The Elemental Roulette

[Being the fifth part in our four-part special series on the nature of the tarot card suits For the previous parts, do check out Isabel’s Much at Stake: Vampires on Fire, Paulinnhhoo’s On Coins, Miguel’s To a Queen of Swords and Shelley’s The Fool’s Journey Through the Tarot Suit of Cups.]

It happens. You’re reading a book on the tarot. Or just going through some threads on some online tarot forum. Or maybe you pick this up in a course on tarot. Sooner or later, there comes a time where you will find a mention on how the four elements correspond to the four suits of the minor arcana. If you’re like me, the first time you read anything about the subject, this will seem like a huuuuge breakthrough, as it will open the door to a new understanding on the blasted minors and, perhaps, an easier way to deal with the damn cards. This will open the door to all kinds of esoteric subjects: kaballah, alchemy, mysticism, philosophy, and everything but the kitchen sink. Out of nowhere, there are huge amounts of knowledge that needs to be studied, perceived and assimilated in order to read the cards. Or at least to understand what the hell everyone is talking about.


As if that wasn’t enough, not everyone seems to follow the same system. Cups are the easy ones. Everyone more or less agrees that they are associated with Water. The other suits, however are mined field. Are batons Fire or Air or Earth? And what about spades and coins? And why can’t anyone agree on something like this? Are we to follow the western esoteric tradition and assign Fire to batons, Earth to coins and Air to spades? Or should we take the cunning folk tradition and see Fire associated with coins, spades associated with the Earth and batons associated with the element of Air? Or maybe some other combination?

And, again, why don’t people agree just with any of this???

Well, you can blame the ancient Greeks for this whole mess. They’re the ones that had the idea that the whole Universe could be explained as a combination of four elements, namely Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Granted, other cultures has similar concepts. The number of elements might vary, or even the substances considered elemental, but older civilizations like the Egyptian, the Babylonians, the Hindu or the Japanese all had similar concepts. More recently, science has taken a spin on the concept, with the notion of states of matter. According to scientists, matter can not be described by a particular combination of the four elements — since there are some things called atoms (about 120 different kinds of atoms, just to complicate things) —, but they can appear in one of the following states: solid, liquid, gas and plasma. These scientists then entertained themselves with trying to find other possible states of matter, most of which occur at extreme conditions of temperature or pressure. Still, for the most part, under normal conditions the only observable states are solid, liquid, gas and plasma. These states are due to similar behavior of different types of matter at similar energy levels, and not due to having a certain type of some substance.

Or, to put it in another way, the states were assigned by observation. Just like in the old days, the elements were defined by observation. Aristotle, for example, related each element to two of four possible qualities. Fire is both dry and hot; Water is both wet and cold; Air is both wet and hot; Earth, both dry and cold. However, there were people who would not agree. For Proclius, a neoplatonist,  Fire is sharp, subtle and mobile, while Earth is blunt, dense and immobile. Air is blunt, subtle and mobile, and Water is blunt, dense, and mobile.

So, as you can see, right there at the beginning, people also didn’t see eye to eye with this. And things really haven’t gotten better since.

As most of the western culture comes from ancient Greece — with Plato and Aristotle being the two main pillars on which everything else got build, if these two currents can’t agree, we’re in for some deep trouble. And again, if the correspondence is to make any sense, there should be something in both the element and the suit that can be related. Which means, that we need to observe the same qualities in both the material element and the object that lends its name to the suit in question.

Since the last four posts have been devoted to the suits, we will start with the elements. So let’s take a look at all of this and see where it gets us.

Fire is warm and bright. When controlled it can be used as a source of heat and energy as well as a transformation tool, enabling us to cook thinks and manipulate matter, whether it be glass making or metal crafting, amongst other; however, when uncontrolled, it can easily destroy everything in its path. Fire is then a source of creation and destruction. But the most interesting thing about the element is that it is both the strongest and the weakest element, due to a very interesting characteristic: it is the only element that cannot sustain itself. It constantly needs feeding in order to survive. Take out the source of nourishment and it will easily be put out. But can just as easily be brought back or rekindled with the right spark. This gives fire something that no other element has: the capacity of regeneration. In a sense, it lives to consume and be consumed, only to rise again from its ashes when the time is right. It is also the only element that is constantly changing, its flames constantly dancing in accordance to its own volition.

Associating Fire with the batons is easy enough: not only does wood burn, but if you rub two sticks together, you will create fire. Wood (and thus batons) can then be seen as a seed of fire but also as the carrier of fire. Which is why most people make this association. But that is not the only one.

For coins warm our palms just like fire. Also like fire, money doesn’t like to be still, but instead to spread as fast as possible. In a way, money is just as nervous as fire. And just as restless.

