Queen of Swords

Hello dear readers. June has just begun, a spell of sun and warming waters here on the peninsula. I write to you during a brief stay at home between stints of fieldwork on North Manitou Island, where sun bears down on sand and the waters have resolutely yet to warm.

This month we continue our consideration of the element air, and in so doing take a look at the Queen of Swords card from the Smith–Waite tarot deck.

A hand holds the card we're discussing, the Queen of Swords, up in front of the camera. On it, we see the Queen sitting in her throne adorned with butterflies and sylphs. In her right hand she holds vertically a sword. Her left is raised in a gesture to something we can't see in front of her to the right. Behind, clouds billow and a single bird flies. Just behind the card, the setting sun illuminates the crowns of a row of trees out of focus.

For the last week the wind has been altogether calm. Not a breath, as if it were being held somewhere beyond the horizon. But even without wind the air constantly moves. There seems to be no stillness where the other elements are present. Earth, water, fire; life stirs the air.

On the island, heat rises in sheets from the cobble at noon and the stones waver. Heat meets a cold layer at the water’s surface, distorting the horizon into alien forms. Through all that air we are shown mountains long worn away, plateaux from another age, dunes in the distance with impossible angles of repose. Fishing boats warp into starships and islands rise where the map shows none. This is the power of air, to raise an image from a line.

Still stirring. Consider a flock of geese flying overhead in the evening, which pulls a significant mass of air along with it. A gull circling pulls a bit less, a sandpiper calling its arc out from the shore and back less yet. Midges, by contrast, seem to drift on subtle currents rather than create them, but their wings must push equal to the slight weight of their bodies. A midge weighs more than nothing; kill one, by accident, as you brush your hand against sleeve and and watch the tiny body fall straight to the sand. Even a midge moves air, and as long as that is the case, the air is never still. Not where there is life.

In the tarot, Swords are commonly considered the suit of air, of thought. Like air, thought is neither ever still. Pneuma, breath, spirit, air in motion. Life. But stillness is nonetheless there. What does the Queen of Swords show us about this elusive thing?

She is the stillness of air, the stillness of motion itself — a paradox — which, as T.S. Eliot says,

moves perpetually in its stillness.1

We see it depicted in the sign of the Tao — the black eye in the white half, a bit of yin found this side of yang’s border. Stillness in motion is the yielding sand in firm waves, broiling air up from cold water, a passive island in the active sea which the Queen bids with her left hand to rise. Her thought seems to be oriented to something within herself, an image of the world, perhaps, an image after the world, which she has learned to discern from the world before her. A breath held.

James Hillman, in discussing vessels used by the alchemists, inverts our common conception of the vessel as vacant, as simply giving incidental shape to an empty inner space. Instead, the outer form can follow from the shape of the inner, and its stillness (after Eliot) begins within;

the exquisite shape we see is the stillness emanating from the void.2

The Queen is such a vessel; each of us is. Raise the hand, raise an image from the horizon, let out a breath.

There is my elucidation of the Queen of Swords. A bit riddling, I know. As time allows I hope to explore these riddles more. There’s always more — may time allow.

Thanks for reading this June installment of Polylith, a few days ahead of the full moon. Until next month, long light and warm air.


  1. From Four Quartets: Burnt Norton, 1943 

  2. From Rudiments: The Void in the Vessel, in Alchemical Psychology