This is one of a series of articles that I wrote over my five years as the tarot columnist at Planet Waves. I will be re-releasing these, one at a time, over the coming weeks and months.
The tarot describes a journey. More precisely, it describes our journey through life, and through the development of our own consciousness, or self-awareness.
Initiation, duality, complexity, pause, conflict: we’ve had it all in the run-up to today’s group of cards, the Sixes. And here we have yet another change. In the Fives we hit the resistance and upheaval of rough seas. In the Sixes, just for a moment, we find ourselves in calmer waters, where we are able to regroup, take stock, and act with more clarity. What follows is a description of each card, starting with the most nebulous — the Wands — and moving deeper into the world of matter as we arrive at the Pentacles.
Six of Wands
A red-cloaked man rides into town on his elaborately mantled horse, his chest thrust forward in a gesture of pride and authority. He holds a wand firmly in his right hand, which is joined by five other wands being held aloft behind him. His wand is garlanded with a red-ribboned laurel wreath, and he wears a second laurel wreath on his head.
The colours in the picture are vibrant: red, yellow, green, brown, with a cobalt-blue sky. This brightness is extended to the feel of the card, and its obvious reference to celebration and harmony. He has, in some way, graduated.
The five figures in the Five of Wands, at odds with each other and lacking any organisation or cohesion, have transformed into protagonist and spectators, united in a common purpose: celebration.
In ancient Greece, both laurel wreaths and red ribbons were given to athletic victors — and yet the main figure is certainly not dressed as an athlete. There is a lot of finery, from the spectators’ headgear to the horse’s green cape with ruffled collar. There is no armour to indicate a battle, either. Perhaps the parade comes some time after the event it celebrates.
Nevertheless, the Six of Wands is also about graduation in a less concrete sense. We graduate when move through one phase and reach the boundary to the next one. We also graduate when we assume the mantle of responsibility. We become initiates.
The Six of Wands is not concerned directly with battle, competition or conquest as implied in the Five, but with the recognition that issues from these.
The Five might have had a feeling of futility about it, but our judgement of what we perceive a situation to be often has no bearing on its outcome.
When the Six of Wands comes up, it represents a moment in the sun. The potential sticking point is in assuming that this state is permanent. All processions come to an end, and graduation implies doing something with what we have earned. It’s not a time to rest on our laurels, so to speak!
Six of Cups
The first thing that I notice with this card is the perspective: the figure on the left — which I take to be a boy — is huge, dwarfing the female figure (young or old?) on the right. He even seems out of proportion to the steps behind him, and in comparison with the man marching into the background. It is as if he has been drawn to be symbolic more than life-like.
As with the Six of Wands, the colours are warm, with a predominance of yellow and key elements of red and white. The way the boy stoops towards the female figure feels solicitous, and his red hood — bright like blood, a life-giving source — reinforces this. Yellow is reminiscent of the Sun — and The Sun in the major arcana — evoking a sense of joy, and spiritual as well as physical lightness. The cups meld into the surrounding scene, part and parcel of an intensity of emotion. Each cup holds a single, white flower, symbolic of purity, and one that is rooted in emotion: the flowers are part of a thriving plant rather than a bloom that has been cut from its source.
And this is really what the Six of Cups is about — namely, a sense of joy and belonging that comes from one’s roots. This is the card of fertility and the idea of family that springs from this (and I use the term “family” in a broad sense, relating to the place that feels most like ‘home’). It speaks of the security that comes from having felt love and nurturance, which can then be awakened in the present.
Like the Wands, this is no time for discord: the man walking away holds what looks like a spear in his hand. He is greyed out. The spectre of disagreement might be present, but it is of little concern to us. This is the card where disagreement is put to one side.
After the disappointment and not-a-little-bit of drama in the Five of Cups, the Six of Cups brings us a moment of respite, when we can look back to something with warm thoughts and feelings and remind ourselves that all is not lost. Indeed, we cannot lose that which is so deeply seated in our hearts; and it is this idea that takes us on to the ensuing cards in the Cups suit.
Six of Swords
The Six of Swords is a card of hope; and yet the ordeal that the people have been through is still apparent.