As for the suit of Spades, Swords are quick and destructive. In fact, they’re the most destructive suit of the pips, just like fire is the most destructive of the elements. As Proclius also pointed out, fire can sting, just like a sharp needle, which again brings it closer to Spades.

Air doesn’t have a particular shape or a definite volume. It can freely flow and expand or contract according to need. It’s main quality is thus movement. It contains oxygen, which is vital to human needs, but also carbon dioxide, which can be poisonous. It is what we breath in and what we breath out, so in a way, what connects us to the outside world; a bridge if you like. But at the same time, and much like Fire, it is a vital force. Even though we can not see it, we can feel its effects. With the breaths we take, but also in the wind and hurricanes and how it seems to bend things to its will, sometimes going as far as ripping them off the ground and just carry them away. As a carrier, there really isn’t a better medium, since air can carry both physical things as well as sound. It carries words, thoughts, ideas and it is what allows us to communicate with one another, no matter how far we are. In a nutshell, it is the element of interaction.

Esoterically speaking, the element of Air is attributed to Swords. This might seem like a strange attribution, but just think of the previous sentence: it is how words and ideas travel from one place to the other. How rational thoughts get spread. If you want a more down-to-earth approach, cold air cuts just like a sword does. Which, granted, is not the most elegant idea, but practical enough.

The attribution to coins isn’t a better one. It requires that we see money as a spirit, as fickle as air. Money comes, money goes. Like air, money is both a way to carry things forward and something as insubstantial as air.

As for batons, trees grow upwards. They take what they need from air and give it the oxygen other living beings require for sustenance. Batons are related to air because wood was once alive as trees. But not only that. As the suit of batons are related to the concept of will, it is also easy to relate  them to air. Just think of how the same breath that can nurture a flame can also extinguish it if we so will it. We just put our intention on the act, and just like magic! — well, there is also a scientific explanation to this, but onwards — the flame either puffs up or blows out.

Water is fluid. It doesn’t have a particular shape, even though it has a definite volume. It can flow from place to place. Sometimes it is crystal clear; other times, murky, thick and opaque. It can be still and peaceful, as the water in a pond or fierce and strong as in a tempest. And beware of undercurrents. They’re always there, even when they are not felt. An interesting property of water is that it will hit you back with the same strength that you hit it with. If you want, try this as an exercise. fill a bowl big enough to fit your hand with water. First, place your hand as softly as you can and gently push it underwater. You will find that it offers no resistance. Next, take the hand out and repeat the exercise, but faster. If you don’t feel any pain, gradually increase the speed you hit the water with until it does. You will find that the faster you hit the water with your hand, the harder it will hit you back. Physicists know this as the Law of Action/Reaction, which basically states that the higher the force you apply in an object, the higher the force that object will apply on you.

But that is not all about water, as water is at the root of life. Our whole bodies are made of water. Every cell that exists is made of water. And water is necessary for most of the chemical processes that occur in our bodies. Simply put, without water, there’s no life. Water was there at the beginning when life first appeared and not only provided the base material for life, it also provided shelter from the harsh conditions outside — the sea becoming a barrier from all the nastiness that was happening, while supporting and nurturing the life within.

From all the four suits, Cups seems the most obvious. Cups are a container, a vessel and that’s what we need to hold water (as otherwise it will flow away). If we look at how water and cups are related in the same way as blood and the heart, things become even more obvious. And more obvious still if we replace the word water with feelings, which traditionally are related to the heart. So much so, that the other suits aren’t even considered. And yet… water can hit just as hard as a baton and ice can cut just as sharply as a sword, so maybe there is something here?

Earth has a definite form and volume. It is the most stable and inert of all the four elements. It is hard and cold and at first sight doesn’t seem to be of much use. After all, it is just there. But appearances can be deceiving. Everything that we get comes from the earth. All our food; all our metals and shiny things; all the materials we need to build and create stuff come from the earth. In a way, it is at the root of everything we do. It is the base material for things like glass, concrete, clay, and others. It is where trees and plants root themselves and the provider of all the minerals and nutrients they need to be able to grow. It is also where things break down and become available to re-enter the cycle of life. Or, perhaps just remain there until they are extracted for fuel. So where all the riches come from. Like water, it can also provide shelter from the elements, and even though we stopped using caves, we still build our own particular holes to live in.

From what was said, the Element of Earth could be attributed to the suit of coins. It is a place of riches after all. It could also be attributed to spades. The metal thing won’t helps us here, as it is also a reason to associate this element with coins (coins being made of gold or silver or some other metal). But because it is the place where things get broken down; divided into such tiny pieces they can then be of use to other living beings. And cutting things down is what swords are known to do; cutting things to the bone. Just like the earth.

So what do we make of all of this?

Well, the first thing we make is that logic can’t really help us here, as there’s always a logical reason for every attribution that we can think of. As we just saw, for each set of attributions, there are some very strong reasons. And again, for each set, some very weak ones. In a way, as Robert Anton Wilson said, “what the thinker thinks, the prover proves”. So if there’s a way to make this happen, it will happen. (For more on R.A.W. and the tarot, see our previous post here).

So if logic won’t help us, it all comes down to how we see each element: how do we perceive it; what functions does it serve and how can we best fit it with the way we perceive each of the suits. And the truth is, for most readings you won’t even need to bring the elements into play. Again, just go back to out previous posts on the suits and see how, even though they’re slightly mentioned, for the most part we didn’t even mentioned it.

Does this mean that they aren’t useful, then?

Not exactly. They do serve a function. Specially in health readings and to describe personalities, as the elements can be associated with temperaments and health functions. But that’s it. So the best thing to do is to find the set of correspondences you relate the most and work with it. Just stick to a system. This way, the cards will always communicate with you in the same language.

As for what system to use, well, I personally tend to favor the esoteric system, simply because that’s the one closest to heart for me — meaning the one that best worked with the Thoth deck, which was my main deck for close to twenty years. As I moved to the Marseille, I’ve found out that the esoteric system still held, but wasn’t as precise as the cunning folk one. So grudgingly, I ended up switching to the cunning folk whenever I read the Marseille [I mean, who am I to argue with hundreds of years of use of a system? If it really didn’t work, it would have been discarded by now, right?]. 

Thankfully, and as I said previously, the elements really aren’t that necessary in a reading. Just looking at the suits and its functions will get you there most of the time, as I’ve personally found out by comparing my Marseille readings with the ones given by more traditional readers.

So, look into it, see what system catches your fancy and stick with it. Don’t complicate stuff and, specially, don’t start shooting in every direction. Card readings should be precise and accurate. And for the most part, we actually don’t need the elements thrown in there. Even if it can help. So keep it simple.

The Fool’s Journey Through the Tarot Suit of Cups

[This post is part of four-part series on the nature of the tarot card suits. Each of us has chosen to tackle one suit in our own unique way. To see the first in the series, Miguel’s take on Swords, click here: To a Queen of Swords]

When thinking about the suit of Cups in the tarot, it’s helpful to consider the form, shape, and function of a cup itself. We’re looking here at a vessel: something designed specifically to hold, contain, distribute, transport, and – in some cases such as fancy chalices and ornamental goblets – adorn and beautify.

Much like a heart, in fact.

In the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, the suit of Cups is like a microcosm of the overall Fool’s Journey through the tarot. There’s a cycle of being woven throughout the suit that takes us neatly (if not easily or without strife) through the entire spectrum of the human emotional experience and how it plays out in everyday life.

Describing the Suit of Cups

If I had to use one word to describe the suit of Cups, I would chose love. Runners-up would be heart, emotions, soul, feelings. In playing cards this would be the suit of hearts. This is where we live out our interpersonal relationships, our romantic interludes, our painful heartbreaks, our bitter emotional manipulations, our tender compassions, our delicate and vulnerable reaching out for and offering our affection.

In short, we are emotionally involved here. The degree to which that emotional involvement takes place is also oftentimes a subject of the individual card. How much should we be “in deep” emotionally? How detached should we be? How are our feelings triggering our behaviors in our choices and actions? All of it is here in the suit of Cups.

With the Fool’s Journey as our model, let’s look at the suit of cups in four separate sections bookended by the Ace and the King, as the Hero (you yourself, your soul) journeys through the flowing world of the suit of cups.

Ace: Planting a Seed – A New Beginning (From an Ending) 


In the RWS deck, the imagery of a lotus flower rising from the mud is apt. There is beauty here, but in order for it to emerge, it has to hit rock bottom and crawl its way up out of the mud. Think of this (and all Aces, for that matter) as the interplay between beginning and end, much like the infinity symbol. There’s forward motion in terms of something that’s growing in our hearts, but we often can’t determine that exact point at which something that ended made way for fertile ground to bring about the “new.” Beginnings and endings need each other and they are inextricably intertwined. However, when the Ace appears, we’re being encouraged to look ahead to what’s ready to grow and emerge, rather than what we’ve left behind or ended that has brought us to this point.

The Ace shows the first signs of what we might describe as “effusive” emotions. Overflow. Too much to contain. The excitement of a first spark, a crush, an overwhelming feeling of being hit by Cupid’s arrow. It’s simply too much to hold inside and as such it flows outward beyond our physical and emotional borders and boundaries, much like the four streams coming out of the goblet being held out here in the hand from the cloud.

Two, Three, Four: Meeting, Sharing, Refusing


Two: When we move past this initial explosion of emotions we can make a step forward to meet a person where they’re at. If we’re on equal footing as we see in the Two and if we are willing to reach out to a partner who is also reaching out, there can be a true meeting of not only hearts but also minds, under the caduceus of Mercury, God of communication and transport, in this case not only physical but also emotional.


