This is the second article in a series of analyses of the art with which Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the 36 cards of the decans, as a supplement to the previous charts. These posts will attempt to recount the stories—mythic or otherwise—that contributed to the concepts with which she imbued her illustrations. When we understand the stories that underlie them, we can not only better interpret but we can also better communicate a cohesive story out of several cards laid down in a spread. Indeed, these are stories that have fascinated humankind for millenia.
This one may be a bit more about all the fives than just this one, but then, the fives are special.
You’ll find the format consists of a column of text, at right, consisting of the stories and interpretation. At the left you’ll see a sort of quasi baseball card arrangement that provides reference information. The paper size is standard letter, but with space at the left margin should anyone wish to three-hole-punch the paper. Note that the Acrobat file, accessible through the download button below, will be better to print from and easier to read onscreen.
This Ain’t No Disco
Five young men play-fighting or sparring may not be the most transparent of Colman Smith’s illustrations. But it may tell us something about how she and Waite felt about the fives. We are in the 13th decan, Saturn in Leo, and the qabala emanation is Geburah.
Scanning the Golden Dawn’s esoteric names, I think it correct to say the RWS Five of Wands is the most divergent of the 36 cards of the decans. 35 others fit closely. But does play-fighting really represent "The Lord of Strife?"
Geburah was seen by Waite and his contemporaries as signifying a struggle against circumstance or an opposing force, at a time when the outcome is not certain. Lévi also states "the fifth Sephira is Geburah, or Justice. The spirits of Geburah are the Seraphim, or fiery spirits of zeal. Their empire is that of the punishment of crimes." We can see this in the RWS deck. The indigent couple of the Five of Pentacles, the devastated opponents of the swordsman of the Five of Swords, and the mournful man of the Five of Cups all faced Geburah and lost.
Those before Waite assured victory over Geburah. Mathers saw: "Gold, Opulence, Gain, Heritage, Riches, Fortune, Money." Papus gave a nod to the negative, describing the fives as "Opposition to the obstacles (of the fours). Victory after surmounting them (italics mine)." Waite, however, speaks of "mimic warfare," and "imitation," though he also agrees with "gold, gain, opulence." Waite’s genius is to turn a monolithic interpretation into a complex one: "…strenuous competition and struggle of the search after riches and fortune."
Of Saturn, Bulfinch says "The representations given of Saturn are not very consistent; for on the one hand his reign is said to have been the golden age of innocence and purity, and on the other he is described as a monster who devoured his children." The Golden Age was the first age of humanity, the age of peace and harmony. The earth provided such abundance that no one had to work. Colman Smith’s depiction of "play" is consistent since "work" was unknown. Yet young people practicing battle in a world which knew only peace makes no sense.
Leo is known as the House of Children because the Sun is its ruling planet. It is associated with good fortune, creativity, and childlike enthusiasm. But Leo was the Nemean Lion. This lion was the offspring of demi-god monsters. Hercules killed it only with great difficulty.
The RWS fives make more sense if we conclude that Waite wants us to see that Geburah, like Saturn and Leo, has a dual nature: an opposing force, and ourselves opposing it. The couple of the Five of Pentacles are indigent, but dedicated to each other. The Five of Swords depicts not just the losers, but the gloating winner, who stands in the foreground. The man in the Five of Cups has an inheritance.
Likewise, Waite interprets this card two ways. In modern terms, it might be "winning the lottery" versus "the rat race." Perhaps a more accessible and up-to-date illustration might be one showing five suburban parents accosting a Little League umpire with baseball bats and murderous intent because their kids’ team lost. This ain’t the Golden Age. It’s the gig economy!.
And the lesson for us when we see this card in a reading? Besides "gig economy?" I think Waite appears to wish to "correct" the rose-tinted interpretations of his peers. Therefore, consider the readers of today who look for the positive side in every card. You know, the ones looking for a positive meaning for the Tower ("revolution" is great for Tom Jefferson or V.I. Lenin! But then, I’ve never heard of anyone looking for a negative meaning for the Sun.) Anybody can read whatever way they like, as far as I’m concerned. Me, I like to analyze the cards with as little spin as possible and ask follow up questions. Lots of times, if I can figure out what the deck designer(s) sought to put into the card, it helps me get more out of it. That’s the aim of this series of posts.
Copyright Information:The article above is copyright ©2021 by John Iacovelli, All rights reserved. Note: I am holding off putting a Creative Commons license on this text, as I may put it to multiple uses in the future. Please don’t let that stop you from generating ideas based upon this text.