AUTHOR’S NOTE: For the last couple of years as Valentine’s Day approaches I’ve been reposting my essay on the suit of Cups as the pinnacle of romantic expression. Here it is for my new readers:
It’s likely that the song of the title (written by bluesman Slim Harpo and recorded by several ’60s rockers) was talking more about the tumescent love of Crowley’s Ace of Disks (“It’ll last all the while”) than the sweet emotion of the RWS 2 of Cups. But with the “season of love” — or at least its Hallmark equivalent — upon us, I thought I would take a very narrow view of the Cups as vessels for both romantic nectar and venomous bile. It’s probably unfashionable in these inclusive times when assumptions about the human condition are more elastic than ever, but here it is anyway. The card titles are taken from the Thoth deck, although most of the referenced images are from the RWS. (Using only suit meanings and arithmology — number symbolism — with a non-scenic deck like the the Tarot de Marseille, I would most likely reach different conclusions. But that will have to wait for another post.)
Ace of Cups — Root of the Powers of Water: Ready for love but it hasn’t arrived yet. The cup runneth over, but there’s nobody there to catch the overflow. The gushing chalice in the Thoth Ace of Cups always reminds me of a water balloon bursting on a pavement. Lots of emotional energy but nothing to pour it into, so it either dribbles away or stews in its juices like pot roast in a pressure-cooker. If this Ace indicates a relationship at all, it’s probably a platonic one.
2 of Cups — Love: New love. The fresh face of romance, when both partners are on their best behavior and trying to make a good impression. But ultimately it’s the stimulating and slightly unpredictable pendulum-swing of the Two that keeps things interesting (an “attraction of opposites” magnetism is often present in this polarity, but “moth to a flame” compulsion may be an equally valid analogy). It suggests a swig of Red Bull rather than a long swallow of a more enduring stimulant. When deadening sameness sets in, the thrill of discovery is on the way out. Definitely not the soul-mate or “twin flame”card; that would probably be the 9 of Cups.
3 of Cups — Abundance: Bountiful love, lurking just beyond the fringes of an increasingly confining fidelity. “Innocent fun” is seldom without a shadow side when the 2 of Cups loses its mojo. The excuses are endless: the grass is greener on the other side; there’s more than enough to go around; the Devil made me do it; I was bored out of my mind. Reinvigorating a sputtering romance is the harder path but the rewards of a creative transfusion can be a solid reboot of the relationship . The Threes are about growth and opportunity, which can either drive a couple apart in search of a gratifying diversion or draw them closer together in mutual enthusiasm.
4 of Cups — Luxury: Jaded love. If the opportunity for renewal offered by the 3 of Cups was missed, ennui can set in. Like an overripe fruit, the relationship may appear firm on the surface, but it’s most likely rotting from the inside out. Stagnation is the downfall of the Fours, and here it produces one big yawn. Love in this environment may still seem cozy but it’s more claustrophobic than congenial, going nowhere but in circles, feeding on itself, and spiraling downward. Finger-pointing recriminations take root in this played-out soil.
5 of Cups — Disappointment: Failed love. The message here is “You will have to abandon a good part of your self-esteem (the three overturned cups), but take the best (the two upright cups) and leave the rest. What’s done is done, so salvage what you can. There may be a homecoming awaiting you on the other side of that bridge.” Intense remorse can blind the victim of betrayal to the obvious remedy of just turning around and walking away from the emotional train-wreck, dismissing the illusion of a possible reconciliation. It may be tempting to swallow one’s pride and seek rapprochement, but contrition isn’t usually a sound footing on which to rebuild a relationship. Healing begins with that first departing step.
6 of Cups — Pleasure: Harmonious love. Crowley called this card “one of the best in the pack.” I chuck out all the unrelated garbage about “nostalgia” — I see the two kids on the RWS version as a red herring anyway — and just look at this card for what it is: an unquestionable harbinger of romantic satisfaction, both emotional and physical. Here we have the “perfect match,” at least until one partner encounters the 7 of Cups and makes a fatal mistake. The advice is: Enjoy it while it lasts but keep one eye on your “blind side.”
7 of Cups — Debauch: Forbidden love. Much is made of the salacious nature of Venus in Scorpio, the source of Crowley’s title here. But I think Smith’s vision is truer from a romantic perspective. I’m reminded of the movie From Dusk Until Dawn, where Cheech Marin is pitching the various — ahem — “wares” that are available inside the nightclub: “If we don’t got it, you don’t need it!” From a romantic standpoint, the RWS card suggests a “sampler,” or “browser’s paradise;” the challenge lies in not getting sucked into the fantasy and getting more — or less — than you bargained for. A partner or situation signified by the 7 of Cups should not be accepted at face value.
8 of Cups — Indolence : Listless love. I sometimes call this the “poisoned well” card, especially when reversed. The man has peered into the eight cups and found nothing there to his liking, so he is listlessly wandering away under the gaze of a nodding Moon. Like the 5 of Cups, this is another card of abandoning a lost cause. Here, though, the reward lies on the other side of the mountain and it’s an uphill trek with no goal in sight. Trusting that dazed-looking Moon to reliably light the way to the redeeming 9 of Cups may be fruitless, but lingering here is like standing in quicksand. The man’s obvious discomfort is almost certainly well-founded; he needs to wash his hands of it and get on with his life.
9 of Cups — Happiness: Overpowering love. This is the “fairy-tale romance” card. All of the people are glamorous and noble, and there are no ogres, trolls or witches to be seen. It’s Monty Python’s Happy Valley without the threat of “being hung by the neck until you cheer up.” The Greeks called the number Nine the “Third Perfection” (after the Three and the Six), and the Nine is considered the completion of its suit (the Ten is a postscript), so happiness abounds. “Drunk on love” is one way to put it, but here — unlike the fizzy 2 of Cups — the libation is 100-proof “firewater.” This is the magical “engagement” period before marriage and children arrive to complicate things; see the next card for that.
10 of Cups — Satiety: Love fulfilled. The “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” card (Desmond and Molly Jones in their home-sweet-home with a couple of kids running in the yard). It can also show a “pie-in-the-sky,” naive kind of optimism that is charming but may ultimately be untenable. Some people interpret this card as the relationship running out of gas and losing momentum, but sometimes all you’re looking for is a “soft landing” and a happy ending. This isn’t racy, “wet behind the ears” infatuation, but mature love, warts and all, with its eyes wide open and its guard all the way down. Easy camaraderie trumps excitement; it’s the kind of sentimental romance your grandparents ideally had.