Tarot - The Suit of Cups


By D. J. McAdam

What is the significance of the suit of cups in the tarot? 

In most texts, Cups are associated with water (a natural enough connection) and, hence, with water signs - Pisces, Cancer, and Scorpio - and the astrological meaning of the element of water, which is related to emotions and the subconscious.  Cups are also related to the feminine yin principle, another natural enough connection.

But symbols, like words, have many levels of meaning.  If we give credence to the idea that the tarot was historically developed by religious Gnostics and/or Sufis, as alluded to briefly in our History of Tarot Cards, then it is interesting to note that the Persian word for a cup is Jam, and that this same term is related to Thurayya, the term employed by Arabs when referring to the constellation Pleiades.  What does the Pleiades have to do with cups?

In medieval Persian poetry, the constellation of Pleiades was related to the Cup of Jamshid, and the covered cup of Islamic chivalry.  Medieval Christians drew parallels between this latter cup and the Holy Grail.  The Holy Grail, of course, isn't always depicted as a cup, but it often is, and as a cup it is sometimes related to the cup that caught the sacred blood of Jesus as he was hanging on the cross.

Cups, in any event, are meant to hold something.  One of the meanings associated with cups in ancient times was "memory," as the memory is, in a sense, the receptacle of our life experiences.  Of course, many memories are associated with our emotions - we've come full circle.

In doing a tarot reading, it helps to be aware of these various meanings for cups - emotions, memories, the container of something sacred. 


I am indebted for much of the information in this brief essay to Diane O'Donovan, whose article "A Response to the *tuman Problem" appeared in the Jan-Feb 2001 issue of The Playing Card, the Journal of the International Playing-Card Society.

Kettlewell, Sarah. Guide to Tarot. London, Caxton Reference. 

Matthews, John. Sources of the Grail. Edinburgh, Floris Books, 1997. Included in this fine anthology is Arthur Upham Pope's "Persia and the Holy Grail," originally published in 1957.

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