4 of Cups: Cancer III
Decan ruler (Chaldean): Moon
Hermetic Title: Luxury / Blended Pleasure
Corresponding major arcana: The High Priestess [Moon] + The Chariot [Cancer]
Dates: July 12 - July 22
In the 4 of Cups, we encounter questions surrounding what is enough, and what is left to be desired. It is a complex card, because it governs opposing states: scarcity vs. surplus, temptation vs. apathy. An outstretched hand offers a cup full of who knows what - fine wine? arsenic? divine grace? freedom from pain? Whatever it is, our jaded friend is having none of it.
I think the 4 of Cups is challenging to interpret because its message is ambivalent. The image depicts reluctance, obliviousness, even boredom; the immobile figure at its center is past caring. How did this come to be? Perhaps we must first understand what is not shown on the card - the thrill of the chase.
According to the decanic observes of the past, the images of this face show two peculiar and consistent characteristics.
The first theme is jewelry and adornment: "her garment is silk and adorned with bright jewelry"; "crossing the ocean in a boat in search of his wife's jewels"; " intends to enter a ship to go to sea and bring gold and silver to make rings for his wives"; "possessing golden jewelry"; "has golden chains before him."
According to the Latin Picatrix the face concerns venationis, insequendi fugientes, habendi res per arma et rixas et contrariandi hominibus -roughly, "the contention of men, the pursuing of those who fly, the hunting and possessing of things by arms and brawlings."
Reading between the lines, we see the quest not merely for riches but for objects of desire, signals of status and wealth. What the coveted object is hardly matters - it is a cosmic McGuffin. It is desired less for its own sake than for the thrill of the chase; the competition to own a scarce and precious resource. The point is luxury, which is in fact the title given to this card by Crowley.
The quest needn't be material. Book of Thoth suggests the Charioteer is bearing the precious contents of the Grail. Meanwhile, the High Priestess holds a book of secret knowledge in the inscrutable folds of her robe. She is the repository of meaning, and the Chariot is the vehicle for finding that meaning in life.
The second peculiar theme of the decan images concerns snakes and turtles: "Covered with serpents, flat-faced", "whose foot resembles that of an animal," "holding a snake in his hand, having a foot similar to the foot of a turtle" "a celhafe with a snake in his hand". Celhafe, incidentally, is not a word you'll find in an English dictionary. It's probably a transliteration of سلحفاة, Arabic for turtle (https://www.patreon.com/posts/elusive-celhafe-18625069). In their new Picatrix edition, Dan Attrell and David Porreca trace the source of the term to a Spanish translator who, unfamiliar with the Arabic term, simply rendered it in his own alphabet and added it to the text.
Why a turtle? Well, the armored, archetypal-crab form of the Chariot comes to mind, but more importantly the turtle represents a self-sufficient and complete universe. Perhaps there is a secret message in this decan face: we have everything we need (turtle) and yet we desire (snake) more. Hunger breeds hunger.
“Blended Pleasure,” aka First World Problems
One afternoon when my daughter was 9 or so, we sat looking at this card for a moment together. "Why isn't he taking the cup?" I asked, half to myself. "Because he's already full," said she. When we are hungry for food, we eat and our bodies are satisfied. But when we are hungry for things - whether that's cash and prizes or non-tangible things like, say, approval - satiation is harder to attain. (No sooner do we buy the tarot deck than we want another tarot deck!)
Waite says: "Weariness, disgust, aversion... as if the wine of this world had caused satiety only; another wine, as if a fairy gift, is now offered the wastrel, but he sees no consolation therein." If you repeat the cycle enough, eventually that moment of emptiness starts to seem inevitable.
What is the cause of the young man's discontent? He is neither starving nor poor nor ragged. No - the clue is in the stillness of the setting, the leaves hanging listless and heavy on the tree, the lack of a palpable breeze. The problem is stasis: he is dissatisfied with the status quo. Etteilla says the 4 of Cups represents "ennui". In a word, he is bored.
It could be that he has lost his sense of novelty and adventure because he has stayed too long in one place. It could be that his privilege has blinded him to gratitude. It could be that he has lost his hunger because he has been given everything he needs.
We don't actually know where on Maslow's hierarchy our world-weary friend falls. We don't have to judge whether he is correctly distinguishing between his wants and needs, and we don't need to lecture him about being more grateful for what he has.
