6 of Cups: Scorpio II
Decan ruler (Chaldean): Sun
Corresponding majors: The Sun [Sun] + Death [Scorpio]
Dates: November 2 - November 11
The 6 of Cups brings together the "Lord of the Fire of the World" and the "Lord of the Gates of Death" - the Sun and Death. Here is the starkest of contrasts: the life-giving, life-sustaining center of existence on the one side, the archetypal force of ending on the other. In the contest of these two riders, we shall see that neither ever has the last word. Each yields to the other perpetually. How does this eternal opposition inform what seems at first glance to be a perfectly agreeable scene of childhood innocence? We'll get to that. But first, more cosmic psychodrama!
In a sense, the Sun and Death are remedies for one another. The Sun brings growth and health, expansion and flourishing, clarity, reason, and joie de vivre. But it can also be egotistical, unflagging, un-self-aware, relentless in its forward motion, indiscriminate in its urging; the tireless ἔργων σημάντωρ ("signaler of work", Orphic Hymn 9) from whom death can provide welcome release. The Death card offers definitive endings, profound transformations and rebirth. But it's also the pain of letting go, a cycle ending, loss of control, and fear of the unknown.
The sun's story is clear to see in Pamela Colman Smith's images.
First we see the sun high in the sky, radiating over emblems of newness: the child, the sunflowers in full bloom. The red feather of life which we saw first in the Fool card waves proudly over the child's golden curls. When we shift our gaze to Death, we see the now-bedraggled red feather drooping from Death's helm like a grim trophy of conquest. We see the sun setting between the towers of the Moon card, plunged into shadow and blue water. It's as if, through his own fearsome apparition, Death has evoked the Sun's contrary luminary. Clarity gives way to dimness, reason gives way to the lunar realm of illusion. (Also, it's interesting to note that the moon is in fall in Scorpio, Death's sign.)
But reverse the sequence, and the sunset becomes a sunrise. The nightly journey is Osiris' death, but also his rebirth. Orphic Hymn #87 tells us Death brings αἰώνιον ὕπνον, "unending sleep". Orphic Hymn #85 describes Sleep as αὐτοκασίγνητος Θανάτου, Death's own brother. Sleep and Death, in other words, are more like each other than we commonly acknowledge. Just as we must surrender consciousness - another state symbolized by the Sun - each night in order for our healthy selves to be restored another day, something spent must be recycled for life to arise.
The Solar Cycle Revisited
In the previous decan's 5 of Cups essay , I mentioned the Mars-Sun-Venus sequence we see in the 5, 6, and 7 of Cups (as well as in the 2, 3, and 4 of Wands). It's particularly interesting to think about because we have the Sun, progenitor of life, flanked by the masculine and the feminine. Or we could say we have the Sun, principle of harmony and balance, flanked by the principle of separation (Mars) and the principle of attraction (Venus). As previously mentioned, I see this triad as the heart of the Hanged Man's archetypal story of sacrifice, which is enacted in the suit of cups. The 2, 3, and 4 can signify the longing for the quest; the 8, 9, and 10, the redemptive magic eventually attained.
But the 5, 6, and 7 represent the alchemy of sacrifice itself - that deal struck in the heart of love and death. It guarantees mortality for each individual life - but it guarantees immortality for life itself. To me, that is the secret of the children we see in the 6 of Cups and the gift one gives to the other. Each of us shall pass, but our lineage shall live forever. It is a kind of relay race, where the only prize is the love we bear for one another from one generation to the next.
The Lower the Sun, the Longer the Shadow.
As every professional photographer and cinematographer knows, the most beautiful time of day, the lighting most flattering to our human selves, is the "golden hour". Just after sunrise, just before sunset, the Sun's light is warm and diffuse. The shadows are longer but also paler than they are at noon.
Where does a shadow come from? From standing in the sun - no sun, no shadow. Wherever we go, as long as we are living, we carry our shadows with us, our very own ghosts or shades. It's the negative space cast by our presence in life; it's a prerequisite and a corollary of our being here. In full daylight, our shadow invites us to contemplate the hole left behind when we are gone. You don't simply vanish - you leave an imprint, a memory, a you-shaped shadow in the hearts of those who love you. To thrive in life is to cultivate the shadow; the brighter the light, the stronger the loss. (It's probably no coincidence that in medicine, the "golden hour" describes the hour right after a traumatic injury when medical intervention is most likely to save a life.)
Golden light floods the 6 of Cups - it gilds the masonry and stretches across the courtyard. Nowhere else in the minors, I would argue, do we see this effect (except perhaps in that other solar minor, the 3 of Wands, where boats sail on a golden sunlit sea). The 'philosopher's stone,' it was said, could transform any substance into gold.
I believe something similar is happening here in the heart of the Scorpion. The present is transforming into the past, taking on value as it passes from awareness to memory. Famously, the 6 of Cups signifies nostalgia; the light is flattering when we look back from our own sunset hours - as if our hearts place a golden filter of affection over the past. In turn, everything we created in life - affection, resentment, love, longing, hatred - carves the hearts of those we knew, coloring their pasts, altering their futures. That's the gift one person gives the other in the 6 of Cups. The point isn't the flowers, but the memory of receiving them. On the left of the image, a figure on the left passes into remembrance, and someday it will be the children's turn as well.
