Water has held a long and special place in the human experience. It is a substance tied to the very existence of life. People love it, worship it, live on it, and fear it all at the same time. It is an elemental force omnipresent within the human psyche - and for that very reason it plays a pivotal role within the Tarot.
Water has always held a sacred place in cultures around the globe. Almost all polytheistic religions of the world have a deity closely associated with water. Even in Christianity the practice of baptism, and even anointing yourself with holy water upon entering the sanctuary of a church is an integral part of their religious practice and theology. It's no wonder considering the power that water has over us as human beings. The very idea of civilization sprung up around life giving rivers that not only nourished the land, but those that lived upon it. In fact, 60% of the human body is made of water. Just as the great oceans and rivers of the world are affected by the tidal forces of the moon, so to are our bodies.
Thematically water has had a long role in the visual arts to convey symbolic meaning for purity, tranquility and peace. It can also represent tempestuous, uncontrollable forces, and even mystery and secrets. Many of these themes naturally found their way into the Tarot and it's depiction of water.
. Water appears in many of the Major Arcana cards, and being one of the four basic alchemical elements, is often associated with the entirety of the suite of cups that explores our emotions, relationships, and feelings. The nature of water is that it's shape is defined by the solid objects around it, even when frozen in order to hold it's shape it requires solid forms around it while freezing. In The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade notes that "...form manifests itself above the waters by detaching itself from the waters. Water holds the deep mysteries of the human subconscious and the endless possibilities of life. It is no wonder then that many of the origin stories found around the world start from the creation of something from the dark primordial swirling waters of life. Within the tarot when we see water if often represents emotions, compassion, sensitivity, intuition, and knowledge. The first card in the Major Arcana that we encounter water in is the High Priestess who's dress flows like water around her feet with the moon. Astute observers will also note that she is seated before two pillars with a cloth hung between them. However, if you look closer, you will find that behind that veil is the great wide ocean. This pictorially represents her as the archetypal figure of all that is unknown, just as the ocean represents the infinite depths of the unknown.
In the Ace of Cups we see a right hand (the hand of giving) holding a chalice overflowing with 5 streams of water that spill into an endless lake or sea, surrounded by dew drops. This card is rife with symbolism and meaning but if we look solely at the water within the image we see the overflowing nature of our emotions. The dew drops could represent fertility, but the specific number of 26 may relate to the The Tetragrammaton, יהוה in Hebrew, is the four-letter biblical name of the God of Israel. The original pronunciation is unknown but scholars are agreed that Yahweh is the most likely reconstruction. Like the water carrier of her zodiac sign of Aquarius, a women is knelt before a pool of water pour water into it from a seemingly unending vessel in one hand while simultaneously pouring water across the land with another. Coming after the Tower this card is often associated with hope. It is as if the women is refilling the emotions of the pool of water and nourishing the land with its life giving forces.
Outside of the Major Arcana and suite of Cups we still find many representing of water within the Tarot. One of my personal favorites is the Two of Pentacles (or coins). A card that often represents a decision that needs to be made usually revolving around finances, or it represents a state of managing resources. Behind the juggling figure we see the ocean with ships on it. Unlike the cards mentioned previously, the water is not still, but instead full of great waves that are thrashing the ships about. Waves and moving and turbulent water often represent challenges in the flow of things. It represents the unsteady and powerful nature of water, and how it can within an instant change. That singular is often associated with water in movement - change. Couple that with the symbolism of the ocean or deep waters which represents the unknown we can draw upon this symbolism to interpret the uncertainty in the decision he needs to make or in the resources he may have.
As you explore the Tarot and the meanings locked within the vast oceans of symbolism I encourage you to look for the symbol of water, and pay close attention to what it is trying to tell you. Try to keep an eye out for these key types of water and their meanings:
Rivers: Fertility, Flow, Transition/Change
Oceans: The Unknown, Subconscious, Knowledge, Journey
Ponds/Lakes: Serenity, Emotion, Reflection
Also be sure to look at the sate of the water. Is it calm, moving, or full of waves? These things add to the meaning of the symbolism within the water of the cards.
Want to know more? Check out the live mini-class that I did live over on my YouTube channel here:
References: Chang, T. Susan. Tarot Correspondences: Ancient Secrets for Everyday Readers. Llewellyn Pulbications, 2018. Dean, Liz. The Ultimate Guide to Tarot: a Beginners Guide to the Cards, Spreads, and Revealing the Mystery of the Tarot. Fair Winds Press, 2015.
Gardner, Helen, et al. Gardners Art through the Ages. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991. Wen, Benebell. Holistic Tarot. North Atlantic Books, 2015. Images Sourced From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Public_domain_image_resources