If the element of fire signified by Wands provides illumination, which is to say, awareness of our outer environment, then the element of water—which governs the suit of Cups—offers us insight into the mysteries of the deep, the elements of perception that are intuited but unseen: The inner self, that which lives beneath the surface of our waking conscious lives. We can apprehend water with our eyes, but we cannot grasp it in our hands. We see our reflection when we gaze upon it, but we can only partially see beneath its surface, and if we disturb its calm, our reflection scatters as ripples in a wave. It is entirely mutable—freezing, melting or evaporating; returning to earth as hail, rain or snow; and capable of altering its flow over, under, and around any obstacle. If the power of fire aspires ever upward, water takes the path of least resistance, letting gravity control her flow to the sea. She is pure instinct and pure feeling, knowing no logic but her own intuitive ebbs and flows.
Water is essential to the life of man—we can live without food for weeks, but without water, for only a matter of days. The same can be said for “spiritual” water—if we don’t pause from our busy conscious lives from time to time to listen to our emotions, our feelings and dreams, and to nourish them anew with “life-giving” waters when they thirst, a part of our psyche dies as well, and we end up in the kind of “Waste Land” of the soul that T.S. Eliot evoked so elegiacally nearly a century ago:
Madame Sosostris, famed clairvoyante,
Has a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
with a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor.
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of Situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
Of course, we should only “fear death by water” if we fear our emotions and intuitions, and see our waking conscious lives as the sum and total of all lived existence. But any of us who have engaged in any kind of spiritual path-work realize that nothing could be further from the truth—for the “water power” is, in short, nothing less significant than the feminine creative principle: Receptive, incubative, nurturing and life-giving, the element which, when combined with fire, tempers the steel and strengthens the blade that gives man the power to establish mighty empires. It is the “amniotic sac” of creation, the “primordial sea” from which all humanity was born, according to the Vedas. The Qu’ran says, “We have created every living thing from water,” and in Genesis, God parted the waters—the prima materia of His Creation—to make a firmament on which man could live. Many of the most venerated deities in human history were said to have been born out of the waters: Atu, Ishtar, Aphrodite and Venus.
Water is also a powerful symbol of transformation, of passing from one stage of consciousness to another. In ancient Greece, the souls of the dead were ferried across the river Styx before descending into the underworld. In Christian practice, water is the medium of the baptism, the ritual cleansing of sin, and the waters of the Ganges play a similar role in Hinduism; bathing in its waters also provides remission from sin, and liberates the believer from the cycle of life and death. When we “cross over” into our personal underworld—the land of intuition, of emotion, and of dreams—we often experience powerful psychic revelations, which, if we train our minds in the proper fashion, can induce spiritual transformation within us. There are many names for this process—active imagination, the born-again experience, the religious ecstasy, the vision-quest, the psychedelic experience—but they can all be thought of as different doors that open to the same “upper room”: “The doors of perception,” as Aldous Huxley called them, the opening of which parts the veil of consciousness and allows us to see the the whole of Creation, not only its material manifestations.
As Wands are the instrument that allows us to grasp and control the archetypal power of fire, so too Cups with the power of water. Though they seem incompatible—water extinguishes fire, after all—it is an act of Divine logic that Cups should immediately follow Wands among the elements: they are, in reality, utterly dependent upon each other to provide their elemental “opposite” with dimension and meaning. Put another way: intellect without feeling is heartlessness; feeling without intellect is mindlessness. We cannot fulfill our Divine mission—to spread forgiveness, love and miracles to the world—in either state of being. When the “fire” and “water” aspects of our true Selves are reconciled and in equilibrium, our journey to love can begin in earnest. We’ll start our survey of the individual cards tomorrow.