5 of Cups: Scorpio I
Decan ruler (Chaldean): Mars
Corresponding majors: The Tower [Mars] + Death [Scorpio]
Dates: October 23 - November 1
Alas! Something terrible has happened! The 5 of Cups, loved by few, shows a mournful figure crying over what is decidedly not spilled milk. It is one of the grimmest minors in the deck - which starts to make sense when you look at its two corresponding major arcana: The Tower [Mars] and Death [Scorpio]. The 5 of Cups is no party, but at least it's predictable.
Bump in the Night
It seems somehow inevitable that tarot's Death card should be associated with the sign of Scorpio, although it isn't inevitable, really. The zodiacal correspondences of the majors weren't laid down until the 19th century, a good 500 years after the first tarot cards began to appear in Europe. Just to review, here's the list of correspondences eventually established by the Golden Dawn:
(There's no need to break out your notepad - you can find all of this, plus enough charts to satisfy the Virgoest of Virgos, in my book, Tarot Correspondences: Ancient Secrets for Everyday Readers.)
As you can see, they do seem to go "in order". But there are like a million caveats - the sequence of majors wasn't always like this, there are skips to accommodate planetary majors, the Golden Dawn switched VIII and XI, some of the correspondences are more intuitive than others (people particularly like to argue about the Chariot/Cancer).
That's all fine and good. The point is, we ended up with Scorpio as Death, which not only seems to match up with Scorpio's paint-it-black, 8th-house, Goth reputation, it also pairs beautifully with this supremely gloomy 5 of Cups, complete with cloak of mourning - whose associated decan just happens to include everybody's favorite Western-hemisphere death-festivals, Halloween and the Day of the Dead. All Hallows' Eve and All Saint's Day. Samhain and Día de los Muertos. As the northern sunlight withdraws from the visible landscape, leaving behind bare branches and dry ground, we acknowledge life's cyclical nature for all growing things, and for ourselves as well.
The 5 of Cups is an excellent opportunity to face our fear of death in the same way as we do at Allhallowtide - to mourn, but also to celebrate. To pour libations out for our own beloved dead, while raising a glass to each other. Three cups spilled; two held in reserve for the living. Give the ferryman his due! for loss is the price we pay for love.
So much Mars!
If Death shows us what it is we fear, then the Tower shows us why. It is one thing to face the impermanence of our existence and the ever-turning wheel. We face it every year when the leaves fall and the snow flies. And, too, sometimes Death comes as a friend at the end of long years, bearing an hourglass rather than a scythe. But what we fear above all else is not the familiar seasonal procession, or dying in our sleep after a full and happy life - what we fear is sudden death. And here, I would argue, we sense the presence of fearsome Mars, the "lesser malefic".
Why does Mars matter so much for the 5 of Cups? Because no other card, in our 36-card stroll through the decans, expresses a planet as purely as the 5 of Cups does Mars. How so?
1. The 5 of Cups is of the sign of Scorpio, whose ruler (traditionally), is Mars.
2. Scorpio is a nocturnal sign, and Mars is nocturnal in sect ("in sect by sign").
3. The 5 of Cups corresponds with the first decan of Scorpio, whose ruler is Mars.
4. All 5's correlate to the sephira Geburah on the Tree of Life. The planet of Geburah is...Mars.
Even though the decan commentaries pre-date tarot's esoteric superstructure by centuries, they agree on the highly antisocial temperament of this decan - "rixarum, scelerum, deceptionum, perditionum" (arguments, wickedness, deception, ruin) etc. The iconography sports a range of delights, from poisonous serpents to decapitated heads. Even the Astrolabium Planum, generally the most resolutely tame of depictions, shows two men brawling their hearts out.
My podcast co-host has referred to the 5 of Cups as "Emotional Severity". This is because "severity" is a common translation of Geburah (the sephira of Mars), and cups represent the emotional realm in tarot. It's a pithy way to describe the shock and dismay of sudden loss. When Mars brings death, he brings it swiftly and ruthlessly - in combat, or through accidents and disasters. Often there is pain. His children are Fear and Terror! - Phobos and Deimos. (You may recall similar sentiments in one of his other cards, the 9 of Swords. Some of us, looking at the fearsome triptych of the Tower, the 5 of Cups, and Death, cannot help recalling the trauma of 9/11.
In the Orphic Hymn to Death - the 87th and final hymn of the sequence - there is a passage addressing the nature of cruel and sudden death.
κοινὸς μὲν πάντων, ἄδικος δ’ ἐνίοισιν ὑπάρχων, ἐν ταχυτῆτι βίου παύων νεοήλικας ἀκμάς.
ἐν σοὶ γὰρ μούνῳ πάντων τὸ κριθὲν τελεοῦται· οὔτε γὰρ εὐχῇσιν πείθῃ μόνος οὔτε λιταῖσιν.
