Ah, cups. The suit of love, of spirit, of intuition and feeling. When these cards show up in our readings they’re talking about our emotional lives — how things feel, in our hearts and souls.
There are cards here for falling in love, re/discovering our spirituality, friendship, fulfillment, compassion and soulful creativity. It’s in the suit of cups that we find our roots and identify — if possible — what makes us truly happy. There’s also discontent, breakups, emotional inertia, and an unwillingness to engage with the messages our hearts our trying to tell us. As with all of the elements in tarot, it’s all about balance. Feelings are awesome and for a happy life, we all need to be true to our hearts, but it’s also possible to become bogged down in emotions.
Corresponding to the intangible element of water, these cards have flow…or else they address a lack of it. They describe the way our emotions, like water, are elusive, slip through our fingers and can be hard to describe, and how our feelings interact with our minds, our ideas and our day-to-day lives. Going deeper, the suit of cups (or vessels, or bottles, or water, or moons) shows us who we are on a spiritual level. Just as all water on this planet is connected and in motion, moving through states of liquid, solid, gas, in the sea, now in the sky, now in a lake, now a fast flowing river, so are we fluid, ever-changing, indescribable, and connected to everybody else in the world. Thus the suit of cups provides space to ponder our place in the universe, the energy we give and receive, and how we affect and are affected by everything around us.
Because the water in a river changes constantly, yet the river always retains its basic character, rivers symbolise the true self that remains constant beneath all the outer changes in a person’s life. Thus, while Fire symbolises what we do, Water stands for what we are.
Rachel Pollack, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom
A lot of cups cards in a tarot reading can represent being led by the heart or the intuition, or else it can be a sign that you need to pay more attention to these parts of yourself. When you see cups, get ready to dig deep. Ask yourself how your feelings are informing your actions. How connected you are to your intuition. Whether your heart and your mind are in agreement. Think spiritually, rather than logically, or conversely, address the need for more logic in your current situation.
Cups are receptive, and in these cards you’ll find everything from receiving gifts to absorbing and moving through loss. Furthermore, you’ll find reception to the point of passivity, and moving with and feeling things to a depressive point of inaction.
Oliver Pickle, She Is Sitting in the Night: Revisioning Thea’s Tarot
Here’s a selection of my favourite cups cards from different decks, with ideas for interpretation. Add your own ideas in the comments!
Ten of Cups
As the final card in the cycle, the Ten of Cups is about emotional fulfilment. It asks us what it feels like to be ‘complete’, to feel that our hearts are full and our emotional needs are met. It’s the ‘connectedness’ — a little like the minor arcana’s answer to the World.
This is one of the most important cards in the deck for me — when I’m considering buying a new tarot deck, I’ll usually check out what the Ten of Cups looks like. So many show a man and a woman and two lovely kids — the image of heteronormative bliss. It’s important for me (though not a deal breaker) that tarot artists find other ways to illustrate this feeling of wholeness and connectedness.
Knight of Cups
You know that feeling when you have such a huge crush on someone that you’re actually incapable of going about your day-to-day life? That’s the Knight of Cups. Fixated, obsessional, madly in love — this is where the heart totally takes over and you’re in full-on romance mode. Tarot’s Knights represent an intense but immature handling of the suit’s energy, and just like their peers, the Knight of Cups is both brilliant and frustrating. It’s life-affirming to go to an extreme like this, but without substance to back it up, it quickly becomes unsustainable.
Eight of Cups
For me, this is an incredibly wise and loving card. Like orchestrating a beautiful, respectful, caring break-up, the Eight of Cups is you at your very best in a difficult time. You know that a situation has run its course, that you’ve done what you can, but that it’s time to leave. That doesn’t have to mean running away — leaving can be done with compassion, dignity and love. This card also represents the road ahead and the bravery it takes to let go of what is no longer serving you, and move on to the unknown.
Two of Cups
The Lovers isn’t the tarot’s top romance card — I’d say instead, it’s the Two of Cups. If you visualise a cup as symbol of emotional vulnerability, filled with feeling, receptive, beautiful, and then you offer this cup to someone, that takes a great deal of trust. When they respond by offering you their cup? It may be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. This could mean falling in love, of course, but it’s also about friendship and the kindling of any relationship where all parties are prepared to be vulnerable and open-hearted.
