These are the archetypal and original storytelling cards of the tarot.
The oldest majors have people (or humanoid) forms, even if the rest of the deck – the minors – look like the playing cards they correlate to (a repetition of the number of items listed on the card).
These 22 cards, numbered 0-21, are among the most iconic images of the tarot, including the Fool, the Magician, the Devil, the Tower and the Moon.
The Major Arcana (majors) are to the Minor Arcana (minors) as a lion is to a lynx. They both hold power, but the former are bigger and have more (cultural, story-based) associations. particularly in the Western world (starting in Europe) where they were developed.
Side note (credit to The Queer Witch Podcast where this math was first pointed out for me): Our “modern” deck did not devolve from the tarot – losing a face card and the majors along the way. A couple easilyaccessible sources point out where playing cards entered the historical record, and it was long before the tarot.
It’s one useful reason to call the majors the 5th suit, because its a reminder of the order.
Also, considering the early tarot examples are all European, and cards were imported before that could happen… It was an example of my own short-sightedness that I rolled with the first stories I heard about tarot coming first.
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The majors, like the minors, are usually taught in a specific order: 0-21. Read more →
The Lovers is the sixth card in the Major Arcana. The 2 of cups is from the minors (one of the four suits I talk about here).
The main distinction many people make between the majors and the minors is how epic the event is. For example, the Lovers card represents one’s soul mate, and 2 of cups is everyday, happy-to-be-paired-with-you living.
Another way to contrast them is in intensity.
“All along it was a fever. A cold-sweat hot-headed believer.”
“Makes me feel like I can’t live without you…Round and around and around and around we go.”
[Stay, sung by Rihanna and Mikky Ekko.]
About the Lovers card, I once heard another reader say, It burns hottest, but crashes harder.
Reversed, I see it as one of those angsty stories where the audience/reader knows they like each other, knows they’ll be perfect together, but they need to talk.
[Distance, sung by Christina Perri and Jason Mraz.]
“And I will make sure to keep my distance,
Say I love you when you’re not listening,
How long, can we keep this up?”
“And I keep waiting
For you to take me
And you keep waiting
To save what we had.” Read more →
Like the Lovers card, the 2 of cups can refer to a couple, cooperation, a pair.
But there is also a constancy here that may be absent in the Lovers. This is remembering to say “I love you” before you end a call. This is holding someone’s hand when they’re nearby, or listening instead of offering advice right away when the beloved is distressed.
This card represents constancy and a balanced, mutually beneficial partnership – usually of respect, but always of contentment. That is, both parties think they have something pretty good here.
Another distinction between the 2 of Cups and the Lovers cards is how in-the-world they are.
That is, most Lovers cards (see the last post) consist of the individuals being utterly focused on each other. In many 2 of cups images the introduction of physical objects (usually the two cups) draws the viewer as well as the characters into a connection with something physical. Something beyond the “transcendent” of the lover or the interaction.
There is a mutuality in all of these images, whether in sharing an experience that is beyond the other (Fountain, Steampunk) or connecting, giving to the other something beyond the self (Mermaid, Numinous).
Moving out of the ideal/theoretical and into the world is a function of this card being one of the Minor Arcana. Minors are about daily life and where the rubber meets the road. This is another way we make a distinction between the 2 of cups and the Lovers. One is the “practical” and one is the “ideal.” There will be overlap (usually based on the reader’s personal experience), but this is one easy way to mark a difference in interpretation.
The Numinous image, in case you can’t read the tiny words, has the human holding a vial labeled FINS while the mermaid holds one labeled, LEGS. I love this representation of offering understanding and (perhaps) a willingness to change in love/service to the other.
This is one of the most precious elements of 2 of cups. Each person is in this commitment, at this level of contentment, while they see the partner as the the partner is.
Of course, the same issue of representation exists in the 2 of cups that exists in the Lovers card. Namely that the dominant interpretation is a romantic one, and so messages or assumptions are being displayed in the way this *couple* is shown.
Several decks have a hetero pair on their Lovers card, and non-hetero pairings in their 2 of cups (or the reverse, as in Numinous).
Still other decks repeat the technique from the Lovers card and offer a few cute (or lovely) animals to interpret as is most appropriate in the moment.
The main concepts I bring to a 2 of cups interpretation are contentment, commitment, and connection.
It is one of the most reassuring cards I ever draw for myself or others. It is a reminder we are not alone, and have reliable people in our world who care for us – romantically or not.
When the 2 of cups comes up, it’s often an invitation to remind ourselves of those connections, and lean into their life-sharing power.
My first set of cards to contrast are The Lovers and the 2 of cups.
Each of these cards portrays a happy pairing, and is generally considered a fortuitous card to show up in most readings.
After seeing how long this discussion can get, I’ve decided to start with a comparison between images of each individual card before I move on to the contrasts between two or more cards. (While this will make for a long series, I think it will make the most useful reference in the long-run.)
The Lovers, like most cards in a tarot deck, has a range of interpretations.
