It seems like a simple question at first. There are five elements in Tarot, each represented by one of the five suits: Pentacles for earth, Swords for air, Cups for water, Wands for fire, and the Major Arcana for the mysterious quintessence that Wiccans tend to label “spirit”.
The first four are the classical elements that underlie much of Western thought. Aristotle classified them (as he so loved to do) along two scales: hot/cold and wet/dry. Thus, earth is cold and dry, air is hot and wet, water is cold and wet, and (you guessed it!) fire is hot and dry. And here is where we get the idea that earth is the opposite of air and water is the opposite of fire–an idea that still directly influences the way the elemental dignities are read in Tarot today.
Our initial answer to this question, then, is five. And for many people, it’s sufficient to stop there. (This is especially true, once again, for Wiccans, because it fits into the Wiccan five-element cosmology. Hence the pentacle above, with five points each representing one of the five elements.) Truth be told, if I were talking about Tarot with anyone unfamiliar with the deck, I would probably stick to this answer and go no deeper.
But what the hell? Everyone here knows Tarot, or at least I’m assuming we all do. So let’s go deeper.
The whole five-element structure has always felt a bit weird to me because there’s an overlap between the fifth element (spirit) and the first four. Many readers actually assign elemental values to the Major Arcana cards themselves,* so that no card is just a spirit card. They’re all spirit-plus-air, or spirit-plus-fire, or so on. That looks strange to my eyes, especially because we don’t do it with any of the other suits. We don’t really say that the Ten of Wands is fire-plus-earth, or that the Ace of Swords is air-plus-spirit. (The exception to this is, of course, the Court Cards, which are often read as a combination of elemental energies; but even there, spirit never comes into the equation.)
And then in addition to that, the fifth element throws the whole duality principle out of whack. Spirit isn’t the opposite of anything. It doesn’t fit into our neat little Aristotelian polarities (unless, I suppose, you want to say that it is neither hot nor cold and is neither wet nor dry). And when you try to represent the five elements graphically–as in the pentacle above–the presence of spirit skews the visual presentation of those polarities. After all, no matter how you arrange the elements at the points of a star, air is not opposite earth. At best, it’s 72 degrees away.
So perhaps a better way to think about the elements, would be as four-plus-one. There are the four classical elements, the suits of the Minor Arcana opposite each other and balancing each other in various ways. And then there’s this strange fifth thing that overlies them. It’s not exactly an element, not in the sense of the other four, but it surrounds them and is, in one sense or another, part of each of them. This vision of the elements could be represented not with a pentacle, but with something like the following:
Some of you may recognize this image as a modified version of the Sun Cross. A different version of it (without the points of the cross extending beyond the circle) is also used in contemporary astrology, if I’m not mistaken, as a representation of the Earth. At least, this glyph represents the Earth in Malkuth on most versions of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (but more on that later).**
Contrast the balance of this image with that of the pentacle above. Both are circumscribed and present a sense of wholeness, of ontological and metaphysical completion. And for many people the pentacle will probably be preferable. But to my eye, the Sun Cross makes more sense. Here, we have the four classical elements in balance with each other,*** held together and kept in check by some unifying principle that’s somehow superior to any of the four. That principle is, of course, spirit, and is represented by the circle.
Why all of this emphasis on silly graphical representations? Well, color me silly, but I think images have power. (Hell, that’s why I read Tarot in the first place.) I find immense value in deconstructing and analyzing my thoughts about something like the elements, and one of the most effective ways for me to do that is to look at a visual representation of the kind of elementary interrelations implied by those thoughts. There is no better way to understand the way we see the metaphysical world than to look at the way we draw it.
(On a tangentially related note that may, at some point, inspire another blog post, this idea–the importance of visual representations as reflections of metaphysical understanding–is a large part of why I so strongly dislike the classical Tree of Life diagram and ended up building my own version of the Kabbalistic glyph. But none of that for now.)
For me, the Sun Cross and the four-plus-one view of the elements that accompanies it has always resonated much more powerfully than the five-element pentacle. This is a symbol I use in my own personal Tarot practice and in the meager scraps of what can be considered my spirituality (see this post). It fits better, for me, to think of that “fifth element” as not really an element–or at least not in the same way that the other four are.
But this post isn’t just about me, personally, or my issues with the use of the pentacle as a graphic representation of the elements. (I actually have many issues with this, but I’ll spare you the tedium of listing them all now. Perhaps another time.) It’s about trying to reevaluate the way that I (we) think about some of the basic tenets of Tarot. I had actually planned for this post to be longer, and to discuss a third possible answer to the titular question, but I think I’ll have to save that for another time. I try to keep my posts to around 1,000 words so that people will actually have the time to read them, and I’ve already gone far past that limit.
How do you think of the elements in Tarot? Are there five? Four-plus-one? Just four? One hundred and eighteen?**** I’d be interested to hear what people have to say. For now, though, I’ll sign off and leave you in peace. Stay tuned for Part 2.
*The Emperor is fire, the Moon is water. You get the idea. The primary way I know of doing this is by using astrological associations, but I’ve also come across some readers who do it intuitively. e.g. “I get a strong sense of earth from the Hanged Man; this is a card about learning how to ground yourself and accept what comes your way…”
**Yeppers. I’m into Kabbalah. At some point, I may give in and start putting some specifically Kabbalah-oriented posts on ye olde blog, but I’m a bit hesitant because I get the impression that most Tarot enthusiasts really don’t give a damn about Kabbalah. And I don’t want to write things that other people will find boring. But we’ll see. This blog is ultimately about my Tarot interests, and it may take a slight turn for the Kabbalistic.
***One really interesting thing about the Sun Cross, though, is that you can extend the bottom arm of the cross (earth) downwards so that it’s longer than the others. When you do this, you get a Celtic Cross. Same idea of the four elements bound together by the circle of spirit, but now it’s more grounded in the material world, which makes sense, in a way. After all, earth is the element that most immediately affects our lives, and you could easily argue that (since it’s the element we live on/in/around/whatever-preposition-you-choose) it somehow stands apart from the other three elements and is the most important of the four. Actually, I’ll be discussing this exact idea in the follow-up to this post.
****This was an obscure reference to the periodic table. Chemistry joke. Forgive me.