When I was learning tarot, I was taught that the Three of Swords primarily signifies tragedy. My teacher, who I considered a very skilled reader and a spiritual master in general, displayed a distinct aversion to the Three of Swords that she didn’t show to any other card in the tarot. For her, it signaled that a dramatic loss was possible; one that could even result in mourning. Through my own research, I came to recognize themes of betrayal linked to the loss in the Three of Swords. Personally, I’ve always associated betrayal to sexual or romantic aspects of my life and I wanted to convey that sense of sexuality along with pain and brutality. Here, we are introduced to another pair of spectres in the afterlife of Ash Gravedust: his estranged wife and the woman with whom she fell in love. While the image clearly depicts Ash responding in a jealous homicidal rage, this action is contained within the spirit world. Ash did not actually murder his wife or her lover. In fact, he didn’t even know that his wife was engaged in a lesbian love affair behind his back until this moment. It’s a bit like A Christmas Carol except Ash is being haunted by a reality left in his wake. Even prior to his death, his wife was driven to explore her true desires and Ash is left ineffectually stabbing at demonic mirages that feed off of his devastation. Though it was Ash’s shortcomings as a partner that eventually resulted in his wife finding pleasure in the arms of another, he is left baffled and victimized in a private hell while the reanimated corpse of his former bounty hunting comrade, Zombie Red, delights in licking the blood from the blade on the other side of the wall.
A Personal Intensity Bleeding into the Three of Swords
The Three of Swords is easily one of the most intense cards (if not the most intense card) I’ve illustrated. As my life often parallels my work on the tarot, I feared something major could happen…a death or something. But while I was working on this card, my marriage came to an end. This card doesn’t remind me specifically of that time; its imagery is tied to far too many personal feelings and experiences that have stretched across my life. But that energy of grief and pain, of a partnership collapsing, bleeds into the watercolors and ink of my Three of Swords.
The Death Spectrum
There is an intense moodiness in the Three of Swords but I felt two distinct types of moodiness; the stormy cold blue of grief and the burning hot red of passion. When something beautiful dies, you see a full spectrum, all of the highs and lows as the lights go out into permanent darkness. Here, I juxtaposed the red intensity of emotion in the room of the haunted house as a symbol of the heart. Outside is the cold reality. Ash’s sword is violently puncturing the red room, the heart, leaving it vulnerable to that cold blue world that will soon consume it.
What Once Was Living Now is Dead
Stormy winds blow red, dead leaves across the harsh landscape like droplets of blood. Zombie Red is crouched beneath a dead tree, a reminder that what was once so full of life is now dead. The spectres that have adopted the images of Ash's wife and her new lover are in a strange state. Mesmerized by sexual desire with fanged mouths open in soft moans, they seem to not even notice the trinity of swords piercing their hearts. Yet, tears spill from their white eyes as a ghost tribute to tragedy.
To Crumble Inelegantly
The Two of Swords presented a problem that Ash had to face but couldn’t through his sense of shock. Here, that problem intensifies and explodes into a burst of revelation. Reality can only be ignored for so long. Ash’s response is frenzied and far from elegant as he stabs through the spectres that somehow emit wild ecstasy and a deep sense of the forlorn. Hot tears spill from Ash’s eyes as he recognizes the truth, the consequences of his life. His paralysis is gone but his action is to dramatically shatter. The Three of Swords is a reminder that our actions have consequences and that our shadows don’t disappear when we ignore them but often instead build inertia and power. Ash’s wife is not to blame. His choices resulted in neglect so she found sexual infatuation in another and that sexual infatuation turned into love. The silver lining of this very black cloud is that with Ash released from his illusions, he can feel enough pain to finally take action. In his case, it’s still a long, painful road.
Symbols of Lust Eroding Stagnant Love
With the Three of Swords being such a pinnacle of emotion for me, I found it easy to work in several relevant symbols. At the top right corner, a cobra chandelier decorates the haunted house inhabited by the lesbian spectres. Here, the chandelier references illumination while the serpentine design alludes to betrayal. A vase of anthurium flowers stands on a dresser behind Ash and the spectres. Anthurium are heart shaped, poisonous flowers with a phallic spadix and vaginal spathe (I won’t connect the dots any further than that). The dresser itself features ornamental vulture skulls. Being a bird, the vulture is an agent of the air element but is also distinctly a carrion feeder, attracted to death. The handles of the dresser are the first appearance of the komainu. The komainu appear in three cards of my Swords Suit and are each time defective. Komainu, or foo dogs, were used to guard houses from evil spirits. I’ll go into greater detail about this trait of the komainu in the Four of Swords but for now, I’ll point out that the ring in the mouths of these komainu dresser handles are preventing them from protecting this house from evil spirits. The haunted centerfold portrait adorning the walls of the lesbian spectres is one of my favorite aspects of this illustration. The white-eyed centerfold represents the essence of sexual seduction and the perspective of resulting corruption. She is directly tied to personal childhood nightmares and sexual awakenings I had in the ‘80s. Her vagina, often associated with the creation of life, is replaced by a deep red coffin with an inverted cross, creating a juvenile allusion to the vandalism of sacred feeling. This portrait taunts Ash, a symbol that feelings of love were easily washed away by perverse fantasy and lust. This is not to say that I believe there is anything perverse or abnormal about lesbianism. Instead, it’s meant to show Ash’s unrealistically sweet impression of his wife as she gives in to a longing he never knew, one that corrupts his fantasy vision of her. As she receives new heights of pleasure from another woman, Ash ineffectually stabs at them with his sword and they take no notice.
Further Swords in Service to the Air Element
Two new sword designs are introduced into this illustration that relate more to the overall themes of the Suit of Swords than to the specific themes of the Three of Swords. One of the swords has a stylized guard that resembles a hurricane, a symbol of adversity and confusion in that it spins in circles. A literal eye is placed at the center of the storm, a reference to seeing the truth through deception, despite the pain it may bring. This pain is further reinforced through a tear pouring from the eye. The symbol of the air element is on the grip of the sword. A second sword features a guard of metallic bat wings that descend into a whirling cyclone guard. Again, the bat is an air agent representing themes of death, rebirth and the need to let go of things in our past that no longer serve us. The cyclone guard, like the hurricane guard, references dizzying mental confusion and challenges.
The border depicts breaking ashen hearts to remind us of perspectives of emotional treason that Ash is feeling as he begins to comprehend his consequences. The corners depict Zombie Red’s sword of fear and doubt plunging through a heart.