The Four Suits

Air, Water, Earth, Fire (L to R)


Background: The Four Elements

In setting about the study of natural magic, or the way nature does things when properly prompted and observed, we encounter things which she might not do without prompting, and so we have the very definition of revealing one of her secrets.  The revealing of secrets, as technology and science bloomed, appeared to simply get easier as time went on, and it did, because it was based on the cumulative experience of human culture.

Distillation by H. Brunschwig, Liber de Arte Distillandi de Compositis,1512
Distillation of Medicine by H. Brunschwig, Liber de Arte Distillandi de Compositis,1512

Part and parcel of the progressive, humanist mind was to consider the way the world might work, the number of things that had yet to be explained in a way that could be observed.  One of the few things inherited from the ancients that was known to be continuously useful, was the theory of the Four Elements.

The dividing of the world into four is one thing the people in the Renaissance could know for certain extended through time.  There are of course the four cardinal directions of North, South, East and West, which define the Earth in a way; now draw a circle around this the way the Sun circles the earth (not so true anymore) and you get a wheel with four spokes.  Draw another wheel around that and you get the ‘serpent skirt’ of stars which does the hoola-hoop around us continually like a snake eating its tail, the ‘girdle’ of stars divided into twelve Zodiac wedges, to roughly match the twelve phases of the Moon.

The Moon domain was beyond, and by all appearances ruled the rhythm of the year.  The count of its twelve cycles controlled the cycle of planting and sowing that kept everyone alive.   And to match the four cardinal directions on Earth, you had four cardinal points of the Zodiac, whichever was overhead making each season like a direction of its own.  The two wheels combined describe space and time.

Lani Kennefec

The cardinal signs of the Zodiac have survived beyond antiquity’s symbolism by being renamed for the Four Evangelists.  The Lion, the Eagle, the Bull and the Man can easily be matched to old the accounts of ‘four living creatures’, which are sometimes combined to form a chimera.  Leo for the height of Summer, Aquarius the low point of Winter, Taurus for the Spring and the Eagle for the Fall equinoxes within the Northern half of the planet.  Don’t let the Ophiuchus the Snake Handler constellation in the chart above for throw you off, for in the sky, it is right beside Scorpio, which took its place for our culture.   In Babylon, the constellation was seen as a titan with snakes for legs.  A reference to many myths, but in general belongs to the Hercules family (which describes a time period), it describes the combination of the sky and the earth, the above and below in one.  Several of our 88 classical constellations feature snakes.

Johannes Mylius, 1622, the Alchemical Sun in Four Stages. Scholars were aware that the new cardinal points had shifted ahead one full sign since the old days.
Johannes Mylius, 1622, the Alchemical Sun in Four Stages. Scholars were aware that the cardinal points had shifted ahead one full sign since the old days.

Together the four cardinal signs form a turning wheel, a symbol known from the earliest petroglyphs, so old it can’t properly be said to belong to any culture we would recognize at all.  Don’t be thrown off by these seasons not matching their signs, a great deal of time has passed since they were invented, and the Zodiac no longer matches our calendar the way it once did (the sun has drifted off by about one full month against their background).

January 1, 2000 BCE
January 1, 2000 BCE
January 1st, 2000 CE
January 1st, 2000 CE

The old philosophers also found four elements useful to describe interactions in nature.  These were also distinct as though cardinal, but could be mixed in various ways.  So what practical use did the elements of fire, earth, air and water continue to have here on Earth?  In the Renaissance, the elements were still in circulation in the sciences for their value in describing two things – chemical behaviors (we still refer to alcohol as ‘firewater’, to use an example, or the highly corrosive liquid acid Aqua Regis calling it a ‘water’). Most commonly, it was used to diagnose physical symptoms of illness.  Inherited from the ancients as part of the early sciences, the four elements in reference to conditions of the body were called the Four Humors.  The four humors were Red Blood (Huma), Yellow Bile (Cholia), Black Bile (Melancholia) and Green Phlegm(a), matching Air, Fire, Earth and Water respectively.  The levels and mixing of these humors in the body were believed to give rise to four temperaments as symptoms.

By studying these various layers of a four-fold wheel, you will grasp the tone and interpretation that has long been applied to the four suits right away, and see why the Renaissance humanists reached for them immediately as a pre-existing model of ancient philosophy upon which to add their trumps and invent the Tarot.  In this case, I wholly support this method, it’s great mental exercise.


Stanza della Segnatura, 15th Cent. An example of developing Church humanism, with its own Elemental correspondences on display.
Stanza della Segnatura, 15th Cent. An example of Church humanism, with its own Elemental correspondences on display.  The Tarot presents a four-fold humanist formula of symbols that looks further back in time.

Putting them to Use

Of course we no longer have any scientific use for the four winds, the cardinal directions, elements or humors, so the old mystic power of the number four might not have much common sense value to us.  But we can look at four wheels as the most stable arrangement for a car, and some still cross themselves with an intersection.  But we did eventually discover that there are actually a limited list of stable elements that making up most every bit of matter in the cosmos, and while there’s more than four (instead, there are eighty elements), their interactions do make for all natural phenomena just the same, from starlight to photosynthesis.   Their combinations and interactions with energy result in shape changing from gas to liquid to solid.  It is every bit as the classical philosophers were trying to understand, only more wonderful, and detailed, and surprising… to an exponential scale.

