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The Essence of the Ace of Cups: Inception of Creativity and Spirituality

Nowadays, we usually expect the Ace of Cups to follow the Ace of Wands, but why? Let’s rummage around in the portmanteau of history to find out, shall we?

Tarot cards were not always associated with occult symbology, the minor arcana in particular. When we put the suits of the lower arcana into some kind of order, we’re not talking, initially, about the importance of the four classical elements and their relationship to occult wisdom.

The oldest surviving tarot cards are from fifteen fragmented decks painted in the mid 15th century for the Visconti-Sforza family, the rulers of Milan
The oldest surviving tarot cards are from fifteen fragmented decks painted in the mid 15th century for the Visconti-Sforza family, the rulers of Milan

In addition to occult associations, we’ve inherited the order in which the suits are arranged from card games, some of which were concerned more with social hierarchy, mores and values, than with esoteric lore.

The origins of the tarot deck are thought to be Italian, with the oldest surviving examples dating from the mid 15th century in Milan, and using the traditional Latin suits of Swords, Cups, Coins and Staves (representing the four main classes of feudal society; military, clergy, mercantile trade, and agriculture).

Card games based around virtue and vice, or social concerns, have been produced from time to time through the centuries, and Tarot, with its emphasis on spiritual and moral ideology, has overtones of what’s left of Medieval Morality plays, as well as images that would have held the interest of those who played the games later Tarot cards were based on.

Although there is a natural fascination with discovering Tarot’s origins, usually what we’re interested in is whether Tarot originated in Egypt or some other occult, mystical place. The answers are, as usual with the sharing of ideas, complicated.

It seems fairly clear from tracing trade routes and knowing who imported what from whom, where and when, that Tarot as the game of Tarocchi was most likely developed from the complex trade alliances made between the Venetians and the Mamluks, powerful Islamic rulers who counted, amongst their possessions, cities like Cairo, Mecca, and Medina.

Prior to the occult and esoteric knowledge included in every current pack of Tarot cards, there was the rise of the playing card, which required something as prosaic as paper to flourish. One reason I think it’s entirely possible the theories that Tarot’s occult wisdom came from Egypt is that the use of paper spread from its apparent origins in China, through trade routes to Islam (which would have included the powerful sultanate of the Mamluks, centered in Cairo); and through Islam, on to Europe.

Oldest known Ace of Cups, hand-painted, of Mamluk origin

Tracing the roots of Tarot is interesting, for a few different reasons, but the primary reason is that, as with the oral tradition of language, much wisdom that swirls about in popular awareness could not be preserved and passed on to subsequent generations until there was an affordable medium with which to do so.

Paper has long made a better medium for the spread of ideas than its precursors of vellum, papyrus, or silk, all of which are relatively expensive and difficult to procure. With the advent of paper, however, it would become possible to cheaply replicate ideas and symbols, and the “creative fantasy,” of archetypal imagery, to paraphrase C. G. Jung, began to “freely manifest.”

Tarot as we know it today, with its suits and occult imagery, represents a blending of many different ideas that developed over time. There is no one likely source for all the imagery you see on the cards nowadays (which is why one cannot credit the idea that the Tarot was a gift from the god Thoth, as some would like to believe). Instead, as Tarot spread throughout Europe, it was inspired by ideas already in use, and modified by each culture.

When we speak of the Ace of Cups, we are referring not only to the beginning of a strong new emotional connection to something or someone. We are also speaking of the flow of feeling that underlies all creative endeavors. When you see the Ace of Cups in a reading, therefore, what is required of you is opening your creative spirit to all that which inspires the heart. The Ace of Cups is about learning to appreciate that which affects us intangibly through our emotions: poetry, music, art, literature, and emotional—in particular, romantic—expressions of love.

Associations between cups, water, emotion and love are not obvious, but one image that sums up the suit of cups’ material, spiritual, and practical meaning, is the chalice. The oldest Ace of Cups card still extant, from the Cary-Yale Visconti deck (ca. 1440 AD), depicts a chalice hand-painted in elegant silver and gold leaf.

An appropriately creative activity for the Ace of Cups, early cards were hand-painted

The chalice was associated with the clergy, spiritualism, and the Holy Grail, the story of which sums up much of humanity’s challenge when dealing with emotions:

The Grail plays a different role everywhere it appears, but in most versions of the legend the hero must prove himself worthy to be in its presence. In the early tales, Percival’s immaturity prevents him from fulfilling his destiny when he first encounters the Grail, and he must grow spiritually and mentally before he can locate it again. In later tellings the Grail is a symbol of God’s grace, available to all but only fully realised by those who prepare themselves spiritually, like the saintly Galahad.

In subsequent years, when Tarot cards were revisioned as instruments of occult wisdom by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the order of the suits reflected the philosophy of the Greeks, by way of the Stoics, Platonists, and other Socratic and Pre-Socratic sources. The Hermeticists explained the natural hierarchical order of the elements this way:

The locust and all flies flee fire; the eagle and the hawk and all high-flying birds flee water; fish, air and earth; the snake avoids the open air. Whereas snakes and all creeping things love earth; all swimming things–love–water; winged things, air, of which they are the citizens; while those that fly still higher–love–the fire and have the habitat near it. Not that some of the animals as well do not love fire; for instance salamanders, for they even have their homes in it. It is because one or another of the elements doth form their bodies’ outer envelope.

Through the Greek philosophers, the physical body becomes the container for the four humours, the Ancient Greek attempt at classifying and understanding emotions. The element of water becomes esoterically associated with emotions, and hey presto! the mystical alchemy of linked meanings brings us to today’s version of the Ace of Cups, which, if I were creating a new Tarot, would be renamed the Ace of Valentines, since most Cups readings seem to deal with love, romance, passion, and relationships.

Voyager Tarot’s metaphor of the open flower as container for pure rainwater. The message is, “open your heart, feel everything, love and let yourself be loved.” Voyager Tarot: Intuition Cards for the 21st Century

Yet the Ace of Cups is not solely about love; it is about all the emotions, and the ability to express emotion; to open the heart to feelings of all kinds. When this Ace appears in a reading, it implies an upsurge of emotion, a tidal wave, if you will, intended to carry you to the next thing you fall in love with. Sometimes that’s a person, but other times this Ace, upright, will represent a new way of living life, of approaching life with greater passion and fullness of being.

Perhaps most importantly, you are being offered an opportunity to care about something as you have never cared before, but that can be love for an idea or belief; not all love is about love for another, but if someone is offering you their heart, you’ll see it with this card. 

The Ace is usually represented by a cup; a cup’s purpose is to contain, and the esoteric implication is that this particular cup contains spirit. Throughout history, actual literal cups were associated with drinking; drinking to one’s health, at a party, as a celebration. This Ace represents that experience of emotional celebration.

I do think there is almost nothing sadder than seeing a reversed Ace of Cups, for it indicates the cup of plenty run dry—the person in question cannot give, has nothing to spare, has lost his or her way, is barren of hope, feeling, empathy.

To the extent that this Ace represents an opportunity for greater emotional maturity on the spiritual path, receiving the upright cup being offered is a gesture of good faith from someone, somewhere, so do not allow this gift of emotion to pass you by.

Llewellyn is always best for a comprehensive approach to their subject matter, and this text gives the most complete history of Tarot, including the obscure Mamluk deck!