Stepping Away From The Mirror: The Threes in Tarot

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.

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.

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 the point where the suit's expression is driving towards a necessary - inevitable - change in form (Ten), 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 from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

Three of Wands

As the least ‘physical’ of the suits (Wands being associated with libido, Eros, fire), 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’.

A figure — almost certainly a man, given the time in which the deck was created — 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 figure 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 hit 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 fiery 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 from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

Three of Cups

This is a card of joy, celebration and abundance. Three women dance together, each holding a cup above them. 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 (see below), but in the Cups card the figures are equals, co-celebrants. If the Two of Cups is about love in the conventional form of mirroring coupledom, then the Three of Cups is what issues forth from that: 'the many', community, and ‘family’ in its broadest sense.

The cups form a triangle — a stable geometric shape, denoting strength in numbers and in kinship. 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 ennui (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

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 vivid.

Three of Swords from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

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 is not it. 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. The choice is clear, however: either that heart is torn apart, offering not much to anyone at all (and that might be the best choice, paradoxically); or the damage can be mitigated by withdrawing the swords along the same planes by which they entered - in other words, to effect a precise and considered retraction of the actions/thoughts/words which started the whole thing off in the first place.



Three of Pentacles from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

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 (or "Church" as an idea/metaphor/ideal): 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.

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.

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1 Comment

  1. Lynn Carroll-Rivera on July 9, 2018 at 10:08 pm

    oh, Sarah, you are a master story teller! I love your tarot musings and always learn something from the way you view things. Thanks for another insightful article!