I’m not sure if I’ve ever fully subscribed to the saying “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself” though there is definitely some wisdom in the old adage. I can think of several examples from my own life in which my trepidation and worry turned out to be completely unfounded or much worse than the resulting reality. This message is at the heart of the Nine of Swords, often referred to as the “nightmare” card. It’s the point where our problems have not only caught up to us but created an unshaken certainty in our own doom. Sometimes, this fatalistic feeling is totally unwarranted and turns out to not be such a big deal. Other times, we are actually attracting intense issues through our own belief in these fears. The nightmares cross from the incorporeal to the corporeal and we feel the very real pain when they touch us. But the Nine of Swords is that nerve-rending moment before our fears either stab through us or crumble into dust. Nothing has actually happened but it’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to imagine anything but the worst possible outcome.
The Stage for the Nine of Swords is Set in the Eight
For Ash, this follows the events of the Eight of Swords in which he was caught between the guilt of his past and his most recent betrayal. His decision in that particular card is left open ended but in the Nine of Swords we find that House Swords and Alexis Montclaire are gone. We can assume that whatever Ash chose to do in the previous card left him vulnerable to the hypersexualized spectres and his betrayed former partner so that he is now hopelessly ensnared by them. The spectres’ ghostly hands have achieved physical form thanks to Ash’s belief in his own terror and they now hold him fixed in a kneeling position.
“I Have Nothing Left to Play”
Behind Ash, Zombie Red holds his sword of fear and doubt, smirking as he readies the swing that will inevitably end Ash’s underworld journey. Ash has a look of hopeless resignation on his face. There is nowhere left for him to run, no more choices left for him to make. His course of action now is to kneel within his crippling anxiety and submit to his seemingly predestined fate. Ash has laid his stolen sword of truth down before him in the mud since the purity of the snow is gone. It’s a gesture that recounts a tragic line from Scott Walker’s song “The Seventh Seal”, inspired by the classic Bergman film in which a knight challenges Death to a game of chess in order to delay his own demise. Walker laments from the perspective of the defeated knight, “You’ve won; I have nothing left to play.”
The Haunted Atmosphere
All of this is taking place in the yard of the final haunted house; violent red windows burning from a black structure that almost seems to melt into the black clouds of a blue night. Red bolts of lightning caress the spires of the foreboding manor in an abstract danse macabre. The defective komainu have returned, this time gleefully belching forth the ghosts that they were meant to repel. There is a demonic viciousness in these komainu as they raise their razor lined paws and emit apparitions from their fanged maws.
The Potential of Swords
It’s important to note that, despite the seemingly bleak situation, none of the nine swords in this image are actually touching Ash. The sword of truth is laid before him, the sword of fear and doubt is possibly moments away from cutting him down but has not made contact with its razor edge, the wintry snowflake icicle swords pierce the hearts of the spectres as a reminder of Ash’s past failures, and five vulture skull swords are suspended in the air, all pointed ominously at Ash. The dark prophecy of the vulture sword is perhaps never more poignant than in this moment as Ash has already accepted, albeit with horror, that everything he knows is about to end yet again.
The Warnings of Rabbits
In the borders, we see the sword of truth fully eclipsed so that the silver has succumbed completely to the black. All of these border swords are pointed inward to symbolize the inevitability of death. The border also features rabbit skulls similar to the one that crowns Zombie Red’s sword of doubt and fear. As I’ve explained in previous tarot cards, Native American mythology often regards the rabbit as a reminder to not call our incorporeal fears into reality by fixating on them. It’s a very easy trap to fall into when the Nine of Swords is at play. In this case, the skulls indicate that these particular rabbits were not able to overcome their fears and thus attracted them, resulting in their own deaths.
In the Ace of Swords, Ash was given a new life in the underworld and he has spent his journey over the last nine cards continuing to run from his past or failing in his methods of confronting his ghosts. He allowed himself to become tied to fears instead of living again, making his decisions out of terror rather than faith. In the Nine of Swords, that trepidation gave shape to his fears. The consequences of committing to his own worries find Ash in the midst of an execution of which there seems to be no escape.