Symbolism in the RWS 6 of Cups


Sorry, but I've never 'bought' the idea that this card is just about innocence and nostalgia. I've always felt there's something 'not quite right' but I've never spent the time to unravel my suspicions.

In February, Francesca wrote,
"I find that 6s have some hidden agenda. Why is he giving the girl flowers? It is a sweet gesture but the motives behind it should be questioned. On the surface the card depicts sweetness, innocence, happy memories, but is it all so much sugar-coating?"

Well, to begin with there's debate about the figures. Is the left-hand figure an adult, older child, dwarf? Is the right-hand figure a young girl or a grey-haired little old lady? This is also complicated by the abcence of obvious perspective. Are the cups really bigger than those which appear on the other cards? The only clue appears to be the uppermost cup, on top of the stone plinth, which suggests a container the size of a planter.

So why are the cups being used as planters? Why does each contain a single white, five-petalled, star-shaped flower? This must be of symbolic importance but I've no idea what or why.

Turning to look at the scene - I see a clear division between 'town/official' building and residential area. The left hand side shows the division marked by the stone plinth, showing an heraldic device [St Andrew's cross? on a shield {of protection}], steps up to the paved town area. An official-looking figure seems to be walking away. The issues here are not of an official nature, are not of societal interest? They are happening outside of the 'protected' area?

Is the larger figure a vendor or a giver - is the cup offered freely or is payment of some kind expected? One of the cup/planters is on top of the plinth - belonging to the official/town area? Does the figure have a right to offer the cup/planter to the other figure? Is it his to give/sell?

Rachel Pollack in 78DW says that 6s are about commuication. Are the figures speaking? What might be being said?

Why does the smaller figure show no sign of taking the cup/planter offered? The larger figure's knees are bent and he leans towards the smaller figure - he wants her to take it?

There seems to be a fair degree of agreement that the larger figure is a dwarf. The cards were designed in less PC times. Symbolically dwarves have been associated with the Underworld. "Coming from it and remaining linked to it, they symbolise those dark forces which are within us and which can so easily take monstrous shape..... they never minced their words but spoke the naked truth..... their pointed remarks had more than a hint of clairvoyance, pinpricks deflating self satisfaction..... guardians of buried treasure or of secrets...... guides and counsellors..... generally expressing themselves in riddles. Dwarves are also images of perverted lusts." The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. Chevalier & Gheerbrant. ISBN 0-14-051254-3.

Uh oh! I don't like where this is leading..... and that bright red hood [a colour which attracts children]. Thank goodness the child has heeded the warning not to take pretty things from strangers.

But before I get carried away with my suspicions I must remind myself that these hoods were common medieval garb - designed to keep out the cold [as much as shield the face from view/ a caul of invisibility]. The liripipe [tail from the back of the hood] has in fact endured as a feature of formal academic dress [UK graduates and barristers robes still retain a liripipe]. So is the dwarf a teacher? A doctor [of the psyche?] A historian? Somehow I don't think so. I've been unable to trace the origins of the liripipe - and my suspicious mind is again seeing a possible phallic link.

Back to the child. I can only see one of the child's hands. She wears a white glove - of masonic significance? A symbol of purity.... ensuring that one does not make contact with anything unclean. So she has some protection? And this reminds me that the only other figure in the pack who wears hood with liripipe is the architect in the 3 of pents - and I understand there's masonic significance there.

But I'm still stumped.

"Tarot of The Heart" Thompson, Mueller & Echols ISBN 0-380-80900-1 says,
"In Jungian psychology, the presence of male and female figures directs our attention to internal male [animus] and female [anima] energies and the retreating adult tells us this is a recognition and developmental joining that we can only do alone. He cannot protect us".

Well, this gives me the best understanding I've found so far but your thoughts, views, comments are eagerly awaited.


Mary K Greer in Tarot Reversals also points out that something about the card doesn't seem quite right - The tower, the guard, the disparity in size of the figures - she suggests that on rare occasions it represents 'childhood abuse, denied or fogotten, like happy family photographs that hide a dysfuctional truth'.

