Today’s card is taken from Tarot of Mystical Moments by Catrin Welz-Stein.
The Eight of Swords.
First of all, what can we see?
In this deck we have a large Angel, naked, they are sitting on the floor or what appears to be in an ornate vintage style birdcage. Their wings are open and spread through the bars of their cage, almost trapping them. Perhaps it’s the feeling that their wings or feathers may be caught up, be pulled or fall out if they try and move, so, scared to move they are sitting there very still.
The cage appears to be on top of a small hill, balanced upon three legs.
The lid of the cage is open, but the angel does not appear to have noticed or even realised it. Their face is downcast. We cannot see their eyes if they are closed, but I get the feeling that they are weeping.
Outside of the cage, in the foreground, are eight trees, Cypress trees. They are on the left and the right of the cage, but they do not surround it. The way to and from the cage is open. There are also paths to and from the cage; it is not a dead end. The paths meander like streams down from the cage and through the trees. This creates numerous ways to and from the cage.
So what does the card mean?
While it is somewhat obvious we look at the angel, I am today drawn to take a look at the surroundings and what they may mean.
The Eight Trees we see are Cypress trees. Tall and distinctive, with their pyramid shape, they can grow to 30 feet and are thought to be able to live for over a thousand years, with some thought to have lived to almost two thousand years.
It’s not surprising then that they are connected with several legends – especially in the Middle East and in Western cultures.
In Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” a young man called Kyparissos accidentally kills his young and dearly loved deer, he is so upset by this and so grief-stricken he begs Apollo to transform him into a Cypress to preserve his sorrow.
The Ancients Greeks believed therefore that the Cypress tree was one of mourning and loss and hence planted in the grounds of Temples and graveyards.
Its distinctive and aromatic smell was used to hide and disguise the smell of death and the underworld. So it is/was also sacred to Hades.
Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 1. 730 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) :
“Beneath the gloom of an ancient cypress, squalid and ghastly with darksome hue [sacrifices were made to Haides in a necromantic ritual].”
In various Apocryphal writings, such as the ‘Apocalypse of Moses’, the Cypress is thought to be the tree from which Adam asks his son, Seth to retrieve oil to heal him and/or which he can anoint himself so when he dies he can go to heaven.
In the Iranian Epic Shahnameh a branch of the Cypress tree that Zoroaster carries when he leaves Paradise and which he plants when the Kind converts to Zoroastrianism. The tree itself becomes a holy place one which bridges the heavens and the earth, and where the King resides. Zoarasarians believe it is the Tree of Paradise itself, ( see the Cypress of Kashmar).
In some stories, it suggested that the Cypress is the tree that Noah is told by YHWH to build the Ark, (Gopher). Genesis 6.1 -14
Later, in the Middle Ages, it was also believed that the wood from which the cross on which Jesus was crucified, was fashioned was a Cypress tree.
In Christianity and Islam, it is also believed that Cypress trees not only keep bad spirits away but also stop the spirits of the dead from rising and wandering around.
Interestingly, the doors of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome are made of cypress wood and were built some 1,200 years ago as yet they are still holding solid and there is no sign of rotting.
All this in one card, and not even the main protagonist, the angel. So we can see that these trees are trees of great grandeur and stature, but what can this all mean when we are reading the card. Like the Angel who sits despondently within her gilded cage, we are being told we are surrounded by guardians of the dead. Like these trees, we are a bridge between what has gone before and what is to come, a bridge between the underworld and the heavens, life and death, the dark and the light. All very much in keeping with this month. January, where we sit waiting for new life to begin and spring to rise from the depths of winter.
We need to stop focusing and being the Angel, waiting, perhaps somewhat despondently, for someone to come and rescue us. We need to smell the Cypress Trees and see we are not trapped by circumstance, by season, or by illusion.
Only fear keeps us locked in ‘our’ gilded cage.
The evergreen Cypress trees can show us the way. Here in this card, we are told to believe in the Cypress, in the Ancestors which came before us and those who will follow us,. To believe and trust in all those that surround us, guarding the paths for us, encouraging us to move on, up the Tree of Life, perhaps not too ‘Heaven’ yet but surely onto a better path.