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The darker side of the Three of Cups

February 2, 2014

There are no “good” cards or “bad” cards; they all have a spectrum of meaning.  Here are some thoughts about negative aspects of a card that is typically seen as being positive.

RWS 2.0 Three of CupsThe Three of Cups is generally seen as the friendship card or the party card. As a result it can indicate the joy, sharing, and support of good friends as well as the fun of celebrating with people you care about. This is all well and good, but are there not, perhaps, some darker aspects to this card that we need to take into account sometimes?

To begin with, the aspect of friendship in general leaves a great deal of room for exploring some negative facets of this card. Although friends are typically thought of as a source of support, that is not always the case. Friendships can also involve jealousy, contention, and strife when they are not functioning in a positive manner.  Like romantic relationships, they can be abusive, and they can involve problems like lopsided attachments, betrayal, and abandonment issues.  Also, there are times when one party might use or take advantage of a friendship for selfish gain. Additionally, in its aspect of a group of friends, this card may refer to a clique. This interpretation might cause us to reconsider the character of a group that we belong to or it might refer to a group from which we sadly feel excluded.

There is a saying that “a friend in need is a friend indeed” but not all friends are like that.  There is also the proverbial “fair-weather friend.” This is someone who is a friend when things are going well and you both are having fun, but when trouble arises and you need them to have your back, they disappear. Their loyalty is paper-thin. This may also refer to someone who is helpful only when it is convenient or when it is to their advantage. Perhaps, however, it’s just a matter of having drifted apart from a friend with whom you no longer share common interests. That happens through no fault of either person. So this card might refer to someone who used to be a friend, but is now just an acquaintance. And speaking of which, this card may refer to people who we casually refer to as friends, but who actually have always been just acquaintances; they aren’t even friends in fair weather.  This is not to say that they are bad people; it just means that we need to understand the difference between friends and acquaintances so that we don’t set up unrealistic expectations. (Yes, this also means a few hundred of your “friends” on Facebook.)

On the other hand, there are people I call “bad weather friends.”  Every once in a while—generally in tough times (i.e., in “bad weather”)—we make the happy discovery that someone we thought was just an acquaintance is really a friend.  Perhaps, for example, you’re in a bind and a neighbor you’ve never spent much time with helps you out. So this card may portend the discovery of a true friend you didn’t know you had.  But here I’ve diverged from the topic of the darker side of this card.

Next there are friends who are a bad influence on you.  Remember when you were a kid and your mother told you that you couldn’t be friends with someone she considered to be a bad influence?  Or maybe she encouraged you to play with a child she felt was a good influence. Mom understood the power of peer pressure, and so should we, no matter how old we are. Even as adults, our friendships influence us and help shape who we are. As Jim Rohn said, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” So, for example, if you are a recovering alcoholic, you probably need to “unfriend” people who are still drinking.  Or if you are trying to find a more positive approach in life, you may want to minimize the time you spend with friends who are always complaining about things. There is also the related issue of codependency in some friendships. This refers to a detrimental relationship in which both parties perpetuate the other’s bad behavior patterns. So it’s not just that the other person is a bad influence on you; you, in turn, may be a bad influence on them too.

But even the best of friends may be detrimental sometimes.  This is because our friends tend to be “yes men” in our lives, and so they can facilitate problems like feelings of victimhood, and they can keep us from discovering our blind spots. Friends tend to sympathize with us, so they often validate and reinforce our conceits of being totally in the right and our illusions of being the victim in a relationship. Sometimes, however, instead of a sympathetic “oh, you poor thing!” what we need is constructive criticism. We need to be told things “even your best friend won’t tell you.” Thus, sometimes even good, well-meaning friends can be what is holding you back.

Next, there are people called frenemies.  This can refer to a friend who is (either secretly or overtly) a competitor or even an opponent. Or it might be an outright enemy posing as a friend (a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”) in order to sabotage your success.  In either case, this word had its origins in the twentieth century, but perhaps Machiavelli was already aware of this concept five centuries ago when he famously wrote: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” More subtly, however, frenemies might refer to a “friend” who constantly belittles or discourages your plans and dreams, who constantly tells you that you can’t do it or that you aren’t good enough. These people claim to be looking out for your best interests, and, superficially at least, they probably believe that. But ultimately, they are not serving your best interests; they just feel threatened by your potential to grow.

This card may also express the old saying, “Misery loves company.” Thus, it can indicate that an unhappy person is trying to make other people unhappy too.  After all, misery seems more bearable when you’re not the only one who is miserable.  The truth, however, is that although misery may love the company of other miserable people, it is cured by the company of happy people.

Now let’s consider the most common illustration used on the Three of Cups. We typically see three women positioned like the Three Graces, which links this card to those characters. However, we may also see them as being symbolic of other groups of three women, such as the three Gorgons (the most famous of which was the mortal sister, Medusa) or the Three Fates common to many mythologies. (Examples include the Greek Moirai, Roman Parcae, Norse Norns, and Slavic Sudice). These mythical characters do have some positive connotations, but if we are looking for negative ones, they typically had a forbidding reputation and were seen as being stern and inflexible. Also, in its aspect of the Three Fates, this card may say that a situation is in the hands of fate and out of your control.

The three women on this card might also represent the Three Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which certainly lends darker interpretations. Since they represent chaos, moral confusion, and conflict, this card can suggest a friendship that leads you into such problems.

In its aspect of convivial merriment, this card might warn against partying too hard, which can indicate an addictive disorder or, at least, lead to the hangover feeling (literally or metaphorically) that we might read in the next card, the Four of Cups. In her book, The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals, Mary K. Greer makes another comment on this card’s problematic party aspects by saying it can represent “the grasshoppers that frolic while the ants prepare for winter,” which is a reference to one of Aesop’s fables.

Finally, let’s consider this card’s numerological and elemental associations. The suit of Cups is traditionally associated with relationships, and when we add to that the number THREE, we might be reminded of the old saying, “two’s company; three’s a crowd.”  Thus, this card can indicate an unwanted or divisive element in a romantic relationship.  Examples of what this can refer to include a friend that one partner spends too much time with, a mother that a husband is too attached to, or a third party with whom one partner is having an affair.  (There are a couple of songs famous for being about that latter example: “Keep an Eye” by Diana Ross and The Supremes and “Back Stabbers” by the O’Jays.)

Postscript: Here is a pithy interpretation of this card that adds another layer of “other side” meaning to it:

For a general discussion about the good side of “bad cards” (and vice versa), see an article that I wrote for the 2007 edition of Llewellyn’s Tarot Reader titled “When Good Cards Go Bad”  

You can find more blog posts about the other side of the cards listed here:  

And if you want to further explore this or any other Tarot card, you can find links to a wealth of card meanings here





  1. Gabriel R permalink

    Thank you for such a thorough expansion in this particular card. All can be applied to my triple gemini perspective.
    Does the card immediately preceding or following color your read as to which interpretation you offer to the client? Yes, right.
    I like your offering the darker brighter read. It is great insight on the journey.
    Keep on shining!

    • Thank you, Gabriel. I’m glad you’re enjoying these “other side of the Tarot” posts.
      As for your question: Actually, all the cards that are dealt into the spread work together during a reading. A reading is a gestalt, a “collection of symbolic elements that creates a whole, unified concept which is other than the sum of its parts, due to the relationships between the parts.” (drawing upon the word’s definition at
      Bright Blessings,

  2. Gabriel permalink

    Yes, thanks for reminding me of that.

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