The first time I read that I took a longer look at the card and I can see what she means. I've never treated the card the same again


Rachel Pollack also notes in "The Illustrated Guide to the Tarot" that some have seen a disturbing quality in the card. She comments that the child seems overprotected an unable to act on her own.

Tracy Porter comments in "Tarot Companion" that the items in the cups are flowers but to me they look more like stars. I cannot see any other flowers in the RWS that look like this. They are five pointed stars and I cannot find right now an explanation of the symbolism of this. The six pointed star means as above so below and is generally a positive symbol. Could the missing point mean that all is not right?

The picture is full of illusions and distortions. Some of them I used to attribute to PCS not being too hot on perspective but the same distortions are not evident to the same extent elsewhere in the deck. Perhaps she was just having a bad day?

Looking at the card now I see two faces. In fact I only saw one face for some months and that is the one which on closer examination is part of the hood. That face is looking up to the left of the picture in the direction of the retreating adult. The other face is not that of a child but she is looking downwards at an angle skewed from reality. There is definitely something odd about this child.

I find the whole picture quite disturbing, even grotesque, as well. The cup being offered to the smaller figure is almost larger than she and I wondered if it didnot represent some kind of bitter chalice.

I tried to find out something about PCS' childhood to see whether she was perhaps projecting some of her own experiences on to this picture. There is not enough information to know. Then I wondered if she was making an ironic comment about the treatment of children in the very early 20th century.

The 6's in other decks are not so disturbing as this, They are more accurately about communciation and happiness.

Thanks for bringing this up Aoife. It is something of a relief to acknowledge my doubts about the card.




This card I like.....this is the card of the past........there is 2 sides to this card.
Fond memories and nostalgia, or not so fond memories and would rather the past stay in the past.

Now with the smaller figure having 2 faces, one face is looking up at the larger figure and excepting..."embracing the past".....The other face is looking away from the larger figure and unexcepting........."unwilling to embrace the past"...

The 6 of cups to me (most of the time) is the past card, it could be a past love (relationship) and old friend or a new one that you just "click" with (which feels like you have known each other forever), an event like a reunion, or a situation that requires past knowledge. So depending on which face you see at first glance and your initial gut can be something or someone, that is either "excepting" or "unexcepting" (for the querent) from their past.




I can understand why some people see a disturbing quality because of the perspective. Like Kazz, I usually read this card as the card of nostalgia, the past, memories. It can have both positive and negative meanings.

It's interesting that according to the Penguin dictionary of symbols, Flowers in general can be seen as a "symbol of the love and harmony characteristic of primeval nature. They become identified with the symbolism of childhood and to some degree that of the paradisal state of innocence."

5-petaled flowers--The pentagram is a five-pointed star. The five points stand for the number of the four elements plus the fifth element spirit. It represents the figure of man, the triumph of spirit over the baser elements.

Another quote from the Penguin dictionary of symbols, "The wearing of white gloves by Freemasons, is a symbol of purity, preventing unwitting and direct contact with anything unclean. " (Aoife already pointed this out.) I don't know if this should be viewed as a warning or simply as a symbol of the purity of children.

Most of the time I view the distorted look of the figures as a symbol that memories often become distorted over time.



Rose said:
Most of the time I view the distorted look of the figures as a symbol that memories often become distorted over time.


What a very reasonable suggestion! Thank you :)




One more tidbit of info.

I did a search on Liripipe-until Aiofe posted this I didn't know what the hood was called.

The following website had this listing:


The long tail of a hood in medieval or academic costume….Hoods like these were at first worn by academics as part of their formal dress; indeed a few universities still use the word liripipe for their graduates' ceremonial sashes. Later on, liripipes became part of everyday wear on a hood called a chaperon. Over time, liripipes became steadily longer, sometimes down to the ankles; this was hardly practical, so the liripipe was often wound around the head to keep it out of the way. As well as longer, it also grew more ornamental as time passed. The hoods went out of fashion in the fifteenth century and liripipe became a semi-fossil word…..

By the seventeenth century, the chaperon had become an item of female costume exclusively. About a century later the word began to be used figuratively for a married or elderly woman protecting a young woman-a chaperone, as we now spell it. One author explained that "Chaperon ...when used metaphorically means that the experienced married woman shelters the youthful débutante as a hood shelters the face".

