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The Four Suits of the Tarot and the four elements

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«To find suitable images for great spiritual truths ...

RM Marseille-style Pope V

...design for a blended TdM-I deck

... is a process known as 'Imaginative Perception'.»

R. Steiner 19/01/1907 GA97

The four elements

Within the Occidental tradition, there are four elements that are seen as active behind the curtain of physical manifestation, these having their equivalence in a higher octave as the four 'ethers'. The elements are, in their Alchemical order from most dense to most rarified, Earth, Water, Air and Fire.

The four elements have been seen to also reflect not only four states or principles or, indeed, basic substances, out of which all matter is composed, but also various psycho-spiritual dispositions or temperaments. Thus we have, closely connected to preponderences of the elements, dispositions named as Phlegmatic, Melancholic, Choleric and Sanguine. How these four humours relate to the four elements has, I would suggest, changed with time as understanding of the temperaments has shifted from predominantly a bodily-focussed approach to a psychological disposition one.

The four humours are not, in any case, our primary concern here, save to mention that they be reflected on instructively when considering the four suits' Court cards especially. More on that another time.

Elements and colour

Pavel Florensky, in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: an essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, (p396) quotes Leonardo thus:

"The colour white" – says Leonardo – "we shall liken to the light without which one cannot see any color; yellow we shall liken to earth; green to water; blue to air; red to fire [...]"

and (same page)

"Blue and green are not elementary colors in themselves, The first is composed of light and darkness, like the blue of the air, which is composed of the perfectly blue and the perfectly white."

Florensky gives the following footnotes for the source of his quotes: Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della pittura from the German translation (by E. Mach) Analysis of Sensations, the two quotes above respectively on pp 254 & 255.

Florensky further makes the point that Leonardo's propounded colour theory culminates in Goethe's colour theory (Goethe's own views in large part in reference and contrast to Newton's, by the way, though Florensky does not mention this).

In any case, this is pretty much the dominant view encountered in French esoteric texts, in contradistinction to the dominant view propounded in numerous English writings. In summary:

Table of Elements and Colours

  Blue Green Yellow Red
Fire       Leonardo
Air Leonardo   [various]  
Water [various] Leonardo    
Earth   [various] Leonardo  


The four 'lower' suits of the Tarot

The four suits used in traditional tarot, apart from the Atouts, are (in alphabetical order) Batons, Cups, Deniers (Coins), and Epees (Swords). These are the ones that have been subject to long association with the four elements.

Personally, I prefer to allow for each element to be reflected in each and every suit, and thus for myself: suit≠element!

This does not mean that interesting insights cannot be gained from considering each element in its own right, and seeing how it can add to further understanding the suits. For example, the fiery aspect of a sword, or its watery aspect, or its aerial, or its earthy aspects, are not overlooked.

Having said that, there are times when one of a suit's characteristics clearly reflects an element more so than at other times. For example, the sword, as an implement of war, combined with the courage (and rage) it can display carries with it a fiery connection... but its judicial and more airy aspect is then diminished, as are its watery ecclesiastical characteristics, and its political establishing earthy ones.

Another example, to show something that has not, to my knowledge, been mentioned or displayed in decks that make strict correlations, are the fiery quality of the Cup as grail: the Chalice is infused with the flames of the Holy Spirit, and the cup is more a vessel (a dish or 'grail') than a watery container. In such a consideration, the Fires of the Cup have the ability to transmute or totally transform the individual. For the sake of completeness, however, it should be mentioned that Ed Buryn does make a correlation of sorts between cups and fire (Cf. M. Greer's 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card, p252).

Of the other two associations not previously (to my knowledge) made, Batons and Water can 'easily' be considered as the wood that requires, for its very existence and growth, its roots to draw water up and along its outer layer – precisely the layer seen. Cups and Earth can have, as example, a Christian anthroposophical understanding of the redemptive and transformative power of the blood of Christ onto and within the being of the Earth would be, as an example, one manner of making that connection.

Though change is afoot, most books in print advocate a strick suit=element position.

Some correlations made exemplified by various authors is listed below:

Table of Elements and Suits

Fire Mathers Buryn Etteilla Flornoy
Air Hall Flornoy Lasenic Etteilla
Water   Etteilla Flornoy Picard
Earth Etteilla   Mathers Lasenic

(Mention should be made that most of the above has also been included in the Tarot Studies Newsletter in February 2007)

Recommended resources

Please also check my Tarot Studies site for broader resources.