The Seven of Cups – A One Page Guide

Seven of Cups - IsleVue One Page Guide to Card Derivations

The Seven of Cups is a much more negative card than one might guess from a cursory glance. Both Waite and the Golden Dawn position the card in the same way: attainments that are illusory, deceptive and empty. Waite, however, is somewhat more positive in tone than the GD. Waite appears to give more importance to the fairy tales and imagination aspect, as if concentrating on the illusion rather than on the deception and emptiness. But why was he less negative in tone than the GD? After all, Scorpio is one of the most serious signs of the Zodiac, if not the most deadly serious of them all. It is as if Waite is forgiving Scorpio for poisoning the abundance of Venus in this decan.

The illustration is a particularly “full” one. In fact, it’s a catalog of worldly qualities. Goodwin, et al, in Tarot Fundamentals represent the contents of the cups as “aspects of the unconscious trying to emerge.” The seven cups hold a woman’s face, representing beauty; a veiled idol, supposedly representing doubt (religious?), a snake representing sexuality (as in Adam and Eve of the Lovers), a castle representing family, though more likely political power; jewels, representing wealth, a laurel wreath, representing recognition and worldly success (note the laurel of the World), and finally a dragon, representing aggression.

If all those things are “empty” what would Waite call “filled?” Waite indicates that when we “reflect” upon all those qualities, when we see them “in the glass of contemplation,” we recognize their insubstantiality. Once could certainly evaluate some of those qualities in that way, but definitely not all of them.

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

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 thirty one in the series. The series traces the influences shown in the Zodiac Tarot Wheel, pictured at right, to the divinatory meanings and storyboards of the minor arcana cards numbered 2 through 10 of the RWS deck.

Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t After You

Waite’s use of the phrase “fairy favors” is the key. In English folklore, fairies often tricked people. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that the modern day perception of fairies is very different than the “sinister” aspect they held in Britain in times past. At minimum, a person who might think the fairies had given them fairy gold would be hoodwinked. The next time they looked, the gold will have disappeared.

We must refer back to astrology and to the Golden Dawn’s Book T. in order to understand Colman Smith’s illustration:

With the exception of the central lower cup, each is overhung by a lotus flower, but no water falls from them into cups which are quite empty… Possibly victory, but neutralized by the supineness of the person. Illusionary success. Deception in the moment of apparent victory. Lying, error, promises unfulfilled. Drunkenness, wrath, vanity, lust, fornication, violence against women. Selfish dissipation. Deception in love and friendship. Often success gained, but not followed up.

Joachim Wtewael Mars and Venus Surprised by the Gods 1605
Joachim Wtewael: Mars and Venus
Surprised by the Gods (1605)

This clearly describes the abundance of Venus poisoned by Scorpio: the “supineness… violence against women.” We must look further to understand why; to the planetary influences: Venus, the decan ruler, and Mars, associated with Scorpio. There is a famous story of Venus and Mars together. Venus is caught in flagrante with Mars by Vulcan, Venus’ husband. Vulcan had been told about their affair, and so he made a net of bronze chains to catch them. The chains were so fine that they could not be seen, not even by the gods. He caught them and exposed them to all the other gods, who laughed heartily at Venus and Mars. There we have the illusion, the invisible chains, and the empty attainment, the act of adultery interrupted. Additionally, in some versions of the story, Vulcan gets back the bride price, which is the term for a dowry when the groom makes a payment to the bride’s family in order to marry the bride.

Notice the idol covered by the veil at top center: it could portray Mars caught in Vulcan’s net (classical art usually places him in the topmost position; the color of the glow, red, is Mars’ color, too). Notice all the “negative” cards referenced elsewhere in the illustration. See the Tower at lower left: it reminds us of the tower we see in the major arcana card, which is associated with Mars. See the face of a skull on the cup containing the laurel wreath: both a reminder of the Death major arcana, associated with Scorpio, and a perverse comment upon worldly success. The laurel, by the way, is associated with Saturn… the ruler of the decan opposite. (Once again, we see a negative association for the planet in detriment; see the table in this article). There may also be another face hidden in the cup of jewels, but it is indistinct. In any case, Colman Smith has illustrated the astrological influences; and quite clearly, too.

Seven of Cups isolated figures

Waite’s description, on the other hand, seems like a watered-down Sunday sermon against sexuality: the beauty of Venus is a “fairy favor,” which will disappear. It is imagination, impermanent and insubstantial. Waite’s reverse divinatory meanings are far more interesting: it is Vulcan’s perspective of Venus before the marriage: the “desire, will” he felt for Venus, then afterwards, the “determination” to catch the lovers in the act, followed by the “project,” i.e., the invisible (substantial yet insubstantial) net he forged to catch them.

Returning to the “watered-down” part of the Sunday sermon, the classical element of water is associated with the brain, which may have been the initial hint of “illusion” for both the GD and Waite. As for Netzach, the qabbalistic influence, “endurance unto completion” may link with Vulcan’s patience and planning.

So what should our takeaway be if we keep Venus and Mars in mind as we interpret this card? In my opinion, the Seven of Cups is not just about the self-delusion and false hope described by Goodwin et al; it can also be about someone else being responsible for the “trickery” and “false promise.” In some ways the two points of view are similar to the internalized viewpoint of modern interpretations of the Devil. That issue is a tendency by readers to internalize the problems in many situations which trouble the querent. It downplays externalities. In other words: if we internalize everything, we risk forgetting that evil can sometimes be a force outside the querent.

Accounting has a term called an “externality. From Wikipedia:”

In economics, an externality is the cost or benefit that affects a third party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. Externalities often occur when the production or consumption of a product or service’s private price equilibrium cannot reflect the true costs or benefits of that product or service for society as a whole… For example, manufacturing activities that cause air pollution impose health and clean-up costs on the whole society, whereas the neighbors of individuals who choose to fire-proof their homes may benefit from a reduced risk of a fire spreading to their own houses. If external costs exist, such as pollution, the producer may choose to produce more of the product than would be produced if the producer were required to pay all associated environmental costs.

If we apply that to the story, Vulcan’s attainment (his marriage to Venus) was not just an internal failing, or an illusion. Yes, the old, lame god should not have married Venus. But an external force, Mars, was the actual disruptor of the marriage. As in the case of the Devil, in reading this card I believe that the modern reader should not limit the interpretation to “blaming” the querent for the loss of some attainment because that attainment was illusory; sometimes external forces can steal away the joy of the attainment. As Joseph Heller said in Catch-22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” And that ain’t no illusion!

The Wikipedia articles’ copyrights are governed by the Creative Commons share-alike license.
The Encyclopedia Britannica excerpt ©2020 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Catch-22 Copyright Joseph Heller, 1955, 1961

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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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