Radiant Rider-Waite-Smith, © U.S. Games Systems, Inc.
The 5 of Swords is another RWS card in which Smith’s image sends a mixed message that has caused a good deal of head-scratching. The man in the foreground appears to be victorious over his retreating adversaries (and even sports a small, self-satisfied smile), but the Golden Dawn title was the “Lord of Defeat,” and there is barely a shred of encouragement for the querent in the accompanying text: “Contest finished and decided against the person; failure, defeat, anxiety, trouble, poverty, avarice, grieving after gain. laborious, unrelenting; loss and vileness of nature; malicious, slanderous, lying, spiteful and tale-bearing” – there is even more in the same nasty vein. Only “clever and quick in thought and speech” at the end of the passage offers any positive strokes. If there is a sense of “victory” here, it would seem to be of the hollow sort; maybe the man has lost more than he gained in the battle and doesn’t know it yet.
But the design of the card is such that one is more apt to identify with the smiling man picking up the fallen swords and think that everything will turn out all right. To see “defeat” in it requires sympathizing with one of the vanquished foes, and they look more pitiful than tragically noble. I can only think that Smith was trying to show something along the lines of “pride goeth before a fall” or “the battle has been won, but not the war.” I sometimes fancy that the man down by the shore with his head in his hands is busily plotting his revenge. He will lie in wait down the road and ambush the erstwhile victor bare-handed when his guard is down. (Picture John Cleese as the Black Knight bellowing “Come back here, I’ll bite your legs off!”)
Enough free-association, though; I want to talk about the nature of the number Five. In Qabalistic number theory, Five relates to the Mars energy, which is sudden and typically disruptive in its operation (the Tower is Mars writ large). In Pythagorean number theory as used in esoteric philosophy, Five jump-starts the stalled energy of the Four, which sooner or later wallows in its inertia and becomes far too comfortable within its cloistered walls. Five signifies change of the “Ready or not, here I come!” variety, and it is an entirely necessary development. I like to think of it as a “nut-cracker” or “can-opener” that punctures and ventilates the stale atmosphere of the stuffy Four and gets things flowing again. As a precursor for return to the equilibrium of the Six, it inspires the aphorism “You can’t make omelets without breaking eggs.”
I’ve always felt that the influence of the Five should be welcomed as a stimulus to growth and not feared as a threat to the status quo. Joseph Maxwell has one of the most even-handed and useful interpretations I’ve seen: “The number 5 breaks the equilibrium of the square, and is favourable in a muted sense, bringing, however, new or unusual influences with it.” He is less sanguine about the 5 of Swords itself: “. . . change and transformation due to the pressure of exterior influences – influences which are not fortunate, but for whose presence the querent may not be quite free of blame. The arcanum is permeated with a sense of depression and lowered vitality.” He adds that “In the traditional interpretation, the card means ‘grief’ and ‘strife,’ and reversed it is much the same.” (Note that Maxwell relates Swords to Fire, not Air.) He has me thinking of another platitude: “You’ve made your bed, now you have to lie in it.”
In fairness to Smith, she may only have been inviting the observer to look at the two sides of the equation – “victory” and “defeat” – with a fresh set of eyes. That blond man in the Radiant RWS certainly looks like he deserves his comeuppance. His enemies have walked away from the conflict, but it may only be so they can “live to fight another day.” The racing clouds in the sky suggest that the situation is still unsettled and the final blow has yet to fall. The advice for the querent would be “Don’t be too sure of yourself at this time. Keep your head on straight and your feet under you, and watch for an opportunity to regain any lost traction and momentum as the situation plays out. You may be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.””