Three of Cups – A One Page Guide

Three of Cups - IsleVue One Page Guide to Card Derivations

The sign of Cancer depicts a giant crab named Crios. In Greek mythology, Crios guarded Poseidon’s daugthers, who were sea nymphs. Cancer is a water sign, and in fact, is known as the house of Neptune. It appears the three dancers are inspired by Poseidon’s daughters, whose names we even know: Rhode, Benthesikyme and Herophile (at least, those were the best known of the nymphs). The sunniness of the card derives from its position: right at the summer solstice; which leads me to believe that we’re seeing a solstice celebration; but more about that later. In any case, lest you think that Cancer or the element of Water are the main influences upon the Three of Cups, forget it. We might as well call this “The Binah Show.” Waite-Smith Casting may have called upon the Poseidon family for the cameos, but Binah, the highest female element of the Sephirroth, symbolized by the womb, is the source of this card’s meanings. And those meanings are mostly associated with abundance, issue and plenty.

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 nine in the series.

The Binah Show

Let us quote Wikipedia regarding Binah:

Binah is ‘intuitive understanding’, or ‘contemplation’. It is likened to a ‘palace of mirrors’ that reflects the pure point of light of Chokhmah, wisdom, increasing and multiplying it in an infinite variety of ways. In this sense, it is the ‘quarry’, which is carved out by the light of wisdom. It is the womb, which gives shape to the Spirit of God. On a psychological level, Binah is “processed wisdom,” also known as deductive reasoning. It is davar mitoch davar—understanding one idea from another idea. While Chokhmah is intellect that does not emanate from the rational process (it is either inspired or taught), Binah is the rational process that is innate in the person which works to develop an idea fully.

Thus Binah in and of itself exemplifies the “as above, so below” mantra of the Hermeticists, and as such, it must have been an overpowering draw to the 19th century groups solidifying the divinatory meanings. In fact, some call Binah “the divine mother.”

Going back to Poseidon’s daughters for a moment, we note that they were not Nereids, who were the daughters of an older sea god, Nereus (in fact, one of the Nereids was married to Poseidon, which makes Nereus Poseidon’s father-in-law). There is, however, a description of the Nereids that may apply to the dancing ladies of the Three of Cups. From Wikipedia again:

They symbolized everything that is beautiful and kind about the sea. Their melodious voices sang as they danced around their father. They are represented as very beautiful girls, crowned with branches of red coral and dressed in white silk robes trimmed with gold, but who went barefoot.

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

In my opinion, therefore, Colman Smith was inspired by and picked up some of the attributes of the three dancers from the story of Cancer. With this being a water sign, and given the importance of water in the astrological and qabalistic influences as well, the three dancers, celebrating what appears to be a burgeoning, no doubt well irrigated crop with a cup of wine or two, likewise seem to symbolize everything that is beautiful and kind about agriculture. We should recall that the first astrologers, the Egyptians, depended on the annual flooding of the Nile which began, in the southern part of Egypt, around early June.

Three of Cups isolated figures
Three of Cups isolated figures

And indeed, the dancers of the Three of Cups have plenty, perfection and merriment to dance about. Cancer commences with the summer solstice. For Waite’s Celtic preoccupation, incorporating the ancient Celtic solstice celebrations, some of which took place at Stonehenge, and which were called Alban Heruin (Light of the Shore), must have been too enticing to pass up. In ancient times, however, the main dances probably took place at sunset or after, so it may be that the Roman Vestalia (the one Roman holiday when the women were in charge, as in “Vestal Virgins) may have been a more particular inspiration for Colman Smith. And that ties in with the abundance of the harvest, the historical importance of women in agriculture, birth (issue), and growth in general. It is the confluence of Binah, Vesta and, if we’re lucky, Bacchus.

To conclude, we have a very simple, straightforward card. Its divinatory meanings are as brightly illuminated as an afternoon at summer solstice. They are a cornucopia, all of whose fruits we see and can identify easily, because they’re our favorite foods. Waite said of the threes of all suits: “A very good card.” An understatement as far as this one is concerned! No one ever complains when this card is drawn, even if reversed. If only every day were a party like this!


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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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