The Five of Swords – A One Page Guide

Five of Swords - IsleVue One Page Guide to Card Derivations

The desolation and despair of the Five of Swords contains the seeds of recovery. We shall see that the astrological and planetary influences suggest, through Ganymede, Saturn and Venus, the Trojan War. And the qabalistic influence brings us the fiery left hand of the Almighty. These bring to mind the fact that Waite had two “slants” that he imposed upon the RWS deck. The first, as we have noted in many of these One Page Guides already, is Christian mysticism. But the second is British nationalism; it’s the reason for the pre-occupation with Celtic imagery throughout the Waite Colman Smith deck. It ties directly into the British nationalism at the height of the British Empire, pre-World War I; just before its decline. We will see, in fact, what may be an eponymous link with the British empire shortly!

As usual, these introductory posts convey additional analysis, as well as a link to the PDF version at bottom, which is better to print from. This is number thirteen in the series.

Digging Into Troy

The first thing to note about the Five of Swords is the difference between Waite’s and the Golden Dawn’s divinatory meanings. They’re both about loss, but the GD’s meanings are about personal losses, while Waite’s are communal. Let’s look at the GD:

Contest finished, and decided against the person, failure, defeat, anxiety, trouble, poverty, avarice, grieving after gain, laborious, unresting, loss and vileness of nature. Malicious, slandering, lying, spiteful and talebearing. A busybody and separator of friends, hating to see peace and love between others. Cruel yet cowardly, thankless, and unreliable. Clever and quick in thought and speech. Feelings of pity easily roused but unenduring.

It describes more of a “gambling” loss—”contest,” “against the person”—while Waite seems to be describe a political loss—”revocation,” “infamy” and “dishonor.” Waite has changed the focus and intensified the divinatory meanings.

When we look at the astrological and other influences upon the scene, we see clues as what may have suggested the change to Waite.

First of all: we know that Aquarius, the astrological influence, is the Water Bearer, the mythical boy-shepherd Ganymede who Zeus abducted and made Cup Bearer for Olympus.

IsleVue Tarot-Zodiac-Element-Sephiroth Wheel of the Golden Dawn

Most interestingly, of all Zeus’ “conquests” (we use the term loosely), Ganymede is the only one he made immortal. When we look closer, we find the story runs a little deeper. Ganymede wasn’t just a shepherd. He was the son of a king; and not just any king. He was the son of Tros of Dardania, whom Troy was named after. There is another link between Troy and Ganymede. Like Ganymede, Paris, a prince of Troy whose (mis)judgment started the Trojan War was also a shepherd. (We should explain that when he was born, a prophecy stated he would bring about the destruction of Troy… Priam, his father, gave him to a shepherd with orders to kill him. The shepherd hadn’t the heart to do so, and raised him as a shepherd). We might also cite a few more connections: Saturn, the planetary influence also unsuccessfully attempted to kill his son Zeus/Jupiter, based upon a prophecy. And Venus, the Ruling planet of the decan, was one of the “contestants” in the “beauty contest” that Paris judged, the very one who bribed him. That “contest” came about because of the “Apple of Discord” which was to have been a gift at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles, the great hero of the Trojan War. And let us not leave out Helen of Troy, the daughter of Zeus by Leda, whose extramarital love was the bribe that Paris received for judging in favor of Venus. Helen was made immortal only by Homer, however, not by Zeus.

Five of Swords isolated characters

We therefore have established a possible connection between the Five of Swords and the Trojan War via the Zodiac sign, planetary influence and the decan ruler. Troy, of course, was a “hot topic” when Arthur Waite was a boy, having just been re-discovered by Heinrich Schliemann. It is quite conceivable that he might have looked at these influences and thought of Troy. In fact, there is a logical path: the GD divinatory meanings we said were more of a “contest…” as in the way in which the Judgment of Paris was a contest. And in the same way that contest escalated, so too did Waite’s divinatory meanings escalate into a “state” contest.

There were no swords at the Judgment of Paris. But as we dig deeper into Waite’s divinatory meanings, we see “degradation, destruction, revocation, infamy, dishonour, loss.” These are descriptions of war and more. “Revocation” is a calling back. Infamy is a supreme ill repute and dishonor; it’s a word familiar to Americans from Franklin Rooselvelt’s usage of it in reference to Pearl Harbor. It is a dishonest act, even treachery associated with war.

Looking at Colman Smith’s illustration, we see the two “retreating and dejected” figures that Waite described. Oddly enough, there were exactly two famous “traitors” associated with the Trojan War. I enclose “traitors” in quotes because though they were infamous for being traitors, they may not actually have committed treason. The first of them, Antenor, was so infamous he had a section of Hell named after him by Dante. How infamous is that! Aliester Crowley could only have aspired to such infamy in his dreams! In the Inferno, Antenora is located in Hell’s Circle of Treachery, and is reserved for traitors of cities, countries, and political parties. The degree of Antenor’s “treachery” varied according to several accounts, from merely suggesting the Trojans send Helen back to her husband, to literally opening the gates of Troy to the Acheans. The last story fragment might make it plausible that Odysseus stands in the foreground. The story of the Trojan Horse, which was Odysseus’ idea, was the method by which the Acheans got past the gates of Troy after ten years of siege.

Palamedes – source unknown

The other famous traitor of the Trojan War was Palamedes, who oddly enough invented the game of dice. Robert M. Place notes in his The Tarot: History, Symbolism and Divination that the twenty one trumps of the Tarot match in number the possible combinations of the roll of the dice. Dice may have been another point generating the Trojan War idea for this scene, in that the GD’s divinatory meanings directly mentioned gambling. Most accounts of Palamedes state that rather than being an actual traitor, he was framed as a traitor by Odysseus. So we have yet another connection to he, as well. Perhaps he does stand in the foreground.

We should note, finally that the Sepphiroth influence, Geburah, is the fire of God, His left hand that punishes mortals when wicked. The man in the foreground holds the swords in his left. The elemental influence, air, when combined with fire creates arche according to the Greeks. It is a mix of intelligence and soul, a substance between air and fire. This would certainly be an aspect of Odysseus.

More than just suggesting a scene based upon the astrological/qabalistic/elemental influences, the Five of Swords fits in with one of Waite’s two most important approaches to popularizing the tarot: British nationalism (the other being Christian mystical symbols, of course). Though not easily adaptable to the Celtic imagery that he favored, Brutus of Troy, descendant of a more famous Trojan refugee Aeneas, was said to have founded Britain, and in fact, Britain is named after him.

In certain respects, then, this confluence of heroes: Odysseus, Aeneas and the founder of Britain suggests that a silver lining to the deep negativity of Waite’s divinatory meanings for this card exists. It is in plain sight, the “master in possession of the field.” Because for every Ganymede, swept up and buggered by the gods (certainly a great possible divinatory meaning by itself), or for every traitor slinking away by sea, there is an Odysseus, the most famous adventurer literature has ever known, or an Aeneas or a Brutus of Troy, both having founded great empires. The desolation and despair of the Five of Swords therefore contains the seeds of recovery. I find it likely that Waite and Colman Smith had Troy in mind when they designed the Five of Swords. Did they also have those two specific “traitors” in mind? That’s just speculation, but we couldn’t have theories without some speculation, could we?

One final note: the collage image featured at the top of the page uses as its base a work by Rafael Tegeo, and is of Achilles and Hector; neither of whom are traitors!

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John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot?