Understanding the Tarot Cups

Tarot books usually say cups are about love and romance. What makes the cup a symbol of love? And surely there must be more to it than romance? The cup is a visual symbol, and like other Tarot symbols, we must approach it by first removing all our preconceived ideas. Then, simply look at the image.

A chalice like a cathedral. That’s the only image before us on the Marseille Tarot’s ace of cups. It has seven points around its rim. Its base resembles a flattened pyramid, topped by a half globe, which supports the upper part. But we’re not concerned with analyzing details. What is this thing itself, how does it feel, and what does it call to mind? It is a cup, but it also suggests a holy place. It feels royal. Let’s consider these.

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Water and Blood

What is the nature of a cup? What makes a cup different than, say, a hammer? What differentiates a functional cup from a dysfunctional one? A cup is a hollow vessel, ready to be filled. A good cup is open, so it can receive and so it can pour out. It is level, not lopsided or tipped, lest it spill. It is still and stable, because if it wobbles it becomes a sloppy mess. It welcomes whatever pours into it. It holds without leaking, and without enclosing. It gives without obstruction, just as it receives.

Taking this all as metaphor, it’s not hard to see what part of the human faculties we are really describing. The cup is like a heart. A good heart, like a good cup, is open, steady, receptive and generous.

The metaphor, of course, deepens. A cup can hold water, the nourishing source of life, just as the heart can hold love, the warm bath of existence. But it can also hold poison, like animosity or spite. The holy grail, depicted on the ace of cups, held blood just like the physical heart. A wineglass, which has timeless archetypal importance, holds the blood of the earth, too much of which is poison in our own veins. Blood moves with a pulse. Water ripples in waves. The heart dances to rhythms.

So to get on one’s wavelength, or to intuit the vibration of a roomful of people, is to exercise a skill of the heart. Empathy, social intelligence, and emotions are all the domain of cups.

The womb, the ultimate vessel, is also synonymous with the cup. Like the grail, this cup carries blood. Until the severance of the umbilical cord, the blood of the mother mixes with the blood of the child. You carry the blood of your maternal lineage in your very veins, just as you drink the same water as your ancestors. The water cycles around. It’s purified in the ocean, distilled as vapor, redistributed as rain, and gathered in watersheds. Then the animals drink it, urinate it back into the streams to travel to the ocean and purify again. The same water that passed through the dinosaurs nourishes your system. And the same divine love and grace that replenished previous generations cascades like a waterfall upon your heart. It’s your job to circulate it.

The cup cannot fill itself. It can only open to be filled. That which fills, that to which it the internal cup opens, is called grace. Grace is a spiritual substance, real but invisible. It is the ida force of yoga, and in western magic is the white snake of the caduceus. This is a cool, descending force. Just as the nature of water is to travel to the low places, it is the nature of grace to fall downward. It is the healing and rejuvenating substance that emanates from the divine. Our access to it depends upon our ability to be open and receive, like a cup. If you’re skilled as a vessel, you feel replenished, joyful, quenched and inspired. If you’re closed, you feel parched and depleted. You collapse in exhaustion.

Poison and Wine

If water does not circulate properly, it stagnates and putrefies. It becomes poison. An ungrateful heart that does not share its love and grace also begins to putrefy. It becomes host to all kinds of poison, like vengeance, greed or envy.

Wine is the blood of the earth. Extracted from her fruits, it is deliberately stagnated into a mild poison. Is it any surprise that this veritas serum brings to the surface your love and grace, or your spite and malice, depending on the quality of your heart?

To cleanse yourself of poison and drink from the holy grail is to commune with the blood of the divine. This is immortality. In Tarot, the cups procession is about purifying, pacifying, and opening the heart so divine grace can circulate through it unobstructed. Then the heart becomes both empty and full. It “runneth over,” as the psalmist notes, completely open to the waterfall of divine grace that is the true blood of Christ, and continually pouring out love, ever replenished and never cut off.

Thus cups are about your relationships, not just with your mother and blood relatives, but with all living things. How do you relate to others? Are you gracious and generous, as the divine source is with you? Are you sharing in joy and celebration with the pureness of a full heart, or are you mistrustful and greedy in the manner of a closed one? To maintain an open heart takes vulnerability. A heart threatened by pain will naturally try to close. But it might become venomous, prickly, and encrusted, like a tidepool creature. So you must work to keep it open.

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A Heart Like a Cathedral

Paradoxically, the vulnerability of water is its strength. Stab it, and it receives your blade. Bludgeon it, and it welcomes your club. Burn it, and it extinguishes your flame. Poison it, and it purifies. And what is stronger than the waves? They grind away the hardest of cliffs. When your heart is open, the same power moves through you.

The Tarot cup is awash in paradox: both empty and full, as still as a clear pool and yet a river runs through it. Open and protected. Intimate, and yet shared with everyone. The heart is a holy place, like a cathedral. It is a place for the truth of wine, but not for poison; a place for vulnerability and not malice; a place for clarity and stillness, not tumultuous confusion. Calm your heart. Care for it. Protect it without being guarded. Be still when tumultuous emotions move through you. Your heart is the inner sanctum, the holy of holies.

Stay Open

The Tarot cups teach you how to do this. They show you how to stay open to grace, how to love, and how to be vulnerable. With these skills you can live a life of fullness and joy. Without them, everything you do in life would be barren and dry. This suit is about the technique of joy. It is delightful and life giving, like a cool glass of water.

So as you’re learning the Tarot, pay special attention to the cups cards. Wherever you find you’re holding a pool of poison inside, open it up and be vulnerable. Let yourself be rinsed with grace. When your whole being is cleansed you will find yourself sharing joy freely, because you have tapped an inexhaustible source. When you drink this water, as Christ said, you’ll never be thirsty again.

Cups are the basis of the playing card suit of hearts.

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