The Two of Cups – A One Page Guide

Two of Cups - IsleVue One Page Guide to Card Derivations

The youth and maiden of the Two of Cups "pledging one another:" such a nice young couple! But different than each other. As we look closer, we see she is clothed as a classical maiden; she also wears a laurel wreath crown. He wears modern (for the renaissance), very fancy clothes and a wreath crown of flowers, possibly roses. They regard each other rather solemnly. The first part of Waite’s divinatory meanings address love in such a way as to cover most cases: "love, passion, friendship, affinity, union, concord, sympathy, the interrelation of the sexes." I’m not sure that it’s necessary to solemnly plight one’s troth where the boy and girl are just pals, but there seems little doubt that Colman Smith’s illustration is generally appropriate for the divinatory meanings.

Behind and above the two figures, we see some unusual elements. Between the two cups we see the caduceus, the magic wand of the god Hermes. The caduceus attracted two snakes who double-spiralled themselves around it, resulting in its familiar shape. Immediately above the caduceus, we see something like a flying solar disk, but with the Sun is replaced by a lion’s head. The chin of the lion rests upon the head of the wand, connecting the two symbols.

In the same manner that the graphics contain unusual elements, Waite’s divinatory meanings conclude with an unusual phrase: "apart from all offices of divination—that desire which is not in Nature, but by which Nature is sanctified."

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 three in the series. 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.

Venus’ Bicycle

The caduceus is a very widely used symbol. It is said to have the power to bring opposing sides together in concord. In ancient Rome, the caduceator carried a symbolic wand and negotiated peace arrangements under its diplomatic protection. The Golden Dawn placed the Two of Cups in the first decan of Cancer, ruled by Venus. Therein lie the opposing sides that the caduceator must reconcile. It is an "argument" between Venus and Cancer.

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

In the earliest days of astronomy, Cancer was considered a dark and foreboding sign. The Babylonians were said to have associated it with death and the passage to the underworld. In fact the Egyptians may have associated it with Anubis, the god of the underworld. A quick online search elicits the story of how the disease cancer got its name: "the finger-like spreading projections from a cancer called to mind the shape of a crab. Later Roman physician, Celsus (28-50 BC) translated the Greek term into cancer, the Latin word for crab." We may note also that Cancer was the crab who bit Hercules’ foot as he fought with the Hydra. The sign of Cancer, by the way, is sometimes associated with a white rose; apparently the boy of the Two of Cups didn’t get the memo before choosing his wreath!

In any case, neither Cancer the myth behind the Zodiac sign, nor Cancer the disease are nice. Venus on the other hand, is. She is also one of the most powerful of the Olympian gods. Recall her birth myth, in which Gaia chops off the penis of the titan Uranus, throws it down from the heavens and into the sea, creating the foam upon which Venus appeared. For once, death, destruction and Cancer wouldn’t have stood a chance. Even so, in the Two of Cups we find that the ruling planet and sign have come together through peaceful negotiation. It is male and female in harmony, concord, and quite likely, other pursuits. Given that Venus is the goddess of love, including sexual love, we can also comprehend that an argument between Venus and Cancer can also be a metaphor for the opposition of the forces of life vs. death, and creation vs. destruction.

Eliphas Lévi’s Baphomet
Eliphas Lévi’s Baphomet

The power of caduceus reconciles the two. Recall that Eliphas Lévi’s Baphomet had a caduceus where his sex organ should have been—as if the caduceus were a substitute for a missing reproductive organ in a malevolent entity without the power of regeneration. It is also said that when Hermes applied the caduceus to the dead, he could bring them back to life; therefore it was very potent. The viagra of its time! With this reference to Lévi’s Baphomet (who in fact formed the basis for Waite and Colman Smith’s Devil), the two snakes of the caduceus may be said to incorporate both Eve’s serpent (the Eve of Eden), and Moses’ brazen serpent (an idol for a snake cult). Additionally, by including the caduceus, Colman Smith, who was no doubt familiar with Lévi’s Baphomet illustration, invites us to visually link the two lovers here with the two captives in the Devil major arcana.

