The Hermeneutical Card Definition Repertoire: 8-of-Cups and Communication


Let’s try an exercise in applying hermeneutics to expand our card definition repertoire by thinking outside of the box, as they say. Let’s look at a card with its contemporary definition, and then see where the mind of our Renaissance counterparts might have gone with it, based on common themes and understanding from that earlier time period…


Let’s look at the Eight-of-Cups…


Eight-of-Cups from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot


This has always been a little bit of a mysterious card to me, and yet I like it a lot. There are subtleties of meaning to be found in it all the time. Like some other cards in the deck that have their own doppelgangers, this card has similarities with other cards in the Major Arcana…but with nuances that give it its own meaning. One example of what I mean is that the Eight-of-Cups has a lot of similarities to The Hermit (Major Arcana card IX), but there are differences, too. The very fact that it is a minor arcana card gives any interpretation less stress or import. But there are other differences as well. The little fellow looks more like someone from the feudal or peasant class than like the monastic or wise soul that the Hermit is depicted as. And whereas the Hermit desires to turn away from the material world to focus on the inner world (which in some ways is a more feminine trait), that fellow in the Eight-of-Cups has a more outward journey-of-exploration-feel to him. They both generally contain a single individual making his (sometimes her) way in a mountainous or wild landscape. However, one of them seems to be in his element (The Hermit) like the desert fathers of old, while the other (8-of-Cups) seems to be…traveling.


The Eight-of-Cups in some ways is also a doppelganger for the Fool card (0) as well…but without the little dog as an alarm bell, and generally without the overhanging cliff. The Eight-of-Cups doesn’t seem so carefree as the Fool, his/her hunched shoulders tell us that his traveling mission is much more serious; there’s a purpose to his travels as opposed to the Fool’s carefree-who-knows-where-I’ll-end-up attitude. The perils might be the same: the Eight-of-Cups fellow might indeed fall off a precipice; he might be robbed during the course of his journey; he might get lost and end up frozen to death in Labrador, Canada… but he/she has intent. Perhaps we might think about it like this: the Fool is just wandering, finding out where he is when he winds up there; the Eight-of-Cups fellow probably has a map or a compass in his pocket. It doesn’t mean he won’t get lost, too, but he or she has set goals (however minimal).


Compare: The Hermit; Eight-of-Cups; and The Fool

Compare and contrast: How does the Eight-of-Cups (in center) compare with the Hermit (Major IX)…and with the Fool (Major 0)? What similarities do they possess? What differences?


When the Eight-of-Cups comes up in a reading, the contemporary traditional meaning is most often exactly what is inspired by the image, although most of us tend to put our own sympathetic impressions onto it: abandonment of a previous life; leaving unnecessary things behind; waywardness and journeying into new endeavors or adventures; making one’s solitary way towards a new life. These are some of the popular interpretations I’ve heard. But we can go even deeper using some of the context clues in the image…


The mountains towards which the traveler is heading might indicate that the chosen journey is anticipated to be long and arduous. The fact that the moon is depicted in crescent and full-phases together might further indicate the length of the journey. The wayfarer seems to just have crossed a river or stream (recalling connotations of the 6-of-Swords and crossing over a body of water?), and if we think about superstitions regarding traveling over water, some tales indicate that evil spirits cannot follow a person who crosses over water—it’s like a protection amulet. So perhaps this person is leaving behind his “demons,” and setting out to create a completely new life from scratch.


Eight-of-Cups from Kat Black’s Golden Tarot (©2004 U.S. Games Systems, Inc.)


I have heard some readers interpret this image as someone who has carelessly walked past all those golden cups without even noticing them—it is dark nighttime, after all. What would that indicate? Perhaps carelessness or distraction could be attributed to this card as well. Also, if we think about the associative symbology of the suit of Cups, we might say that the wayfarer is abandoning—purposely perhaps—some of the emotional baggage that he/she has been carrying around. As the suit of Cups also represents the clerical or religious social class, perhaps this traveler is leaving his religious traditions or his affiliated church behind and searching for a different “religion” or spiritual home. We could go even farther with that one—since the traveler is wearing red slippers, perhaps it means that a pontiff will soon be traveling on to his next reward or adventure, and that we could expect a new pontiff to fill his slipper shoes soon (though that would be premonitory, which I don’t usually advocate—and would be something that most pontiffs would condemn!)


