Endings & Beginnings: The Tens 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.

In the previous post of this series on the numbered cards of the Waite-Smith Tarot deck, we looked at the Nines. These marked a process of culminating, where “we are close to reaching some point of expression, although it is still currently taking shape. Hence culminating rather than culmination: the idea is not yet fully developed.”

The Tens mark the completion of the numerical cards in the minor arcana — and it has been some journey! From the divine potential held in the Aces, we have seen the expression of each suit manifest in our day-to-day lives, bringing up sensations, feelings, thoughts and experiences that are archetypal in nature — we can relate to them deeply and immediately.

Sequentially, there are the four court cards to follow in each suit (Page, Knight, Queen, King), although they stand apart from the pips (Ace through Ten) in many respects. Symbolically, the journey never ends. This is because tarot reflects the cyclical nature of our lives. Cards are revisited and patterns are woven and rewoven, just as we revisit, weave and interweave our own experiences.

And so on to the Tens…

Ten of Wands

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

The Ten of Wands — also known as “oppression” — depicts a man labouring under the weight of his load of ten wands. Not only do they seem heavy, but unwieldy: it’s all he can do to keep them in his grip, while they fan out before him, blocking his view of what lies ahead of him. A demanding bunch of wands indeed. However, although he has his work cut out for him, there is the implicit presence of choice. He is choosing to carry them; no one is behind him, forcing or cajoling him. There must be something that he gains from this, a purpose to his actions.

Looking at the card, it seems that the purpose lies ahead of him — in the collection of buildings in the distance. Right now, he is alone. Soon, though, there is the implication that he will be in company. The sky is blue, the trees are green: there is a fecundity to the landscape. This is apparent in the wands too, each of them as always bearing their own sprigs of life, three on each staff. The ground on which the figure walks is bare, but it is smooth and his path is wide and unimpeded. The obstacle lies in that which he is choosing to carry.

What does this all mean?

I think it is more complex than the idea of straightforward oppression, or of ‘carrying too much’. First, the oppression doesn’t come from without, but from within inasmuch as the figure can opt to put his load down at any time. There is obviously something compelling driving him, and this is emphasized by the tilt of his body, as he leans towards his destination. Is that where the payoff becomes apparent? What feels certain to me is that, when he gets there, he will be relieved of his burden; and by setting down his load he creates the potential for starting something new. There is also the potential for sharing what he has with others — of passing something on, which we also see in the Ten of Pentacles. For now, there is a period of toil that asks for care and steadiness. Even if he is not able to see it, we know that relief is in sight.

Ten of Cups

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

If I had to choose another card in the tarot deck that evokes a similar feeling in many people to that of the Ten of Cups, then I’d opt for The Sun . The Ten has a sense of unbridled happiness and lightness to it — so much so that, in a reading, its influence seems to glow from its borders to affect the surrounding cards.

In another article, I wrote that the card embodies “warmth, comfort, affection, love and joy.”

couple, standing in symmetry, exalt the skies, a smaller version of themselves dancing to their right. Are they a family? Or are the two couples symbolic of the uniting of inner child and adult? I think I prefer the latter. All are, in turn, united by what seems to be a rainbow — or which is at least rainbow-shaped — its arcs outlined with the small markings that denote its association with the Divine.

… At the heart of the Ten of Cups there is the experience of connecting (or, rather, re-connecting) to each other, to oneself, and to Spirit. It is nothing short of a homecoming.

The more I look at the Ten of Cups, the more I see the concept of endings and beginnings playing out in the two sets of figures. They are, indeed, symbolic of the cosmic dance between the child within and the now-integrated adult. The ending is the cessation of inner division caused by the separation of the two; the beginning is the next phase of life as the adult moves forward, conscious of both. (This process is described beautifully in Richard Bach’s book, Running from Safety.)

Finally, I look at the landscape that forms the backdrop to the dancing figures. As with the Ten of Wands, the sky is blue and the trees are in leaf. There is a river that feeds the land, and a house to provide shelter and warmth. Cups are associated with emotions, and this speaks of a time when all of our emotional needs are met. The water is neither choppy nor enclosed as a still pool. No high drama; no stagnation of feeling. In their place there is a flow that is able to sustain the land that holds it, all in perfect balance.

Ten of Swords

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

Given the contrast between the image presented to us in the Ten of Swords and the one we’ve just looked at for the Ten of Cups, you might well be thinking, “What can they possibly have in common?”

Here, a figure is prostrated under a blackened sky, seemingly pinned to the ground with ten swords that run up his spine, from rump to neck. Is that a red blanket draped over the lower half of his body? Or is it blood? Perhaps it is a mix of the two. Aside from this, and the figure’s white sleeves, his colour melds completely with the ground — hands, tunic, neck and hair — rendering him partly invisible. The sword handles sit starkly against the darkness, as if engaged in a victory dance of some kind. But a victory for whom?

There were some inspired comments when I opened the Ten of Swords to the floor some years back. The card sparked much debate, all of it thought-provoking, and what has stayed with me more than anything from that discussion was the card’s association with a dawning, or emergence, of light. Yes, it is distant and obfuscated by the night and the wall in front of him, but if the figure were to raise his gaze it he would see the beginnings of it in the greyer tones of the sky.

Swords symbolise thoughts. The suggestion to me here is that the barrier to moving into the light is one that is governed by the mind. The dark night of the soul might involve pain, but it invariably involves suffering, which is our intellectual reaction to pain.

In this way, the figure has more power than he perhaps believes he has. Instead of seeing the swords as the enemy, they are also his ally: they hold him down, but by virtue of the fact that he cannot move his head, they also introduce him to the dawn. And there seems to be the awareness of this: flattened as he is, he makes the sign of benediction with his right hand, index and middle fingers outstretched — which feels like the presence of insight. This hint of detached awareness might just be his way out.

Ten of Pentacles

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

An elderly man, dressed in elaborate robes, sits with his back to us, his attention drawn to a white dog at his feet, which he is stroking tenderly. In front of him is an archway, and through it there is what I take to be either a young family — man, woman and child — or two women conversing, a child peeping around the skirts of the one who is facing us. The image is imbued with a sense of ease. The old man is free to devote his attention to more leisurely pursuits; the child is inquisitive and playful, grabbing the tail of a second dog that stands behind the first.

There is a playing with perspective here. At first, the man seems quite separate from the group of three, with the archway between them. But when you look at the dogs — one of which is with the man, the other with the group — they are standing close together. In fact it seems as if the man’s hand, and the boy’s, are visually connected through the dogs, as if they are reaching out towards each other. There is a handing over of the reins, implied rather than explicit. A transition from something old to something, or someone, younger and as yet untested.

As with the Ten of Cups, there are four human figures on the card; but here the card is firmly situated in the realm of the physical, which Pentacles govern. This is very much to do with the outer world, and the move from productivity to retirement and back to productivity, where those who have held authority defer to those coming up behind them.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” .

And like the seasons, once one cycle has finished, another one begins. The Tens mark this movement from one state to another, mirroring our experience, evolving as we evolve.