The 5 of Swords: Victory through Dishonour

When I first began discussing the cards of the tarot’s Minor Arcana here on Shades of Midnight, I intended to save the 5’s for last.  This was done with the explicit purpose of staving off the worst until the last possible minute, but as I worked my way through the 2’s, 3’s, 4’s and 7’s, I realized it was difficult to do justice to the remaining cards without first addressing the challenges inherent to the 5’s. And a challenging suit it is indeed!  The past month has been fraught with changes galore; opportunities ripe with the potential for insight and self-development, but as with all things requiring change, painful too.  As much of my experiences in the past few weeks have held touches of the 5’s, it seems only fitting that I not delay the inevitable any longer.

I won’t mince words: I abhor the suit of the 5’s. Each card is unpleasant in its own right, and the 5 of Swords is (for me), possibly the worst of the lot. This does not mean that the 5’s of the Minor Arcana do not have an uplifting, enriching message; they do, but it’s going to take much courage and the willingness to do a lot of shadow-work before the beauty within the darkness can be embraced in its fullest. Possibly the most important key-word associated with the number 5 is Change.  Negatively, change can represent instability, uncertainty, the metaphorical death of old ways of thinking and being, and challenge.  Positively, the 5’s symbolize versatility, freedom, originality, and progress. Much of how the message of the Minor Arcana 5’s will be assimilated depends on the individual’s personal philosophies in life. Optimism, faith and a steadfast belief in one’s principles can go a long way to negating the worst effects of the 5’s in the tarot.

5 of Swords from the 'Legacy of the Divine' Tarot

Cards adhering to the traditional Rider-Waite depictions show a man in a battlefield gathering up the fallen swords of his opponents as they walk away from him. The card above is taken from Ciro Marchetti’s Legacy of the Divine tarot, a stunning deck that (for the most part), conforms to the Rider-Waite tradition.  Standing upon a ravaged landscape, a man stares with defiance at the viewer, a sword in each hand and three others hanging at his waist.  The skies in the background are clouded and murky, and tattered flags (failed attempts at a truce?) are pitched into the uneven earth. We are left wondering if the three swords slung on the man’s belt are his own or if they are the purloined spoils of his opponents. Has he fought fairly in his quest to obtain his opponents’ weapons, or were deceitful means used?  The most common meaning of the 5 of Swords is ‘an empty victory’.  Were the scars and bloodshed worth the effort? Did you sacrifice your principles and integrity in the pursuit of your dreams?  And at the end of the day, when you stood before your cowering opponent, powerful and victorious, did you feel pride in your actions or only shame?

The 5 of Swords is one of the most difficult cards in the tarot because it not only deals with external change but internal ones as well. Swords as the element of Air rule over the intellect, and correspond to our beliefs, attitudes and the way we choose to communicate our most personal ‘truths’ to the world at large.  In the 5 of Swords, the mind is pitted against the ego.  Words are used with caustic purpose, to hurt and destroy those who seek to criticize or put us down. In dealing with these ‘external’ irritations (people, situations), we can find ourselves acting against values that we would normally hold close to our hearts, such as compassion, understanding and forgiveness.  It is important to remember that while the 5’s are generally an unstable suit, through our actions and words, the changes they can effect are often permanent and irreversible. In a moment of passion, it is all to easy to lose our tempers and say (and do) things we do not mean…things we wish we could take back once the anger and hurt passes. In a lot of cases, this is impossible and although the other party might forgive, the stains of the offense caused are much harder to erase and to ultimately forget.  At its fundamental level, the 5 of Swords indicates a confrontation or impasse that brings much pain to all who are involved.

“Hanging onto resentment is like letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.” ~  Ann Landers.

5 of Swords from the 'Thoth Tarot'

Astrological Association: Venus in Aquarius

The Thoth tarot recognizes the 5 of Swords as Defeat, whether it is the fear of the experience or the memory of the event. In the picture we see five bent swords meeting in the middle, blood droplets trailing from each.  This suggests that the pain of defeat is not experienced by just one party but is jointly shared by all those invested in the situation.  Fear – the irrational assumption of failure – results in negative thinking and a mind-set that is geared towards anticipating the worst.  In keeping with the Swords’ connection to the element of Air, it is important to remember that fear is first and foremost a mental construct.  Only when its seeds are sown in the mind does it bear fruit through speech and action.  Fear is guided by the innate need to self-preserve, and while a certain amount of selfishness is beneficial and serves as a protective influence, too much leads to self-defeating attitudes such as detachment, avoidance and apathy.  In The Tarot Handbook, Angeles Arrien notes that, “All the twisted lines in the background are showing the function of  fear, which is to constrict, to distort, to bend one’s perspective or way of thinking.”

