[This post is part of four-part series on the nature of the tarot card suits. Each of us has chosen to tackle one suit in our own unique way. To see the first in the series, Miguel’s take on Swords, click here: To a Queen of Swords]
When thinking about the suit of Cups in the tarot, it’s helpful to consider the form, shape, and function of a cup itself. We’re looking here at a vessel: something designed specifically to hold, contain, distribute, transport, and – in some cases such as fancy chalices and ornamental goblets – adorn and beautify.
Much like a heart, in fact.
In the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, the suit of Cups is like a microcosm of the overall Fool’s Journey through the tarot. There’s a cycle of being woven throughout the suit that takes us neatly (if not easily or without strife) through the entire spectrum of the human emotional experience and how it plays out in everyday life.
Describing the Suit of Cups
If I had to use one word to describe the suit of Cups, I would chose love. Runners-up would be heart, emotions, soul, feelings. In playing cards this would be the suit of hearts. This is where we live out our interpersonal relationships, our romantic interludes, our painful heartbreaks, our bitter emotional manipulations, our tender compassions, our delicate and vulnerable reaching out for and offering our affection.
In short, we are emotionally involved here. The degree to which that emotional involvement takes place is also oftentimes a subject of the individual card. How much should we be “in deep” emotionally? How detached should we be? How are our feelings triggering our behaviors in our choices and actions? All of it is here in the suit of Cups.
With the Fool’s Journey as our model, let’s look at the suit of cups in four separate sections bookended by the Ace and the King, as the Hero (you yourself, your soul) journeys through the flowing world of the suit of cups.
Ace: Planting a Seed – A New Beginning (From an Ending)
In the RWS deck, the imagery of a lotus flower rising from the mud is apt. There is beauty here, but in order for it to emerge, it has to hit rock bottom and crawl its way up out of the mud. Think of this (and all Aces, for that matter) as the interplay between beginning and end, much like the infinity symbol. There’s forward motion in terms of something that’s growing in our hearts, but we often can’t determine that exact point at which something that ended made way for fertile ground to bring about the “new.” Beginnings and endings need each other and they are inextricably intertwined. However, when the Ace appears, we’re being encouraged to look ahead to what’s ready to grow and emerge, rather than what we’ve left behind or ended that has brought us to this point.
The Ace shows the first signs of what we might describe as “effusive” emotions. Overflow. Too much to contain. The excitement of a first spark, a crush, an overwhelming feeling of being hit by Cupid’s arrow. It’s simply too much to hold inside and as such it flows outward beyond our physical and emotional borders and boundaries, much like the four streams coming out of the goblet being held out here in the hand from the cloud.
Two, Three, Four: Meeting, Sharing, Refusing
Two: When we move past this initial explosion of emotions we can make a step forward to meet a person where they’re at. If we’re on equal footing as we see in the Two and if we are willing to reach out to a partner who is also reaching out, there can be a true meeting of not only hearts but also minds, under the caduceus of Mercury, God of communication and transport, in this case not only physical but also emotional.
Three: When love extends beyond two people it becomes a celebration of fraternal love, of friends creating a harmonious triangle together and toasting to their good fortune. We’re reminded that we can’t get by in coupled pairs alone – we must also seek out fellowship on a heart level with like-minded individuals who will support us, listen to us, and lift us up.
Four: In our emotional and psychological world, we’re not always open to love. Love and heart-centered sharing isn’t always appropriate or necessary for our growth at any given moment. There are times when we need to say no to love, even if it’s being offered over and over again. If we don’t want what’s being offered, we’ll reject it. We need to draw a fine line however between what we know we don’t want or isn’t good for us, and what we perhaps deem isn’t “good enough” for us. Rejection out of perfection will leave us sitting alone.
Five, Six, Seven: Mourning, Regressing, Imagining
Five: They say don’t cry over spilt milk, but we must. We must cry over loss, because if we don’t, we simply can’t integrate the experience and move forward with a cleansed and willing heart. So cry. Mourn. Look at the spilled milk, the lost love, the missing loved one. Cry over what you can never, ever get back again, no matter how hard you try. You must cry over it as long as you feel you have tears to shed. Then: turn around and start filling up again. There are empty vessels that need contents.
Six: Regressing often has a negative connnotation, but returning to the past isn’t always a negative thing. In the six of Cups we see a return to nostalgic memories of childhood, loved ones from the past, happier times. Cups are used as flower pots. That’s a transitory use but it serves its purpose for the moment – effemeral beauty without deep roots.
Seven: Building castles in the air can be a beautiful thing that opens our heart to magic. But how much of it is real, and how much of it is imagined or idealized? Living love in the world of ideas can be exciting, but it can vanish just as soon as it was conjured. Distinguishing what’s real from what’s imagined is a challenge for the heart, especially when desires are real but reality doesn’t rise to meet the challenge. Seeing clearly with the heart isn’t easy when love is blind.
Eight, Nine, Ten: Leaving, Gloating, Rejoicing
Eight: Stacking cups to make a lasting structure, but one is missing. Sometimes the heart wishes for something that can’t be built in the real world. At that point there’s a fork in the road: either accept the hole in the wall and live with it, or refuse to continue with a missing part and walk away from it altogether. Building with the heart and not just the hands means leaving something behind on an emotional, not just physical, level. And that can hurt. But the way ahead is a conscious choice based on the inner knowing that there’s something better to be had and progress to be made.
Nine: Look at my riches and look at my shiny cups! This is an ego-based love, a love that satisfies a carnal desire or a need for possession. They say this is the wish card, but sometimes what we wish for is like opening Pandora’s box. Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.
Ten: A rainbow of cups, a dancing family, a happy cottage – this is love’s completion, full of joy and contentment. It’s a moment to stand back and be grateful for completing the initial journey through the ups and downs of the emotional rollercoaster of life. Taking refuge in loved ones is cause for celebration.
Page, Knight, Queen: Professing, Offering, Emoting
With the court cards, we see four stages of love’s maturation.
With the Page we have a young, puppy-love sort of feeling – naive and vulnerable, invincible and trusting, playful and unexpected, full of suprises.
The Knight shows us the confidence of early adulthood, offering love’s cup on a gallant white horse, the wings of Mercury flying with the message of love. The fishes on the knight’s coat and the winding stream reminding us that this is a watery field to get involved in – tears will be shed, whether of sadness, joy, or both.
The Queen is our Cups equivalent of the mid-life crisis. She is the utmost in terms of emoting at its fullest, and watch out if she wants to manipulate your emotions. She’s lived long enough to know a thing or two about how emotions and love work, and that gives her powerful insights into the human psyche as well as a dangerous ability to stoke emotional hot buttons for her own ego-driven desires.
King: Reaped What You Sowed – An Ending (For a New Beginning)
Finally in the King we come to the elderly stage of life, love’s completion ready to make way for a new beginning. We see the reverse image of the Ace, in which this ending now makes way for a new beginning, and perhaps we take time to look back over the journey. What we have now that we didn’t have before is wisdom about emotions and love. Now we know how to temper our emotions and we know how to manage the delicate interplay between head and heart. Here we have a wounded king, the proverbial Fisher King, who has been wounded and lost potency, but is ultimately healed. We’ve found emotional stability and emotional balance, and as such, we’ve come to understand something about the fundamental nature of love itself, before beginning the journey once again.
Shelley reads the cards with poetic insights and practical solutions to help her clients navigate the twists and turns of the road of life. You can read more of her writings on Maelstrom Tarot and at her website Sparrow Tarot, and book your own customized reading here.