Beyond this we discovered that all the elements are atoms of different sizes, confirming another theory long held before seen, and now have found the atoms are made of even smaller basic elements: the neutron, proton, and electron, and we have managed to take a picture of an electron at last.  So while we have eighty kinds of stable atom, we find that these are the result of just a handful of even smaller elements, bringing back to a similar reality once imagined as the classical earth, fire, water and air.   So in modern times, we’ve never departed from being able to say, in a sense, that the universe is indeed made up of just a few elements, and the world as we know it is produced by the interaction of different forces working by and upon combinations of these elements.  Real magic is just something that science has yet to explain.

So it’s important to absorb that this subject, the way the suited cards will be handled, was the poetic understanding of natural magic at the time of the Renaissance, and that it was not occult, it actually represented a scientific theory of the time.  It was dry and practical, not a subject of veneration, and only in the occult do you find attempts to revive magical meaning by pointing a sword in each direction or writing a mystical symbol of each of these.  The old conjuration of placing yourself as the center of the earth by drawing a circle divided by the four directions, a prehistoric shamanic practice, of course has more meaning as internal, personal action than it does anything to do with the way the outer world works.  Perhaps we will see attempts to draw the symbols of all 80 elements, that would be a thoroughly modern magician to be sure.

The Techno-Chemical Receipt Book, 1886
The Techno-Chemical Receipt Book, 1886.  A manual of chemistry.

Being able to read the suited cards relies upon this old understanding of the elements and their interaction, and combined with some basic numerology, you will eventually be able to read the numbered cards with ‘instinct’ and not rely on a fairly arbitrary system of titles alone.   The four suits that make up the Minors in a deck of Tarot have no better match for free association than the four elements, central and enduring for breaking apart and analyzing the natural world.    They lend themselves well to visualization, non-binary comparison, and conceptual interaction.  Spilling a liquid that burns is fiery, one that refreshes is watery, while anything liquid is watery in some respect in the first place.  Filling a barrel with wine will make it earthy in the sense that it weighs more, and pouring the barrel out is an airy thing to do, or perhaps a fiery one if it was done in the heat of anger.  Thinking too much is having a storm in one’s head, with too much wind.

Leonhard Thurneysser, Quinta Essentia, 1524
Leonhard Thurneysser, Quinta Essentia, 1524.  Alchemical macrocosm.

By introducing the elements I do not recommend actually believing that these four ideas are materially accurate in explaining the behavior of the natural world.  It would miss the mark to say the elements should be classed as beliefs for the 15th century either, rather they are attempts at analytical thinking.  We’ve discovered microbes and the nervous system and many other better, though considerably more complicated, explanations for what the body does than the four vague Humors the Renaissance doctors stumbled around with.  We are certainly better off for it.

Once used to them, the Four Elements are highly valuable as poetic classifications, a non-rational structure that can help loosen up fixations and mental road-blocks.  Use them as solvents, to dissolve hardened ideas and break them down into something you can observe and measure.  The four elements are good fun, and they won’t conflict with your rational knowledge by having to digest volumes of archaic information literally, instead they make of the Tarot a kind of virtual stage for nonlinear free-association that has everything to do with its endurance.


The Suit of Coins – Earth

Coins, Disks, or Pentacles evolved into our Diamonds, and in German culture, Bells.  The suit stands for what we call the Aristotelian element of Earth.  In the case of Earth, we have a tradition of the element standing for material activity.

Coins have the association of commerce, wealth and growth.  The attitude of the element includes concepts like elegance, generosity and management. Diamonds, like gold, cut through worldly affairs like nothing else.  Coins inversely can deliver a meaning of waste, squander, hoarding, and the diseases caused by greed.


The Suit of Cups – Water

Cups evolved into our own Hearts, as it is known in almost all western playing cards, except in the Swiss deck, where the suit became Roses.

The suit traditionally stands for the element of Water.   In the case of water, we have a tradition of the element standing for matters of the heart.

Cups have the reputation for questions of romance, happiness, joy, and freedom.  They also may attract inverse interpretations that come from excess, mad desire, disappointment, illusion and obsession.   What’s helpful in distinguishing the ‘heart’ of Cups from the ‘fire’ of Staves is that Water settles and pools, so the Cups suit describes the experiences of the heart.  Fire spreads and radiates, the suit of Staves then describes actions of the heart (among your other parts).

The Suit of Swords – Air

Swords evolved into our Spades, as well as Leaves, and in Switzerland, Shields.  The suit traditionally stands for an element, that of Air.  While no one can take a physics class that teaches the classic four elements as a theory of science any longer,  the symbolic meaning of the element, in terms of personal development, still has value.

In the case of air, we have a tradition of the element standing for mental activity.  Swords have a reputation for trouble and conflict, a good fit for the suit of plots, schemes and strategy.  The Ace of Spades is widely regarded as the most sinister single card.  I think it’s appropriate that mental activity has an edgy reputation.  Swords can also deliver meanings of wit, skill, negotiation and judgement.

The Suit of Staves

Staves in Tarot are variously called Wands, Rods, Batons, and sometimes Arrows.  The suit of Staves actually evolved from a Mameluk suit of Polo Sticks, the only of their suits changed by the Tarot, which in turn became our familiar French suit, Clubs.  Staves can appear as a club of the sort Heracles carried, ordinary sticks, or the emblem of a Clover or Tree.  The Germans turned it into Acorns.

The suit traditionally stands for the element of Fire.  In the case of Fire, we have the element standing for natural interactivity and human passion.

Staves have a reputation for impulsive action and daring, for tempers and mob rule, and also for “the explosive interaction of things that nature has set aside spectacular outcomes for” as Agrippa, a lawyer who defended accused healers against the Inquisition, once explained about the confusion between natural magic (science) and malevolent witchcraft in his time.  Wood is a useful material, stacked like fuel, put on the fire to draw heat from its stored energy, and shaped into useful objects, like boats, buildings and machines.

German Suits