article tells you how to use the spread. You can visit Sarah’s website here. –efc

By Sarah Taylor

Following on from the article two weeks ago on the Twos, this week we take a look at the Threes in tarot.

I find the Threes an interesting bunch. Collectively, they bring up an initial reaction for me that’s hard to define. Perhaps it is ambivalence, and perhaps that comes from the fact that they appear contradictory: two of them seem relatively mundane, while the other two seem less so. Two are outwardly harmonious; one is a study in expectancy, action suspended; while the imagery in the fourth is uncompromisingly violent.

Three of Wands and Three of Cups - RWS Tarot deck.

The Three of Wands and the Three of Cups from the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot deck.

Or can each be summed up quite so straightforwardly? Is there perhaps more to the Threes than first meets the eye?

If we view the cards in a suit as a progression from the suit’s potential (Ace) to its balanced expression in humanity (King and Queen), it follows that the Threes are a logical progression from the Twos. In the Twos, we saw potential incarnate in the balance of opposites: duality — although there was already the indication that the notion of true balance is subject to compromise. After all, we may strive for an ideal, but life is such that we rarely, if ever, attain it.

In the Threes, we bear witness to what happens when a third element enters the picture. Each suit shows us a different result of that. This is in keeping with the Threes’ major arcana equivalent, The Empress. Contrary to the notion that The Empress is simply about creation in its life-giving sense, the card is concerned with all aspects of the cycle of life, from birth and beginnings, to consolidation and endings. Joy, sorrow, movement, stasis — the things we can encounter when we choose to strike out in a particular direction. You want the human experience? Welcome to the Threes. Pick a card, any card.

Three of Wands

As the least ‘physical’ of the suits (Wands being associated with spirit and creativity), it seems apt that the Three of Wands is also the least concrete in terms of the experience it is portraying. There is a feeling of things being ‘up in the air’ here.

A figure — almost certainly a man, given his dress and the length of his hair — stands on a hill, looking out to sea. His clothes and the circlet of gold around his head suggest some considerable wealth. His right hand holds a wand staked into the ground, while another two wands are positioned behind and at either side of him. Three ships are sailing on the water below him; and given the lowering of the mountain peaks in the distance from right to left as land gives way to sea, they are departing rather than arriving.

Whereas the figure in the Two of Wands held the world of possibility in his hands, I believe that in the Three of Wands the man has worked with that possibility and the creative energies of the Wands to build up a small merchant fleet of ships. Whenever we set something we have created loose into the world, we take a gamble. How will the ships fare? Will they be successful on their voyage, or founder on the rocks? How stable is the foundation that the man is laying for himself?

The Three of Wands captures that moment when what we have created is out of our hands, and the only thing that is left to do is to wait. When we are uncertain as to how our efforts will be received, we can maintain our grounding by turning to the creative process itself — the drive that inspires and feeds us. That is what we hold as our own. The Wands, unlike the ships, stay with the figure, surrounding him, a solid frame that he can use to support himself no matter what happens beyond the horizon.

Three of Cups

This is a card of joy, celebration and abundance. Three women dance together, each holding a cup aloft. All are brightly dressed, and the colours are reflected in the fruits and flowers at their feet and woven into their hair. When there is harmony, life can flourish.

There are three figures in the Three of Pentacles too, but in the Cups card the figures are equals, co-celebrants. If the Two of Cups is about love in the conventional form of coupledom, then the Three of Cups is what issues forth from that: family. Here, though, I see ‘family’ suggested in its broadest sense. The cups form a triangle — a stable geometric shape, denoting strength in numbers and in kinship, and evocative of the Holy Trinity. Love as a human experience. Love as a nurturing principle. Love that is unselfish and inclusive. This is the message of the Three of Cups — a time of celebration and co-operation before disillusionment (Four) and loss (Five) set in. When we face adversity, it is then that we are drawn back to our emotional support structures in whose presence our lacklustre and depleted cups are revivified.

Three of Swords

Three of Swords and Three of Pentacles - RWS Tarot deck.

The Three of Swords and the Three of Pentacles from the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot deck.

I find it hard to look at the Three of Swords without wincing from the pain suggested by its imagery. Against a backdrop of heavy grey clouds and rain sits a red heart, pierced through with three interlocking swords. The picture is austere and ruthless.

In the Two of Swords, we explored the idea of the balance of opposing thoughts or ideas. In the Three of Swords, the truce has ended and we sit with the result of the conflict. This card is often associated with love triangles and comes up in readings where there are several people whose lives are intertwined in such a way as to create conflict, either internal or external.

However, the heart in the Three of Swords is stylised to the point where it lacks nuance. And I think that is the point. Swords are about thoughts, not emotions, and the card that is concerned with emotions (the Three of Cups) paints a picture that is about as far from conflict as one can get. Thoughts have the power to affect our feelings, and here they are holding a heart to ransom. Any movement could tear it apart. But if we have identified our true emotional centre with the heart in this picture, then this is the most misleading thought of all. The heart doesn’t seem real, and what we think of as love here isn’t real love at all. As we have seen in the Three of Cups, the genuine article is inclusive, not divisive.