The real question is: how to break the cycle? what will happen next? because one thing's for certain - things cannot go on like this.
Full Moon, High Tide.
Three correspondences to consider: The High Priestess represents the Moon. The Chariot represents the sign of Cancer. The Moon rules the sign of Cancer. In the 2 of Cups and 3 of Cups posts, I've spoken about Cancer in marine metaphors: Venus arising from the sea foam, the spirit of God moving on the face of the waters.
In the 4 of Cups, I think of the moon exerting its force on the tides of the earth. If you've ever had the experience of swimming in the ocean at high tide under a full or new moon, you know there is a moment when everything seems to hold its breath: the sands beneath your feet drop beyond reach; the water is deep, dark, and restless, yet without clear direction. It is like being face to face with your own subconscious or being absorbed in a dream you know you will soon forget. Soon, the moment will pass and the waters will recede, exposing the shoreline by tiny, inevitable increments.
Full or new moons cause extremes of tide. But in a sense all tides contain their opposites. At the same moment you experience high tide in your patch of ocean, someone else is experiencing low tide in theirs. Inequality is built into the system.
Awakening under the Bodhi Tree
Recognizing that sense of inequality is integral to the next chapter in the 4 of Cups' story. I'm sure you know the story of the Buddha's enlightenment, but here's a paraphrase to refresh your memory:
Young prince Siddhartha was raised in perfect luxury to live the life of a king. His father protected him from all awareness of human suffering, banishing all signs of age, infirmity, or death from the palace grounds. But at age 29, the young prince ventured outside the palace walls and saw, for the first time, all three. So began his quest to end suffering once and for all. At age 35, sitting beneath a fig tree, he arrived at the "four noble truths":
Dukkha - "incapable of satisfying". Suffering is the essence of human experience.
Samudaya - "origin", "source". The cause of this suffering is craving or attachment.
Nirodha - “cessation,” “release”. One can be released from suffering by eliminating such craving.
Marga - "path". A path of right living can lead to that release.
In the story of the Buddha's awakening beneath the bodhi tree, it's impossible not to see parallels in the seated figure of the 4 of Cups.
The struggle with desire has a place in Western philosophy too. Plato uses a famous Chariot (!) analogy in Phaedrus: the human intellect, or Reason, guides a chariot led by two opposing steeds: Will and Appetite. The horses' instinct is to pull away from each other; only Reason can keep them headed in the right direction.
The secret is immanence
So what does tarot have to tell us about how this quest for meaning resolves? What will end this cycle of empty desire and hungry ghosts? What is the true prize the Priestess holds, and to what lengths must the Chariot go to find it?
The High Priestess: Avatar of silence, she holds the scroll of knowledge. The bad news is that you must discover its secrets for yourself - she will not tell you. The good news is that you already have the answers. The High Priestess's Hebrew letter is gimel, the camel, which holds its own source of water within. Whatever text you must decode, whatever hunger you must satisfy, whatever role you're forced to play - begin by silencing the outer voices and look deeper at what you already know. One model for the Priestess' lesson is lectio divina - a form of reading in which, layer by layer, you unpack the meaning of words until you arrive at a secret known only to you and God.
The Chariot: The journeys taken by this vehicle are not only physical. Merkabah mysticism speaks of a Chariot or throne holding the divine presence. It is guarded by 4 hybrid creatures, the "beasts of Ezekiel" - we see them in the Wheel of Fortune and the World. Although there are many ways to interpret this journey to find the divine, one useful way is this: discovering divinity is an internal quest, not an external one. Travel within, reconcile the fourfold parts of your own character, and you will inevitably encounter your own divine spark.
All of this no doubt seems confoundingly abstract. But the way I see it is this: we all seek meaning, but ultimately meaning is something you make, not something you go out and find. Experience may help you realize your purpose, but never forget that you carry your purpose hidden within you no matter what you do and where you go.
When you draw the 4 of Cups, two conditions may apply:
(1) Happiness is just around the corner, if only you could put your hands on X.
(2) Life's pleasures have lost their luster, even as they throng around you.
Whichever one it is, pause for a moment. Let the noise subside. In the silence, ask this question: what gives you meaning, as opposed to pleasure? when do you feel fulfilled? Finding contentment may be as simple as reallocating your attention and your resources. Even if the answers are not so obvious, have faith that you will find them in yourself.