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Tarot Talk

Comparing the Four of Swords & the Four of Cups



This month we will talk about two Tarot cards that approach the same concept, withdrawal, from two different vantage points. Let’s investigate the Four of Cups and the Four of Swords. The Four of Cups and the Four of Swords are Minor Arcana cards, so we know the message offered by these cards will most likely be more immediate in nature, or will most likely be connected to more day-to-day issues. The easiest way to get a decent understanding of a Minor Arcana card is to examine its number, or in the case of Court Cards, its rank, and to examine its suit. In this case, we are dealing with the number 4, and the suits of Cups and Swords. There are some similarities between these two cards as they are both Minors and both have the number 4. Examining their similarities and differences will add depth to our interpretations. Let’s get started!

The number 4 is about solidification, discipline, balance, authority figures, a foundation being created, calmness, caution, being steady or difficult to shake up. There are four points to a compass, so the number 4 can represent everything around us as it is right now. If we remember that the number 3 usually represents the creation of something new through the understandings gained through the number 2, then we can see that the number 4 brings depth or solidity to that creation. On the negative side, the number 4 can represent energies that are slow and plodding, too conservative, averse to change, or suspicious.

Within the Tarot, the Fours represent the concept of The Solid within their specific suits, very stable energies that are hard to tip over. Here we have the pause that allows us to take a breath after activating the potential of the Ace through the partnership of the Two in order to manifest the creation of the Three. Now the initial burst of manifestation is over and inertia begins to present itself. While the stability of the number Four is necessary so a new creation can establish itself and continue to exist, holding still while the rest of the world keeps moving could mean we are falling behind.

The Fours have a place on the Tree of Life of the Qabalah; they are found in the sephira of Chesed in the middle of the Pillar of Force/Expansion. This sephira is seen as the place of both expansion and stability, and is the first sephira that offers us direct experiential access as we move down the Tree. Chesed represents Mercy and tells us that love is not transactional but rather is an unending emanation without expectation of a return. Chesed also represents the concept of authority, which brings the danger of self-righteousness and at the same time offers us the opportunity to learn humility. Chesed offers us the opportunity to access unlimited expansion in order to learn how to use benevolent boundaries to steer this expansion in a balanced manner.

The traditional image of the Four of Cups is of a man sitting under a tree, contemplating three Cups sitting before him, while out of a cloud behind him a hand presents a fourth Cup. Some cards show a feminine figure, representing the feminine energies of this card, and she is sometimes reclining, or resting her head in her hands. There is stillness to the image, even a heavy or pensive essence, or a sense that the figure in the image is pondering or imagining or even dreaming. The hand offering a Cup from within a cloud harkens back to the Ace of Cups and its potential (the Ace of Cups contains the same image). However, the figure in the Four of Cups is ignoring that potential and instead, focuses on the three identical Cups sitting before him.

The traditional image of the Four of Swords is of a knight laying on a bed with his hands in prayer position. There is a stained glass window in the background showing Christ offering a healing blessing to a supplicant, as well as three swords hanging on the wall; the fourth sword is on the side of the bed. The knight’s helm is down, so we can’t tell if he is sleeping or meditating or dead. There is stillness to this image (as if the figure is deep within a meditation or out-of-body experience) and a sense of deliberate solitude, and the sacred.

The Four of Cups shows us what happens when we have expansion or flow without boundaries. In one respect, the figure in the image focuses on the sameness of the three Cups before him and becomes hypnotized by them and thus misses the offer of a fourth Cup; in another respect, that figure is focusing deliberately on those manifested three Cups without allowing other possibilities to distract him. A further interpretation is that the figure is bemused; he already has more Cups than he can handle and another is being offered. The Four of Swords, like the Four of Cups, exhibits focus/hypnotism, but this expansion without boundaries is the beginning of a process of initiation. Similar to Savasana pose of Yoga, the figure on this card must release all boundaries of the mind and the body yet remain awake, alert and focused so healing and rejuvenation can happen.

The suit of Cups corresponds with the element of Water, the Hearts of playing cards, the direction of West and the color of blue. A nice place to begin is with the element of Water itself. In its natural state, Water is cool and wet. When amassed, it has weight, and it tends to gather or pool at the lowest place. Because of this tendency, Water creates its own roadways or channels, and it prefers to use those already-in-place channels if it can. Water is used for cleaning and purifying, and Water can be a carrier for other substances. For instance, we can dissolve salt or sugar into warm Water, and use that concoction for other things. A body of Water can be calm and deep, or it can be dangerously churning and filled with powerful currents.

Feelings and emotions are the main correspondences of the element of Water, and the suit of Cups. Emotions flow and have currents and eddies, a powerful wave of emotions can be cleansing, emotions can be hot and expanding or they can be bubbling upward, like steam, or cold and contracting and heavy, like ice, and our emotions can affect our physical bodies (which contain a lot of Water) and our health. Often, tears appear when we feel things strongly through sadness or joy or anger, as physical manifestations of those emotions. Water also represents the Inner Voice and the subconscious. To many of us, the subconscious is deep and dark and frightening, and a body of Water makes a perfect metaphor for the hidden segments of the Self.

