Into The Fray: The Fives in Tarot

This is one of a series of articles that I wrote over my five years as the tarot columnist at Planet Waves. I will be re-releasing these, one at a time, over the coming weeks and months.

When we looked at The Fours in Tarot, we were met with the sense of being away from the action. The Fours describe a pause, whether obligatory or of one’s own choosing, where there is a call to take stock.

In the Fives, we are thrust back into life, and into a different world from the one that we left in the Threes.

The Fives in tarot represent those moments where we find ourselves in some form of ensnarement — physical, mental, or emotional. The smooth, well-worn path has given way to potholes and low-hanging branches; the environment seems unwelcoming.

This is the first time that conflict has made a significant appearance in each suit. Yes, we’ve had moments of conflict, but the Fives are defined by it. When we move from the realm of non-incarnate potential (the Aces) and into the world of duality (the Twos), we have bound ourselves to the experience of contrast. Perhaps conflict is inevitable. Perhaps what we do with it is not.

Five of Wands

Five of Wands from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

Five men are gathered on open ground, engaged in some sort of melee. There is nothing in the background to situate them in any particular landscape. It is simply them, and their wands.

A few things strike me when I look at what I’ve just described:

First, the men are not dressed for battle. They're brightly clothed — fashionable, even; and although one of them is wearing chainmail, there's no other sign of armour, nor are there any swords.

Second, the group seems to be split into two informal sub-groups: the two men at the back, and the three at the front. Apart from that, however, there seems to be little organisation, and there's no discernible leader.

Third, they are young. Their legs are coltish; there isn’t a strand of facial hair among them.

The card smacks of, if not foolishness, then inexperience.

Back when I first started to study this card in detail, it came up in a tarot reading that same week, which included the Five of Wands, there were some comments about the wands’ configuration, and the suggestion that they were striving to form a pentacle. I still hold to this.

The pentacle is a symbol long associated with magic, and, in the tarot, with matter. Is this an indication, then, of the potential for magic made manifest into matter — the magic that comes from harnessing creative energy, or spirit? If so, then it remains just that: potential. Whether due to inexperience, a lack of organisation, or an absence of - or an inability to make - a concerted effort, the pentacle remains elusive. Is there a resolution? Will anyone stand down? The outcome is unclear.

Five of Cups

Five of Cups from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

A figure (I’m going to assume masculine given the short hair) stands with his back to us, cloaked in black, shoulders hunched. In front of him are three overturned cups, their contents spilled onto the ground; behind him are two upright cups. A black line separates man and cups from the background of grey sky, river, bridge and stone building flanked by shrubs.

Why the black line? The first thing that comes to me is that the man and the cups are on a stage, while the background is a painted backdrop. If this is the case, then how might this be interpreted?

The Five of Cups is about disappointment. The figure looks utterly defeated, his head bowed as if he is gazing on the three cups, the contents of which are now lost to him. The black cloak reflects the mood: it is the most dominant aspect of the card, and envelopes him.

However, look at the contents of the spilled cups. Two of the pools are red, suggesting either wine or blood; the one nearest us is green. It feels like putrefaction. Did blood necessarily have to be sacrificed in order to get rid of whatever it was that was rotten? (I cannot get the image of Hamlet out of my mind here: the man, the play within a play. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”)

More importantly, the figure doesn’t seem to have noticed what is behind him. Two cups remain, standing like guardian angels, one on either side of him. Add to this the submission that he is on a stage, and the picture becomes clearer: the man has become caught up in the drama to the point that he fully identifies with it. There is room for little else in his consciousness. He has forgotten that resources remain that he can draw from. He has forgotten that, like a play, the pain can pass, the lights come up, and with this his release from anguish and into a different experience of what cups can be.

Five of Swords

Five of Swords from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

A figure stands in the foreground, three swords in hand and a smile on his face, while two unarmed figures are seen in the background, one with their face in their hands as if crying.

Above, blue sky is interrupted by jagged, grey clouds, and beneath, a body of water ripples gently, both separated by a thin strip of land.

This does not feel like a harmonious card, primarily because of the figure in the distance. Is it at their expense that the man in the foreground is smiling? I think so.

The Five of Swords speaks of 'winner takes all' - and taking it without mercy. The protagonist already has three swords; and it is implied that he will also take the two swords lying at his feet. His smile could be satisfaction, or it could be smugness — it depends on how the card is interpreted in a wider reading.

Regardless, this decision is one that he has made alone, and it is not without consequences. This is echoed in the landscape: the clouds are skewed and sharp, much like swords themselves. Is there a storm in the offing? The water is calm and uniform, as if emotions are flattened. Thought and action dominate heart, and there is no sign of closure. Not in this card, anyway; the resolution is implied elsewhere, later down the line.

Five of Pentacles

Five of Pentacles from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

A man and a woman — both poorly dressed, one barefoot, the other on crutches — make their way through the snow. Behind them stands a church, evidenced by a large, stained-glass window containing five pentacles that seem to glow through the gloom outside.

I have read that the Five of Pentacles denotes the idea of ‘poverty consciousness’, and I’m inclined to fall in with this interpretation. The couple outside seems bereft of material resources: they are under-dressed, probably undernourished and in poor health. The man looks at us, the woman down to the ground before her feet.

Yet if they were to consider the possibility that there was somewhere else worth looking, they would see the warmth emanating from the pentacles right next to them. As with the figure in the Five of Cups, they miss the obvious.

The card suggests that the material world is inextricably tied to our spiritual lives and that we cannot feed the body if we aren’t able to feed the soul. Without the second, we are constantly in a place of need with the first. The formation of the Pentacles emphasizes this, connected as they are by something that closely resembles an anchor. And it is an anchor that is grounded in leaves and flowers: true richness encompasses nature and works within its laws.

Seen collectively, the Fives can come across as an exercise in frustration. There is much discomfort with seemingly little resolution: more than the Threes or the Fours, they tend to beg the question: “What happens next?”

If we can hold the energy of the uncertainty without the need for closure, then perhaps that in itself is the way forward.