This is the second of four articles on the four aces in The Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery and their elemental associations. In this article, we will discuss the ace of cups.
As we said in the last article, the minor suits in The Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery are assigned to the four elements: coins to earth, vessels to water, swords to air, and staffs to fire. Historically this is the most accepted list of elemental associations. However, there are variations in historic decks. For example, in The Grand Etteilla, Etteilla clearly equates the four minor suits to the elements by depicting a landscape dominated by an element as the background for each deuce. He equates coins to fire, vessels to water, swords to air, and staffs to earth. We can see on the Etteilla two of cups that the cups seem to be floating on the surface of the sea. Etteilla agrees here with the standard association, but not for coins and staffs. For more information on historic association see the last article on the ace of coins.
The Etteilla card also includes a flaming alchemical vessel with snakes entwining it, turning it into an alchemical caduceus. Etteilla was an alchemist, and he would have known that the caduceus was an alchemical symbol for the elixir, a magical substance that was created by combining opposites, like fire and water or masculine and feminine. The combining of the opposites also illustrated the card’s meaning, which is love, or desire if reversed. His caduceus seems to have been his interpretation of the stylized two headed staff found on The Tarot of Marseilles two of cups. In turn, Etteilla inspired Pamela Coleman Smith’s two of cups, with a lionheaded caduceus and a man and a woman representing the opposites coming together in passion. I think that the lion was her interpretation of the flames, but it is also influenced by the Mithraic lionheaded figure, with wings and a spiraling snake that most scholars agree symbolizes time. The Mithraic meaning does not seem to add to the basic meaning of the card, and it is probably an example of the intuitive free associations that Smith was known for. For The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery I combined the man and woman with the caduceus to arrive at the same meaning, and my composition is closer to the Marseilles model.
The Waite Smith ace of cups breaks from the Marseilles pattern by depicting the cup held in a hand, like the Marseilles ace of swords and staffs. Here again Smith seems to be influenced by Etteilla, who also broke with the Marseilles pattern and introduced a hand on all of his aces. On his ace of coins, however, the hand is holding the god Apollo and the coin is below. This is a reversal of the other pips in this suit, which depict the coins in the upper space and a god in the lower space. Perhaps Etteilla was saying that happiness, represented by Apollo, is above money, represented by the coin.
Smith’s ace of cups is an allegory depicting the cup as the Holy Grail containing the life-giving blood of Christ. This is suggested in the Marseilles ace by the hexagonal shape of the cup. The hexagon symbolized the squaring of the circle, which is the joining of the spiritual and physical worlds. This is how the Grail was depicted in Medieval and Renaissance art. Smith’s ace has an upside-down letter M on it, which I believe symbolizes Mary, the mother of Christ. The dove represents the Holy Spirit, and he is placing the host, a circle of bread with the cross on it, in the cup. In the Christian mass, the host symbolizes the body of Christ. There are five streams flowing from the cup symbolizing the five wounds of Christ. Waite says that this card represents the “house of the true heart of joy.”
In The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, the ace of cups in also modeled on the ace in The Tarot of Marseilles. In the traditional Tarot of Marseilles, the ace of cups depicts a chalice with an elaborate lid in the shape of a castle. This card was modeled on earlier Italian cards, like the ace from the Tarot printed in Ferrara in the 15th century. In some examples, there is a bird standing on the foot of the cup. Like Etteilla did with the two, I elaborated on the suggestions I found in the Marseilles image. I transformed the lid into a miniature castle with a door that is the right size for the bird. The bird is an ancient symbol for the, soul and as the castle is an elaborate birdhouse, it symbolizes the natural home for the soul. The meaning that I derive is that this card represents being in harmony with the soul’s purpose.
The Alchemical ace of cups or vessels, as the suit is called in this deck, contains more allegory. Each ace in The Alchemical Tarot depicts the suit symbol immersed in its element and accompanied by an animal that represents the beginning essence of the element. Also each Tarot suit symbol is linked to one of the modern French suit signs that are used on common playing cards and this symbol is worked into the Tarot symbol as well, sometimes providing a surprisingly meaningful addition.
On the Alchemical ace of vessels, there is a fish floating on the water in an inlet of the sea. On his back, there is a large glass vessel, like an alchemical retort. The retort is half filled with blood and in the retort, floating on the blood, there is a heart that also opens like a vessel. There is a grapevine growing out of the heart and up through the opening of the retort.
The fish, which lives in the sea, is an appropriate animal to represent the element. Likewise, the vessel, made to hold liquids, is also a fitting symbol for water. Water is a feminine element, and it is a natural symbol for the unconscious, which presents its surface to our conscious mind but keeps the majority of its substance hidden below. The sea depicted on this card symbolizes the collective unconscious. The fish is its messenger and appropriately presents himself on the surface. The retort represents the psyche of an individual and the blood, which is chemically related to seawater, represents the individual unconscious. In the center of the psyche, the heart, a vessel within this vessel, symbolizes the depth of the individual soul.
Seeds have been planted in this inner vessel by the Anima Mundi. These are our most precious desires—our true destiny that surfaces when we look deep into our psyches and are honest with ourselves. To find fulfillment in life, we must nurture these seeds and let them grow. It is not selfish to fulfill these desires; they are planted in us by the Anima Mundi and the world needs the fruit. Like the Sevenfold ace, this ace is about the uncovering of your true destiny, and as with the Sevenfold ace, being in harmony with the soul’s purpose.
On the Alchemical king of cups we see that the fish has become a crowned whale, the king of the sea, and a common alchemical symbol for the mastery of water. Because he is a sperm whale he can spout water from his blowhole and fill his own cup. He is the master of hos psyche and he find hos own fulfillment. The Sevenfold king of cups shares the same meaning, but here the sperm whale is his coat of arm, and the heart floating over his cup symbolizes his fulfillment.