Here’s an interesting fellow – the King of Cups. I often think of this card – particularly the Waite-Smith version – as indicating an unhealthy level of restraint, with the stern-looking king sitting on his concrete plinth, unable to dip his toes in the water that surrounds him. He’s like some kind of rigid grandfather-type – so well-practiced in self-control that he no longer knows what he’s feeling, or how to access his emotions. I want to creep up behind him and topple him into the sea.
But that would be cruel. There are times in everyone’s life when pushing down our emotions can be a useful tactic. Not for getting through life, perhaps, but for getting through a difficult meeting, or a challenging day, or a moment where it’s just not going to be okay to jump around or blub all over the place.
Anyway, the Mary-el Tarot tells a different story. This King of Cups is fully submerged in a lotus-filled pool, naked, eyes closed, completely surrounded by water. Unlike the Waite-Smith king, he’s not cut off from his emotions, or isolated by them. He seems totally in touch with everything that’s going on in his heart.
The deck’s creator, Marie White, describes the ‘black horse’ that is the human subconscious, our deepest needs and desires, and the challenge we all face in mastering and understanding this element of ourselves. White suggests that few of us will ever gain total control of the horse, but in working towards this, in taking the effort to understand ourselves better, we glimpse our subconscious. The aim, White says, is to “know the self enough not to be a slave to it, but to learn from it and derive power from it, for it is infinitely wise.”
It is a card of trust, and hard work. Whilst the Waite-Smith king appears not to trust his emotions, seems afraid of what might come out should he look within himself, the Mary-el king immerses himself in the experience of his subconscious, embraces the possibility of going deeper into his own self. He is not afraid to dream.
There’s still the idea of ‘control’ here that we don’t find in tarot’s queens. As I gazed at this card, I wondered what the difference might be between this Ophelia-esque man and the Queen of Cups. The difference is in the intent. Where the queen puts all of her faith into her own heart, allowing it to take her where it will, this king is still playing a very active role – he is still asking ‘what is in this for me’, ‘what can my emotions learn me’. Even though he is floating freely in a mystical, murky pool, he is still there with a purpose. He is still looking to be the ‘master’.