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.