Finding Your Way Forward: The Eights 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.

When you’re feeling stuck, when you’ve reached an impasse, when you feel like you’ve been put on the back-burner; whenever any of these sensations colour how you experience your life, drawing an Eight is a clear message that things are on the move, about to move, or that you at least have the power to make a move.

Welcome to this, our eighth part in the walk through the numbers and courts of the minor arcana.

By way of a quick recap: the Major Arcana deals with broader and deeper themes around identity and the experiences of the soul on its journey towards individuation, while the Minor Arcana deals with day-to-day, functional aspects of life (which doesn’t necessarily mean that the Minors are any less important or that they feel less significant).

In other words, the Major Arcana represents the foundations of the path on our journey and the direction that it takes. The Minor Arcana represents the experience of that path, from the different surfaces we walk on to the views that we see, and the potential for how we experience the people and things that we meet on the way.

With the Sevens, we reached the mid-point of the minor arcana, and with it came the opportunity to step back and “inquire into the nature of who we are.” As I also mention in the article on the Sevens, it is the point at which we are offered a choice:

Do we continue on a particular course, or do we choose something different? This cannot be done unless there is insight. And there is no insight without consciousness.

In the Eights, things start moving again — or there is the potential to move. Whether movement is achieved through awareness or default depends on the circumstances surrounding a particular reading. Nevertheless, let’s look at each card in order (Wands, Cups, Swords, Pentacles) and see what comes to light.

Eight of Wands

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

The Eight of Wands is a comparatively straightforward tarot card for me: essentially ‘it does what it says on the box’. The title conferred on it by the little white book accompanying my deck is “Activation”; and I’m inclined to fall in line with this observation.

Eight wands appear as if from the left side of the card, slanting downwards to the right. Behind them is an expanse of blue sky, which takes up the vast majority of the background — so much so that only the wand at the bottom overlaps the landscape running along the bottom of the card. Blue sky speaks to me of unimpeded movement and of possibility. There are no clouds to slow down progress, and the sky itself is like a blank canvas. The saying “blue sky thinking” came to me as I looked at it. Clichéd as this phrase is in the corporate world, I feel that the meaning is somewhat reinvigorated in the context of this card.

The wands stand out proudly against their cobalt backdrop; and the sense of unfettered movement is complemented by the land that runs along the bottom of the card in a modest strip. There are expanses of grass dotted with trees, and the river vibrates visually with the blue heavens above it: the ideal conditions for growth. Water, as you probably know, is often associated with emotions. Here, it is flowing rather than stagnant, suggested by its running across the width of the card. It feeds the landscape around it; but although it moves, it isn’t agitated (like the sea in the Two of Pentacles, for instance).

There is a small building on the hill at the left of the picture. It looks like a ruin, though doesn’t smack of desolation or disintegration. More like a gentle mellowing. The wands travel over it. The ruin has had its (productive) time, and now it’s time to move on.

And finally the wands themselves. There is an element of speed that is implied rather than explicit. There are no ‘speed lines’ accompanying the wands, no backward movement of the sprigs on the shafts. And yet there is a sense of action in their angle, the fact that they are airborne. They are in parallel formation, controlled by a power that lies within them but also has its roots elsewhere (in the observer). They will land where they are most useful. An energetic alliance.

One of the wands lags very slightly behind the rest. Catching up, perhaps? In which case, maybe it is the wand that the figure holds in the Seven of Wands. In the Seven of Wands reading, I remarked that I felt that the figure was at odds with himself, and that the battle was an inner one, rather than one that involved other people. In the Eight, that sense of antagonism has been defused as the wands (the psyche) unite, the wand that the figure was holding being the one that is a little later on the uptake, and moving in to catch up with its counterparts.

Integration and action, and a swift transition on to the next phase. That, in essence, is the Eight of Wands.


Eight of Cups

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

Some years ago when I was seeing a counsellor who sometimes worked with tarot cards in her sessions with clients, we pulled the Eight of Cups in a reading about a relationship that was at once frustrating and perplexing me, and in which I had a significant emotional investment.

It was as clear an indication as there could be that the relationship was not going to be going the way I wanted it to go, and that even if I weren’t choosing to walk away, there was nothing I could do to stop the flow of events. (Incidentally, this is a good example of the idea of “movement through awareness or default” that I referred to earlier: I could have accepted that the relationship that I wanted was over, or I could have remained in denial about it. I defaulted to the latter, my customary behaviour in these circumstances. Either way, the outcome was the same. It was my experience of that outcome that could possibly have been different had I moved through it more consciously.)

In the card, eight cups sit in the foreground, three on top of five. In the background, a red-coated and -booted figure walks away from them — the separation between cups and figure emphasised by the different landscapes divided by water. The middle ground looks like a shoreline dotted with rocky promontories. In the cloudless sky above, a sober Moon eclipses the Sun.