Common to all, you govern some unjustly, swiftly putting an end to life at its youthful peak.
But the decision is completed by you alone. You alone are persuaded neither by prayers nor entreaties.
The hymn goes on to offer prayers and entreaties nonetheless. I mean, what else are you supposed to do?
Sacrifice and the Solar Sequence
I see the suit of cups as a sacrificial story, like the Christ story, the Christian Grail story of the Fisher King/Parsifal, or the tale of Odin, or Dionysus. Each begins with a quest (the 2, 3, and 4 of Cups), descends at great cost to a place of sacrifice (5, 6, and 7 of Cups), and rises up transformed (8, 9, and 10 of Cups).
The 5, 6, and 7 of Cups decans are ruled by Mars, Sun, and Venus respectively - a sequence that seems to cry out with significance. In Kabbalistic tarot, the Sun represents the sephira Tiphereth, the heart of the Tree, where all forces come into balance. The previous sephira is Geburah, ruled by Mars; the following sephira is Netzach, ruled by Venus. Poised between these archetypes of separation and attraction, the sun is like an alchemical transformation. In darkness, it transforms what is broken and fallen into something altered but renewed. It is the golden coin that redeems.
We see something similar, albeit more public, in the Mars-Sun-Venus sequence of the 2, 3, and 4 of Wands. Through the 3 of Wands' solar alchemy, that which is ravaged and dominated in the 2 re-organizes, celebrating a new identity, in the 4. It is, in a sense, the large-scale re-branding undertaken by the colonizer. Thus does government turn conquest into civilization. [There is a lunar sequence too, seen in the 5, 6, and 7 of Pentacles and the 8, 9, and 10 of Wands, but let's not get into that right now.]
Loss and Love
But what is the point of 'sacrifice' in the first place? The word literally means "to make sacred". 'Sacrifice' implies loss, but not senseless loss - in fact, it is just about the opposite of senseless loss. It is giving up one thing voluntarily because there is another, more meaningful thing that you desire. It is Odin's willingness to surrender his right eye for the serpent's wisdom. It is the rum and tobacco you offer at the crossroads to make a spirit-deal. It is the trick - and it is the treat!
At the moment of the 5 of Cups, what we feel is bereavement - the sharp, sudden sense of loss, a kind of monstrous hunger for what is no longer ours. This is not the forward-looking intention of magical sacrifice that I just described. No! something has been taken from us without our consent. However, we can redeem that loss by retroactively making it meaningful. We are the masters of our own stories. A man is wrongfully convicted and his lawyer spends the rest of his life proving the innocence of Death Row inmates. A Parkland High School senior dedicates their life to activism after the unthinkable occurs.
In a larger sense, it is only by knowing love that we can know loss. By facing the 5 of Cups, we learn what matters most in life and resolve to fight for it. The Tower is the storm of tears that leaves you heaving and cleansed; Death's river is the momentum of longing driving the flywheel of rebirth. The tears you shed at a wedding and at a funeral are the same tears, elicited by the painful swift passage of time; we surrender equally to the dread of our own mortality and the joy of life's continuity.
End of an era
Finally, I should observe that a cryptic meaning has attached itself to this card for me. Long ago, my husband found a 5 of Cups in the street. This was before he was my husband, when we were engaged, and I thought it was an ill omen. But in the years since, I've seen it surface again and again for people when they are on the brink of marriage. It turns out that there is a whole cartomantic history connecting the 5 of Cups (or the 5 of Hearts) with marriage, and it isn't necessarily an ill omen at all (this mystery of the 5 of Cups came up in my conversation with Gordon White last year).
One can never really know where those traditional meanings come from, shrouded as they are in centuries of oral tradition. But perhaps it is a signal that one identity is disintegrating, one life is ending, and another reborn. It's the mark of being bound to the wheel - not only subject to its motion but perpetuating it through the hunger of desire.
When you draw the 5 of Cups, you may well be in mourning for something. Although no one wants to hear it when enduring something grievous, loss and love do go hand in hand. It's right there in the tarot arithmetic, where Abundance [3 of Cups] + Love [2 of Cups] = Disappointment [5 of Cups].
What tarot readers usually tell their clients when they draw this card is: Look at the two cups you have left! All is not lost! And honestly, that's not bad advice.
But I see in the arithmetic - and in the image itself - another solution for this card. Suppose you pour the 3 cups on the ground yourself, as an offering. Suppose you face the grief head-on, exposing yourself to the fullness of the experience. Suppose, even as your heart quakes with absence, you recognize the reality of past joy. Then, once the river of your tears has passed under the bridge, perhaps it will be possible to turn back to the living and raise a glass to what's to come.
Disappointment [5 of Cups] - Abundance [3 of Cups] = Love [2 of Cups].