M or W: Considering the Letter on the Ace of Cups

This post probably should have come last week when the focus was in fact on the Ace of Cups, but I didn’t have anything to say on the matter until now.

On the Rider-Waite Ace of Cups, there is what is debatably a W or an inverted M on the cup itself. Many people argue about which one it is.

Initially, I took a font-fanatic approach, and said that if you look at the font stylistically whic is written, you can clearly se that it matches an M rather than a W.

As I mentioned in my post on Symbolism in the Ace of Wands, Mary K. Greer writes the contenders for each of the letters. I would like to go through them and discuss a few of the arguments for each letter.

Arguments for W

  • Waite
  • Wisdom
  • Water
  • Womb


It doesn’t seem to me that Waite would be so self-gratifying as to put a letter in there of his name. After all, shouldn’t Pamela Colman-Smith have her initial somewhere in the deck as well? Furthermore, would he not have mentioned it in his Pictoral Key to the Tarot? Maybe not if it’s to serve an egoistic representation.

However, it might serve as an ironic meaning. In Waites’ Pictoral Key, he writes for the reversed meaning of the Ace of Cups that it can mean ‘House of the false heart’. I would argue that egotism falls into that very category.

And then another huge HOWEVER, Greer also points to the Monogram on the 10 of Pentacles. I flipped to that and my god I actually never noticed it before, but his name is totally right there.

But there is a different context there.

When you consider the Ace of Cups, it really doesn’t correlate to Waite himself, unless it’s his personal card. In the 10 of Coins, it absolutely makes sense that his name is there, since the 10 of Coins means the creation and handing down of a legacy, which is exactly what he did with the Rider-Waite Tarot.  Over a hundred years later it’s the most popular deck and considered standard. It awakened so many people to the art of Tarot. It is literally a legacy, and thus, it makes far more sense for his name to be in the 10 of Coins rather than the Ace of Cups.


To put the letter for the word Water seems very…basic, even too low for Waite to do. After all, if that is the case, then where is the E on the Ace of Pentacles? The F on the Ace of Wands? The A on the Ace of Swords? Surely putting the actual letter of the element it represents there completely deminishes the need for there to be any water anywhere on the card at all.


I would give in to Wisdom as a contender, as the understanding of personal emptions leads to wisdom. It promotes empathy and compassion when we can disect ourselves, and thus, that leads us to wisdom, at least in my opinion.


One meaning of the Ace of Cups is pregnancy. The Ace of Cups can represent the beginning of a new love, and while this could be seen romantically, the new love could be a new kind of love, such as the love of a child, hence womb. I personally don’t buy it, for the same arguments as above–it’s too simplistic.

Arguments for M

  • Mystery
  • Mother
  • Mary
  • Mem
  • Mercury


The Ace of Cups is also meant to be a representation of the Holy Grail. This is part of the reason why it’s depicted with a dove and a host. There are so many mysteries surrounding the Holy Grail, and considering that much of the imagery in the Rider-Waite deck revolves around the Knights Templar, I think that it could be a little closer to the truth.

Mary K. Greer also believes it to mean Mystery. She writes, ‘I believe that the letter is M and that it stands for Mystery, as viewed from above by the Holy Spirit. It is probably the word Waite uses most in his books where it is usually capitalized.’

Mother and Mary

Mother correlates with the suggestion that it could be Womb. Likewise, if it’s Mary, this could be Mother Mary or Mary Magdeline, both of which represent different kinds of profound love.

Again, I don’t know how much I’m willing to go with the idea that the letter represents a name. I feel like if that were the case than other cards such as the Lovers whose angel is Raphael might have an R in it, or and A and a E for the depiction of Adam and Eve. Likewise, the latter two letters might occur in the Devil.

However, it could be that since there is a double meaning to Mary, and thus the meaning of Mary and Mother could be combined within the M, I would see this as a worthy suggestion for meaning.


Mem is a Hebrew letter which also means Water. I think that this would be quite likely, as there are so many Hebrew representations within the Tarot (consider the High Priestess and the Wheel of Fortune). Yod also has a repeat representation in the Tarot.