The first thing that I find interesting about the card is the space between the second and third cups on the upper tier. As if the space is left to make room for the figure’s feet. Even though he is walking away, there is still a visual involvement with the cups, which to me indicates an involvement on the part of the figure that is perhaps not fully conscious, or knowable.

The cups are participating in the scene as much as the figure. To me, they are standing aside, giving space, flanking the man even as they are separated by distance. They do not ‘crowd out’ by covering his exit. There is an awareness of him even as he walks away.

Water often symbolises emotions in the tarot, and here, broken as it is by the rocks, it feels complex in nature. There are too many interruptions for it to flow smoothly or to achieve any depth. And finally, the Sun and the Moon in the sky indicate the mood. The Sun — symbol of enlightenment and of clarity and joy — is blocked by the Moon — where everything is cast into shadow, unclear, and where all manner of things real and unreal lurk in nooks and crannies. The Moon is meditative rather than sad. This is what she does. She renders things indistinct and ambiguous.

That being said, an eclipse (of the heart, of the soul, of direction) might be intense but it is not permanent, nor has the Sun gone: it is simply out of sight for a while. The figure is moving, perhaps unaware of the pivotal role that the cups are still playing in the experience of the card, and perhaps with some despondency (his hunched shoulders and the reliance on a staff bear testament to this) — but he is moving nonetheless. As is the Moon over the Sun. This is a moment of transition, and it will pass.


Eight of Swords

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

Again, the Eight of Swords refers to something that is relatively short-lived — although the temporary nature of her predicament is likely not immediately clear to our protagonist.

A woman stands bound and blindfolded, surrounded on both sides by eight swords — three to her right, five to her left — that have been driven into the ground tip-first. The bare earth beneath her feet is puddled with water. In the middle ground there seems to be a larger body of water, and in the background a red-roofed and -turreted building sits on a rock — though where the rock ends and the building begins is indistinct. The sky is cloudless, slate grey.

It’s all in your head.

That is the phrase that sums up the Eight of Swords. At first glance, the woman’s circumstances might seem dire. In some ways, we expect it. We are talking about Swords, after all. But we can take a mental step back and give the card a second look.

This is what I see:

The woman is well-dressed and seems to be in good health. (By way of contrast, see the figures in the Five of Pentacles.) The water at her feet is shallow: on one level, this means that emotions, dominated as the puddles are by the swords, are not the most developed aspect of this card; but on another, it simply means that they pose little threat to her safety. The binding — such as it is — could be wrestled off without much effort, her blindfold then removed. And the swords only seem to be threatening because of their size and their potential, rather than what they are doing. No-one is wielding them, so, short of running into them, she is not in any physical danger.

It all looks very threatening though, doesn’t it? It’s amazing what our thoughts can do to us when we feel trapped and isolated by them (any sign of other human life is high above her, walled away), with no discernible means of escape.

Just as the swords are driven into the ground, the figure’s thoughts have driven her into the ground, bringing her to a standstill.

If she were to remove her blindfold (which we’ve established is far from impossible), then she would be able to see her way out. Sight here is equated with mental clarity, and the Eight of Swords indicates that it is by looking directly at what is threatening us that we are able to see the threat for what it is. We are battling paper tigers.


Eight of Pentacles

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

A man sits on a bench, his clothes protected by a black smock, engraving one of eight pentacles, six of which are completed and hanging on a post in front of him.

In the distance a town sits on a green hill, a yellow path curving gently towards its gate.

Like the other two figures in the Cups and the Swords, the man here is alone. However, he's not moving away from something, nor is he in a position of perceived powerlessness.

He is focused and conscious of what what lies before him.

I find my eye moving along the pentacles roughly from left to right, from the three pentacles on and around the work bench, and up the wooden column. There is an evolutionary quality to the card, and in fact the Eight of Pentacles speaks of developing a skill, or of honing one’s art. It emphasises discipline and self-application. The figure is proactive: there is no-one standing over him barking orders. Like the other protagonists, he holds the direction that he takes in his own hands.

He is quite literally forging his destiny.

The time for leisure and for pursuits that involve others is presented as a possibility, but right now a distant one: the town is there, but it is not an immediate part of his life.

I love the strength of this card — the bold colours on the man’s clothing, his curly but restrained hair, the pronounced, determined bone structure and relief of shadow on his face, the solidity and defined grain of the wood. And then in the background is this slightly whimsical drawing of the town, hill and path — a bright collection of undulations next to the more uniform lines in the foreground. It welcomes him… but not just yet.

He has work to do.

From the zingy energy of the Wands that, once initiated, carries its own momentum, to the feeling of traversing emotional ground in the Cups. From movement that asks for a change in perspective in the Swords, to a more practical, gradual form of progress described by the Pentacles — all of the Eights start the ball rolling again. We are off on another leg of our voyage of self-discovery.


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Finding Your Way Forward: The Eights In Tarot