Tarot Symbolism: the Ace of Cups

The Ace of Cups in the Rider Waite Smith deck is an unusually symbolic card, imbued with powerful and (for most of us!) obscure imagery. Exploring these symbols and images can help us unlock the card’s meaning and give richer, more complex readings — even if we’re just reading for ourselves.   Original Ace of Cups from the 1909 Rider Waite deck.

Ace of Cups from Rider Waite Smith
Original Ace of Cups from the 1909 Rider Waite deck.

As depicted in the Rider Waite Smith deck, on which so many other decks are based, the Ace of Cups traditionally represents the beginning of a new relationship (romantic or friendly). Aces in general represent new beginnings, and Cups as a suit are aligned with feelings and interpersonal relationships. Hence, new beginnings + emotions = budding relationship or nascent feelings of love for something or someone.

This Ace is also representative of unconditional love, both for the self, fellow human beings, and humanity in general. The card encompasses both earthly love for our family and friends and the spiritual kind of love that we extend to all living forms when we are aligned with Source and coming from a heart-centered place. This particular interpretation is emphasized in the Ace of Cups from the Robin Wood Tarot, which displays a big, red heart at the center of the cup

The prominence of water in this card encourages a sense of flow and overflowing positive emotions. This card reminds us to surrender all resistance and to “go with the flow,” even when it’s difficult to do so. Only by letting go of control and resistance can we truly flow with the current of well-being and abundance that the universe continually offers us. When we put up blocks and try to swim against the current, we get sick, depressed, confused, stagnant, and delay all of our manifestations. In fact, the five streams of water pouring out of the cup are sometimes interpreted as the effect of divine energy and guidance on our five senses. This is a message to keep our perception open and to allow intuitive messages in all sensory forms to come through. The streams also indicate fast-flowing spiritual revelations and major insights, which the querent may already be experiencing, or which will come through shortly in his or her life.

The hand entering the card through the right side is not always depicted in new decks, but it represents the benevolent universal force that is always ready to assist us, as well as our individual spiritual guides who always reach out to us through intuition, dreams, and gut feelings. Here, the key message is the importance of keeping our “hands” (and hearts) open in order to receive spiritual guidance. The Lo Scarabeo Tarot deck retains the hand imagery, unlike other modern decks:

Ace of Cups from Lo Scarabeo Tarot
Lo Scarabeo Tarot — Ace of Cups with modernized hand and symbols incorporated onto the cup’s design.

The dove is another important symbol on the Ace of Cups, representing our state of peace and purity when we are fully aligned with Source. The dove is also a sign of ascension, clarity, and renewal. In her book Holistic Tarot, Benebell Wen explains, “in the Golden Dawn interpretive approach, the dove represents Venus as the Great Mother, while the wafer with the cross symbolizes the earth She has created” (p.154). The dove carrying a wafer therefore stands for the union of spiritual and earthly planes, and how one (earthly) is manifested from the other (spiritual). In the Crystal Visions Tarot deck, the dove is transformed into a dragonfly, representing freedom.

The letter on the cup — a W, or an inverted M? — is a hotly debated subject in Tarot scholarship. As Wen explains, Tarot readers and researchers still ask themselves whether the letter “is a ‘W’ for A. E. Waite, the creator of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck? Or is it an ‘M’ in reverse, and if so what does the ‘M’ stand for? Mary Magdalene? Magic? Magi? Magus?” (p.155, Holistic Tarot). Given the inclusive and open-ended nature of so many of the Tarot’s symbols, all of these possibilities are fair game. There’s also the suggestion that M in reverse represents the Greek letter “Mu,” which is related to the Phoenician letter “mem,” or “water.” Other researchers indicate that the letter stands for “Mary,” mother of Jesus. Others point to Waite’s fascination with the Holy Grail legends and how the letter (and the suit of Cups altogether) could be related to that. (If you wish to dig deeper, a lively discussion on the letter’s meaning can be found here.)

Finally, the lotus blossoms resting on the water are symbolic of the awakening of the human spirit. They represent openness, blessings, and spiritual evolution. As the lotus grows and rises from the mud, we as human beings refine ourselves through spiritual development and personal work. The lotus also reminds us to allow things to unfold in their own time, naturally. If you look closely, you will see that some of the flowers have already bloomed, and some remain in bud form. This is optimistic and hopeful, promising that even greater abundance is on the way. The lotus blossoms are foregrounded in the Ace of Cups from the Witches’ Tarot deck:

The Witches’ Tarot — Ace of Cups with prominent lotus blossoms.

Finally, the Ace of Cups in the Wild Unknown Tarot does away with most of these symbols and depicts a simple, lone-standing cup, without any letters or doves or flowers (see below). Despite its simplicity, nothing is lost with this card, since that single cup still reminds us to be open and receptive and to always see the glass half-full.

The Wild Unknown Tarot deck by Kim Krans — simplified Ace of Cups. 

References from Benebell Wen, Holistic Tarot: An Integrative Approach to Using Tarot for Personal Growth. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2015.

All rights to deck images belong to their respective creators & publishers.

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