Skip to content

The better side of the Five of Cups

March 18, 2014

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

RWS 2.0 Five of CupsThis card, with its image of a bereaved soul wrapped in a cloak of grief, is usually greeted with some amount of fear and trepidation, for it can indicate sorrow, mourning, and self-pity; or perhaps it depicts the morose sense of things gone wrong of a “gloomy gus.”  It can be a warning of the end of a relationship or a sign of all the suffering we put ourselves through when we cling to someone or something after it is gone.  Similarly (and less dreadfully) it can also be a classic depiction of “crying over spilt milk” or “water under the bridge.”  So we might wonder what good can we see in this card?

First of all, there is a great deal of benefit in the grieving depicted in this card.  Unacknowledged or unresolved pain can be quite insidious when it lodges in our hearts and takes residence there.  When we hide such sorrows from the light, they aren’t locked out; they are locked in.  Consciously experiencing our grief allows us to begin to resolve that pain, however, so it is a necessary step on the path toward healing. Thus, when a significant loss occurs, this card advises us to give it an appropriate amount of grieving so that we may let it go and move on.

Of course, there is a point at which grieving stops being therapeutic and starts to become self-indulgent and dysfunctional.  We must be careful not to get stuck in grief for then our loss will begin to define us in subtly damaging ways.  It’s vital, then, that we understand the difference between productive grieve and self-pity, and the Five of Cups reminds us to make that distinction so what we may avoid sinking into a “pity party.”

Five of Cups -- Tarot of the MastersThis card also contains the advice to console or to have empathy for someone in need of comfort, as we see in my Tarot of the Masters version of this card.  Consequently, it suggests a way to lift ourselves out of a pity party, and that is to help others who are worse off than we are.  To quote the 14th Dalai Lama, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  So here is an excellent question to ask when this card comes up in a reading:  “Do you see this as an illustration of your own negative experience, or can you see it as a positive suggestion to help someone else who is in a more woeful situation?”  A similar benefit indicated by this card and the grief associated with it is the silver lining of discovering how much support we have in our friends and community.  Sometimes we don’t know how much other people care about us until we really need them and they come through for us.

In her book, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Rachel Pollack says about this card, “The picture depicts sorrow but also acceptance.”  Thus, it can offer the advice to seek closure when a relationship is over or when a person passes from our life.  Perhaps instead of bemoaning the loss, we should give thanks for the positive things that person brought into our life. And then we should say a silent goodbye.  This is not a callous dismissal; it is a way to create space.  As an example of this, the following is an account of one of my experiences, which I included in the section for this card in my book, The Soul’s Journey.

This is a lesson I learned many years ago when my life was shattered by a personal tragedy. This story began when I was sixteen years old and one of my brothers was in a fatal traffic accident.  At that age, I was not old enough to know how to properly process this tragedy, and my parents—the people who otherwise might have been responsible for helping me—were suffering so much themselves that they were not able to provide the assistance I needed.  Consequently, I was left with unresolved grief and a damaging lack of closure, which lasted for more than a decade.  Finally, a friend gave me the simple but valuable advice to say goodbye to my brother.  At first I protested, “How can I say goodbye to him?  He’s gone.”  But my friend assured me that all I had to do was imagine that he was there and talk to him. This process helped me immensely, which is why I tell people that when they lose someone, they need to say goodbye at some point.  They may not be ready to do that for a while, but they need to do it eventually in order to find closure and healing.

A similar message of this card is the advice to deal with abuse from your past.  Many of us have suffered some form of abuse as a child, whether it was psychological, physical, or sexual.  We must all finally come to terms with it in order to put it behind us.  Often such abuse is submerged in deep recesses of our minds.  It lies deep beneath our consciousness, which keeps us from dealing with it properly but does not keep it from adversely influencing our actions.  In fact, being hidden, it has more, not less power over us.  When we finally bring it into the light, we will first re-experience it, which can be terribly painful, but then we will be able to find a way to overcome it and leave the past behind so that we may at last progress into the future.

We can always find expanded significance of a card by paying attention to some of the ancillary symbols on it.  For the Five of Cups, there are a couple of symbols beyond the grieving person that are important to keep in mind.  One is the positioning of the cups.  The common image on this card includes three overturned cups, but there are also two upright cups whose contents have not been spilt.  The implication of this is that while the Five of Cups may seem to indicate the feeling that all is lost, we should not despair because feelings are a subjective reality; they are not facts.  As I noted in a Pithy Tarot post about this card: “Even when it seems that all is lost, all is not lost.” Thus, this card warns us against the mistake of focusing just on our regrets and disappointment and advises us to remember all that remains, to focus on appreciation and gratitude, which are the seeds of new blessings. A way to change that perspective is to focus attention on what you still have.  Perhaps write a list of the good things that are left in your life.  In short, remember the old question: “Are you seeing the glass as half empty or as half full?”

Another vital symbol on the RWS version of this card is one that is often overlooked. It is the bridge in the background.  It can imply assurance that there is a way to get over the bad times, and that simple bit of reassurance may be a valuable piece of comfort in a reading.

Finally, there are a few additional positive meanings that we can see in this card.

First, in The Complete Book of Tarot Reversals, Mary K. Greer uses this card’s meaning that “something valuable can come out of the situation” (based on the two upright cups) to conclude that the Five of Cups may indicate getting an inheritance.  She also states, “On a shamanic level, this [card] can indicate mediumship or communication with the dead.”  Lastly, there is the assurance that loss always initiates change, and change brings new things into our lives.  So we may see here the advice to find the positive in our sad circumstance so that we may grow from them.

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. donna permalink

    What does it mean when you get the five of cups immediately followed by the World card?

    • Hi Donna,
      Unfortunately, reading the cards is not that cut and dried at all. (At least, not the way I do it.) There isn’t one “right” answer to this — it depends upon a multitude of factors, such as the positional meanings of the cards, the other cards in the spread, the question being addressed, and the reader’s intuitive understanding of all that’s going on in the reading. If you would like to learn more about how to do Tarot readings, and how to interpret the cards within the context of a reading, I suggest you get my book, Tarot Reading Explained.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: