The Ten of Cups – A One Page Guide

Ten of Cups - IsleVue One Page Guide to Card Derivations

After examining the Two of Pentacles in our last post, I knew at once that I had to look deeply into the Ten of Cups. The Two, we said, hid a theme related to the great flood and the covenant of Noah, as seen in its divinatory meanings of news, trouble, etc., and in its graphic elements showing a stylized tsunami and boats in its background. The Ten of Cups has as its main graphic element the rainbow, which just happens to be a well known symbol of the covenant of Noah. Is there a connection to the Two of Pentacles? We can see that rainbow in the background of the feature graphic for this post, taken from Noah’s Thanks Offering, by Joseph Anton Koch, 1803.

There is indeed a connection; but in contrast to the masterful juxtaposition of the hidden vs. visible themes of the Two of Pentacles, the Ten of Cups seems, well, a “kluge.” I think the problem is mostly due to Waite not being able to “stretch” the divinatory meanings enough, given the astrological influences. Not to mention there are no antediluvian god-kings with roots in ancient water gods and strong links to Sumerian flood stories. Explanation is necessary…

As usual, these introductory posts convey additional analysis, as well as a link to the PDF version at bottom, which is better to print from. This is number sixteen in the series.

When the Rainbow Is Enuf

As we said, the rainbow, which we see here in the Ten of Cups, symbolized the covenant of Noah, which stated “that man would be allowed to eat every living thing but not its blood, and that God would never again destroy all life by a flood.” Fair enough. But the New Testament speaks of a second or new covenant, one Waite would have been more attuned to as regards his beliefs in Christian mysticism. The second covenant is an “agreement” by which those who believe in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth have the original sin of Adam and Eve absolved. In Colman Smith’s depiction we see the rainbow, the symbol of Noah’s first covenant. The phrase “a person who is taking charge of the Querent’s needs,” by which I believe Waite unsuccessfully may have tried to link to Jesus, is its expression within the divinatory meanings. Unfortunately the astrological, elemental and qabalistic influences give little support to a link with the second covenant, and consequently the reminder of the first covenant just does not convey the message very strongly. We can associate Passover, which took place in Pisces, the Ten of Cups’ astrological influence, and thereby make a link to Jesus and the Last Supper. It was there that the second covenant was declared, with the help of that most famous of all cups, the Holy Grail. But that was wine, not water, and in this card, at least, Waite appears to not have the talent of turning water to wine. A weak link makes a weak metaphor. Even the divinatory meaning already mentioned is weak. (Note: we can also link Jesus with the beginning of the Age of Pisces, but that still doesn’t solve the weak link in the divinatory meanings).

The Golden Dawn group’s description of cup-like water-lilies pouring water into ten cups is much more satisfactory, even if it does not feature people. That’s because it completes a cycle… Their Ace of Cups describes a fountain sending water up, and their Ten shows it pouring down. This cycle evokes Malkuth, the qabalistic influence nicely, in that it is the lowest on the Sepphiroth, but embodies a path to the top of it. The GD descriptions also evoke what science calls the “water cycle.” Water in an ocean or lake evaporates, forms clouds, then falls again as rain or snow into the ocean or lake. The GD divinatory meanings include phrases that relate to this: “happiness because inspired from above,” “dissipation.”

Ten of Cups isolated figures
Ten of Cups isolated figures

The qabalistic influence may also influence another graphic element in the RWS Ten of Cups. Waite notes the positioning of the father’s arms, one pointing up, one round the waist of the mother. When we look at Colman Smith’s illustration, the arm round the mother is angled down, decidedly, and it could indicate a gesture we’ve seen elsewhere, such as in the Magician. “As Above, So Below,” is the aphorism of Hermes Trismegistus which signifies the symmetry of heaven and Earth. The phrase among the divinatory meanings “the entire heart; the perfection of that state; also perfection of human love and friendship” may attempt to draw a parallel between a higher love (similar to the higher Eros) and love relationships with family and friends. But here too, assuming the analogy is intended, it is executed clumsily.

There is a particularly odd pairing in Waite’s divinatory meanings, to “home scene” on the one hand, and “town, village or country” on the other. It is almost as if Waite wished to make a mirror (i.e., backwards) reflection of the “family” of the Ten of Pentacles. Recall the isolation of the “grandfather” figure of the Ten of Pentacles vs. the joining of the father with family in the Ten of Cups. Consider again the reference to “town, village or country” in contrast to “the abode of a family” in the Ten of Pentacles. Anyone, given a moment’s thought, can see that the two would be more appropriate if switched.

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

But focusing solely on the Ten of Cups: the rainbow, though it doesn’t depict the complete water cycle that the GD describes, could be said to be an attractive part of the water cycle at its uppermost stage. It appears to me that it serves two purposes. The first is to point to the elemental influence of the classical element of water and the astrological influence of Pisces, which is based on the Greek story of the fish who helped Aphrodite and Pan to hide from Typhon, who was a monster who would have eaten the gods. Typhon is pictured in one of his forms on the Wheel of Fortune, which is also under Pisces. The other is to portray the cyclical nature of Malkuth, for which there is a saying, “Kether is in Malkuth, and Malkuth is in Kether.” Unfortunately, the rainbow is only a sign that appears after the water cycle is completed, and even then, only occasionally. An imperfect metaphor.

So what does it all signify to a modern reader? The imperfectly executed metaphor of the second covenant sort of ties into part of the GD’s description:: “This is not such a good card as stated above.” And that, I think, is the conclusion of this exercise.

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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?