Scary Tarot

Scary Tarot: The Card That Spills the Tea

The Five of Cups serves up a steaming-hot cup of acceptance

Photo of the author’s tarot. Deck: The Fountain Tarot

InIn the 15th century, a deck of cards called tarocchi emerged in Northern Italy, the very same region my ancestors descended from. This cosmic coincidence didn’t occur to me when I got my first download in Tarot knowledge at age nine, from a Romani-descended family friend — I was simply focused on learning a new card game, one with much higher stakes than Hearts or Crazy Eights.

Of course, tarocchi — or as it’s now called, the Tarot — isn’t an idle game. The cards help us gaze into our futures and selves. Whether they were introduced to the Italians by Romani (as they were similarly introduced to me) or evolved from Islamic or Kabbalist roots, no one knows. Regardless of their true origin, they remain a favorite divinatory tool of seers, mystics, and witches around the world.

In my two decades learning, researching, and performing readings with the Tarot, I’ve come to identify a subset of the cards as the “Scary Tarot.” Eight cards whose presence tends to provoke a visceral, negative reaction in those I’m reading for, and sometimes even in myself. But with witches waking and paradigms shifting, it’s time to unpack, redefine, and celebrate all facets of the cards — and ourselves. Even the “scary” bits.

This week, as summer slouches into autumn, we examine the Five of Cups.

Illustration: Lisa Sterle | Modern Witch Tarot

A sullen figure moodily gazes downward at three overturned cups, so distracted by their disappointment that they do not see the two perfectly full, upright cups right behind them.

They don’t want to.

If obsessing over what’s going, gone, or even considering stepping out the door were an endorsable LinkedIn skill, I’d have expert status and the job offers would be rolling in.

Unfortunately, it’s not — it’s just the specific brand of neurosis I combat.


And with gusto.

The Five of Cups first appeared to me in a reading when I asked the Tarot something along the lines of, “Will my friends be my forever BFFs?”

At 12, this was the sort of brain-burning question only the infinite wisdom of the universe could answer. I was just beginning to learn Tarot then, but the bleakness of the card was not lost on me, and I immediately dreaded its presence. The imagery is that of an unstoppable, inevitable loss — one that has snuck under your nose, or maybe behind your ears, leaving you helpless to do anything about it.

You can imagine how well that sat with a tiny adolescent control freak like myself.

My friendships were shifting as they’re wont to do at that age, distance and difference lengthening the space between me and my friends like pulled taffy. Gaps were appearing, and soon, we’d break altogether. Instead of accepting this, I held on tighter. I clung to my friends, craving the familiarity of their jargon and laughter, and rejected any step out of my comfort zone. But no matter how hard I clung, no matter how much tension I allowed, I could not retain my best friends, forever.

When the Five of Cups is drawn, the loss is already in motion. The Cups have been tipped, and all you can do is watch their contents spill.

Each of Tarot’s four suits preside over an aspect of our humanity; each tells a story. You may already know the story of Swords, and you may be familiar with the ruling of each Suit: Swords, our mind; Wands, our actions; Pentacles, all earthly things; and Cups, our emotions. (Or, as I prefer to dub them, “feels.”)

Here is the story of Cups — the story of emotional development:

  1. A wholeness of feels; our cup is full.
  2. Trusting another with those feels; our cup is shared.
  3. Celebration of our feels amongst beloveds; our cup runneth over.
  4. A loss of feels; our cup is depleted.
  5. Wallowing in loss; our cup is mourned.
  6. A fond backward glance at our feelings; our cup is honored in memory.
  7. A confusion of choice, numbness; our cup is forgotten altogether.
  8. The leaving of feels that do not serve the Self; the search for a new cup.
  9. An abundance of wonder in all of our feels; our cups are reclaimed and refilled.
  10. “… and you lived happily ever after.”

It’s very easy for us to get stuck somewhere around the Five of Cups on our merry way through emotional evolution. Easy to cling to the long-lost, to prize a thing we wanted but never quite had. Easier, still, to suspend that thing in eternity, forever just out of reach, than be open to what comes after. Yearning comes much easier to us than doing.

So, we ache for what we cannot have. For our losses. For the contents of cups long-since kicked over in our haste to get from here to there.

I drew the Five of Cups again last week. My question was just slightly more nuanced than the one I asked two decades prior — but only just.

Apparently, I am still misusing infinite, universal wisdom 20 years later.

My question bounded forth from an anticipated loss, and a fear of history repeating itself. I wanted, badly, to avoid what I expected, yearning for a type of control only Professor X and his most gifted pupils possess. But then the Five of Cups rolled up to my pity party — fabulously late and double-fisting two effervescing glasses — purring, “Get over it, honey, you’re ruining the party” in the general direction of my self-indulgent spiral.

And it was right, of course — I was so focused on what had been spilled, on those mercurial things I never could hold, that I was closing myself off to everything else. How can other possibilities exist when we do not allow them to? It was lack mentality at its zenith, and I was actively indulging it.

I am glad the Five of Cups arrived when it did.

The card cares very little for what’s gone — it’s already happened. In life, there is no backward, only forward. Only through. Kindly leave those three overturned cups where they are, and turn around. There are two perfectly good ones standing upright directly behind you.

It’s hard, I know. It’s more than just the tiny Type-As like me who behave like panicked cling-wrap when they don’t get exactly what they want, exactly as they planned. We are all of us control freaks resisting the unexpected gifts life offers us, grasping instead at “could” and “should.”

Who among us hasn’t stuck with something — a job, a partnership, even a home — long past its expiry date, simply because we feared the rubbed-raw exposure of change? Who has not allowed themselves to be submerged in the drama of failure? Who out there hasn’t wished for what they could have had, or should have done, rather than accepting what is?

And there’s the trick, that’s the tea: Accept loss. Get comfy with it. Allow it. We will never arrive at our happy endings without a little chaos, so cede your control.

It was never really yours, anyway.

storyteller | feminist | guide || Sasha offers teachings from her multitude of stumbles, bumbles, and breakthroughs || she/her || follow @sashamduncan

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