This is another card that held a surprise for me. In the previous one-pager, the Nine of Swords, one of the more foreboding cards of tarot, I theorized that the swords above weren’t necessarily a threat, but instead, a defense. With the Six of Cups, in somewhat similar fashion, I believe a rather serious meaning is disguised behind its sunny, nostalgic facade. Far more than a sweet reminiscence of childhood, my read is that the Six of Cups is about death and renewal of life. Gather ye lilies while ye may, Mrs. Munster…! (With apologies to Robert Herrick).
This is the fourth of these guides. They attempt to visually map the Astrological/Qabalistic/Elemental influences upon Waite’s divinatory meanings and Colman Smith’s layouts. As a Venn diagram, it displays how each of the influences interact with the other influences, resulting in the divinatory meanings, and often, the components of the layout. You’ll find a little more detail on the structure and purpose of these guides here.
As usual, these introductory convey additional analysis, as well as a link to the PDF version.
Notes on the Six of Cups
First we need to look at our Tarot/Zodiac wheel. We locate the Six of Cups’ decan. Where is it? The exact center of Autumn. This is our first hint that the card is about the transition to Winter. Note how bundled up the children are; the young girl even wears mittens. What about all the lilies? One of the symbolic meanings of the lily is renewal and rebirth. In fact, the reason that lilies are common at funerals is that they symbolize the restoration of the soul of the deceased to a state of innocence. That is the other part of the hidden meaning: renewal and rebirth.
Waite touched upon these themes in his description in the Pictorial Key, as part of the divinatory meanings… but did not stress them. He let them hang as alternative and reversed meanings. It may be that Colman Smith has much the greater responsibility for this illustration (consider her drawing of woman and scythe in the “mash up” feature image at the top of this page). But it is clear that one or the other or both looked at the calendar. With Winter comes the promise of renewal in Spring. The Tiphareth sefirot reinforces this very same message. It is the harmony of two opposing forces.
We have already noted the coldness of the environment. We note that Mars is the planetary influence. When it next comes round it will be for the Spring equinox, when life begins to grow again.
The card associated with the Water element at this time is the Hanged Man. Note that in the Tarot deck, Death (XIII) follows the Hanged Man (XII); just as Winter follows Fall. I’m not sure it wouldn’t be a stretch to note that the young boy wears red and blue, like the Hanged Man. Many point out that figures repeat in Colman Smith’s illustrations. Perhaps this young boy is the future Hanged Man, who himself may represent resurrection. Waite said of the Hanged Man:
He who can understand that the story of his higher nature is imbedded in this symbolism will receive intimations concerning a great awakening that is possible, and will know that after the sacred Mystery of Death there is a glorious Mystery of Resurrection.
I am reminded of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Deep Thought, whose programmers believe it to be the greatest computer ever built, whose purpose will be to provide “the Answer.” (To what? To “Life… the Universe… everything,”) tells the programmers that the question is “tricky,” but it can do it. (The Answer, after several million years of calculation is the famous “42”). Deep Thought speaks of “the computer that is to come after me!” Upon which a programmer complains, “I think this is getting needlessly messianic.”
Of course, the greater computer that shall come after Deep Thought shall be the one to explain what the actual question was, the real question for which “42” was supplied as the answer to the querent.
A somewhat analogous situation, don’t you think?
There are clues for all to see that the underlying meaning of the Six of Cups is death and the renewal of life. If we compare it with the old man whom Colman Smith illustrated in the Ten of Pentacles—who seems bitter and withdrawn—I prefer the pleasure in remembering the sunny days, the promise of renewal and the beauty of the lily here in the Six of Cups.
It is also a positive though somewhat delicate message that modern readers can convey. Rather than just telling the querent that someone feels nostalgic about something, it is a message that yes, the days are growing shorter and colder, but not only new life, but resurrection shall follow.
The download link for the PDF is below. As mentioned in the introduction to this series of one-page-guides, if anyone finds anything in the pages that they feel needs correction, be sure to let me know… you can comment here or send an email. Same goes for suggestions. The pages themselves have a note saying that they’re Creative Commons Attribution licensed, which means you can share them or reprint them as much as you like; you also have to link to the original source for any web based re-publication.
This is much in this card that reminds of Wordsworth’s poem “Ode: Intimation of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. Waite would surely have known the poem. Nowadays, it’s usually referred to simply as “Intimations of Immortality.” It is a longish poem which I will not quote in full. At the end, the poet addresses his melancholy and is soothed at the thought of “what remains behind,” the continuance of life.
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ©1979 by Douglas Adams