THE ELEMENTS AND THE SUITS
Firstly, why do we want to apply the four classical elements to the Tarot suits at all? Why can't we just let the suit emblems speak for themselves, without some esoteric overlay?
Well, for one thing, any quality you could possibly see in one of the suits is going to be a quality of one of the four Elements, as they are a total and comprehensive index of everything. Let's take a random card from the Aeclectic 'learning section'.
Four of Pentacles
"A man holds tight to his four pentacles in this card. And in this case, the refusal to budge may be damaging. This is the miser card. Remember how the Querent got more work, money, luck, health in the last card, the Three of Pentacles? Well, he's holding on tight to what he's got, not sharing it with anyone, not investing it in the future, just holding onto it, trying to keep it still and unchanging. When this card appears it tells the Querent that they're in a position of status, health, money, even comfort. Solid, and unchanging. But the Querent is too afraid of losing all this."
That could be a textbook description of a poorly dignified Phlegmatic. Whether or not the author intended the Four of Pentacles
to be expressive of Elemental Water, I don't know. Never the less, it is.
"Okay! So What?!"
you ask. If anything
one can say about a card is going to be 'elemental' either way, why should we worry about calling it Fire or Water?
The reason is this
When we use cards for divination or insight, we are using a finite set of symbols to express what's going on for a querent, and this could be anything! We are using the cards to symbolically represent everything/anything
. So what we need is a way to connect the numbers and suit emblems to all the possible situations a querent may be in.
"Should I retire up North in Vermont, or down South in Florida?"
Ah! The 2 of Coins
. Is that Vermont or Florida?
Clearly we need a system that connects the cards to all the possibilities in a clear and understandable way. This is exactly
what we have in the classical Elements.
We could just make up a system ourselves I guess, but why? We have a system that has been perfected and fine tuned for most of Western history by some of our greatest thinkers. But if you think you can out-reason
people like Aristotle, you are made of greater stuff than I.
The Elements and suits make a particularly good marriage, since all four of the suit emblem's basic meanings fit snugly with an aspect of an Element. While I can't say that the suit emblems were intentionally designed to represent the four Elements, assigning them in a meaningful way is very simple.
So, which suit emblem best fit which Element?
Originally Posted by Melanchollic
Swords = The instrument of war. Emblematic of man's aggressions and the right of rule.
Batons = The instrument of agriculture and husbandry. Emblematic of labour and productivity.
Coins = The medium of trade, security, material comforts.
Cups = The instrument of giving and receiving drink. Emblematic of sociability, pleasure, and the forming of bonds and alliances (holy union, marriage, etc.)
If we accept the above 'basic meanings' of the suits as being valid, then only one possible combination could work based on the meaning of each element and the meaning of each suit -
Swords - Fire
Cups - Air
Coins - Water
Batons - Earth
Add to this that the suit emblems would have been historically
associated with those specific elements. Nicholas Le Rouge's very popular Shepherd's Calendar
(Troyes, c1495.) illustrates some of these common period associations of the Four Elements and Tempers.
The associations here are:
WATER.....Phlegmatic....Sheep.........Money (coin purse)
The Sword is often seen representing Elemental Fire. Fire is not only 'short-tempered' and aggressive, but it is also the element of Fire that has a 'cutting' intellect. Lions, and eagles often are used to illustrate Fire and the Choleric temper.
Air and the Sanguine temper are considered cheerful, witty, entertaining, and sociable, but inconstant. The monkey is shown as being Sanguine. I've also seen horses and peacocks used to illustrate this temperament. The illustration of Sanguine in post #227 shows a goat eating grapes, symbolizing amorousness and his love of drink. The accompanying verse proclaims, "His proneness both to women, and to wine..."
The Cup is emblematic of both the pleasures and formal bonds. The most formal is of course the Eucharist. The Sanguine fluid is Blood, the carrier of Air. Here the connection of Air as Blood/Wine and the Communion Cup
become quite literal.
The Phlegmatic, being Cold and Wet, was traditionally symbolized by merchants. Merchants profit off other's labors, and are seen as lazy (wet), and were characterized as unfeeling (cold). The astrological tradition gives rulership of money, trade, merchants, exchangers, bankers, etc. to the sphere of Mercury, who William Lilly explicates is ruled by the Element of Water. The associations between money being "liquid", and the central role of the sea and ships in trade reinforce the symbolic importance of the Coin being emblematic of Water. In the illustration above, the Phlegmatic is symbolized by a Sheep. I've also seen references to Asses.
The associations of Elemental Earth with labor are common. In astrology too, the earthy planet Saturn is the ruler of agriculture, shepherds and labors, and can be symbolized by the staff. The associations between old age, Earth, and Saturn (Father Time) also suggest a walking stick. The Melancholic man is shown above with a pig or boar.