I do think though that if this were the case, then the actual Hebrew letter would be written rather than a Western alphabetic translation of the letter. I feel like it’s a little bit of a slap in the face to use the M to represent a Hebrew letter rather than a corresponding symbol or the letter itself. And from the rest of the Tarot deck itself, I think it might be safe to say that Waite and Colman-Smith had too much respect for the Kabala and Hebrew to do that.

Thus, I think this to be a less likely meaning.


I struggle with this one. I couldn’t find anything to back up the idea that the M represented Mercury other than Greer’s suggestion that Mercury is ‘an alchemical maxim: “What wise men seek in Mercury is found”‘.

I began looking for the alchemical meaning of Mercury, and found on the Royal Society of Chemestry‘s website:

Alchemists were convinced that mercury transcended both the solid and liquid states, both earth and heaven, both life and death. Mercury is one of the seven metals of alchemy (gold, silver, mercury, copper, lead, iron & tin). The symbol for mercury could also be used to represent the planet of the same name in astrology. The metal is often also represented by a serpent or snake.

This makes Mercury a strong contender for the M. After all, the Tarot is designed to be shrouded in esoteric secrets, and alchemy is certainly one of those. Futhermore, if Waite had put in say the glyph for the planet Mercury, it would lead the reader to interpret it as a marker for the planet and its meaning rather than the alchemical meaning.

The Alchemical representation as outlined above lines up nicely with the image of the Dove and the Host, with the notion of the Holy Grail, and the other religious aspects within the Tarot. The quote Greer gives, ‘What wise men seek in Mercury is Found’ also makes sense as Mercury represents essentially transcendence, the ability to be of two forms, both solid and liquid, or the grounded representation of water, if you ask me.

I would aboslutely hedge my bets that this is what’s meant by the M.

Reversed M

But if it’s actually meant to be the M, then why on earth would it be reversed?

Because Tarot is mean to be interpreted, taken apart and studied. No answers are given simply. That being said, I truly belive that it is mean to be ambiguous. Greer points out that:

  • Waite could correspond to Mystery
  • Water corresponds to Mem
  • Womb could correspond to Mary/Mother
  • Wisdom could correspond to Mercury

I absolutely agree with that, which only furthers my point. The element of Water is the meotional self, the subsconious self, and the intuitive self. One has to understand the subconsious self in order to understand the emotional self, and the emotional self must be understood before it can listen to the intuitive self. Until all this work is done, it can be ambiguous as to what a person is hearing: their emotional reaction (wants, hurt, lust, love, anger, etc.) or their intuitive voice.

I think it is highly possible that the M is reversed so as to show not only the potential interchangablility of the qualities Greer points out, but also the uncertainty that it is any one of the other.

Have you paid the M/W much attention? What are your theories? Let me know, let’s start a discussion on this!


  1. Interesting post! I have pondered this often and in the many possibilities I explored I even came up with something as inane as it meaning ‘What’s the matter’, you know because W for ‘what’s’, dove for ‘the’ and M for ‘Matter’. What’s dove matter? 😀

    1. What’s done matter! I love it! That’s very creative 🙂 I think at the end of the day what dove matter is what it means to you and what resonates with you. But to me part of the fun of the tarot is unraveling the mysteries in the artwork. But then again, this is coming from and English and Philosophy major 🙂

      1. Indeed, I got interested in tarot too because of its encoded mysteries. What looks like the host for communion that the dove brings to the Ace of Cups in the Rider-Waite tarot also looks like the symbol for Lot of fortune in astrology and I wonder therefore if that was intended symbolism. And then again, the Dove, the host and the ‘W’ also look like ‘Wow’! 😛 Another one on my list of stupid ideas!

      2. No such thing as a stupid idea 🙂 But yeah, I love the weaving of astrology and numerology and Kabala in tarot. It makes it something to study that will never fully be learned. Sound like a challenge to me!

      3. Heh! 🙂 I sustain myself through such eternal quests for meaning too! BTW, the reversed Ace of Cups turns ‘Wow’ into ‘Mom’, and as such with the emptying of the cup in that position can also indicate mother issues stemming from deprivation of love in childhood, the way I see it. If you haven’t already, I would also recommend reading Picatrix which is a treatise on ritual magic but also has a lot of interesting information on Hermetic ideas and has aided me in understanding a bit more about Tarot.

      4. Thank you for the suggestion! Ill check it out 🙂 I like the implication of mother problems from the upside down Wow, thats interesting 🙂

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