Due to their liquid-bearing connotation, the Cups of the tarot have long been associated with the fluid, emotive side of life and the expression of both joy and the sorrow. The Tarot de Marseille “pip” cards strip this down to its bare essentials; all we see for the most part are suit emblems (chalices) and a miscellany of flowers, stems and foliage. With the exception of the large chalice in the 10 of Cups, which appears to have a stopper, all of them show a shaded interior implying that they are in use, not full to overflowing but not half-empty either. The implication is that no human contact is entirely devoid of emotional content. More often than not, the chalices are separated by the presence of plant stems that typically bear leaves and flowers. With the exceptions of the 10 of Cups, which has no decorative embellishments, and the 3 of Cups with its diagonal split, the verdant arrays divide the designs into left and right halves, with a few having chalices that straddle the divide. They fall into three broad categories: those that are “on the straight-and-narrow;” those that are more multifarious and circuitous; and the single case of “no data.”
The even-numbered cards are considered binary in nature, exhibiting a marked dualism since they are all multiples of the number Two; thus, their partitioning seems logical in an “either/or” sense or, perhaps more appropriately, as an echo of the comedy-and-tragedy masks of the theater, since emotional matters often have two sides. The Two, Four and Six all have a straight vertical separator strewn with flowers, keeping the contents of the chalices from intermingling while still allowing for some fruitful cross-talk. Their arms may be crossed, but the parties are still on speaking terms. (The even-numbered Cups are unfailingly gracious but slow to commit.) The idea I get is one of strong but fickle feelings unswayed by rational considerations or contrary opinions; being of two minds in an emotional situation but beholden to neither is a common dilemma. The higher the number of the card the more pages in the saga, acts in the drama or players on the stage, and the greater the likelihood of stumbling around overwrought with one’s panties (or shorts) in a bunch. The 8 of Cups offers both an opportunity and a quandary; it is sectioned horizontally as well as vertically, showing a multitude of options but, everything being equal, no clear path to fulfillment. The result could be either “flying off in all directions” or total emotional paralysis. The 10 of Cups alone feels no push from the forces of nature; its central conflict is posed by the uncommonly large chalice athwart the path of the advancing rows of three. There is a stifling sense of blockage to it, or maybe constipation is a better analogy. On a more positive note, it could be termed the “stiff-upper-lip” card showing unwavering resolve in the face of an incoming emotional tsunami.
Except for the Three, which is about to say goodbye to its mates (it reminds me of John Fogerty going solo), the odd-numbered cards all feature a central chalice around which the others cluster like hive drones attending a queen bee. The cups in the middle appear to be undergoing a metamorphosis, like butterflies soon to emerge from their cocoons (however, the one in the 9 of Cups seems to be on life support, with tubes and wires running everywhere). The topmost chalice in the Three looks to be unfurling its wings in preparation for imminent flight, as does the middle one in the Seven, although it is stuck in the take-off queue. The Five has no overhead clearance and may have to side-step the log-jam to get underway, while the Nine has too many binding attachments to make the break. As “active” cards, they all suggest an emotional reboot in the offing (although the 9 of Cups looks like a nervous breakdown waiting to happen). When things have gone stale this can be an encouraging omen. Otherwise, it is often a cause for anxiety. The sensitive position of the “odd” chalice makes it a magnet for stress.
I consider the Cups “inspiring and irritating” because their influence, while normally uplifting, can be so maddeningly elusive and irresolute. There is a quicksilver, chameleon-like quality to them that tries to be all things to all people and can end up satisfying no-one. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s quip about changeable New England weather: if you don’t like it, wait five minutes. Here are a few reading hints from my own experience:
the Ace of Cups indicates a surge of emotion, a momentary rapture that can evaporate as soon as it peaks
the 2 of Cups shows a nascent willingness to engage emotionally, more a besotted promise than a binding pledge
the 3 of Cups is passionate and ready to jump in with both feet
the 4 of Cups brings a serene but spiritless sense of gratification
the 5 of Cups seems pinched and duty-bound; we might say that “duty is the death of love”
the 6 of Cups is wallowing in self-love and doesn’t care who knows it
the 7 of Cups needs a crowbar to pry open its feelings
the 8 of Cups is ambivalent and unsure how to feel, if at all
the 9 of Cups has “too many fish to fry” and doesn’t know where to begin; it also strikes me as the “busybody” card
the 10 of Cups resembles a series of waves about to hit a breakwater; it could mean “running interference” for a major emotional breakthrough, although stubborn resistance to any such development is more likely – feelings are running high but the dam will most likely hold back the flood