Viewed in this way the hood in the 6 of cups is another symbol of protection, shelter, and safety.



and just to make things even more confusing . . .

Not to distract from the topic of the 6 of cups but several things are on my mind that are invoked by this thread so far.

The RW cards are intentionally vauge to hide something behind the veil (as AE Waite identifies in his book). However, the 6 of all the suits in this deck do in fact seem off as does the Lovers being the 6th major. although the lovers archetype is associated with the six of cups, two figures (although in this case what could be symbolically 2 children or somethign more ominous)in a guesture of trust and/or love, it is a question as to what the truth behidn this card and this deck are.

Since the Order of the Golden Dawn has a heavy hand in the current incarnation of the tarot (for good and for ill) it stands to reason tht the independent beliefs of the indivudals in the OGD may not be that of the most compassionate to traditional and biblical standards and may have associated more negative attributions to the number 6.

To me 6 is a number of change and chaos that comes with it. Six and nine (as the nines in this deck are also ominous)create a never ending spiral (6+9=15, 15 being the devi of the major arcania symbolizing oppression and conditioning)concluding with a new vision, something that those in power do not want others to have since having a new vision comes from one self and removes the need to conform to the norm while still providing society with their needs in new and innovative ways that provide the truth and comfort to those who seek such things.



Wow! Aoife, you have added so many new dimensions to this card. I think your insights and uneasy suspicions are delicious. You have opened a fascinating discussion. Thank you!

Especially promising, I feel are the explorations on deeper meanings for the dwarf.

The symbolic dwarf of fairytales, is often a gold miner - (hi ho, hi ho, it's home from work we go), I think also of Wagner's Niebelungen, pounding out their gold, hence, miners of hidden riches in the depths of the earth, in the underworld. The dwarf coming to surface then, and proferring a bouquet, is like the magical visitor bringing a gift from the under/inner world.

It is appropriate too that the flowers are stars. I also think back to P.L. Travers Mary Poppins series (the books are soo much richer than the movie). In in adventure, Mary takes the children for a visit into outerspace, amidst the stars. Like all of her magical adventures, in the morning, it is unclear whether this has been all a dream, or a real-life journey into a true other world. In every case, there remains one bit of evidence from journey to show that indeed, it had been no dream.

What the children find, awaking the next morning after their journey to the stars, (trying desperately to remember, but it has been decades since I had my hands on this book!!) is an actual bit of star, remaining behind on the night table.

I would like to think of the proferred star-flowers, as the symbol, the relic, the magical icon, the bit of proof, which surviving from one world into the other, gives tangible testimony that all was not in fact, a dream!

Memory is a also a kind of underworld. And relics (a lock of hair for example) are the magical objects which testify through time to the truth of memory.


Indeed the gift is bearer, as a cup, of memories, thoughts and feelings. It is interesting to also note what various authors say of this card (irrespective of the depiction being discussed).

For example, Papus hints that with this card, the hurdles placed in the way of love triumph. He also talks of widowhood in connection with this card.

The gift, on this card, has that flower of five petals. It has always seemed a little strange to me, for though there are wonderful five-petalled flowers as depicted, the five petals normally indicate either rose or apple. Here again, then, the poisoned apple of certain fairy tales comes to mind.

The smaller person, usually described as a child, is reminiscent (to me at least) of the young maiden/old woman illusion. If the 'face' of the girl is partially covered to the left, an older woman appears as if facing coily away from the giver (and facing the ground, towards the viewer) - the hair of one becomes the face of the other.

The same person has not a glove, but a mitten, implying, I can only presume, more extreme coldness - and yet the flowers are in blossom. Contradictory images are thus possibly juxtaposed.

Yet this is a card with which I personally associate many positive attributes, for harmony seems implied...

The main image remains, for this card, of a wonderful offering from one larger person who reverently bends forward in the floral offer towards a smaller figure having the main appearance of a child... a beautiful image.

I would like to think that though it is possible to see much more during a specific reading, the overall innocence and beauty of the overall motif is its more important aspect, and that the gift, as gift, is of the treasure of Love.