Three: When love extends beyond two people it becomes a celebration of fraternal love, of friends creating a harmonious triangle together and toasting to their good fortune. We’re reminded that we can’t get by in coupled pairs alone – we must also seek out fellowship on a heart level with like-minded individuals who will support us, listen to us, and lift us up.


Four: In our emotional and psychological world, we’re not always open to love. Love and heart-centered sharing isn’t always appropriate or necessary for our growth at any given moment. There are times when we need to say no to love, even if it’s being offered over and over again. If we don’t want what’s being offered, we’ll reject it. We need to draw a fine line however between what we know we don’t want or isn’t good for us, and what we perhaps deem isn’t “good enough” for us. Rejection out of perfection will leave us sitting alone.

Five, Six, Seven: Mourning, Regressing, Imagining


Five: They say don’t cry over spilt milk, but we must. We must cry over loss, because if we don’t, we simply can’t integrate the experience and move forward with a cleansed and willing heart. So cry. Mourn. Look at the spilled milk, the lost love, the missing loved one. Cry over what you can never, ever get back again, no matter how hard you try. You must cry over it as long as you feel you have tears to shed. Then: turn around and start filling up again. There are empty vessels that need contents.


Six: Regressing often has a negative connnotation, but returning to the past isn’t always a negative thing. In the six of Cups we see a return to nostalgic memories of childhood, loved ones from the past, happier times. Cups are used as flower pots. That’s a transitory use but it serves its purpose for the moment – effemeral beauty without deep roots.


Seven: Building castles in the air can be a beautiful thing that opens our heart to magic. But how much of it is real, and how much of it is imagined or idealized? Living love in the world of ideas can be exciting, but it can vanish just as soon as it was conjured. Distinguishing what’s real from what’s imagined is a challenge for the heart, especially when desires are real but reality doesn’t rise to meet the challenge. Seeing clearly with the heart isn’t easy when love is blind.

Eight, Nine, Ten: Leaving, Gloating, Rejoicing


Eight: Stacking cups to make a lasting structure, but one is missing. Sometimes the heart wishes for something that can’t be built in the real world. At that point there’s a fork in the road: either accept the hole in the wall and live with it, or refuse to continue with a missing part and walk away from it altogether. Building with the heart and not just the hands means leaving something behind on an emotional, not just physical, level. And that can hurt. But the way ahead is a conscious choice based on the inner knowing that there’s something better to be had and progress to be made.


Nine: Look at my riches and look at my shiny cups! This is an ego-based love, a love that satisfies a carnal desire or a need for possession. They say this is the wish card, but sometimes what we wish for is like opening Pandora’s box. Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.


Ten: A rainbow of cups, a dancing family, a happy cottage – this is love’s completion, full of joy and contentment. It’s a moment to stand back and be grateful for completing the initial journey through the ups and downs of the emotional rollercoaster of life. Taking refuge in loved ones is cause for celebration.

Page, Knight, Queen: Professing, Offering, Emoting

With the court cards, we see four stages of love’s maturation.


With the Page we have a young, puppy-love sort of feeling – naive and vulnerable, invincible and trusting, playful and unexpected, full of suprises.


The Knight shows us the confidence of early adulthood, offering love’s cup on a gallant white horse, the wings of Mercury flying with the message of love. The fishes on the knight’s coat and the winding stream reminding us that this is a watery field to get involved in – tears will be shed, whether of sadness, joy, or both.


The Queen is our Cups equivalent of the mid-life crisis. She is the utmost in terms of emoting at its fullest, and watch out if she wants to manipulate your emotions. She’s lived long enough to know a thing or two about how emotions and love work, and that gives her powerful insights into the human psyche as well as a dangerous ability to stoke emotional hot buttons for her own ego-driven desires.

King: Reaped What You Sowed – An Ending (For a New Beginning)


Finally in the King we come to the elderly stage of life, love’s completion ready to make way for a new beginning. We see the reverse image of the Ace, in which this ending now makes way for a new beginning, and perhaps we take time to look back over the journey. What we have now that we didn’t have before is wisdom about emotions and love. Now we know how to temper our emotions and we know how to manage the delicate interplay between head and heart. Here we have a wounded king, the proverbial Fisher King, who has been wounded and lost potency, but is ultimately healed. We’ve found emotional stability and emotional balance, and as such, we’ve come to understand something about the fundamental nature of love itself, before beginning the journey once again.

Shelley reads the cards with poetic insights and practical solutions to help her clients navigate the twists and turns of the road of life. You can read more of her writings on Maelstrom Tarot and at her website Sparrow Tarot, and book your own customized reading here.