Yet, there is hope: all of the swords have been drawn and used. Everyone has played their hand, and the truth of the situation stands revealed. The Three of Swords might be harsh, but it is hard to ignore such a strident wake-up call. Perhaps everyone involved can now start to move forward, perhaps a little wiser if rather bruised.

Three of Pentacles

Three figures stand before an archway in what seems to be a church. A monk consults with a brightly robed figure who is holding an architectural drawing, while an aproned man stands to their left, as if poised to add something to the decorative stonework.

Whereas the Two of Pentacles was about the judicious balancing of resources, the Three is about building on existing resources through the acquisition and application of skills. The man on the left has an air of youth and inexperience. He has not yet attained the ability or the station in life to work autonomously, and he looks to the other figures for guidance. He is learning on the job, and in the process not only helping to create a solid structure in the form of the church: he is also laying the foundations of his own craftsmanship.

In the Three of Pentacles, we move into the wider world, starting from the bottom and working up. This youthful figure is the merchant in the Wands when he owned a wheelbarrow in the marketplace. He is the monk in this card when he was taking his first vows at the seminary. But the kernel of promise is there, evoked in the arch itself. Archways are strong by necessity — doorways that also need to support the structures above them. This one is particularly beautiful, and the youth has both financial and spiritual support (the two figures) to draw from. The next step will be the Four of Pentacles, heralding in a period of consolidation.

From a single point (Ace), to a line made by two points (Two), things now start to take shape (Three); and as we journey from here along the rest of the suit, more sides are added to our story.

Sarah Taylor

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8 Responses to Stepping away from the mirror – the Threes in tarot

  1. Amanda Painter Amanda Painter says:

    it was really amazing to watch it in action (or rather, feel it while watching) the first time. totally organic.

  2. awordedgewise awordedgewise says:

    FIrst I’d heard that – so you get all the credit! :)
    Really useful tool, that observation of tension on/off! Thank you!

  3. Sarah Taylor sarah taylor says:

    Amanda, that is a *great* analogy. Inspired. Thank you for sharing it with us!

    — S

  4. Len Wallick Len Wallick says:

    Actually, it seems as though you make a very good point. You have this knack for thoughtful comment that persists in the mind of those who heed your words. Thank you again.

  5. Amanda Painter Amanda Painter says:

    my first thought in reading the article was to remember a simple demonstration from a college acting class. without any dialogue or action, the teacher had first one person sit on stage. they were then joined by a second. then a third, then a fourth & a fifth, some sitting some standing in a grouping.

    after each arrival, he asked us simply to note how we felt observing the grouping. his point was that odd numbers of people automatically imply or create a feeling of tension and apprehension; of uncertainty and some sort of inevitable action. each time a person was added to form an even-numbered group, the tension resolved.

    the threes seemed to be bearing this out perfectly (even the three of wands carries the tension/apprehension of releasing the ships to the wide world, fate unknown) except for the three of cups.

    “harmony?!” i thought. “harmony doesn’t jive with the tension theory!”

    and then i thought of music: of three-part harmony, specifically. that seems a more functional equivalent to the three of cups. it’s not tension in a negative sense, but a functional tension akin perhaps to the tension that makes a triangle a stable geometric shape.

    but i maybe stretching things here… just some thoughts! :)

  6. Charles says:

    Third time’s a charm.

  7. Sarah Taylor sarah taylor says:

    Hey, Len – I felt your silence over the past couple of weeks. Please let me know how I might better line up the breadcrumbs so that it’s easier to make progress through the woods, as it were. Any and all suggestions welcome!

    Regarding your question about predisposition and certain cards … I haven’t considered that specifically, but I am almost certain that certain cards speak to some people more than others, depending what is in their psychological makeup. That’s my point of view, anyway. If a card doesn’t resonate, then perhaps it isn’t activating anything in you right now. Perhaps that’s the difference between getting a serialised explanation of the cards, and having a reading. In a reading, all cards will resonate because they are hand-picked for you. In a series, that might not always be the case – so a learning experience might sometimes be more intellectual than intuitive, and hence will not ‘stick’ as well. I’m thinking on my feet here, if you hadn’t guessed! :)

    A lack of resonance is not the same as ambivalence, by the way – which was my reaction to the threes. Ambivalence is just as valuable an indication that there is something going on as a strongly positive or negative reaction. I read today that threes are problematic for many people – more difficult to interpret – and that was definitely my challenge. I’ll be very interested to read any other intepretive contributions about them in the comments.

    And what a compliment you pay with your suggestion about the articles! I had absolutely no plan to publish them in any other format — there are so many worthy sources that exist in book form already.

  8. Len Wallick Len Wallick says:

    Thank you. For a while it felt as though i was losing the trail of breadcrumbs as your series progressed. Now, with the threes, i am getting it again. Please, have you found that some people are predisposed to get some cards more than others? Also, is here a plan for you to publish the Planet Waves installments as a book?

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