Aces in Tarot are, they say, gifts from heaven. When you get an Ace in a reading, the inclination is to feel like it's a few days before Christmas and you just know a gift is coming. What is it? The anticipatory reaction is understandable, but not always warrented. While Aces are powerful cards, they are also the lowest number in the suit. Just like with regular playing cards, depending on the game, an Ace can win a game or turn out inconsequential. The English word 'ace' comes from the Old French word 'as' (from Latin 'as') meaning 'a unit', from the name of a small Roman coin. It originally meant the side of a die with only one mark, before it was a term for a playing card. Since this was the lowest roll of the die, it traditionally meant 'bad luck' in Middle English, but as the ace is often the highest playing card in many modern games, its meaning has changed to mean 'high-quality, excellence'. So which is it? Does the Ace in Tarot herald something magnificent? Or is it just an inconsequential blip on the screen of life? Well, both. Or neither. It depends?
The Tarot Ace that reflects this ambivalence the most is the Ace of Swords. Its equivalent in playing card decks is the Ace of Spades. In Robert Louis Stevenson's story "The Suicide Club" (1878), the Ace of Spades functions as the "sign of death" within a secret society whose members commit "suicide" by submitting to be killed, if they draw the Ace of Spades from a pack of 52 cards during a club meeting, by another member drawing the Ace of Clubs. The Ace of Spades was also used as "the death card" in the Vietnam War. It was erroneously believed that Vietnamese ancient traditions held the symbolism of the spade to mean death and ill-fortune. The soldiers were quick to pick up this misconception, and in a bid to scare away Viet Cong soldiers without firefight, it was common practice to leave an Ace of Spades on the bodies of killed Vietnamese and even to litter the forested grounds and fields with the card.
The sword is obviously a deadly weapon and can, literally, kill. However, in Tarot, the suit represents the activity of the mind, the mental processes and the communication that thoughts bring about. It does represent conflict, too, so in a very real way swords can be deadly, though not in a physical sense. When the Ace of Swords is present in a tarot reading, it usually heralds an "Aha!" moment, a flash of insight that separates truth from illusion. This double-edged blade can hurt in that moment of clarity, when truth is laid bare before you, cutting away a possibly cherished, but untrue, notion. While the truth can hurt, and if the one wielding the sword is barbaric and boorish it can hurt more than needed, it is also enlightening and can put one on a path of a new way of thinking and seeing things, because if what you formerly held is shown to be untrue, then there are adjustments to be made and learning to be done. That is the beginning this Ace signifies: a newfound insight that sets you on a path of clearing the way for new understanding and knowledge and truth.
Aces in tarot represent the seed of force needed to bring something new into creation. That's why "Eureka!" moments are so powerful and often life changing. They have to be, or you'd never notice them. Epiphanies wouldn't be so "Ta da!" without the powerful, enlightening force behind them that changes the way you view something and then results in change in your actions. And with the Ace of Swords, something is cut away, hence the "death" imagery, old ways of thinking die off in an instant as you learn something new that cancel them out.
But I'm being dramatic here. I've certainly had Ace of Swords epiphanies and they are wondrous indeed, but sometimes the Ace isn't all that. Sometimes it simply means the bank calls and tells you they made a mistake on your statement and it wasn't in your favor and now they've fixed it, so you've been operating on the notion of $20 extra bucks in your account and now you have to adjust for that. No, nothing is going to bounce, but it's a mental adjustment. You might make a mental note to keep your own books instead of relying on bank statements for the truth from now on. It could be telling you to speak the unvarnished truth to a friend. It's a risk, it could change things between you, but it's imperative to the friendship that you do. So yeah, be careful where you point that thing. It's sharp. And pointy.
I also see the Ace of Swords in a kind of video game analogous way of "Levelling Up." As the Tarot of the White Cats depicts the knighting of a cat, it represents an accomplishment of a sort. As we grow in understanding, the sword ace brings us up to a new level of awareness and with it the beginning of new responsibilities: to act in accordance with this new level of understanding. (Witness the cyclical nature of the suits of tarot, from 1-10 in each suit, always at work in our lives in various ways.) When you "level up" in a game, you often find yourself in the role of "beginner" again, somewhat at a disadvantage, in a new realm that you have to explore. You have the advantage of taking with you all the treasures and tools you gained on the levels you have already passed through, but on this level you don't yet have a clue.
Therefore, the Ace is powerful, yes, and it's a gift, yes, but it is only a beginning after all. It's the raw material of creation, but it is not the product. It is the new idea, the insight, the impulse to change, but it is not the change itself. You still have to do the work in order to get to the next level. So while the Ace may very well be a gift from the divine powers that be, if it lies unused in the box, what good is it to you?
Tarot of the White Cats by Severino Baraldi © 2005 Lo Scarabeo ISBN# #073870463-6
Classical Tarot - Italy, © 2000 Lo Scarabeo(engravings from 1835)