Nine of Cups
I often hear the Nine of Cups called the ‘wish’ card, and being a Nine, it has this theme of ‘almost there’. It can represent a feeling that if you just had XYZ thing, you’d feel complete, you’d feel happy. The Nine of Cups also questions that wishful mentality, encouraging you to see what you already have and to question whether that one thing you’re longing for could really make you feel complete.
On the flip side, the Nine of Cups can indicate something you’re not seeing — perhaps wilfully. ‘I’m fine! Everything’s great!’ we insist, whilst beneath the surface, something really doesn’t feel that great. Either way, the advice of the Nine of Cups is to look deeper
King of Cups
Here’s a person who has seen much and is emotionally and spiritually confident and mature, to the point that they may be assisting others in their own emotional or spiritual journey. An experienced counsellor may be a King of Cups, or a spiritual leader. On the other hand, the King can represent a state of emotional detachment. Sitting on a concrete plinth while a choppy sea flows all around, this figure might be nudging you to see that you’ve become out of touch with your emotions, or are presuming to know what others feel.
Six of Cups
In good times and in bad, kindness is always possible. Whatever you’re going through, whatever you’re supporting your friends through, seek out the simple acts of generosity and love that can make an incredible difference. The Six of Cups, for me, is about getting back to basics. Emotions can be complex, the world can be a tough place, but this card brings us back to love. It asks us, what small act of kindness can you perform that will add love to this situation? The Six of Cups also carries themes of childhood and roots, reminding us of simpler times and encouraging us to root our relationships in real kindness.
Ace of Cups
As the first card in the suit, the Ace indicates a new beginning. This could be a new love, a new interpretation of your spirituality, the opening up of your heart after a period of self-protection… really, any moment where you feel your heart or your spirit are getting to start over and begin a new journey. It’s a card of risk and vulnerability, but one that tugs at you. It beckons you on a journey of discovery, tells you that it’s okay, that your soul is beautiful, that you are held, that it’s time to listen and to see where it takes you.
I’ve not covered all of the cards here; I hope you guys will help out by adding your own interpretations in the comments. Which are your favourite cups cards, and which do you struggle with? Let’s talk about it!
Also! If you liked this, here’s a post about the suit of Swords, and another about the magical suit of Pentacles!
I scrolled through hoping to see the 3 of cups. Oh well! Lovely and inspiring interpretstions nonetheless.
I got the 3 of cups recently in a “should I open up my relationship to include another person?” personal reading. Maybe I got my answer? Lol
Ha! Um, yes, sounds like you got a clear answer there @hamsterpower… though not necessarily – the position of the 3 of C and other cards in the reading would add context and detail.
I read this card as a representation of community, mutual support, the opportunity to love and be loved, to support and be supported, a friendship or love where you feel you have a valuable role to play and where you can be yourself, making magic, love/friendship as a motivating force, letting your ego relax and allowing others to step up…
Ha! I really love the three of cups, and do often think of it as the ‘happy poly card’ – when poly is going *really well* and compersion is bursting out all over the place. It also calls to mind chosen family and community, relationships which certainly don’t have to be romantic. But, in my life, that often takes the form of my poly-network. It also just feels so queer all of the time to me, for all the reasons Beth mentions.
Beth, what a beautiful description of the card. Just love it.
Yeah, I love the poly interpretation. I mean…(left):
I would say that you got your answer for sure! =)
Thank you for this guide to Cups! It’s very timely for me because tonight I’m house sitting at my friend’s lake house sitting n the middle of the woods, and I’m going to bring my tarot deck and spend some time meditating on Cups out by the water. I have a crush that has been growing in intensity for a while now & I’m starting to feel a bit like a Knight of Cups, so I’m glad for the opportunity to have quiet time. Just me, two dogs, and the lake.
Oooh, that sounds magical. Enjoy, @libraryscientist! x
oh man. I did your ‘personal compass’ spread a week or so ago and I the King, the Knight and the Page of cups all showed up in my reading. My life is either about to get way interesting or way weird.
oh! and my at the center as the Ace of Cups. so like… ladies *eyebrow waggle* ?