Ah, the Nine of Cups. I learned it as one of the positive cards, a card of happiness, pleasure, and wishes granted. But Pamela Colman Smith gave this “good” card an illustration that is ambiguous, even off-putting. And now that I’m using the RWS deck in readings, I can’t just ignore the contradictions, so I figured I’d better look closer at this card.
First, I went through various books and websites to get a sense of the collective idea of what the Nine of Cups means. Everyone mentions the happiness and pleasure aspects of the card, like I thought, and there’s a lot of comments on how it’s traditionally called the “wish card,” and that it means your wish will come true. But some authors also mention smugness, shallowness, and satiety. My memory was a bit selective, it seems.
Looking at the illustration, it seems that life is good in the Nine of Cups. The man is smiling and looks comfortable. And of course there are those nine cups on display behind him. The arrangement reminds me of a trophy case: polished gold cups set out on blue fabric—I’m sure it’s velvet or satin—to show them off to their best advantage. You can just tell that these cups will be dusted frequently and all cobwebs whisked away before they can settle. I can’t say as I care for his taste in clothing, but that red hat is meant more for style than warmth or protection from the rain.
But all is not perfection in this card. That smile could be seen as complacent, even smug. His arms are crossed over his chest, a posture that shows up on a few other Minor Arcana cards. In the Four of Cups, a man sits with his arms folded over his chest, dissatisfied with the three cups on the ground in front of him and refusing the gift of the cup that has appeared in the air next to him. The woman in the Two of Swords has cut herself off from input from the world around her. The man in the Four of Pentacles clutches a pentacle to his chest. In those cards, the position conveys defensiveness and resistance, so I bet Smith intended that in the Nine of Cups as well.
In addition to his unwelcoming crossed arms, the guy is manspreading. Whatever they called it in the 1900s, I’m guessing it had the same connotations as it does today, of someone taking up more than their fair share of space and refusing to share. Unlike the modern bus or subway seat, though, it’s not the bench that’s the issue here, but the cups. With his arms crossed, he’s not likely to reach back, grab a cup, and offer it to you. Indeed, he has parked himself solidly between the cups and the viewer: hands off! That magnificent display of cups not only proclaims how good he’s got it, but protects him. Really, you could make an argument that this should have been one of the Pentacle cards, because this is a good description of material wealth: pleasurable as all get-out to have, often flaunted, and often able to shield its owners from the problems the hoi polloi have to contend with. I’ve got mine, screw you!
But this is the Nine of Cups, not the Lots of Pentacles, so the card is about the emotional aspects of stuff rather than the stuff itself. The Golden Dawn called this card the Lord of Material Happiness, and that’s a pretty good way to look at it: the pleasure we get from the physical world. Wealth, sure. But also chocolate. And hauling home a pile of interesting books from the bookstore. And sex. And wearing your favorite pair of jeans, the ones that fit just the way you like them. Yeah, these things are purely sensual gratification and your enjoyment won’t last forever, but they’re pleasant while they last. So why depict all this fun stuff with that ambiguous picture? Because material happiness doesn’t last, and the quest for pleasure can become addiction, and people can mistake (financial) wealth for (personal) worth. Our culture has a long history of mistrusting the physical and considering the spiritual to be better—the Devil is an entire Major Arcanum devoted to warning people of the dangers of materialism. Perhaps the Golden Dawn was uncomfortable showing someone enjoying material satisfaction without hinting at those dangers. So yeah, he’s happy. He’s doing well. But he’s a bit obnoxious, so don’t be like him. Or to put it more esoterically, don’t stall out here at the Nine and miss out on the more durable happiness of the Ten of Cups.
And hey, it doesn’t take much to open up this card. Some modern artists draw the Nine of Cups with the cups between the man (or woman) and the viewer, uncross his arms, and put a welcoming smile on his (her) face. With that, generosity becomes part of the meaning. I’ve got mine…come take a cup and let us drink together!