Three of Spades


When interpreting divination cards, we learn to bring our own experiences to the images to help us gain meaning. When a deck of cards uses images that speak to myths thousands of years old, it stands to reason that our own experiences clash dramatically with the classically accepted interpretations.

Without a knowledge of Greek myth, a quick glance at the three of spades’ main image might bring to mind a knitting circle. Three women are shown sitting together, one holds a spindle, one a thread, and the last a pair of scissors. It’s a comfortable scene, one familiar to any who work with yarn—the only thing missing is the open bottle of wine, and maybe a jaunty pair of colorful reading glasses. But this isn’t a group of jawing women with knitting needles. This is the Moirai we’re looking at, spinning the thread of mortal life.

The three fates of Greek myth, or the Moirai, are Clotho who spins the thread, Lachesis who measures the length of each thread, and Atropos who cuts. The thread itself is a metaphor for a person’s life, and is woven into a tapestry of world and time. Death comes for all of us, and no one gets to dictate when that moment will arrive—only the Fates know when the thread will run out.

Aeschylus claimed that Zeus himself, the ruler of gods, could not alter that which the Moirai ordained. Herodotus said the gods feared the Moirai’s ability. Their power—that of controlling destiny and time—was paramount. And what happens when powerful women are feared? They are vilified.

This print of the three Fates, dated 1513, is a great example of what happened to the Greek myth. The spindle became a broom; the women grotesque.

One hundred years after this woodcut was created, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, wherein he created three prophetesses, the Wyrd (Wyrd = old English for fate) Sisters, and the transformation is complete.

Three fates
Three Fates by Hans Baldung (1513)*

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.


So it’s no surprise that the manual for my Grand Jeu deck (published in 1969) interprets this image as foretelling an “insecure existence”, or that Jean Didier, in his book Le Livre du Grand Jeu de Mlle. Lenomand: Les 54 cartes et leurs definitions (Editions Trajectoire, 1997) warns that this card is a harbinger of ill health and a bad time for business ventures. But I invite you to view the turning of this card as a sign of strength, not adversity. Yes, they are spinsters, but in the original sense, not in the sense that they are ugly, unmarried, and too smart to be desirable. Let’s not malign them unnecessarily.

Women are stronger when they come together. Women who craft are creators. Women who acknowledge their movement through time as Maiden Mother and Crone are more likely to understand the ephemeral nature of being alive, and will act accordingly, both in the short term and for the next generations.

As for the other images on the card, we have on the bottom left Lachesis who is measuring the thread, and Atropos, on the bottom right who cuts it. The one signifies a long life, or long lasting projects. The other can either signify an end to an activity or life, or the opportunity for a new beginning, depending upon whether you are in a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of mood.

Between these two goddesses, the botanical bundle is made of laurel, boxwood, and papyrus, which, given the heavy mythos surrounding the card, seems apropos. I’m really not a big believer in the power of prophesy via plants, but I do know that the symbolism of the laurel, crowning the brows of poets and athletes alike, the mathematical geometry of the boxwood, and the scholarly papyrus, aligns with the overall feminine strength of this card more than any portents of death and destruction that classical interpretations impose.

The constellation depicted in the top center panel is Canis Minor, or little dog, and what witch isn’t made stronger with a familiar? I rest my case with a photograph of my chihuahua, Emma.

My demon-dog (god-nomed)

*from the British Museum’s online research collection:(

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