There are four suits in the Tarot, as well as the Major Arcana. Each of these suits correspond to a given element: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. The suits are interpreted differently depending on the element they belong to. So Earth tends to focus on family and money issues, whereas Air focuses on communication and the intellect.
The four elements are part of ancient teaching. For a long time, it has been believed that material life is made up of these elements, and without them there would be no world and no life on it. It makes sense when you think about how without Earth there would be no planet, without Water we could not drink and nothing could grow, without Fire there would be no Sun and so no life, without Air we could not breathe.
Everything in our material world belongs to one or more of these elements. So a book could belong to Earth because of its physical presence, but it might also belong to Air since it is passing on knowledge.
Each element can be active or passive, as they are part of the overall principle of polarity which is strongly emphasised within the Tarot. We have, for example, the polarities of the High Priestess and the Magician, the Emperor and the Empress.
The following four articles are designed to help you understand the basics of each of the element, so that you will be able to take this and apply it to the four Suits.
The Element of Earth
Suit: Disks, Coins, Pentacles, Deniers.
Finance, money, business, home life, domesticity, family and basic material security come under the dominion of Earth. Inheritance, growth and riches are covered along with our overall material security. In Earth we build our foundation of security, both in terms of finances and our family and friends. With a secure base we can reach up with confidence and attain our highest goals. Without it we are insecure and lack confidence. The other elements are said to rest upon Earth for this reason.
Earth is also obviously connected with Mother Earth, Nature and the planet itself. Anything which has solid form is covered by Earth, even if it has extra connections with other elements. In Earth we find fertility, conception, the Seasons and Cycle of Life.
Experiencing mundane life is not about boring and dull things! Mundane life means everything "of earthly life" - success at work, payrises, buying and selling, the overall family environment - these are all about mundane life and this suit. Controlling the Element of Earth gives us a head-start on all our projects and activities.
People described as "Earth-types" tend to be practical and steady, regarding material security as the point from which to build their lives. The men are steady, loyal, reliable and diligent. The women are quiet, gentle, domesticated and concerned mainly with family and home. We can all find ourselves going through "earthing" periods in our lives where we reflect these Earth types closely.
Earth is a passive element. This is because material matters are the end product of the Will (Fire) and the Intellect (Air). When something manifests into life, it does so as a natural consequence of our earlier efforts, and so this is passive in nature. For example, say you want a pay rise an you plan the best way to achieve this and devote yourself to achieving it. The planning is an intellectual activity (Air), the devotion to achieving it is fueled by your willpower (Fire) and the end result of the payrise is part of Earth. Additionally, the pleasure in getting what you planned so well for and worked so hard for belongs to our emotions (Water).
So there you have Earth, the suit which helps us with all aspects of our material world.
The Element of Water
Intuition, psychism, feelings and the whole range of human emotions come under the dominion of Water. From Water comes our dreams and visions, and the inner life of every human being.
Eighty per cent of the Earth's surface is covered by water and eighty per cent of our body is water - and it is certainly true that our emotions and instincts take up an equally great proportion of our time! We worry about love and lovers more than we worry about anything else in our lives, so we really have to learn to maintain the balance of the Water element within us.
If you have ever sat and watched the ocean, the 'Great Mother', you will have noticed the relentless surge and ebb of the waves. Our reactions to our emotions are like this - they sweep across us and wash away reason as well as debris. This is Water - turbulent, still, reflective, ruffled, powerful, yet also subtle and understated. We can lose all perspective when we are ruled by our emotions, but when we rule them we become infinitely more powerful.
Experiencing the Water element is about matters of love, romance, joy, happiness and creativity. As well as emotion, intuition and psychism we also see Art, literature, design, poetry, music and most crafts.
Cups have a strong link with Venus and the Moon. Venus governs loving emotions and the Moon has much to do with matters of receptivity. Many of the mysteries of the Moon are reflected in the suit of Cups.
Water is a passive element, dealing with the inner us - our love, dreams and our ability to 'read' atmosphere an situation.
So this is Water, the suit which helps us with our inner emotional, creative and psychic spheres.
The Element of Fire
Suit: Wands, Staves, Rods, Batons (sometimes Swords - see below).