The 5 of Swords’ association with Venus in Aquarius merges the qualities of two opposing yet complementary planets, Saturn and Uranus.  Saturn is known as the Lord of Karma, a somber, heavy planet that magnifies our fears in the space of our imagined flaws and short-comings. Saturn is despising of change while Uranus embodies the spirit of untamed rebellion, championing progress, inventiveness and originality.  Those born with this position of Venus frequently feel conflicted by their emotional desires. On one hand, they desire security in their relationships but on another, they crave their freedom. Relationships that are viewed as too ‘serious’ or ‘mature’ (Saturn) stifle the Aquarian spirit but at the same time, a partner who appears detached and aloof (Uranus) – the very qualities that the Venus-Aquarian brings to the relationship themselves! – is experienced as threatening. Similar to the 7 of Swords and its astrological link to the Moon in Aquarius, those with Venus in Aquarius are driven by many of the same instincts. Please refer to my post on the 7 of Swords for more detail.  In both positions, the fear of failure and the fear of investing emotionally in something/ someone that might later fail to hold the interest are the greatest set-backs to experiencing life and relationships in their fullest.

“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” ~  Thich Nhat Hanh.

5 of Swords from the 'Paulina Tarot'

In the context of a romantic relationship, the 5 of Swords reflects a situation in which power plays are rife.  This card indicates a partnership fraught with ego battles and the need to constantly one-up one’s spouse/ lover.  It warns that if the need to dominate continues, then the relationship is doomed to failure.  Reading for clients, I’ve realized that the most profound message inherent to the 5 of Swords is ‘Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face’.  I’ve seen this card come up in readings where it describes a relationship in which one or both parties nurse bitter insecurities about their status in said relationship. What proceeds is one party thinking, “I’m not sure if X loves me as much as I love him/ her.  I’ll hurt X before he/ she has a chance to hurt me.”  This then results in one partner withdrawing from the other which soon after brings about a similar sort of detachment in the other who believes their partner is losing interest.  Although the distancing is done with self-preservation in mind, it is birthed by demons in the mind of one partner which later creates a similar paranoia in the mind of the other who ponders (and imagines the worst) reasons for their significant other’s withdrawal.

Compromise and honest communication are the only ways to negate the effects of the 5 of Swords.  Although the reasons for one-upmanship or avoidance are rooted in the need to self-protect, it gives rise to a situation which is untrue and unfounded in fact, leading to the destruction of a perfectly good relationship in which both partners are trustworthy, their only failing an inability (or unwillingness) to expose their deepest vulnerabilities to each other.  In keeping with the premise of the 5 of Swords, both parties end up getting hurt over the unexpressed (and oftentimes irrational!) fears harbored by one or both of them.

From a career standpoint, the 5 of Swords warns of sabotage or treachery in the work environment.  I have also seen this card come up in situations where the client was unfairly retrenched, or had their employment terminated through no fault of their own.  The 5 of Swords warns of snakes in the grass, colleagues who you might think have your back but are revealed as self-serving and deceptive when your guard is down.  Resist the urge to become embroiled in office politics and to champion your stand, no matter how right it might be.  Words uttered in the heat of the moment have irreversible consequences, and despite the truth of your utterances, you might find them twisted and used against you in a way that destroys your image and career.  Maintain integrity at all times.  Digging the proverbial knife in someone’s back might make you feel better about yourself momentarily but that single lapse in judgement could prove to be your undoing in the long run.  When at loggerheads with someone, solicit an unbiased opinion from a third party or initiate a formal mediation intervention.

5 of Swords from the 'Fantastical Creatures' Tarot

With regards to finance, the 5 of Swords comes as a warning to research all options thoroughly before making a commitment, whether it is a large-scale investment or a minor purchase.  Information that comes through the grapevine should be screened, and fact should be distinguished from fiction before a decision should be made. This card augurs a difficult time financially so budget with caution and economize accordingly.  Your finances are in flux and a turbulent period lies ahead, but as with all other things in life, it is important to bear in mind that this is merely a phase and one that will pass.

In the context of health, unresolved feelings of anger and hostility come to the fore, manifesting in blockages on both physical and emotional levels.  A host of psychosomatic complaints can result.  Aggressive tendencies should be channeled through competitive sports and martial arts training.  Guard against activities that provide a ‘quick fix’ such as smoking and drinking.

Overall, the 5 of Swords is a difficult one that portends many internal as well as external challenges.  Its effects are hard (but not impossible) to negate.  Insight, patience and a liberal dash of common sense and fortitude go a long way towards ameliorating its challenges.  Above all, it is important to remember that sometimes, you just cannot win. When such a situation arises, the only thing left to be done is maintain your integrity and withdraw gracefully.

“By letting go, it all gets done.  The world is won by those who let it go.  But when you try and try, the world is beyond the winning.”  ~  Lao Tzu.


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