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The Function of the Elements: The Suits

The traditional minor arcana is divided into four suits which represent the alchemical elements of fire, air, water and earth. Usually these are wands for fire, swords for air, cups for water, and coins for earth.

In a reading the suits serve to lend an atmosphere to the story. Rather than radically modify the plot, they tend to add colour and background. Plot modification generally comes from the individual meanings of the cards. The diviner need only get the feel of the elements in the spread and then continue with the interpretation.

The four elements represent the Tetragrammaton, the four-fold key. The key is used to examine perceived situations in consideration of their manifestation of the elemental qualities. The elemental qualities are the memory perceptions evoked by the words: fire, air, water, earth. The words, being symbols, function as archetypes; they are used to bring up inner emotions and dialogues. These internal perceptions, impressions, are used to examine life events to gain a better understanding of those events by providing a different way of thinking about a situation, the subject of the reading.

Fire represents the fiery aspect of life: energy, force, vitality and will. In a reading a large number of this suit indicates energy. This energy can take many forms: positive, neutral or negative; creating, maintaining, changing or destroying. The nature of this energy becomes apparent as the reading progresses. Fire is also considered to be the expanding element, its influence goes outward causing changes to whatever it contacts.

Air represents intelligence: mental, bodily, spiritual and cultural. When frequent in a reading this suit indicates a matter of intelligence or understanding. This may also be positive, neutral or negative; structured or chaotic. In most of the published picture decks this suit often contains the most images of undesirable circumstances. Air is considered to be the masculine element, its influence is similar to that of a male.

Water is emotion and sense: love, pleasure, devotion and rapture. In a reading many water cards indicates emotional forces and sensual perceptions. Again, these can be positive, neutral or negative: satisfying, sustaining or distressing. Water is considered the most feminine of the series, complementing air, its influence is similar to that of a female.

Earth is material: physical, manifest, real, tangible. This suit often indicates work or possession; whether positive, neutral or negative; fulfilling or futile. Earth is considered to be the condensing element, complementing Fire, its influence draws inward causing change internally by metamorphosis.

Fire and Water do not mix well, nor do Air and Earth. These combinations are said to be "in opposition". In a reading a predominance of both Fire and Water or Air and Earth cards often indicates a negative interpretation of the significance of the individual cards is most likely to be the most helpful in the course of the reading.

Certain combinations of suits tend to indicate positive aspects of individual cards although one suit tends to overpower the other. An allegorical alchemical example is Fire is supported by Air but also consumes the Air whereas Air is strengthened by Water while it consumes the Water in evaporation. The entire relationship of supporting or opposing elements can best be illustrated with a table.

Interrelationship of First Four Elements
elementsupportssupported byopposed to
FireEarth AirWater
AirFire WaterEarth
WaterAir EarthFire
EarthWater FireAir

If your browser does not support tables use this link for a preformatted version of the Table of Elements.

Although the Tetragrammaton is said to be a four-fold key it is considered by many to have five aspects, the fifth being the result of the four together. This is often represented by the five-pointed star with the uppermost point representing the element of life. Some schools accept the major arcana as corresponding to this fifth element while other schools represent life in a fifth suit often called the suit of lamps. The suit which represents the principle of life is usually found only in esoteric decks of mystery schools or in personally created tarots.

When the suit of lamps is used each suit should have five court cards, one for each of the five elements. This extra court card should indicate an androgynous personage, life being both feminine and masculine. Life is neither positive or negative, nor is it neutral. The suit does not relate to the other suits in the same way as they relate to each other. It does not support or oppose other suits. It is just there, adding more access to inner emotions and dialogues.

In 78 card decks the suit of life is the major arcana. The individual cards represent archetypal figures and life events common to human experience. The twenty-two cards can be used as a guide to spiritual development. The fifth suit, whether lamps or major arcana, if frequent in a reading, indicates unseen forces at work, machinations, flows, initiations and resolutions. It is interaction, existence, the ebb and flow of influence, the tide. It is definitely the most complicated of suits.

It does not matter whether a deck has four or five suits plus major arcana. Although a five suit deck presents a greater diversity of symbols, a four suit deck has more than enough symbols to provide a rich reading. The four suit deck is by far the most common being the choice of the commercial publishers and is used by professional card readers.

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This page last updated 9 November, 1997 by Bev Thornton aa200@fan.nb.ca

Copyright © 1997 Bev Thornton, All Rights Reserved.