Willpower, the ego, growth and development, energy and brightness come under the dominion of Fire. Fire deals with matters of ambition, satisfaction, harmony and balance - the recognition of True Will.
Fire gives out two of the basic ingredients of life - heat and light. Without our Sun, we would not be alive. Perhaps this is why the Sun was worshipped as a God by the ancients. Natural fire sustains our material needs - for warmth, cooking food and protection. The Element of Fire sustains our spiritual needs, for Fire governs Will.
We try very hard to master this remarkably powerful tool called the human Will, but what is it? We each have Will and every act we take and every move we make is a direct result of Will. We are completely responsible for our lives, because we choose the basic features of our lives on a day-to-day basis. If we don't like the state of things, it is up to us to choose differently.
The human Will is at its most effective when we have clearly determined exactly what we want from life, assessed the potentials for achieving that and decided to go for it. Clarifying the issues can kickstart the Will into operating on our behalf. Maybe you can see how people who say "I have no willpower" are really saying "I don't want to do this, so I have not operated my Will". Of course we can do things we don't really want to, but this is a trial of self-discipline, not True Will. Think about the words "ought" and "should" from this perspective - what do they mean to you now?
There is Will and there is True Will. The drive to recognise our function in life and to fulfill it is the goal of our True Will. This is why we can sometimes experience massive change in our lives (such as that indicated by the Tower) because we are failing to listen to our True Will. When we are in alignment with our True Will life becomes considerably easier - life flows more easily, ambitions are fulfilled and dreams are realised.
Some authorities disagree that Wands are assigned to Fire, preferring Air, the other active Element. There is actually not much difference between the two types of attribution because the qualities of each of the active suits directly stem from and complement each other.
So this is Wands - they fill us with energy and brightness, helping us to consolidate as well as to take the actions necessary to successfully complete projects, achieve realisations and make our dreams come true.
The Element of Air
Suit: Swords (sometimes Wands - see Fire).
Spirit, intellectual development, rationalisation, and inspiration come under the dominion of Air. Air encompasses areas of thought, such as science and logic, along with all forms of written, spoken and technological communication.
Everything ever done by anybody was the end result of the element of Air - someone had to think about it before it could happen! In Air we find the link to our spiritual needs, and when we know what our needs are we can apply our Will to manifest them into our mundane lives.
Imagine you are an artist - by perceiving your core (Air) you can visualise ideas (Water) and then use your Will (Fire) to direct your painting skills (Water again). The resulting painting (Earth) can be exchanged for money (also Earth). But it all started with Air.
The Swords suit tends to be dreaded by most people. This is because Swords can indicate emotional conflict, battles, disruption and difficulties. It also examines the process of creating trends in life - what we do today shapes how tomorrow will be. If we make a bad choice now, it will result in a bad outcome in the future. If we are not true to our inner needs, we will find ourselves forced to realign, often uncomfortably. And of course, if we do something dirty to someone else, it will find its way back to us sooner or later. In each case, the thought came first and the action followed.
Thought belongs to Air. What we think has an enormous impact on our life now and the life we are shaping. Natural laws ensure that if we perceive our True Will clearly, recognise our place in the world, and work with all we have to achieve our highest potential, then we will find ourselves sure and certain. If not, then we end up in conflict - with ourselves and with others - unhappy and dissatisfied.
You can perhaps see that when the less positive Swords appear in a reading, they indicate that the person in question is at not fulfilling their own function and is not pursuing their true needs. This naturally results in conflict. Our emotional reactions often show up around Swords, revealing our emotional reactions to what is going on, one which often clouds the rational logic of the Swords and acts to block us.
This then is Swords - connected with the spirit and the intellect, often indicating inner conflict and uncertainty, shrouded by emotions. Yet, as keepers of our own destiny, we can use Swords to recognise the areas of unhappiness and clear them out, leaving the way clear for us to achieve our highest potential.
Back to Learning the Tarot
Tarot readings include:
©1997- Angel Paths. All material contained within this website is the copyright of Jan Shepherd and may not be reproduced in any manner without the express written permission of the author. All tarot cards displayed are from the Thoth deck copyright US Games Inc.