Reflections on The Five of Swords

I had a most peculiar dream last night. In it I was in the company of a tall red-headed woman who I identified as a newfound love. It was Sunday morning, and we were (so I thought) getting ready to attend church services together. I complimented her appearance and kissed her softly on the lips; she didn’t respond. I kissed her again, more passionately this time, but again she wasn’t moved. I tried kissing her a third time, but she pushed me away: “I have to get ready for work,” she said.

“I thought we were going to church,” I said.

“Some other time. I’ve got to get to work.”

“Where do you work?” I asked. “What do you do?”

“Frankly,” she said, “I’m a prostitute.” At this point her countenance began to grow darker and more primitive, and her bright red hair turned black.

Well, that explains the reaction, I thought, upon which I woke up.

I’m at an age (late 50s) where dreams with any kind of sexual activity are relatively rare occurrences, and because I couldn’t remember any previous encounter with a prostitute in a dream, I sought a quick consultation from the Tarot. I shuffled the cards, and this is what turned up:


This is one of the more problematic cards in the deck, with conventional meanings revolving around defeat, failure and loss. But what kind of defeat? The traditional interpretation describes the end of a clash between the victorious character nearest us in the picture and the defeated pair who have thrown down their swords with their backs turned to us.

But could there be another scenario at play? There are only three figures but five swords. To whom did the extra two swords belong? It is difficult to believe that a soldier, such as the fellow in the foreground, would be able to fight efficiently when having to wield three swords at once. Could the extra weapons have belonged to an invading flotilla that has been repelled back out to sea, or could they have belonged to two other fighters who have long since fled the field? Perhaps the three men depicted on this card were once allies who’ve now turned against each other because they can’t agree on how to share the spoils of war, i.e., the two extra swords. That’s always how I’ve “read” this card, and since Swords indicate some form of “thought” and the number 5 stands for the five senses of man, I’ve viewed the card as a representation of the ego-mad “split mind” made manifest in the world. In any event, an obvious rupture has opened between the three men, as they are no longer able, or willing, to face each other, each of them consumed by either arrogance or grief. It is a representation, as Aleister Crowley put it, of “intellect defeated by sentiment.”

Applying this thought to my dream, perhaps we can say that my “sentiment” led to a misperception. The woman in my dream was not who I thought she was; rather than embodying the noblest aspects of love, she embodied the basest. Perhaps there is an element of my psyche that is experiencing a sense of loss and defeat, perhaps of having “lost” at love—as in the Reflection on the Ace of Cups that I posted the other day—or experiencing some regret at having engaged in relationships that were debauched and debased: I’ll admit, I’ve been involved in a couple of romances in my life that, in retrospect, I’m not too proud of.

There is, however, another way of looking at this—specifically, perhaps my sentiment prejudged this “prostitute” too harshly. The word, in Latin, has no particularly negative connotation; it literally means “to stand before,” as at the door of a temple, and in many ancient societies, so-called “temple prostitution” was a recurring religious rite to honor various fertility goddesses. Perhaps my “prostitute” was accompanying me to church on Sunday after all! Put another way: in dreams, a “church” isn’t necessarily a brick-and-mortar edifice but any kind of psychic venue or channeling device that draws us closer to the Divine. Perhaps my prostitute was a conduit for me to get there, but my dismissive attitude judged her too severely before she could reveal her true gifts.

There’s yet another alternative—my former career (which I’ve written about in the past) left me, at times, with the frustrating feeling of selling my talents short, of punching a clock for an employer that I didn’t much like simply to make money; if that’s not a workaday definition of prostitution, I don’t know what is. (Interestingly, I also have red hair like the woman in my dreams. Could she have been a shadow of my Self—an animus who would seduce me back into a life of work that is safe and secure but spiritually unrewarding?) If that’s the case, it was all well and good to be dismissive of her. I really don’t want to head down that road again if I can help it because it eventually leads to the kind of quarrelsome nature that’s personified by this card. Been there, done that.

In any case, we are reminded yet again here of the flexibility of Tarot as a psychoanalytical teaching tool, and if there’s any one lesson to be learned, it’s that when emotion and reason fall out of balance as the Five of Swords illustrates, we often make poor decisions in life—and often, people (including ourselves) get hurt. Better we seek to resolve our conflicts peaceably without judging or condemning others.

Dante DiMatteo 

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