It can mean love, union, intense attraction, finding value, making connections (interestingly, not always lasting connections).
It represents truth, value, opposites meeting (Consider, below, the gold crown and the flower crown, both removed from the lovers’ heads in the Shadowscapes image. Or the metal lamps-post opposite the flowering tree in the Steampunk image).
It can represent hope.
It can also be interpreted as a choice-card. In older decks the third figure was sometimes a second woman, presenting the implied duality of life-choices (often with racist undertones) that the man had to choose between.
Even with current imagery you can see the choice if you look at the pairings as a meeting – sometimes with attachment, but not necessarily a commitment – one of the differences I see between this card and the 2 of cups. In this context a choice – whether to stay or leave – is still on the table.
In most decks you have a very obvious couple, usually male-female, and often there is a third (or more) someone looking on. Perhaps witnessing or blessing the union.
As more relationship structures and the spectrum of gender identities are acknowledged, artists have responded in different ways. For example, slightly obscuring, or allowing a question of one party’s gender. There are also the animal depictions which leave more up to the readers’ interpretations.
Sometimes the picture of the Lovers offer a twist on the traditional imagery: An interracial couple, or an active (if formal/scripted) partnership, rather than a static portrait.
Then there are the broader interpretations of artists who emphasize the first-love, core essence of the Lovers card, as seeing/accepting the self (Mermaid Tarot) and/or making room for multiple and different combinations of partners (Numinous Tarot).
All these create visual commentary as they invite us to consider – or expand – our vision of what we consider love, or value in a relationship.
Next time I’ll lay out the images for 2 of cups and we’ll start to see the overlap in art and interpretation.
Here’s a bit of context for some of the terms you’ll see in a lot of discussions about individual cards: Minor Arcana, suits, and elements.
The Minor Arcana make up 56 of the 78 cards in a tarot deck.
In the tarot, once you get past the first 22 cards (these are called the Major Arcana and numbered 0 -21), you find a pattern of Ace – 10, + page, knight, queen, king, that repeats through four suits: wands, cups, swords, and pentacles.
If you know your standard poker deck you can see the family resemblance:
Wands correspond to clubs
Cups correspond to hearts
Swords correspond to spades
Pentacles correspond to diamonds
Together these four sets are called the Minor Arcana.
The cards of the Minor Arcana bring a tight focus down to a specific area (element) of life, and provide a context or mirror in that moment.
Each of the tarot suits also aligns with one of the four “original” elements, taking on and portraying variations on its characteristics.
One of the ways I explain tarot to the curious (or nervous) is to describe it as a picture book for grown-ups.
That the whole of the human condition is covered in this deck of cards. Which is why I say it’s not any more wicked than the average person you meet on the street.
The response to this, of course, depends rather entirely on one’s view of humanity, but at least it offers a shift in focus from a particular fear of the cards themselves.
Between 2006 and 2017 I worked on 5-8 novels (self-published one). When my mind was in Story-Mode, everything connected to what I was working on: plot, description, emotional journey – some part lined up with whatever songs I was listening to. This led to my compiling multiple playlists on YouTube – sometimes by novel, sometimes by character.
Recently I began toying again with those loose threads of story, and the songs still resonated – both as part of my history, and in the ways they’d connected to each novel or character situation.
I started to test my own claim: if all of life is covered by the cards (and songs are one of the most potent expressions of experience), I should be able to line up these resonant songs with individual cards.
This led to one of the richest study sessions (seasons?) I’ve had since I first learned the cards almost five years ago. Some topics proved too big to wrestle down to a single card (which totally makes sense), but a remarkable number could line up with various elements in a card, and I ended up making a deck’s worth of connections.
Since I most-recently did a post giving examples of the visual differences between decks’ interpretations of the 2 of wands, that’s the card I wanted to use as my opening example.
That said, every card has shades of meaning, and every reader latches onto the core personality of the card as it resonates to them, so if you disagree, and have a different (or additional) song that jumps to mind for the 2 of wands, I hope you say so! I’d love to hear your angle in the comments and hope you include a link to the song that connects for you.
As I said in the last post, “All the figures – human or otherwise – invite the viewer to identify with their place in the scene, and that identification is part of the method of interpretation.” This is true of the songs as well, though in some cases (I’ll make it clear as we go) the words might be aimed at the main figure. That is, a sort of reacting to them rather than representing them directly.
But we’ll get there a different day.
The first song that made me think of the 2 of wands is this one. [I Can Go the Distance, sung by Roger Bart.]
This example has the bonus of already being part of a narrative, so if you know the story you might make your own connections.
In this song (and story beat) you have insecurity and the unknown alongside optimism and hope or expectation. This is a terrific angle on the 2 of wands.
In fact one way to frame or interpret the 2 of wands (especially since it’s right at the beginning of the wands suit, which tells its own tiny story within the deck), is as the time when someone decides what they want. The world is wide open, and they can DO it. Whatever it is. Read more →