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Divination theory: The mirror of annihilated love
On Death, the Knight of Cups, and Marguerite Porete
The mirror of the Knight of Cups and Death
Have you ever noticed how similar the Knight of Cups and Death are?
I’ve always found that the classic Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) deck, designed by Pamela Coleman Smith and published in 1909, is full of very intentional—yet somewhat secret—conversations between the cards.
These conversations occur between the seams, only revealing themselves in the space of a reading. Those moments are often revelatory, both for the reader and the querent.
The Knight of Cups is one of the most promising cards to pull in a love reading, or any reading, really. This knight offers you something your heart desires, something deeply fulfilling and satisfying.
But why does he mirror Death?
They really are two of the most visually similar cards in the RWS deck. I imagine it as a sequence: The knight travels upstream. On the journey, he becomes Death.
But how does our Knight of Love become Death? I think not only of love and death but also annihilation and self-annihilation.
I also think of:
“Til death do us part”
La petite mort
How falling in love feels like rebirth
How heartbreak feels like dying
The fragility of romantic love and how easily it dies as it traverses obstacles
How often people lose (or resign) themselves in pursuit (or retention) of love
How unrequited love pushes people towards the death impulse
How fearful one can become over the idea of a lover dying or leaving, which is also a death
Extricating sex and eros from love
In astrology, Pluto and the 8th house represent sex, death, and transformation. Some might say sexuality is what separates romantic love from platonic love, eros from philia or agape, for example. (More on this topic here.)
Obviously, queer theory brings this notion into question, especially conversations around asexuality and romance. Yet, I also think of the trope of the sexless marriage, where eros gives way to the familiar.
Many esoteric traditions understand that there is a thread between sex and death, and therefore love and death. I suspect the word choice, la petite mort, for orgasm stems from France’s extensive body of theory on Western esotericism. Pamela Coleman Smith, a member of the Golden Dawn, understood this also.
In fact, many traditions consider meditation a preparation for death. In the Buddhist view, the goal of meditation is to awaken in order to exit samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth, thereby achieving a state of nirvana.
Death, rebirth (ego death), and transformation are one and the same in tarot. Something must die for the new dawn to rise. Notice the sun rising behind the mountain in the card’s backdrop.
There also exists love that surpasses romance, along the lines of the aforementioned philia and agape. This, perhaps, is more universal and withstanding than romantic love. And Death also has its place here.
Marguerite Porete, a thirteenth century French mystic who was burned at the stake as a heretic, wrote Le Mirouer des simples âmes anienties et qui seulement demeurent en vouloir et désir d'amour, or:
The Mirror of Simple Souls
The love Porete refers to is as though the very spirit of “Perfect Love” has possessed her. It is some highly esoteric shit.
Essentially, the book is channelled from another plain—her identity is annihilated and love itself speaks through her. She, in essence, recommends others of her time do the same.
To put it into historical context, this was a direct challenge to the Church and the Crusades. It was intentionally confrontational. Her words align closely with the teachings and beliefs of Gnostic groups such as the Cathars of the French late Dark Ages, although she was not technically a Cathar.
This love she speaks of has nothing to do with romantic love, but it does have to do with a non-physical death and the annihilation of self.
I cannot even begin to summarize it except to say that when my heart was deeply aching, I, too, listened to her words and allowed myself to become possessed by Perfect Love for the brief moments that felt possible to. It was healing, as though bathing in sacred waters.
Here are some of her words:
“Love and faith have no shame, no honor, no fear for what is to come. They are secure, says love. Their doors are open. No one can harm them.
A person who is on fire feels no cold. The person who is drowning knows no thirst.
Now this soul, says love, is so burned in love's fiery furnace that she has become the very fire so that she feels no fire, for in herself, she is fire through the power of love which has changed her into the fire of love.
This fire burns of and through itself everywhere incessantly without consuming any matter or being able to wish to consume it, except only from itself.”
A love supreme
Initially, the Knight of Cups has a rather commonplace offer of love, the love that we find every day. This kind of love can indeed be moving, but it is also rather mundane in comparison to Porete’s own “love supreme,” to allude to John Coltrane’s own divinely-channelled project.
The Knight travels upstream. As he traverses the landscape, this commonplace love experiences its small deaths, as does the human heart when faced with love gone wrong. Perhaps it is pierced by a Three of Swords. Yet, he must proceed onward, with the knowledge that all love finds its end whether through choice or physical death.
At some point, his cup of love transforms into a black flag depicting a white rose, perhaps a symbol of the apocalypse or one’s own personal apocalypse.
In becoming Death, what he has to offer transforms from love into Perfect Love. Thus, a grace. Our capacity to constantly change is a grace. I cannot imagine a life lived in stagnancy.
But I also say capacity because change is not guaranteed. The will and desire for personal change (not dissimilar from Porete’s “will and desire towards love”) requires alignment with the energy of the Death card.
When you’re ready for something in your life to transform, when you’re ready to let go, when you’re ready for an old pattern to die, the Death card is your best friend. It is one of the cards that heralds change. Death is here for you, and it loves you perfectly.
So the Knight of Cups becomes Death. Perhaps he was always Death in disguise.
And perhaps those relationships were always meant to die and take with them a part of you that was also meant to die. Everything is impermanent.
I think of Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet, his section on Love:
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
A final reflection on love and death
This year, the constructs I previously upheld regarding romantic love have been slowly deconstructed. I realize I know nothing of love. I now believe it to be a great mystery that is deeply intertwined with one’s karma, which I recently wrote about here.
Or if I do know anything about love, it’s that there are absolutely no rules and there is no roadmap. Every guideline, every piece of advice has its exception.
There is actually a section from that passage in The Prophet that I did not include above, but it feels appropriate to share now:
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
I mean, it’s no wonder people close to love. This is not a judgment—the journey of love is not to be taken lightly. The journey of love can hurt us, maybe even destroy us. But it’s also living, truly living, per Gibran.
For me, it has inflicted the greatest pain, but it has also awakened great depths inside—through both grief and ecstasy. In venturing to love, we must remember Death’s promise of the new dawn.
“As I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil.”
Yes, it has been wrought with loss, again and again.
I think of the times I have fallen in (and out of) love. I think of the time spent watching my beloved grandfather pass on and the part of me that died as he did (and the flowers that died as we did). I think of Marguerite Porete burning at the stake for becoming Perfect Love.
The Knight of Cups is Death in disguise, and I will continue to drink from his cup. A bitch is thirsty.