5 of Wands: Leo I
Decan ruler (Chaldean): Saturn
Hermetic Title: Strife
Corresponding major arcana: The World [Saturn] + Strength/Lust [Leo]
Dates: July 23 - August 1
With the 5 of Wands, we enter the realm of Leo - the province of the Strength or Lust card. Here is the search for the limelight, the quest for fame and glory, the hunger for one's moment in the sun! But there is no victor without a tournament first. You can almost sense the blood pounding, the adrenaline racing. It's audition time - reach for the beta blockers! Let the games begin!
Some of us in esoteric tarot think of the 5 of Wands as the "pressure cooker". The reason is not complicated. You take the crushing weight of Saturn and the radiant, steady heat of Leo and the result is a kind of cosmic Instant Pot. Tempers simmer, brows sweat, opposing points of view contend. Yet this is the contention of sport or debate rather than outright battle; there is a goal other than destruction. The purpose of this exercise (other than making a delicious pot-au-feu in no time flat) is to find the strongest, the fittest, the winningest winner of all.
Saturn defines the arena in which these games take place, setting the rules and terms of the challenge so that, after a fixed interval, one contestant will emerge and shine. We shall meet that victor in the 6.
In other words, the 5 of Wands establishes superlatives. In older versions of the Strength card, we sometimes encounter the figure of Herakles - he of the Nemean Lion. In these versions, the point is literal, physical force, not moral force. The Herculean labors were our hero's great burden to bear, but they defined his κλεος, his immortal glory; they are the reason we think of him as the strongest hero of the Greeks.
When we face our own challenges, we do well to remember that "Strife" is just another way of saying "Striving". No matter how daunting the task, there is always a prize to be won. It may not be something we can polish and display on a shelf; it may not even be something we'd choose - but it might just be the making of our personal legend.
Strength as fortitude, strength as vitality.
In the Sun episode of Fortune's Wheelhouse, Mel and I talked about the dual nature of Leo as shown in its corresponding major. Sometimes the emphasis is fortitude, the internal staying power that tames monsters, as we see it in the Rider Waite Smith Strength card. But sometimes it is raw vitality, as we see in the Thoth Lust card. This brings to mind the notion that there is another side to Saturn, the World card, as well.
In our decanic cycle, Saturn first appeared in the very agricultural 7 of Pentacles; there we recalled his traditional role as a patron of fertility. This is the World card as the ripe fruit of Malkuth rather than the terminal endpoint of all things. In Saturn's Orphic Hymn, the third line reads: ὃς δαπανᾶις μὲν ἅπαντα καὶ αὔξεις ἔμπαλιν αὐτός - you dwell within all things, you cause all things to increase.
If you combine these two sides of Strength and the World - vital force and fertility - you find yourself with a virtual hothouse. Imagine a grow operation or high tunnel or greenhouse where the plants have grown rampant, pumped up with nitrogen and phosphate, leaves pressing against the glass (or polyethylene). But soon enough the scythe will descend, leaving only the strongest to represent its kind.
Swallowing the Children
Among the myths of the Titan Kronos, the Greek Saturn, we find another insight into the 5 of Wands. Confronted by the prophecy that he would be supplanted by his son - a fear we can see fulfilled in the 6 of Wands - Kronos swallows his children even as his wife, Rhea, gives birth to them. But upon the birth of Zeus, Rhea replaces the infant god with a stone (more Saturn/earth references, but who's counting). While his siblings thrash about within the Titan father, Zeus ascends to his full strength hidden and protected. He will come to fulfill the prophecy, supplanting his father and liberating all the confined soon-to-be Olympians. In our Ptolemaic order, freeing Jupiter follows confining Saturn just as Zeus follows Kronos.
This eternal story of succession shows up clearly in the 5-6-7 sequence in Wands, the cards of Leo and thus the cards of kingship. In the 5, aspirants contend for the throne. In the 6, a clear victor emerges. In the 7, he struggles to hold his place against increasingly difficult odds.
We see something similar in all stories in the 5-6-7 sequence. There is, dare we call it, a fixation on the 6, the central balance point or anchor. I won't go through them all, but we saw a perfect example back in Taurus, the 5-6-7 of Pentacles sequence. There the 6 represented the perfect moment when the blessings of the land took root; it was bracketed by Worry in the 5 and Failure in the 7. Worry looked ahead, asking "how can we prevent disaster?" Failure looked behind, asking "what did we do wrong?" The 6 of Pentacles received its fortune from the Moon; the 6 of Wands looks to the Sun, its ruler, for public recognition.
Also worth noting in these two triptychs is the variable effect of Saturn. The 5 of Wands (Saturn in Leo) is the Lord of Strife; the 7 of Pentacles (Saturn in Taurus) is the Lord of Failure. In the suit of fire Saturn's stringencies make for increased effort and ambition; in the suit of earth they lead to inertia and contemplation.
Down and Dirty
Decan images for Leo I center around an aggressive male protagonist, sometimes cruel ("he is about to hit his father"), sometimes magnaminous (a face of "strength, generosity and victory"). Often he's accompanied by a dog, and sometimes by a bear. The figure is also described as "looking to the north," but the exact term is septentrionem, which could also mean "in the direction of the Great Bear" (i.e., north). His clothes are consistently described as "dirty". You can almost imagine the scuffle, the dust being kicked up in the 5 of Wands. In the northward gaze we can imagine a yearning for ascendancy (the sun is far to the north at this time of year for everyone) and a willingness to make a bit of a mess getting there.
Making an omelet, breaking some eggs
Here's my favorite 5 of Wands story. In 1998, I was in cooking school for a while. One morning I drew the 5 of Wands before setting out on the subway and promptly forgot about it, as was my habit in those days. It happened to be the day of my pastry exam, and I was nervous about it. Somewhere around mid-morning, I looked up and there we were - 5 students in chef whites around a metal table, pounding away at our puff pastry dough with straight baking dowels, each as long as a broom handle. I burst out laughing, for it was the first time I had experienced tarot at its most literal. But it would certainly not be the last.
In more recent years, I have drawn the 5 of Wands in all kinds of high-pressure situations. I've had it for cars dying (combustion engine trouble), pouring hot oil into a glass jar which immediately shattered, making sous-vide fried chicken (vacuum + heat), struggling with the kids, proposing new projects. I got it the day I learned about the fire at the Hermit's Lamp (a store beloved by tarot readers). In the aggregate, looking back, I see myself in many attitudes of endeavor. I see that sometimes I succeeded and sometimes I failed, but at least, always, I tried the best I could at the time.
When you draw the 5 of Wands, you might be under lots of pressure. You might be suffering from performance anxiety. Remember that perfection is not the point - the point is to strive; to discover what inner excellence hides inside you. This gift may only come out under the duress of a deadline, a public appearance, or in competition. Do your best, and when the period of stress comes to an end, accept whatever recognition comes. If no external validation is to be had, stand on your own damn podium and give yourself your own medal! Give yourself credit for what you have learned, for the rigors of the 5 are completed and justified by the 6.