The Tarot’s “Wish Card”: The Nine of Cups and the Provisional Life
A line in Mary Oliver’s oft-quoted poem, The Summer Day, seems to have become a touchstone for the way we spend our time: “Tell me,” she writes, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Back in 2019, I came across this line everywhere: in books, on a podcast, and even in one of those cheesy made-for-TV movies where the heroine used it as a personal tagline. In a way, the repeated encounter with this line carried with it a kind of synchronicity. I was seized with questions around personal meaning, so stumbling on this probing question was undeniably apropos.
A little over a decade ago, I was on track to becoming a bona fide historian (as one permutation of Mercury in my eighth might suggest). One of the things I adored about reading letters and diaries from hundreds of years ago was encountering the very themes of hope and anxiety, happiness and despair, that seemed inextricably linked with the human experience. Delving back to the classical world, Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life,” is a startling reminder that the very questions with which I was preoccupied transcend time. Even in the ancient world, people were pondering the meaning of life and how to optimize the seemingly short amount of time we have on earth. Seneca wrote:
“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn’t notice passing has passed away.”
This seems like the Roman equivalent of the Ivan Ilyich moment: “Maybe I did not live as I should have?”
Recently, the question of how we live our lives and what we are doing with them has been bound up for me in Jung’s concept of the Provisional Life. It strikes me that there’s a fine line to be drawn between dreaming and hoping and biding our time —between maintaining a healthy innocence and awe-inspiring wonder at life’s myriad expressions — and being caught up in the quest to attain that which seems forever out of reach.
I always come back to Marie-Louise von Franz’s quote, “I know how to save the fantasy that is life-giving, and how to cut away the childishness of the wish to realize it.” I’m not sure whether I love this statement or loathe it, but it has stuck with me for years. Is it helpful or harmful to bind our imaginations to Neptunian visions of escape? To be caught up in Jupiterian good times? To be driven by Uranian impulses to unshackle ourselves from our limited, Saturnian existances?
I recognize the danger inherent in deferring life: floating through our day-to-day existence, wholly uninspired and completely uninterested in the life we’re living. It has a low-grade, disassociational quality to it; this is Neptune’s double-edged sword: offering the gift of imagination, as well as the power to get lost in the abstraction of what we hope will come.
The Nine of Cups, the Lord of Material Happiness, is a card that was given the shorthand of “the wish card” for as long as I can remember. Poring over the images on my mother’s Morgan-Greer Tarot deck some thirty years ago, I always got a feeling of warmth from the magic-like quality of the happy friar sitting before his many chalices. More recently, however, I’ve come to regard the Nine of Cups as more caution than straight-up good omen.
The Nine of Cups is the card of Jupiter in Pisces; this isn’t a far stretch from the Neptunian sojourn that we’ve been on, since Neptune, not Jupiter, rules Pisces according to modern astrological correspondences. As someone deeply immersed in Hellenistic techniques, I’ve been trying to find a place for the contemporary pantheon of planets, plutoids, and asteroids. Having recently had an astrology reading focused on the challenges offered by Pluto transiting over my IC, I’ve come to regard the outer planets and other celestial objects as more essential to adding psychological depth than I first thought. For this reason, Neptune’s tendencies towards “escapism…deception, [and] false mirages of security and satisfaction” come to the fore for me in the Nine of Cups in addition to Jupiter’s stereotyped bounty and tendency to excess (Renn Butler, The Archetypal Universe, 20).
The traditional significations of the Nine of Cups include satisfaction, contentment, and a promise that something that we’ve hoped for is within reach. The Nine of Cups suggests that our wishes are about to come true — that life is going well and now is the time to appreciate all the good things as they roll in. At the same time, when life is on an upswing, we can get distracted from living our lives consciously, with a commitment to depth and the symbolic. If everything is couched in attainment and the pleasure principle, then, when those imaginings that we cling to fail to manifest, we can plunge into a despair that leaves us asking when it will be our turn and when our spate of bad luck will end.
The Nine of Cups reversed seems to embody this very refrain. The card can portend to a lack of success and fulfillment when upside down. Going deeper, it calls to mind Neptune’s shadow qualities, such as “vulnerability, confusion, deception, and escapism” all of which can be seen as “partial but unintegrated contact with Neptune’s boundary-dissolving nature” (Bulter, 20).
The Nine of Cups reversed is what happens to us when we’ve been living the Provisional Life — caught up in constant daydreaming and a desire for escape from our present lives. We may be trapped in the endless cycle of envisioning life when myriad improvements are made to it; yet, instead of hunkering down and doing the work — in true Saturnian fashion — we prefer to flit around, never grounding ourselves to any concrete plan or path towards achieving that to which we abstractly aspire.
The figure on the Nine of Cups looks more jolly than the senex archetypes found on The Emperor, The Hierophant, and The Hermit cards. These are expressions of Saturnian discipline, but the reveler on the Nine of Cups seems less concerned with structure, form, and limitations on pleasure. Things come easy with the Nine of Cups upright — and perhaps we need this boon to keep the faith that life isn’t a bundle of unending sorrow.
Hexagram 60 of the I Ching is about limitation — “Voluntary chosen limits empower your growth.” In the translation by Brian Brown Walker, we learn that the hexagram, Chieh, encourages us to set practical limits in order to make genuine progress:
“Limits that are overstrenuous are not helpful; having too many rules causes rebellion in the one on whom they are imposed…To yourself, the setting of limits means defining your purpose and responsibilities so that you have a clear idea of where your energies are to be aimed. Your limits should be determined by yourself, not another or the culture in which you live. Avoid harshness and impatience with yourself; true progress is made in gradual steps. Allow yourself pleasure, but avoid careless self-indulgence” (123).
Jupiter in Pisces can be about unchecked expansion and diffusion, while Neptune reflects the boundlessness of imagination. Working with these archetypes in the Nine of Cups can be an important invitation to balance those areas of our life where endless pleasure may be resulting in a lack of structured focus, deferring that which we hope to accomplish by allowing it to live forever in the realm of abstract idea, rather than concrete form.
Life should be enjoyed — savoured, even — but the Nine of Cups can also signal excesses that have us missing opportunities to reconnect with path and purpose. Sometimes, to truly appreciate the gifts of Neptune and Jupiter, we must invite Saturn to the party.
Agree? Disagree? Got a different perspective? Drop me a line to let me know what the Nine of Cups means to you — would love to hear it!