The 7 of Cups shows 7 stages of Alchemy, specifically those described by Michael Maier and the 7 types of promises we make (and break) to each other in life. They also show seven vices.
It signifies unfulfilled promises, illusionary or ungrounded success, deception and lies. It is a card that signifies the trap of thinking something is as it is and should be taken as a warning.
Pamela has (roughly) used alchemical symbolism to show seven different types of promises that people make to each other which can often be let down; promises of victory (wreath), of property (castle), of money (jewels), of pleasure (dragon), and outright lies (snake) told by an honest face (head) which is covering the actual truth (central veiled figure),
You may be surprised to know that this is the first time – here, on this page – this connection to Maier’s seven stages of alchemy has been revealed, despite a century of people guessing about the card in hundreds of books and thousands of websites.
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Pamela here shows a cursory knowledge of the alchemical symbolism likely intended by A. E. Waite for this card. It is one of several cards where her use of esoteric symbolism is sketchy and inconsistent.
We have concluded from all the examples and our research that this was because Pamela was not learnt in the accurate symbolism, she was not supervised for the Minor card designs, and Waite neither cared nor would have wished “correct” symbolism to be revealed.
So the clue is Waite’s own description in Pictorial Key to the Tarot of the vessels; “Strange chalices of vision, but the images are more especially those of the fantastic spirit“.
Waite had used this exact phrase only the year before in the almost identically titled Pictorial Key to Alchemy. He wrote in that book of the alchemist Michael Maier;
He was a man of great and exceptional learning, but withal of a fantastic spirit; he is proportionately difficult to judge, but his primary concern was the material side of the Magnum opus.
Maier was a noted alchemist on whom Waite wrote, particularly on Maier’s fantastic alchemical sequence Atlanta Fugiens.
The seven chalices then contain the visionary symbols of alchemy, the Magnum Opus or Great Work of transformation. But according to the card description in the Golden Dawn Book T, these stages are here not realised or manifest, they are literally a cloud in the sky, as Pamela has depicted.
There is no clear and direct correspondence between the seven symbols in the cups to the seven stages, but we would not expect such from Pamela’s work in this context.
However, in our book Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot we have offered our version of a correspondence system.
The Seven Stages in Alchemy are variously described:
7. Fixation/ Coagulation
Furthermore, it might be that Pamela was sketching in the symbols, as yet another mapped layer, to represent seven of the issues assigned to this card by the Golden Dawn Book T:
…Possible victory, but neutralized by the supineness of the person: illusionary success, deception in the moment of apparent victory. Lying, error, promises unfulfilled. Drunkenness, wrath, vanity. Lust, fornication, violence against women, selfish dissipation, deception in love and friendship
There are at least 11 issues to choose from, and we can see that vanity might be the beautiful head, wrath might be the lizard, promises unfulfilled could be the wreath and skull cup, lying could be the snake …
what do you think?
The Skull symbol on the cup that has the wreath is one of several “hidden” symbols on the Waite-Smith Tarot; the others include the Hebrew letters YHVH on the Temperance Angel, and the figure walking away in the background of the 6 of Cups. These are not so much secret symbols, then, more just “not often noticed immediately”!
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Learn More about the meanings of this card in everyday readings in Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot and over at our free sister-site, My Tarot Card Meanings where you can also download a free guide to card meanings and spreads, Keys to the Tarot by Andrea Green.