The Waite-Smith Ace of Cups, despite its seeming simplicity, is a very complex card with deep allusions that are central to Waite’s “Secret Tradition”—his mystical philosophy. This post explores Waite’s own very conscious and specific intention for this card.
Author – Mary K Greer
As an Ace in tarot readings it generally represents an opening of the heart, new love and relationships, the emergence of psychic abilities, dreams and imagination, spiritual nourishment and the gift of grace. It is the root of empathy.
In Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Waite explains that the Ace of Cups “is an intimation of that which may lie behind the Lesser Arcana.” In other words, it is key to the whole Minor Arcana. His declaration is not really surprising as 1909 saw not only the first publication of the tarot deck but also of Waite’s book The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal (HCHG), which in over 700 pages analyzed all that was known of the Grail and its myths. Most of the quotes below are from this book unless otherwise noted. As Waite’s sentences are quite obtuse and complex, I’ve simplified where necessary.
Waite completely ignores the Greater Arcana of the Tarot in HCHG but focuses a chapter on the Lesser Arcana suits. He saw them as a reflection of the four Grail Hallows and the four treasures of Celtic lore (an idea that Yeats later passed on to Jessie Weston; see From Ritual to Romance).
“The four Hallows are therefore the Cup, the Lance, the Sword and the Dish, Paten or Patella–these four, and the greatest of these is the Cup. As regards this Hallow-in-chief, of two things one: either the Graal Vessel contained the most sacred of all relics in Christendom, or it contained the Secret Mystery of the Eucharist.”
Waite wrote regarding these Lesser Hallows,
“The Lance renewed the Graal in some of the legends [comparing Galahad, Perceval, Lancelot, Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Glastonbury and so on] but the places of the Hallows are in certain symbolical worlds which are known to the Secret Tradition. The Dish, which, as I have said, signifies little in the romances, has, for the above reason, aspects of importance in the Tarot.” [I assume here that he equates the symbology of the Dish with the tarot suit of Pentacles/Disks.]
If we need further proof, Waite’s divinatory meanings for the Ace of Cups are: “House of the true heart, joy, content, abode, nourishment, abundance, fertility; Holy Table, felicity hereof.”
He uses the term ‘Holy Table’ once in HCHG regarding an early Grail myth, describing “the graces and favors of the Holy Table” upon which the Grail appears and feeds the faithful, bringing them joy and contentment. Waite also includes this phrase in his digest of the writings of Eliphas Lévi, The Mysteries of Magic, where Lévi explains that primitive Christians gathered around the Holy Table to communicate with God and behold his face.
Although often couched in the terminology of the Catholic Church, Waite did not believe in the efficacy of instituted religions nor their requirements for ordination:
“The Mystic Quest is the highest of all adventures. . . . It exhibits the priesthood which comes rather by inward grace than by apostolical succession.”
“The Mass of the Graal . . . is celebrated only in the Secret Church and that Church is within. When the priest enters the Sanctuary he returns into himself by contemplation and approaches the altar which is within. . . . The Lord Christ comes down and communicates to him in the heart.”
When “grace and power fills them, permeates and overflows in the recipient’s heart . . . the Mystic Marriage by a Eucharistic rite” can take place—a theme central to most of Waite’s books. At heart this is a sexual mystery of Spirit and Nature, a “polarization of elements,” through which “Divine Life assumed the veils of flesh and blood” and through which flesh returns to Spirit.
This is the essence of Waite’s Secret Tradition that he wrote about in more than a hundred books and articles. He called the communication (or communion) the Eucharist, which is epitomized by the mystery of the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
“The message of the Secret Tradition in the Christian Graal mystery is this: The Cup corresponds to spiritual life. It receives the graces from above and communicates them to that which is below. The equivalent happens in the supernatural Eucharist, the world of unmanifest adeptship, attained by sanctity [Grace].”
“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” 1 Corinthians 10:16
Here he speaks more of the Eucharist, first as a higher kind of love, symbolized by the Grail, and then of the loss of “Mystery” to the world:
“The Eucharist is a mystery of the soul’s love. . . . The sense is that love is set free from the impetuosity and violence of passion and has become a constant and incorruptible flame.”
“The Holy Graal . . . is a mystery of the Eucharist in its essence. . . . It is an inward mystery [not found in the official Church]. It died, however, in the consciousness except of a few faithful witnesses, . . . [because when Christ] incarnated, a manifestation of the God within was intended but it did not take place because the world was not worthy, the Graal was said to be removed.”
As Waite saw it, our ability to directly commune with the Divine has been lost. All the official sanctuaries “are in widowhood and desolation,” even though they are “filled with meaning and intimations of meaning.” That is, they give intimations or hints of the mystical journey, which is not available in institutions as it can only be experienced within each individual. The four suits of the Lesser Arcana tell four stories of this loss.
“It must be admitted that the Lesser Chronicles are in some sense a failure; they seem to hold up only an imperfect and partial glass of vision. But they are full testimony to the secrecy of the whole experiment; they are also the most wonderful cycle by way of intimation. Their especial key-phrase is my oft-quoted exeunt in mysterium [“they exit into mystery”].”
“The sources all say the same things differently: “The Holy Sepulcher is empty; the Tomb of C.R.C. [Christian Rosy Cross] in the House of the Holy Spirit is sealed up; the Word of Masonry is lost; the Zelator of alchemy now looks in vain for a Master. The traditional book of the Graal . . . [is] lost, . . . [as is the book] which was eaten by St. John (i.e., The Book of Revelations).”
It is left to the Greater Arcana to chart the soul’s journey along the path of restitution. But that is a separate tale.
Waite claims he wrote The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail as a text-book of a Great Initiation in that there is a secret meaning hidden in these tales of loss.
“So came into being [the Graal stories]. Whether in the normal consciousness I know not or in the subconsciousness I know not . . . that dream of theirs was of the super-concealed sanctuary behind the known and visible altar.”
They point to something that can now only be experienced by the individual in the inner sanctuary of his or her own heart. “Their maxim is that God is within.”
“The history of the Holy Graal becomes the soul’s history, moving through a profound symbolism of inward being, wherein we follow as we can, but the vistas are prolonged for ever, and it well seems that there is neither a beginning to the story nor a descried ending.”
My next post will explore Waite’s clearly intended and most likely meanings for the specific symbols in the Ace of Cups.
Mary K. Greer has made tarot her life work. Check here for reports of goings-on in the world of tarot and cartomancy, articles on the history and practice of tarot, and materials on other cartomancy decks.