But what happens when we apply hermeneutics to this card? First of all, this particular image did not exist during the Renaissance, so right away we can say that we are only theorizing what Renaissance-era observers might have thought about this card image if they were to have gazed upon it during their time…


Perhaps this observation by Laura Crombie, medieval historian at the University of York, England, might help us think from the medieval/Renaissance point-of-view:


“…towns and villages heard about events through official speech – primarily through their priests. The church communicated the successes (or setbacks) of their king to the populace: they required masses or procession for thanksgiving in light of a victory, and prayers and invocations for hopes of a success at the start of campaigns. This helped to build public support for wars and the taxes to pay for them.

Official news could be delivered in both written and oral form. The towns of the late medieval Low Countries (modern Belgium and the Netherlands) were ruled by the powerful Dukes of Burgundy. Charters issued by the dukes were written communications, setting out new rights, laws or taxes, but they also carried a significant aural quality: charters would have been read out at specific places in towns, known as bretèches, or in churches or at important civic events.

… This necessitated an organised and efficient messenger service, ensuring that correspondence reached the king, and that royal letters, grants, patents and orders arrived at their intended destination. Messengers therefore became a permanent royal expenditure, paid continuously and travelling the kingdom to carry the king’s word.” 1


Unlike our general perception of medieval life as insular, isolated communities, travel was important—not just for official communication, but for trade, and for learning. Schools and universities already existed in Europe by medieval times. Except that without having invented mass printing yet, it was necessary to travel and interact with other scholars and libraries in order to obtain or share knowledge.


An illustrative map that includes the location of Renaissance-era universities (blue dots) and the travel routes between them…


What can we take away from that knowledge if we are looking at and interpreting this card? …Perhaps that the individual depicted is not someone trying to “escape” his life at all; perhaps this person is fulfilling his role (or profession) as a messenger, bringing news from one community to another distant community or kingdom. As Crombie indicates, there was a vibrant need for such couriers.


Therefore, using this medieval knowledge, we might attribute this card’s meaning to an exchange of knowledge, scholarship, or information. We might interpret it as information in the process of be couriered—of information coming to us, or perhaps the querent as being the carrier of information heading to someone else (maybe it depends which way the information is traveling on whether the card is reversed or not!)


7-8-9-of-Cups (Rider-Waite-Smith tarot)

If the suit of Cups in this instance is interpreted as “communication,” how would these three successive cards (from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot) be interpreted? Perhaps: (a) the 7-of-Cups is information or communication that has lost its meaning or sets-off confusion—in other words a loss or failure of communication; (b) to remedy this failure, a courier or student in the 8-of-Cups is sent to bring official documentation or legal papers to define or elucidate information; (c) so that in the 9-of-Cups, data has been presented to the intended recipient and information is “lined-up” in just order behind him…


Don’t let modern tarot book definitions keep you from expanding the possibilities of meaning in your cards as inspired by your ocular observations…or by associations you might have had that are triggered by the images of the tarot—everything is fair game as long as you can make a logical connection…perhaps like our high school math teachers used to say…as long as you can “show your work” and the process of how you came to your interpretation. In the case of hermeneutics, we are allowing historical research guide us towards an ocular interpretation that might have been relevant or recognizable to the original players of card games in the Renaissance, beyond the simple attractiveness of the cards’ visual designs. It is probable that artwork and symbolism was much more revelatory and important to historical culture than it is to us today (we, who in modern times are overly inundated with commercialism and made numb by the amount of visual stimulus we observe on a daily basis). …That might be a topic for another day, though…


8-of-Cups (Tarot de Marseille)






[1] (last accessed 1/20/2018)





Like this post? Please share it!
Follow by Email
Posted in Discovering Meaning in Imagery, Tarot History, Tarot Reading and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *