Three men stand on the shore of the ocean. Two of them have their backs turned to us as they gaze out over the waves. A red-haired man holding three swords casts a sideways glance at them; two more swords lay unclaimed on the ground. Above, dark clouds streak across the heavens.
The generally accepted meaning of this card among Tarot scholars is “Defeat,” though an equally plausible scenario can be constructed without much difficulty. Perhaps these soldiers, rather than being opponents, have worked as allies to repel an invasion by a seafaring enemy, and have even captured some of their weapons. (There are only three men in the picture, but five swords.) They could be watching the enemy retreating across the waves. This could easily be a card of victory, but at what cost? The victors certainly aren’t celebrating!
In either event, the Five is a card of struggle and war, and its apparent lack of triumphal resolution reflects the anger that can well up in ourselves if we don’t take the time on occasion to go to that “lonely place apart” as signified by the Four, that we might release our sorrows before they turn into senseless rage. Warfare, after all, is the most obvious form of collectively “lashing out” in anger, of ultimate ego-projection, and this card provides us with a warning not to see ourselves—or our armies, or our nations—as the measure of all things.
As we’ve discussed previously, the number five is retrograde in all four suits of the Trumps Minor as it represents a perfected form (the square) rendered imperfect (the pentagram). In this case, the unity of Father, Son, Holy Spirit and man is distorted by the emergence of man’s vainglorious ego, which mistakes itself for God. This is the root cause of most of the atrocities that humans have waged against each other for millennia, and it is not until we can release our deepest sadnesses that we can summon our greatest joys and “study war no more.” The strapping young soldier nearest us, like ourselves, has the power to begin this process at any time. His undergarment is bloody red, but his outer garment is green, the color of regeneration. The choice of which impulse to obey is entirely up to him, and to us.
Meanings of this card can include: Destructive behavior, ego at war with the Self, separation from humanity and God, hatred and hostility in all aspects; but also, possibly, recovery from wounds, the kingdom defended, the ego-enemy repelled, or even the battle won. This is one of those cards that depends a great deal on the cards surrounding it in a spread to provide it with a clear definition. But one thing we know is that war may at times be necessary, but we should wage it sparingly, if at all; for waging war on our brothers, in the end, is nothing less than waging war on God, and that is a battle we can never win.