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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Death & The Ten of Swords - What’s the difference?

Please welcome Helen Howell to Tarot Notes for one of her delightful, insightful "rambles." 

Death & The Ten of Swords - What’s the difference?
by Helen Howell

Behold a Pale horse and his name that sat on him was Death!
- Revelation 6.8

Have you thought about the difference between the Death Card and the 10 Swords? Both portray death, that’s for sure. Both indicate an ending of some sort, but is one more final than the other? Is one more imminent than the other? Or do they symbolise exactly the same thing? Out of all of these questions, let’s see if I can come up with some answers that fit.

The first difference is obvious, we have a Major card versus a Minor card. This tells us that one card signifies a life changing event, while the other is more like the small details within life.

The second difference that jumps out at me, is that the Death card tells us that something has come to its end. It’s finished, dead, over with, you know dead is dead. Whereas the 10 does seem to indicate that something is coming to its end, not quite there yet. The figure in the Rider Waite Card is still raising his right hand in a sign of forgiveness -- it just needs to be accepted in order for it to end.

It seems to me that the minor card is a smaller part of the Death card. It’s the realisation or acceptance element, that illustrates that perhaps this has not been achieved just yet. Whatever it is pins you down.

The Death card illustrates that in order to progress, for transformation to take place, we must move forward from that which has died. It’s a cyclic card, it says that all things go on even in death, it’s just that they may not go on in the same way as before. However, I do think the major thing that makes this card different from the 10 of Swords is, that it signifies that death has arrived and there is no escaping it. A way to think of the Death card could be that it is by letting go of the old self that a transformation is achieved. Life changing as I said.

The esoteric name for Death is The Child of the Great Transformers: the Lord of the Gates of Death. The Ten of Swords on the other hand is called The Lord of Ruin which does seem very apt for this card, as we look at the man with 10 swords in his back and think the worst is over, how much worse could it get?

Swords being the suit of communication, thoughts, mental activity, this card then shows us the pain endured by perhaps back stabbing words, thoughts that pin you down if you allow them to. That’s the difference, the 10 of Swords allows you to change to release yourself from this situation, unlike Death which shows us clearly that something has come to a natural end. The 10 of Swords indicates the need to re-evaluate and change the course of action in order to be freed.

 Both cards indicate acceptance of a situation, but in the Death card’s case, it’s already died, whereas in the 10 of Swords case it’s in your own hands to end it. Note in the Rider Waite 10 of Swords, the figure appears to be giving the sign of benediction or blessing. This links him to Christ and more to the forgiveness Christ would bestow on those who inflict hurt on him. A major part of accepting an ending in this image is being able to forgive or let go of whoever or whatever, including yourself, caused the pain in the first place.

What’s the real difference then between these two cards? Death tells us that something is or has come to its natural end, nothing will change that. 10 of Swords indicates it is us who will bring an ending about.

Both these cards hold the opportunity of transformation within our lives. Both illustrate to us endings and beginnings, but the difference lies in that in the 10 Swords it is us who controls whether it ends or not.

~ Helen Howell

Cards are from The Rider Tarot Deck
designed by Pamela Colman Smith
under the direction of Arthur Edward Waite
U.S. Games Systems, Inc.

(This post was first shared on Tarot Notes in 2008.)


  1. I see it as 10 of Swords as mental
    and Death as physical.

  2. Hi Sharyn, yes swords would be concerned with thoughts and mental activity, so 10 can usually be associated with recognising that way we think about something needs to be let go of in order to start again.

  3. Hi Helen, do you know how to interpret the meaning of the ten of swords with the knight pentacles combination?

  4. Hi Anonymous,
    I guess how you would interpret this combination really depends on the question that you asked, as well as the surrounding cards. However as an example of an interpretation as a pair, say as a challenge you may have to meet, could be that you need to re-evaluate a situation in order to accept that something needs to be let go of, (swords) in order to move forward steadily and progress towards one's goal. (Knight Pents) Remember that stubbornness to accept that a change is needed can only pin you down and make you stand still ( Swords + Knight Pents.)

    That's just one example of how they could be read together. However cards have diverse meanings and their interpretation, as I said, depends wholly on the question you have asked and how the surrounding cards affect them.
    Hope I've given you some idea of how to go about interpreting them as a pair.


    1. Thanks very much Helen. Actually it's a one year reading that I'm trying to understand. The knight of Pentacles is the tone for my one year reading with every month a different card. I assumed that I should read the month card together with the tone of the year card. The other cards are for April, King of Wands, May is five of swords, June is the Devil, July is six of pentacles, August is ten of swords, September is wheel of fortune, October is ace of wands, November is death, January is seven of wands, February is strength and March is 2 of wands. I've got some negative cards and I'm not sure how to read them.

  5. Sorry, I want to add that I did not ask a question. I just wanted to know what my year ahead would look like. Also, I may have missed the month of November which was the death card and December which was the lovers card.

  6. Hi Anonymous again, all I can suggest here is, that as you say it is a year reading with one card for each month and one card for the tone, that I would look at what the Knight of Pents could mean for the overall tone for the year and then use that information to see how it pairs with each individual card. If you are not sure how to read some of your cards, I suggest that you grab yourself a good tarot book that could help you understand the diversity of each of the cards in question.
    Book suggestions - if you're a beginner I would suggest Barbara Moore's Tarot for Beginners. If you're more practiced then you might like to read either Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom or even Tarot Wisdom both by Rachel Pollack. Another nice and informative book is Pictures from the Heart - A Tarot Dictionary by Sandra A. Thomson.

    Good luck with the reading.


  7. Thanks very much Helen. I will pick up some books as suggested.


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~ Zanna