This is the first in a four part series that explores each of the tarot's suits in depth, through my personal lens, a (light) historical lens, and through examining cards from several decks I enjoy.
The minor arcana are the less "sexy" part of the deck, even though they make up the majority of it. While it's common to see a tarot reader in a movie pull The Hanged Man or The Devil and gasp while flinching away from the client, most people who have never read tarot don't realize that the tarot has 56 other cards that you could essentially play a game of poker with. The four suits--cups, swords, pentacles, and wands--most closely resemble traditional playing cards, and, in my opinion, invite more nuance and intuition than the strong, brash, heavily symbolic major arcana. When I first started reading tarot, I couldn't really understand the difference between the Four of Cups and the Five of Cups. What difference did it make adding one more cup? Obviously the pictures on the cards are different, but I couldn't "feel" the subtleties of the numbers, the order of the objects, or how the figures in the illustration interacted with them. It helped me immensely to start breaking down the pieces of the cards, first learning the suits, then learning the numerology, then learning the colors, and eventually the scene on the card itself.
Cups, historically known as Chalices, is probably my favorite suit in the minor arcana, because it aligns most closely with how I treat my tarot practice. It's an intuitive, emotional suit that usually points to relationships and connectedness, which is at the heart of all my tarot readings. The suit of cups corresponds with the suit of hearts in the modern playing deck, which is a much more literal representation of its meaning: matters of the heart.
The cup is a perfect metaphor for compassion and empathetic energy. Our emotional energy reservoirs are in a constant state of pouring out and filling up, and there is a finite amount of energy that our cup can give and receive. This knowledge and ability to regulate the flow of emotional energy comes more naturally to some. For an Earth sign like me who has trouble understanding how deep my cup actually is, cup cards reveal my emotional imbalances and my tendency to pour out my empty cup to others, and serve as gentle reminders to put myself first and fill my cup again. I like to joke that I fancy myself as the Queen of Cups, a gentle and intuitive figure who doles out sage advice and compassion easily, when really I'm much more like the maternal, materially prosperous Queen of Pentacles. It's important for us Earth signs to seek out Water, else we dry up and crack.
Historically, cups and chalices have been symbols of great enlightenment and religious power. The myth of the Holy Grail (and all it's pop culture spoofs) is probably the best known reference, promising the person who finds the grail eternal happiness, youth, and abundant food and drink. Essentially, finding this Grail would bring the seeker a lifetime of contentment, steadying the choppy waters of emotional turbulence and physical pain. The Grail also has roots in Christian tradition: many believe the Grail was used to catch the blood of Christ as he hung on the cross. In Mass, the Blood of Christ would be offered to me in a goblet or chalice, meant as an offering of peace and protection. Chalices have long represented community and togetherness, such as at the Catholic Mass where everyone drinks from the same cup. In the Bible, there are many instances of the apostles or other followers of Christ sharing a single cup of wine and passing it around the table, forming relationships, paths of communications, and fulfilling each others needs.
Ace of Cups
Generally speaking, the Ace cards symbolize newness, the essence of things, an awakening, a starting point, or a rebirth. They are starting points in the suit, and have the most concentrated and pure essence of the meaning of the suit. In the illustration, we can see that the cup literally "runneth over," with clear blue water pooling below the cup that is being offered up as a fountain of emotion, compassion, empathy, and spirituality. This card can symbolize a fresh new relationship, a new love interest, or a seed of emotion being planted in the querant. It is a card of abundance, and the querant is brimming with emotional energy to share amongst friends, family, and new projects. The dove is generally a symbol of peace, usually representative of a spirit, which suggests the querant may be experiencing a spiritual awakening or rebirth, and may find themselves drawn back to the church or other source of spiritual energy.
Five of Cups
The Five of Cups is a dark card, both literally and in meaning. The dark, cloaked figure hangs his head to the left, looking at the spilled, scattered cups on the ground. This card indicates the querant is currently or about to experience great loss or trauma, usually of an emotional nature. Perhaps an important relationship is ending, or a death has occurred unexpectedly, and now is the time to grieve. The spilled liquid on the ground, red and green, appears to be spoiled, or poisoned, or turned bad in some way, indicating that while the querant's loss currently hurts, the loss may have saved them from getting caught up in something dangerous or unhealthy. However, the card is more hopeful than it appears at first glance. To the right of the figure, two cups stand tall, empty and waiting to be filled by the river flowing in front of the figure. The querant is currently in a state of grief, but when they are ready to look up, they will see that their loss also brought new possibilities, new beginnings, and a chance to start anew.
Queen of Cups
Ah, the Queen of Cups. I mentioned earlier that she is one of my favorite cards, and for good reason. The Queen of Cups is intuitive, kind, and compassionate, and never has anything but a kind word for people. Her feet rest on the edge of a body of water, leaving little distance between her and the wonderful healing and nourishing properties of the spiritual water. She is a paragon of spiritual connection, and leads others to a deeper understanding of their place in the universe through her gentle guidance. The Queen of Cups may represent the querant herself, an important person in the querants life, or the querants quest to embody these characteristics more deeply. It invites the querant to either seek emotional solace or give it to others, depending on the situation the querant finds herself in. As a reader, I try to embody some of the qualities of the Queen of Cups in each of my readings, and offer advice with gentle and kind words.
Cups cards can be revelatory, they can be an uncomfortable reminder to reign in unchecked emotional practices, and they can be pauses to refill one's own cup. They can be intense, or subtle, dark, or bubbly. They are an integral part of self reflection and developing a compassionate world view, and their meaning should be heavily intuited by the reader and querent. Place increased importance on how the cards make you feel to keep in the spirit of the suit, and they will elevate the spiritual and emotional aspect of your practice, and flesh out your divination to be more people focused and connected to your querent's soul.
As a side note, the brilliant minds that created the Golden Thread Tarot just launched their Tarot school, Labyrinthos Academy! I signed up to be on the waiting list for their first classes, and I highly encourage you to check them out, as well as check out the Golden Thread tarot.