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Marseilles/RWS Ace of Swords

Thread originally posted on the Aeclectic Tarot Forum on 07 Jan 2003, and now archived in the Forum Library.

Baneemy  07 Jan 2003 
In Marseilles and RWS-based decks, the Ace of Swords has a crown encircling the tip of the sword, and two leafy branches hanging from the crown. The one on the right appears to be a palm frond, and the one on the left is some sort of plant with red berries.

My question is, does anyone have any ideas about what specific plants these are supposed to be (especially the one on the left) and/or what they contribute to the symbolism of the card?


ihcoyc  07 Jan 2003 
I remember reading somewhere that the plants on the Ace are supposed to signify progress and growth. In most depictions I know, including Marseilles and the RWS, the one branch is a single frond, while the other one has many simple oblong leaves and red berries of some sort. I think that the single frond is a palm branch, which seems pretty clear. If so then I suspect the other one is an olive branch. (Are olives red when they are growing? They seem small to be olives.)

The palm branch is a traditional symbol of the majesty and authority of a king (cf. Jesus's triumphal entry into Jerusalem), while the olive branch is a traditional symbol of mercy. (cf. the tale of Noah's ark) As such the two branches may also symbolise the two pillars of the Qabalistic Tree of Life. 

Keslynn  08 Jan 2003 
Palm branches are also a sign of a martyr. This applies to Christ's entrance into Jerusalem as well. If you are ever in a Catholic church or a museum, you might notice that a lot of the saints are carrying palm fronds. This means that they were martyrs. Perhaps this is a message of asceticism in the Ace of Swords? Often something must be given up in the quest for truth.

:) Kes 

zorya  08 Jan 2003 
i understood the greenery to represent 'laurels'. like those given to the 'victor'. this fits in well with the crown.

they may be symbols of fruitfulness. on the ace of wands, the wand is often shown in bud, but on the sword, the plants have become full grown and in fruit.

i also have read that the plants are the olive branch, representing mercy and the palm, representing severity. 

Trogon  08 Jan 2003 
Well... I don't have a huge library of books on the Tarot... but in "A Complete Guide to the Tarot" (Eden Gray) the author writes the following about the Ace of Swords;
A two-edged sword is held by a hand that emerges from the clouds. Its point is encircled by a crown of victory. An olive branch (mercy) and a palm branch (severity) hang from it. Around the sword are six Hebrew Yods , recalling the six days of the Mosaic creation. The card symbolizes Justice, which maintains the world order, the equilibrium of mercy and severity.

This same book also includes a brief glossary of symbols used in the Tarot. For Palm, she writes;
Symbol of victory over death, and of the male aspect of life. The active force, as shown on the veil behind the High Priestess.

In "The Mystical Tarot" by Rosemary Ellen Guiley, she writes (also in the glossary) on the Palm as a symbol;
Triumph, victory, and in Christian symbolism, a martyr's victory over death. Fecundity. The Anima.

Neither of these glossaries contained an entry for an Olive Branch. But traditionally the Olive branch has usually represented peace and (as mentioned above) mercy. For example (hopefully without ruffling any feathers), on the obverse of the Seal of the United States is an eagle clutching an olive branch in it's right foot. The olive branch symbolizing peace. Quoting from
The Olive an Ancient Natural Symbol

The olive leaf carried by the dove back to Noah's Ark must have evoked some very intense emotions, beyond simply "peace." Imagine after nearly a year in the Ark finally getting a sign that the ordeal was almost over, and that reconciliation with God was possible.

According to Greek legend, the first olive tree on the Acropolis was planted by the goddess Athene, the namesake of Athens who is still admired today.

Hercules was protected by wearing a wreath of olive leaves upon his head.

For bravery in battle, Roman soldiers were rewarded with crowns of olive.

Since olives provide oil for lamps, they are associated with light.

The cleansing power of olive oil suggests purification.

The hardiness of the olive tree hints at fertility and vital energy.

Hope this helps... 

Baneemy  08 Jan 2003 
Thanks for the input, everyone. I think the identity of the palm frond is pretty clear, but I'm still not so sure about the "olive." Are olives ever red? I've certainly never heard of red olives (not that I really know much about such things). The laurel sounds like another strong candidate. My dictionary says it bears "ovoid berries" but doesn't mention the color. If they're red, I think we have a perfect fit.


Baneemy  08 Jan 2003 
According to these pages

both laurels and olives usually have black or purple fruit. The red color is probably just a little artistic license intended to make the berries stand out more, and can't really tell us which plant is intended.

If it is a laurel, it would be a symbol of victory just like the palm frond. It could also be a symbol of Apollo, serving to contrast the Ace of Swords with the Dionysian imagery of the Ace of Wands (thyrsus?).

If it is an olive, the two branches would symbolize the duality of victory/severity and peace, as several of you have mentioned. Since the suit of Swords represents division, it makes sense that the two branches would have opposite, rather than similar, symbolic meanings. Swords are also the suit of justice, so I like the idea of the two branches and the sword itself representing the three pillars of the Tree of Life, with the sword standing for balance. The olive is the tree of Athena, who seems to be much more of an "Ace of Swords" kind of character than Apollo. I would associate him more with the solar disc, and therefore with the suit of Coins. (I should probably mention that I use nonstandard suit-element correspondences: wands=earth, coins=fire.)

So my conclusion is that the plant in question could be either a laurel or an olive, but that the olive fits the meaning of the card better.


juice  09 Jan 2003 
The only picture I can find at the moment is an inch tall. It looks like it might be a holly berry. 

jmd  09 Jan 2003 
I can't believe I missed this thread earlier on!

I personally have taken the left-hand plant with berries to symbolise the laurel of victory, which, according to Apuleius, protects from both lightning and the influence of evil. If the sword is to be somewhat equated with Justice, then this protection from the influence of evil injustice is important.

...yet I can see how the berries can also be considered and symbolically connected to the peace of the olive.

As an additional comment, usually the Marseilles decks, unlike the Waite/Colman-Smith illustration, depicts these berries not as red, but white-ish.

And a belated welcome to Aeclectic, Baneemy. 

ihcoyc  09 Jan 2003 
I checked, and they are white in the Grimaud Marseille.

White, of course, raises a whole 'nother can of worms: with the simple green leaves and white berries, that could be mistletoe. 

The Marseilles/RWS Ace of Swords thread was originally posted on 07 Jan 2003 in the Using Tarot Cards board, and is now archived in the Forum Library. Read the threads in Using Tarot Cards, or read more archived threads.

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