At first glance the 2 & 3 wands seem very similar.
Both show an individual (seemingly a man) standing, watching, with the appropriate number of wands.
The view includes an expanse of water, an inlet or estuary perhaps.
The colors seem similar.
So how can we differentiate between the two, how do we find their individual meanings?
Try standing in the card
When I am finding cards difficult to understand I try to really "get in to" the card. So try standing as if you were in the cards,
For the 2 of wands.
Stand holding something heavy & quite large in your open hand (it soon gets heavy).
Now stand looking out of the window, whilst also looking over your shoulder (just to check no one is coming) and hold this pose for as long as you can.
For the 3 of wands.
What difference do you notice, which position is more comfortable, sustainable?
Let's focus on the wands in the cards
In the 2 of wands one of the wands is bolted to the wall, and the other is held on the low wall, not touching the ground (and wands need to be grounded)
In the 3 of wands all three wands are on the ground, 2 are behind the person, one is held. The 2 wands behind seem to form a gateway he is standing between.
I associate wands with intuition. You know how intuition works, the harder you try to grasp it, hold it down, demand it gives you what you need (2 of wands) the further it slips out of your grasp.
When you relax, ground and steady yourself, trust that your intuition will speak when you need it to. That's when you hear your intuition clearly. (3 of wands)
That anxiety is the difference in the two cards for me. Both are hopeful, both are optimistic.
It's just that the 2 of wands is the anxious, early steps of something when you have no idea how it will work out. "please, please, please let this work"
And the 3 of wands has a sense that it is going well "Its starting to work, I can see how this will happen now"
I liken this to the very start of my Tarot business. The first flyers & posters I put out advertising the brand new Tarot class. Such hope, such optimism, such dread. What if no one contacts me, what is it just falls completely flat, what if I can't do this. (2 wands)
The first few emails & phone calls, people asking questions, expressing an interest, excited by the course I'm marketing. The gentle belief this can really work, a trust in the process that means I feel more confident, more hopeful, more focused. (3 wands)
The roses & lilies in the 2 of wands
The same lilies can be found in the magician. I think everything in the Rider-Waite tarot is there for a reason. For me this reference to the magician reminds me that there is plenty of potential in the 2 of wands, though perhaps no real achievement or success yet.
The ships in the 3 of wands
I personalize the cards, find a story-which can change depending on the reading-to bring the card to life.I like to think this is a merchant and those are his ships. Are they heading out, or are they coming home? It doesn't really matter. The merchant is confident in his success because he knows what he is doing. His ships are well manned, with good maps, great crew, well built.
The 3 of wands is success through knowledge, hard work and great preparation. Not the unexpected luck that is so fickle. But the kind of luck you make for yourself.