Say It with Flowers
Between the Sun, the 6 of Cups, and the Death card, I count at least two dozen flowers. The "language of flowers" had peaked in Victorian England a few decades before Smith drew her images, but I believe we can nevertheless do some floral de-coding of our own.
The Sun: Sunflowers, needless to say, have been a solar symbol as long as there have been sunflowers and people to observe them turning toward the light.
Death: Here the theme is roses, red and white. If the rose-garlanded maiden in the corner looks familiar, it's because we met her first in the Strength card (associated with the sign of Leo, ruled by... the Sun). The child before her also wears the red rose garland; in both cases, they represent life, passion, vitality. And then there is the great white rose on Death's banner. Is it the White Rose of York? or the "Mystic Rose"? (which itself might stand for Mary, Mother of God, or the geometric figure formed by rays from equal points on a circle. Opinions differ, but Waite declares it "signifies life". The Fool, recall, sports not only the Sun's red feather but also Death's white rose.
6 of Cups: most curious of all, though, are the stylized 5-petaled flowers - one per cup. Nowhere else in the deck do we see cut flowers in a vase; elsewhere, they are garlands, or simply growing where they first sprang up. The 6 of Cups is the Lord of Pleasure, and that is the purpose of a cut flower: to give pleasure at the cost of its own life: Scented and perfect, it causes joy, but it will only last a day or two. So both joy and mortality are in its message. Carpe diem nam cras moreris!
Speaking of which, it's interesting to contemplate the vast range of ways the human psyche deals with time's passage, given that we are basically linear creatures of time:
- Memory, because only the living can perceive an ending and make a narrative about it.
- Nostalgia, that subspecies of memory, where the pain and pleasure of the past are mixed.
- Anticipation and dread, where we look ahead to things we fear and hope for.
- And most importantly, the sense of continuity, where we attempt to transcend death by passing something on - children, art, love itself. Giving of ourselves isn't just the way we evade death; it's a necessary precondition for re-birth.
The 'Love That Remains’
Time for some etymology! 'Nostalgia,' first of all, comes to us from the Greek nostos νόστος, return + algos ἄλγος, pain. So, nostalgia is the "pain of return," which seems ironic since for the most part, it's only happy memories that inspire nostalgia. It is said that the Odyssey is an epic of nostos - 10 years of tireless battle to win past the pain of separation and return home.
Related and equally bittersweet is the concept of saudade, which comes to us from the Portuguese. The 16th century historian Duarte Nunes Leão described it simply as "memory for something with a desire for it." Loss and longing are intertwined in saudade, causing a kind of paradox: it isn't saudade if there is no love, but it also isn't saudade if love's object is still with you. How can you long for what you already have? Saudade, Wikipedia tells us, (and I cannot find the source for the phrase), is the "love that remains". Imagine a cord tethering your heart to a person, time, or place you cherish; imagine it stretching farther and farther as they recede from you. Imagine the pull of that tether is impossible to soothe and undiminished by time or new experience. So integral is this concept to Portuguese culture that an entire genre of music, fado, revolves around it, in much the same way that the blues transmute the tragic racial history of the U.S. into art.
Pain, Pleasure, Past, and Purpose
The decan images at first glance seem more violent than nostalgic: a woman naked and crying out in flight, men holding scorpions, quarreling, two dogs biting each other. Yet there is an emotional reality to these scenes of distress. When we are haunted by longing for what is irretrievable, do we not feel vulnerable? at war with ourselves? torn in two?
Smith's image of the 6 of Cups is so pleasant, so anodyne, that it is hard to catch the scent of death in it. But for a moment, imagine with me that it’s a snapshot, worn and sepia-tinged, falling out of an album that has long lain forgotten in the attic. Suddenly its sweetness turns into something precious and lost.
All sixes, I believe, hold the best their suit has to offer. It's where the suit finds its purpose; its meaning in life. The 6 of Wands shows ambition finding its mark in victory. The 6 of Swords shows the mind solving a difficult problem. The 6 of Pentacles shows money being put to good use. Here in Cups, the suit of the emotions and the story of sacrifice, we see the heart's purpose: to give love to another without regard to itself.
With every act of kindness, we defy the darkness ahead. It does not matter if my time passes, if there is another who can bear my heart's treasure forward. The memory of who I was may last a while before it fades, but the love I received and gave is without end. When the golden hour fades and the blue hour descends, I can step into the dark unknown without fear, just as I embrace the cool relief of evening after a hot summer day. That is the salve for the pain of return and saudade: the cure for longing for the past is faith in the future. (This makes even more sense if you start with the assumption that linear time as we know it is an illusion - so all pain future and past is current pain, and all relief future and past is current relief.)
When you draw the 6 of Cups, you might find yourself reflecting on your own early days. You might find yourself considering your roles as someone's parent and as someone's child. And yes, you might get hit with a dose of nostalgia or saudade. Whether the experience is sweet, bittersweet, or painful, try to accept the moment for what it is without holding on too tight. What is precious is transient and what is transient, precious. In emotional as well as material currency, the measure of your wealth is not what you can hold onto, but what you can give away.