How Many Elements Are There in Tarot? (Part 2)

In my previous post on this subject, I examined the typical five-element structure of a Tarot deck and argued that actually, this system makes more sense if we reduce it to a four-plus-one system, with the fifth element of “spirit” somehow separated from the four classical elements of earth, air, water, and fire. Really and truly, we can stop there. The four-plus-one model is what I use in my own Tarot practice, and I think that any attempt to further reduce the elemental structure of Tarot has no real purpose. There’s no reason whatsoever to go any further.

But hey. What the hell. Let’s go a little further.

Because the thing is, while the model of the four classical elements is solid, it’s by no means the only one out there. There’s another model, just as old and just as difficult to get rid of: trinitarianism.

The word “trinity” now has distinctly Christian connotations, but it doesn’t have to. In Celtic mythology, there were three worlds: the earth, the sea, and the sky. In the Hellenic tradition, the three sons of Cronos (Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades) claimed the heavens, the seas, and the underworld as their respective domains. Three Fates weave out our futures in black wool. And of course, Wiccans work with the lunar Triple Goddess.

In short, the concept of triplicity is old, and fundamentally human. And if we wanted to, we could easily reinterpret our Tarot elements in the framework of such a trinity.

To do this, we would have to pick one of the four Aristotelian elements (earth, air, water, or fire) to discard. We would have to find a way to say that one of these four is somehow separate from the others, the way that we did earlier with that wacky fifth element, spirit. Looking at our pre-Christian mythological examples, the easy one to single out seems to be fire; it doesn’t appear as separate domain in Celtic and Greek mythology, not the way that the sea and sky do. And if we think about fire in Tarot, the suit of Wands tends to represent very abstract things like “spirituality” and “passion”–things that, to be honest, sound like they belong to the world of fifth-element-spirit, which we’ve already said doesn’t really qualify as an element in the sense of the others.

So one option would be to lump fire and spirit together, call them a “fourth” quasi-element, and set them apart from earth, air, and water (note the circle in the triquetra above). This is more or less what we did previously, transforming the pentacle into the sun cross. (If this doesn’t make sense to you, check out the previous post.) And thus, instead of having a five-element system of Tarot, we would have a three-plus-two-that-are-really-one.

The issue with this is, of course, one of imbalance. Even if we were to assume that spirit is the most important element or quasi-element, blending spirit and fire would grossly imbalance the deck. A full 46% of the cards in the deck would be spirit-related, compared to a measly 18% each for the other three elements. Moreover, a blend of spirit and fire would give spirit a presence in both the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana, throwing off the structure of the deck (even if we do acknowledge the presence of other elemental influences in the Major Arcana, such as water in the Moon or earth in the Hierophant).

Personally, I find these problems irresolvable. Or rather, I find that trying to stick spirit and fire together causes more difficulties than it resolves.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t attempt to reduce beyond the four-plus-one.

Personally, I’m inclined to see the odd element out as earth, for a very simple reason: it’s part of our day-to-day existence in an undeniable, inescapable way that none of the other elements can match. It forms the ground we tread on, and (if we’re going to take a hardcore view of the elements, where everything is made up of some strange combination of the four) the food we eat. In most myths, humankind was molded from earth (although there’s actually a very interesting Mayan myth where men are made of maize). Sure, you can argue that air and water are inescapable, too, because air surrounds us and we need to drink however many cups of water per day, but it just doesn’t feel the same to me.

Earth is what grounds* our material reality. When we talk about someone having a connection to the real world, the here-and-now, we say she’s “down to earth”. Hell, we live on planet Earth. This element, of the four, is the most integral to our existence. And in that sense, it’s distinct from the other three.

I almost see earth as the counterbalance to spirit: it’s pure materialism to counter the pure abstraction of the spiritual realm. In a way, they exist on opposite ends of a spectrum, with the other three elements (air, fire, and water) cycling between them. I mentioned in a footnote of the previous post that we can represent this version of things (this three-plus-one-and-one, if you will) by extending the bottom arm of the sun cross downwards. Now, instead of a circumscribed, equal-armed cross, we have a Celtic cross.** The arms on the top and sides represent our three central elements, fire and water with air mediating between them. The bottom arm descends to the earth and grounds the figure in material reality. And the circle around them all is spirit.

Not five elements, then. Not four-plus-one. Three elements, plus one and one.

Another part of why I like this paradigm is that it fits in directly with a Kabbalistic Tarot framework. In Kabbalah, there are four worlds, corresponding to each of the classical elements, but Assiah (the world of earth) is somehow closer to our own than are any of the others. Moreover, in the Sepher Yetzirah, one of the foundational texts of Kabbalah, there are only three elements: air, water, and fire. Reframing talk of the elements in Tarot in this fashion might prove useful in any explorations into Kabbalistic symbolism.

(Please note, however, that I stop at the four-plus-one model in my own practice. All the rest of this is just a great big mental exercise.)

Of course, if we wished, we could take everything one step further. Instead of five elements, or four-plus-one, or three-plus-two-that-are-really-one, or three-plus-one-and-one, we could just abandon all the complexity altogether and go with a simple duality. Spirit and the material. Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. Two elements. Nice and straightforward.

Or, going in the other direction, we could try to add elements. Six is a good number. Maybe we split the Major Arcana in half (masculine and feminine forms of spirit?) and have a four-plus-one-that’s-really-two model. Or we could even chop the Majors up into thirds (individual/social/universal forms of “spirit”) and have seven elements.

All of this is unduly complicated. Obviously. We have now reached the point of absurdity (unless we want to say that each card of the Major Arcana deserves to be an element unto itself, in which case we have twenty-six elements in total). And really and truly, none of this is actually necessary in order to read Tarot and have a good understanding of the cards.

Still, I think it’s valuable to do things like this, to an extent. I think there’s something to be said for taking a basic assumption like “there are five elements in Tarot” and dismantling it, looking at it from various angles, and trying to see if it could be done better. Asking questions–and then finding a way to answer them–will always lead to a stronger base for personal knowledge. And who knows? Maybe you’ll decide that a four-plus-one-that’s-really-two understanding of the elements is what works best for you. Maybe you’ll design a completely new Tarot deck based on a radical revision of the elemental assumptions that go into the traditional structure of Tarot. You’ll make millions, and I, of course, will take a small share of the royalties as a measure of your gratitude for my having set you on this path.

For me, the four-plus-one works. But I would never have gotten there if I hadn’t started asking questions about Tarot that seem so mind-bogglingly simple at first glance.

*I made a pun. Forgive me.

**And that’s a very Tarot-friendly concept.


2 thoughts on “How Many Elements Are There in Tarot? (Part 2)

  1. Great post, Jack.
    Well, if you look at Thoth (I wrote about it also on my blog), Crowley also follows a trinitarian system in the Major Arcana, where fire-water-air represent the three primary colours and also the three primary elements; Earth is the cross that manifests (the same symbol can be seen on the back of the cards).

    I’ve honestly never been satisfied with the four-element approach; as a kid I always added a fifth one, so imagine my joy when I found out about Akasha!

    In Tarot, I do appreciate following the 4-element path, just because it pays homage to the traditional Egyptian suits that arrived in the 13th-14th century – four suits, four elements, okay. And then Major Arcana would be kind of like “Akasha”, or Kabbalistically speaking, the Ain Soph trickling down the paths on the Tree of Life


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