In his 1949 Tarot de Marseille book, Paul Marteau made frequent use of the term “condensing” when discussing the action of the suit of Cups on the emotional “vapors” (my word, not his) of the human psyche. The Cups are obviously vessels for holding liquid, and my fanciful take on Marteau’s idea is that they accumulate the “dew” of residual feeling that precipitates from most personal experiences, whether or not we consciously acknowledge it. That subtle effluvium condenses and concentrates in the process; depending on the nature of the card, it can become either enriched and emotionally nourishing, promoting an innate sense of well-being, or prone to stagnation and corruption, leading to episodes of nagging discontent. The even-numbered cards lean toward harmonious integration, while the odd-numbered cards are more inclined toward turmoil and introduction of destabilizing elements. Here is a “suit-and-number-theory” tableau that examines the progression.
As the “root” of the active unitary principle (One), the Ace of Cups is emotionally detached and sits above the fray. It could be said that it “dispenses” rather than “collects.” As the Prime Mover in every odd-numbered Cup, it is more staunchly directive than responsive to emotional currents, more about focused anticipation than participation.
The Two of Cups represents the first tentative foray into emotional experience with others, as symbolized by the mutual regard of the two sea-creatures. The left one, with its eye open, seems to be boldly proposing liaison while the right one, showing a partly-closed eyelid, is acquiescing to the advance (although it could merely be “squinting in appraisal”).
The Three of Cups ventures away from the familiar but increasingly banal mode of routine interpersonal give-and-take implied by the Two. As long as that central array keeps blossoming upward and outward, away from the binary impasse, it remains footloose and relatively unfettered.
The Four of Cups slows the pace to savor the experiences delivered by the Three, and thus may succumb to the sluggish pull of inertia. The two upper chalices might be visionary if they weren’t denied the inspiration of the other two, which is contained or at least deflected by the two horizontal leaves. Some frustration is implied.
The Five of Cups is restless and wants to forge a new path, shaking off the emotional baggage that accumulated in the Four. The keynote for the number Five is “striving,” and that stalwart central flower in this card is saying “Climb up out of the doldrums and follow your dream!”
The Six of Cups splits the difference between active and passive responses; in this sense it is comprised of both the sum of the vertical (active) ternaries and the tripling of the horizontal (passive) binaries, arriving at a comfortable balance. In transcending the Five (a less agreeable meeting of Two and Three), it learned what is worth salvaging about the stability of the Four and works to reinstate it in a less claustrophobic fashion.
The Seven of Cups “tests the waters” of new feelings. The central chalice is bottled up and must “pop its cork” to taste any freedom of expression. It suggests building pressure in response to the “stuck” complacency of the Six, and in that regard it is similar in scope to the turbulent Five; it senses that there is more to emotional stimulation and satisfaction than staying in one’s “comfort zone.”
The Eight of Cups capitalizes on the stacked harmonies of the binary series to build a kind of fortress of sanguine insouciance. (Monty Python might have called it “tenaciously frolicking away.”) But all eight of the chalices have egress to embrace new impressions if they tire of the routine. The two sets of four chalices create both stability (the external rectangle) and the impetus for a change of circumstances (the internal diamond). J.E. Cirlot calls one “material and passive” and the other “material and active;” together they spell pragmatic opportunism in the emotional sphere.
The Nine of Cups admits a ray of motivating disenchantment into the leisurely equanimity of the Eight. It has momentum and a sense of purpose going for it, being both the sum of three ternaries and 3×3. The central chalice is “in the driver’s seat” and radiates its influence in all directions, although its most potent emphasis is on the aspiring vertical rather than on the “flat-lined” horizontal or the unpredictable diagonal.
The Ten of Cups wants nothing more than to be done with histrionics and just take a rejuvenating nap, as indicated by the supine chalice at the top (in Pythonese, it’s a time for “lying down and avoiding” emotional drama).