Digging the Roots

Digging the Roots: Why the Two of Wands Freaks Me The Hell Out

Photo credit:  Amelia Quint

Photo credit: Amelia Quint

In the Two of Wands, we find mankind’s spirit of exploration. 

The card as we know it today typically depicts a young nobleman by the shore, with a walking stalk, gazing into an orb or geographic globe. Another wand is perched nearby. The surrounding shoreline is the same fielded area that many of our characters have journeyed, or are journeying, through. Roses and lilies are present, whether they adorn his clothes or the garden in which he stands.

The shoreline tells us his journey will soon take him to sea, and into the great unknown. The orb, as orbs often do, represents the great truths of life and the universe. Traditional interpretations tell us that the white lily is our young man’s innocence, and the red rose is his courage. Or perhaps the lily is his rebirth, as he is soon to be born into a new enlightened state. Or maybe both flowers have had so many countless meanings over the last several millennia that it’s impossible to say. 

In the years of the tarot’s infancy, scientific and other such academic learnings were usually pursuits available only to the rich, or noble, or at least landed. The white lily has been associated with regality, and is perhaps telling us that knowledge is kingly. 

I will try not to obsess over the lily any further.

We often see this card when we are embarking on a new endeavor or journey, perhaps one of self-discovery. But, you know that already. 

As the tarot was taking shape in the late Renaissance, whether as a deck of playing cards, or as a divinatory mechanism and fun party trick, European man’s view of the world was changing dramatically.He had discovered another continent, begun to subjugate its inhabitants, and had sailed around the Earth. With Galileo, the European scientific revolution began, and white man moved into the early modern era.

He started down the path of understanding that, contrary to what he would like to believe, the Earth is not the center of the universe -- it’s not even the center of this solar system. He is a speck, if even that, on a blue and green marble hurtling through the black and infinite sea of space in a great ellipse that is slowly widening, casting him and all his kin farther out into the great void. This is what our young nobleman ponders. He is mankind.

This card is that journey toward understanding, even as it exists today.

Much like the ocean that our nobleman will soon sail upon, the universe is vast and unknowable, filled with knowledge that will mature us, or at the very least, freak us the hell out, and force us to feel our insignificance. 

The Two of Wands is also a call to move into this unknown with courage. The young man is unafraid. Such exploration is in our very nature, and is a large part of what it is to be human. To press on, to learn things simply to learn them, is what makes us us. Whether we are motivated by financial gain, glory, or simple curiosity, we are fulfilling our higher calling. We are moving the species forward.

When we see this card, perhaps we are not just being told that a journey is ahead of us. Maybe we are also being told that we should think bigger, push the boundaries no one else is willing to push, and try to think not as we do, but as we would like to.


This article is part of Digging the Roots, an on-going series by Zach Toman about the cultural and symbolic history of the tarot. Follow @ZachToman on Twitter. 

Digging the Roots: What the Knight of Swords Reveals About Social Justice

Photo credit:  Amelia Quint

Photo credit: Amelia Quint

When someone’s offenses make your ears burn and you shout them down, or you start that fight, or you rush to aid a friend, you are the Knight of Swords.

In many depictions, the Knight is either on horseback, bearing down on his objective at great speed, or he is shown by a burning tower. The Knight of Swords has two parallel threads of historical meaning. Both may be leading us to the same end.

The chivalric code is not something that existed in the way we like to think, as a concrete ethical code followed by all honorable knights. Rather, the code was the ideal of the age during which the tarot originally emerged. This code was later romanticised by Chretien de Troyes, who may be best known for creating Lancelot, now a fixture of Arthurian legend. The idealism of chivalry was in sharp contrast to the brutality of medieval warfare. 

The Knight of Swords is brutality and swift judgment, wrapped in morality. As we swing the sword, we believe that we are doing it in the name of Justice, but who can give us that right? Christian God? The Old Gods? Those that govern us?

The other thread is that of the Crusades. In many decks, the Knight rides through a scrubby plain, or beneath a burning tower, pointing us to that most violent of religious pilgrimages. Again, violence and pain is dealt in the name of rightness. 

Still, this thread points us to another aspect of the Knight that we must confront: not only does he deal this violence in the name of morality -- he also deals for his own financial gain. Knights would return from campaign with great spoils, and could even be awarded with additional lands. Historians have made the argument that the spread of Islam was only the surface concern of many European combatants leaving home to fight in the Crusades.

With that in mind, consider that the burning tower behind the Knight in some depictions is The Tower.

Maybe his rash actions lead to great change, as such actions often do. Maybe that’s not a good Tower we see. If so, we must find a way to use the forward momentum the Knight brings us for good.

Swift action is not inherently worse than thoughtful, measured action, but it is more likely to be such. If you must take swift action, be certain that what you are doing is right for all parties involved. Ask yourself, are you capable of deciding what is right for everyone? Haste prevents us from seeing the wider web of impact.


This article is part of Digging the Roots, an on-going series by Zach Toman about the cultural and symbolic history of the tarot. Follow @ZachToman on Twitter.