The suit of Swords corresponds with the element of Air, the Spades of playing cards, the direction of East and the color of yellow. The element of Air is hot and wet, it separates and adapts, and corresponds with truth, clarity, and our capacity to analyze or apply logic. Air also represents the intelligence that clears away the fog of ignorance so we can clearly see and understand, and it supports communications and sounds of all kinds. Air allows both expression (out from within us) and hearing (in from outside of us) to happen.

Swords cards usually tell of some focused intent using the intellect to bring forth a manifestation, or a struggle and then an outcome. This suit is about purposeful and deliberate actions and the thoughts, intentions or beliefs behind them and because these energies are sourced from within us, the suit of Swords teaches us that we create our own reality from our expectations. A Sword has two edges, a perfect metaphor for this suit, which can represent attacking or defending, logic or aggression. The Swords cards also represent an opportunity to feel more empowered; self-empowerment happens when we successfully deal with challenges, but self-empowerment can be dangerous if it is not balanced with a bit of humility.

Both Water and Air are adaptable, able to use their traits to adapt their surroundings. Water binds together or immerses, and Air separates the intellect from the emotions. The element of Water can be seen as a reflective force, where emotions end up strengthening the emotions. This can cause an emotional burnout that can make us feel bored with how things are now and make us believe that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. A deep yearning and an inability to discover just what we are yearning for can bring discontent. The element of Air can be seen as an intellectual force, making use of idealism, logic and discernment. When this force brings discomfort, often the best solution is to disconnect and allow the quiet to feed our strength until we are rejuvenated.

The astrological correspondence for the Four of Cups offers us a bit more depth of understanding; the Four of Cups represents the Moon in Cancer. The Moon is the second-brightest regularly visible celestial object in Earth’s sky after the Sun, and its regular cycle of phases causes it to appear to change shape. Astrologically the Moon is associated with a person’s emotional make-up, unconscious habits, rhythms, memories, moods, and a person’s ability to react and adapt to his or her environment. It is also associated with Yin energy, the receptive feminine life principal, the mother, maternal instincts or the urge to nurture, the home, the need for security and the past, especially early experiences and childhood.

Cancers are responsive, emotional and generous, but they can be moody, insecure or sensitive, and are often affected by the environment and people nearby. Those born under the sign of Cancer tend to be very attuned to the past, and they place a high importance on family, both family of the blood and family of the heart.

The Four of Swords represents the planet Jupiter when it is in the astrological sign of Libra. The massive gravity of Jupiter protects the rest of our solar system by attracting or deflecting comets and asteroids that might otherwise threaten Earth. Like passions and emotions, Jupiter is brightly colored and covered with large and intense storms; the planet is symbolized by a lightning bolt. Astrologically, Jupiter is associated with growth, expansion, prosperity, freedom, exploration and long distance travel, education, good fortune and the law and its role as a protector of society. J

Libras are true team players who initiate new ideas, and are usually very focused on the people around them, and how they interact with those people. Libra is about partnerships, balance, harmony, and about a focus on other people rather than just on the self.

The Moon and Cancer are both connected to feelings and emotions. Together, they strive to surround themselves with both the familiar and the secure. They love peace and quiet, and they are not big fans of change or the unexpected. This combination is about being devoted to family and loved ones, about being domestic and nurturing, about easily expressing joy and fun when feeling secure, and moodiness when feeling threatened.

When Jupiter is in Libra, matters focused on equality, liberty and balance are of importance. The energies associated with Jupiter, expansion, growth and good fortune, harmonize with the traits of the sign of Libra, partnerships and collaborations, and bring us balance, harmony and equality, a good foundation for building on and improving all kinds of relationships. Communication between groups and people will be positive and beneficial, and patience, compassion, empathy and an effort toward manifesting the highest good for all are possibilities for the future.

There is a common theme throughout all of these ingredients: withdrawal that causes a slowing down of activity. These two cards come to a similar outcome yet they each approach from a different direction. The suit of Cups is connected to intuition, and thus it approaches the end result of withdrawal by creating a sanctuary of perceived safety and comfort, without distraction or focus. The suit of Swords is connected to the intellect, and it uses the mind in order to temporarily nullify its own workings, with the intention of rebooting, convalescence, and achieving clarity and new purpose.


About the Author:

Raushanna is a lifetime resident of New Jersey. As well as a professional Tarot Reader and Teacher, she is a practicing Wiccan (Third Degree, Sacred Mists Coven), a Usui Reiki Master/Teacher, a certified Vedic Thai-Yoga Massage Bodyworker, a 500-hr RYT Yoga Teacher specializing in chair assisted Yoga for movement disorders, and a Middle Eastern dance performer, choreographer and teacher.  Raushanna bought her first Tarot deck in 2005, and was instantly captivated by the images on the cards and the vast, deep and textured messages to be gleaned from their symbols. She loves reading about, writing about, and talking about the Tarot, and anything occult, mystical, or spiritual, as well as anything connected to the human subtle body. She has published a book, “The Emerald Tablet: My 24-Day Journal to Understanding,” and is currently working on a book about the Tarot, pathworking and the Tree of Life. Raushanna documents her experiences and her daily card throws in her blog, DancingSparkles.blogspot.com, which has been in existence since 2009. She and her husband, her son and step son, and her numerous friends and large extended family can often be found on the beaches, bike paths and hiking trails of the Cape May, NJ area.

The Emerald Tablet: My 24-Day Journal to Understanding on Amazon