I feel the need to be mindful: to acknowledge that what the three figures are moving from is as much a part of their experience as what they are moving towards — perhaps even more so, because while the future is unclear, they carry the weight of the past with them (a contrast to the Six of Cups where the past is one that is remembered through a warmer lens). I suggest that this card often asks respect and sensitivity of a reader. Not probing questions, nor the dissection of what has happened, but a holding of space — a gentle inward nod — before turning in the direction of the horizon.
A man stands at the back of a punt, pole in hand, moving the vessel through the water. A larger figure and smaller figure — a woman and a child, perhaps — sit in the punt. Their backs are facing us, and the larger figures — especially the one seated — have hunched shoulders, as if they are carrying an invisible burden.
Six swords stand vertical in the bow of the punt, tips down, crowding around the feet of the two seated figures. If the Swords suit refers to thoughts and mental processes, it is as if they are dominating the people in the boat, standing guard over them and keeping them seated, in a state of submission. They also obscure their field of vision, preventing them from having an unimpeded view of what lies ahead of them.
On the near side of the punt, the water is choppy; to the left, it is calm. This is the passage from something volatile to quieter shores - although the land and water that the figures are heading towards are monochrome, the skies a flat grey. While smoother waters are promised, ground needs to be covered - a mental clarity is demanded - before it is reached.
Sometimes this card can speak of a physical journey over water, but to fall back on that interpretation every time the Six of Swords comes up in a reading can be to oversimplify things. There might indeed be a change of geography, but that is itself often preceded by a change of heart, or of mind.
And then I see something new: what if the figures are unaware of their six steely travelling companions? If so, then perhaps the Swords represent a state of mind that is, as yet, not fully conscious. Perhaps that is why the figures don’t move them out of the way: right now, they are helpless to do so. In which case the Six of Swords might offer a more cautionary flip-side to the Six of Cups:
Wherever you go, there you are.
The past is past, but the swords remain. Will a new environment offer a new perspective and a shift in energy? What we do know is that the Six of Swords will eventually give way to the march of the Eight, Nine, and Ten of Swords, where the ‘fight’ is taken within.
Six of Pentacles
On the surface, it looks like the Six of Pentacles is about generosity, pure and simple. But when I look again, another meaning becomes apparent to me.
If the Sixes represent a respite from the conflict of the Fives, it is clear that conflict, although diminished, still hovers on the sidelines. In the Six of Wands, the jubilant rider still has trials and tests to his skills ahead of him. In the Six of Cups, the warm memories of the past cannot block out entirely the possibility of discord. In the Six of Swords, there is little indication of what lies past the calmer waters. And here, in the Six of Pentacles, there is the indication that fortunes can change, and that the power to enrich can also be subject to "power over".
A wealthy businessman, dressed in heavy, red robe and turban stands within a canopy of Pentacles. His left hand holds a pair of scales; his right hand drops coins into the palms of a man kneeling in front of him. Another man is kneeling on his other side. Both stooping figures look as materially poor as the merchant looks rich. Both are in a subordinate position, appealing to the merchant’s generosity.
But just how generous is the merchant being? The six pentacles dominate the picture, and they surround him rather than all three figures. This indicates significant wealth. Yet he weighs and drops only four small coins into his supplicant’s hands. The other man, it seems, has yet to receive anything.
To these men, the merchant might indeed be generous. We, however, are perhaps given a different perspective.
What he gives cannot be measured equally against what he has, and, for me, the presence of the scales and the small coins, with the conspicuous pentacles in the background, make him seem more miserly than munificent.
There seems to be a condition attached to his giving. Do the scales simply measure the weight of the coins? Or do they also weigh the worthiness of the recipients in the merchant’s eyes?
Look at the kneeling figure on the right. His garments are mainly blue with some red, while the merchant’s are a mirror of that. And the figure on the right is directly beneath three of the pentacles, which seem to flow towards him, a contrast to the much smaller coins flowing into his hand.
In the blink of an eye, fortunes can be turned. We cannot see ahead to find out what happens. As with other Sixes, any wealth or gain depicted has been achieved in the past. Given that material richness can be lost, and places can be traded, how generous does it serve us to be?
All the Sixes are about calmer waters, where things flow towards rather than against us. But tides turn.
“You have triumphed; you have safe passage; you have a source of emotional security; you have material wealth,” they seem to call. “Use what you have been given, and use it well.”