The Four of Cups – A One Page Guide

Four of Cups - IsleVue One Page Guide to Card Derivations

The Golden Dawn included in the description of its design for the Four of Cups these words: “A hand grasps a bunch of lotuses from which ascends a stem bearing one flower at the top of the card, from which water issues into two top cups.” But where the GD saw a positive flow, Waite sees a negative: empty, illusory cups. I for one believe that one thinks better with a glass of wine at hand when trying to deeply probe the concepts behind each card of the tarot. Waite seems to have gone off on his own with this card: his words represent possibly the widest departure so far from the GD and the widest departure from the qabalah for the Four of Cups. To paraphrase another Arthur, A. Conan Doyle, this may be a “two cup” problem. 😉

As usual, these introductory posts convey additional analysis, as well as a link to the PDF version below, which is better to print from than the bitmap above. This is number twenty-four in the series. Two thirds done! The series traces the influences shown in the Zodiac Tarot Wheel, pictured below, to the divinatory meanings and storyboards of the minor arcana cards numbered 2 through 10 of the RWS deck.

The High Priestess’ Moonstruck Brother

The cups, we know, are the suit of the phlegmatic personality (phlegmatic: “having or suggesting a calm, sluggish temperament; unemotional or apathetic);” but the Four of Cups may take it a little too far. Let us consider its influences in the Zodiac/tarot wheel. The planetary influence for Cancer, the Moon, appears to be the driving force. In fact, the Moon also rules the decan. If we look opposite, the Sun rules, so in this decan it’s weakest. Thus, the Moon is doubly strong and the Sun is far away.

Four of Cups isolated figure

The Moon’s light is reflected and illusory; it is the opposite of real light, that of day light, direct from the Sun. Waite, in his description for this card, says things seen in this illusory light appear as a “fairy gift.” The wine offered by this light shall “cause only satiety.” We might describe the overall takeaway of the RWS Four of Cups as a feeling that anything less then “the real thing” is unsatisfactory. We should also note that the Moon is sometimes known as a source of melancholia, but given the significance of that word, I shall assume that had Waite, or the Golden Dawn wished to use that word, they would have. Our wastrel seems to have a more “pissed-off” air about him.

One aspect of the Golden Dawn group’s divinatory meaning for the Four of Cups was “passive.” I think this single word conveys the meaning (based upon the influences) far better than than Waite’s full description and divinatory meanings. I am reminded of Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). It is not his best film. It’s not even a particularly enjoyable film, in fact. But its concept is one that stays in the mind once understood. It is about a self-alienation so profound that the protagonist switches identities with a dead man, then passively pursues the dead man’s agenda even though he knows it must inevitably lead to his death. It is an unknown death under the other man’s name. The protagonist (Jack Nicholson) is a reflection of the dead man. The reflection must vanish when a time alotted in the appointment book arrives.

If we relate this to the modern world, it describes a personality which lives in the reflected world of television, movies, web and social media, an empty life in which selfies, cosplay, and staged Instagram shots substitute for real life interaction in “meat” world. This is not a pretty card. Waite, in fact, describes the card more negatively than the GD does, but to me it seems his description is more about petulance than any profound feeling. The Moon, whether its light is reflected or not, carries more weight than that.

IsleVue Tarot-Zodiac-Element-Sephiroth Wheel of the Golden Dawn

The GD included some of Diana, the huntress’ aspects. Waite seems to have found nothing favorable. The GD also included a cross (two leaves crossed), and, as we mentioned, water pouring into two of its cups in its description. Waite paid as much attention to these as our young wastrel pays to the ghostly goblet. But apart from the broad departure from the Golden Dawn’s interpretation, the oddest thing about the RWS Four of Cups is that it seems to be at odds with the sepirot, Chesed. Wikipedia says of the word, ‘the root chasad has a primary meaning of “eager and ardent desire.”‘ We’re more accustomed to seeing Waite and Colman Smith adhere very, very closely to the qabalistic influence, such as in the Three of Cups. This may be the furthest we’ve seen them stray from that influence in our analysis of the minors. The question is, why?

High Priestess isolated figure

As we said, it must be the Moon! Just ask the High Priestess, the major arcanum associated with the Moon. Waite invests secrets, mystery and sacred law in her. But they are true secrets, mystery, etc. Waite says of her, “It is in this sense of reflection that her truest and highest name in symbolism is Shekinah—the co-habiting glory… There are some respects in which this card is the highest and holiest of the Greater Arcana.”

It appears to me that Waite is setting up a supreme contrast. If you do not have the secrets, mystery and sacred law, you are like the young man of the Four of Cups: an empty vessel to whom spirituality is just an illusion of an empty cup.

The clues are visual: compare the illustrations for the Four of Cups with the High Priestess. The youth could easily be the twin brother of the High Priestess: same hair, similar face. (It may be because I’m Italian-American, but what first caught my attention was that they both have the same nose!) Additionally, he has aspects of the same stance, but with certain qualities “lacking.” His arms are crossed but he lacks the scroll of law. His legs are crossed, but he lacks the bench. (Note, by the way, that his seated position may recall the form of a crab, which would evoke Cancer, the sign for the decan. Recall also that in one version of the story of Crios, the hero giant crab for whom Cancer is named, he was crippled and in pain after his battle to defend the Nereids). The flouncy sleeves and longish tunic flow downwards in much the same way as the cape of the High Priestess. Instead of the two pillars of the temple that surround and strengthen her, he has only a tree to partially lean against, a half echo.

High Priestess and Four of Cups faces

But I would like to interject a side note before concluding. You may have noticed that we color the Venn diagrams according to the Zodiac/elemental/qabalistic assignments. The colors are not meant to be definitive. Most times it’s just a web search for “sign name” and “associated color.” But I do note that this particular card has a preponderance of one color. Our young wastrel’s got the blues! Of course, seeing as how he was drawn in 1910 England, this must have been a great inconvenience! The blues were just barely getting started in the U.S.A! Perhaps that’s why our wastrel is so vexed!

But seriously… where do we end up with this card? I would suggest that a modern interpretation is that it signifies a possible alienation from the materialistic world. Though it doesn’t suggest the antidote—going out into the spiritual sunlight—I don’t think Waite meant it to. Frankly I prefer the “enjoy it while you can” message of the GD for this card, for that is something that we can do in the companionship of real world friends and family. Have that second glass of wine while you still can, preferably in the company of others.

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Background art for feature image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

John Iacovelli

I have spent 30+ years in the computing industry. In it I've pretty much done everything from tech support for elderly people doing genealogy, to documenting compilers, to software evangelist, to direct mail guru, to CIO of an international corporation. And here I am, older and gray, getting interested in Tarot? 😉

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