Thought to represent the Demiurge - public domain
Thought to represent the Demiurge – public domain

We next look at the winged head of the lion-solar-disk above the caduceus. These (sun disk and caduceus) do not appear to be a commonly paired set of symbols. Waite, in fact, calls our attention to the fact that the lion-solar-disk is a variant. Note that we see a proper solar disk on The Chariot, also associated with Cancer. Therefore we must pay special attention to the lion’s head. Its purpose may be to represent the Demiurge. This was a qabbalistic entity said to have had the head of a lion and the body of a serpent (two of which we see directly under it). The Demiurge was said to have "fashioned" the universe, but he did not create it. He was an artisan doing part of the work we normally attribute to God. In the sense of Plato, God created the perfect idea of the universe; the Demiurge only worked up the rough version we live in from the building blocks he found. It is said that some of the Gnostics thought that the Demiurge was a true phony, even downright malevolent. This may help explain "that desire which is not in Nature, but by which Nature is sanctified." If we consider this through the lens of the Platonic view of God and the Demiurge, God’s perfect conceptual universe may only be partly present in the imperfect universe we live in; yet that perfect "concept" sanctifies the imperfect nature of this universe.

The role of the Demiurge in the fabrication of the universs complements Chokmah, the qabbalistic influence. Chokmah is represented in the body by the left eye and the right side of the brain (the creative side). It is the thought that embodies the power of creation. I’m not sure if this is entirely consistent, but in some ways I would like to think that it is our very own copy of logos, embedded within us. In this metaphor, the Demiurge would no doubt be the left side, the one that does the measuring, cutting and hammering necessary to build the world. Venus no doubt would be Chokmah. In that sense, then, the nice young couple together could build a universe.

The winged lion head may hide another layer to be unraveled. The angel Ariel was said to be the lion of God. Oddly enough, one of the names of the Demiurge was the same. Possibly due to the association with the Demiurge, Ariel (the angel) was said to have special dominion over nature. Whether Demiurge or Ariel or both, the lion-solar-disk hovers above the two lovers in such a way that it recalls the Angel who hovers above Adam and Eve in the illustration for the Lovers major arcana. But, and this is important, he is a lesser angel.

Two of Cups isolated figures

We can now refocus upon the first part (the unnatural desire) of Waite’s odd phrase. Most readers will be familiar with older euphemisms for homosexuality, such as Lord Alfred Douglas’ "the love that dares not speak its name." "Left-handed" is a lesser known euphemism. (We note that tradition states that the caduceus was carried by Mercury in his left hand. Colman Smith’s young man holds the cup in his left, though he also reaches out to the woman with his right.) When we consider the Demiurge, crafting the universe without nature’s core power, the power of creation, and Ariel, with special power over nature but not the ability to reproduce, then "the desire which is not in nature" may indeed be seen to refer to homosexuality.

The second part of the phrase evokes further biblical comparisons. In the early church fathers’ writings, Jesus was said to be "holy by nature sanctified." That sanctification therefore flows in the opposite direction (recall that Waite states that it is Nature which is the object of sanctification in the Two of Cups).

Adding the two sides together, the result may be that the final part of the divinatory meanings is a rather progressive statement (for 1910, at least): though homosexuality may not be "natural," in that it does not have the power of re-generation, love as represented by Venus is yet able to sanctify it. Which brings us back to the original task of the caduceator: in the negotiation between love and death, natural and unnatural, love sanctifies nature, even if the Demiurge or Ariel shaped that nature. Though I’ve frequently criticized Waite for his gratuitous Christian mysticism, for once it’s a pleasure to praise him for something he included that he didn’t have to include. I’m sure that while Waite’s social circle was quite Bohemian for its time, it was still problemmatical to take such a stance. (Though heaven knows this particular editorial comment of Waite’s was deeply buried in symbolism; perhaps it was the influence of the Moon and High Priestess that prompted its obscuration!).

Though we usually note when a symbolic interpretation may be reinterpreted for modern times, in this case Waite has pre-empted us. He stated that his final phrase was "a suggestion apart from all offices of divination." Our takeaway then is:

  • If the querent prefers to see boy-boy or girl-girl or whatever in place of the young couple, it has no effect upon the divinatory meanings.
  • A better understanding of the caduceus and lion-solar-disk may illuminate the ties that this card has to the Lovers and to the Devil, which can only enhance the positive aspects of love in any reading which includes those cards.

Final note: Waite omits the reversed divinatory meanings. Interestingly, though, the Golden Dawn group did not. It appears they saw the reversed as the evil side of folly, including dissipation and waste. Given Waite’s odd phrase at the end of his description, it may be that he meant to ascribe something similar. Possibly, it got lost at the printer, or disappeared by some other means.


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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? 😉