Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes
The topic for the upcoming BlogHop (to be published September 23) is to talk about a time when your understanding of the Tarot underwent a quantum leap, what brought about the change in your understanding of the Tarot and how you approach the Tarot differently than you did before the change. In preparation for that post, I’m going to share an article I presented to the Denver Tarot Meetup in September 2006. This is the background to the quantum leap I will be sharing in my BlogHop entry–when I first understood the association of the four elements to the tarot suits.
I made a few edits to the following article to streamline it and provide some clearer details.
The Elements of the Tarot
Initially Presented to The Denver Tarot Meetup Group
September 14 and 21, 2006
By Joy Vernon
About a month ago I joined a local tarot group. The first meeting I attended was at a local holistic store and I got the chance to make many new friends, including the leader of the group Scott. That night the meeting concluded with an exchange of readings. Scott did a quick reading for me with Ellen Cannon Reed’s Witches Tarot, which I had never used before.
About 4 a.m. that night I was unable to sleep due to tarot images floating through my mind, and I started typing up some of my own notes about the reading. As I was doing my own interpretation of the cards from memory, I began to wonder about two cards that were very different from the traditional images, the Ten of Wands and the Seven of Wands. The primary symbol I remembered from the Ten was a person holding a photograph of a house with a wooden fence in the yard. For the Seven, I remembered that a figure was painting the wands on a canvas. I have since purchased the deck and will here describe the cards in more detail.
The Ten of Wands, which traditionally shows a person carrying a heavy burden of ten staves on his back, was interpreted as a quaint two-story stone cottage with a chimney and an open door. A stone wall marked the front edge of the lawn, and an opening in the wall led down onto the stony bank of a swift stream. There was a large overhanging tree limb foregrounded, entering the scene from the right hand side, and ten plain, evenly spaced, vertical poles extended from the stone wall in a fencelike pattern. Foregrounded and on the left was just a glimpse of an arm clothed in yellow, a glance of a face, and a hand holding up a photograph of the two top-story windows and chimney of the house. The perspective suggested that this figure was on the opposite bank of the stream.
The Seven of Wands showed a figure very like the photographer in the Ten, but here we saw more of his face and arms. His right hand held a palette and his left a brush dipped in yellow paint. A wooden easel held a gray canvas upon which seven horizontal wooden poles were evenly spaced. The artist had just made a yellow mark near the second pole from the top. Traditionally, the Seven of Wands shows a man using a staff to fight off six attackers.
I wondered as to the meaning of these new cards and pulled from my knowledge to make an interpretation. Wands, I thought, represent business and enterprise and are associated with the element fire. Of course, I reminded myself, on occasion wands can represent air. Was that perhaps the case here? Both cards used a two-dimensional image, the photograph of the house and the painting of the wands, as part of the imagistic symbolism. What a fascinating conceptualization of the mental plane, a plane that is separated from the physical by one remove, the remove of that piece of paper, the interpretation, the limited (limitless in some cases, perhaps) perspective. The symbolism was so powerfully communicated that without seeing the rest of the deck, I decided to go out on a limb (pun intended) and make the assessment that this deck used Wands to represent the element air.
Why, I thought, do some otherwise fairly traditionally derived decks make the elemental swap between Wands and Swords? I was quite familiar with the idea and knew that it was commonly accepted. But was it a commonly employed symbolism? I have taught tarot classes for years and only one student had ever used a deck with the swapped attributions. I decided I wanted to know more about how and why the elements were related to the suits of the tarot.
Traditionally, Wands are associated with the element fire, Cups with water, Swords with air, and Pentacles with earth. There is the occasional deck with the completely non-traditional association, such as the Italian Crystal deck and its association of swords with water. And some occult writers have argued a cosmogony quite different from that of the traditional decks, such as A. E. Thierens who associates Wands with air, Pentacles with fire, Cups with water, and Swords with earth (17-27). Even Eliphas Levi, whom we will see is partly responsible for the elemental suit attributions as we know them, refers in Transcendental Magic to Wands as fire, Cups as water, Swords as earth, and Pantacles (sic) as air (233). So certainly, it is easy to see that beginning in the early days of the occult tradition in tarot there was little consensus on these attributions.
So how did we arrive at these standard associations anyway? To answer that, I delved into the history of the cards. Scholars have traced playing cards back to China and Korea. Interestingly, cards seem to have developed from paper money, which was first used in China during the T’ang Dynasty, 618-908 (Douglas 19). Our first written reference to Western cards is in the fourteenth century in Switzerland, although the major arcana, which distinguishes the tarot pack, is not specifically referred to until between 1450 and 1470 in Italy. The cards were used at this time for playing a trick-taking card game.
It is likely that the tarot is related to the Art of Memory, a mnemonic device traced to the 6th c. BCE, that associates detailed images with specific places, such as architectural details in a temple and which is related to a method of teaching in which stock allegorical images are combined to tell moralistic stories (approx 15th c CE but thought to have developed earlier) (Douglas 34). Cards maintained Italian suit marks until 1750, after 1750 we begin to see French suits (Douglas 22).
Alfred Douglas postulates that the symbolism of the trumps is parallel to Gnostic beliefs, which developed during the early centuries of Christianity (32-33). Early cards also show influences from Christian, Gnostic, Islamic, Celtic and Norse mythology (Douglas 33-34).
The first written work associating tarot cards with occult traditions is the 18th century work was by the French author, Antoine Court de Gébelin, Le Monde Primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne, 1781. Court de Gébelin’s argument, attractive but unconvincing, was that the cards had an Egyptian origin and that they derived from Thoth, god of magic and of writing. Appended to his chapter was an essay written by Comte de M(ellet), who assigned the tarot trumps to the Hebrew letters, starting with the first letter, aleph, corresponding to the last card of the Major Arcana, the World. Eliphas Lévi in 1855 wrote Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, which associated the tarot trumps with the paths of the Tree of Life, assigning aleph to the Magician, shin to the Fool, and the final letter tav to the World. From here, writers from the Golden Dawn, such as Mathers and Waite, worked with the different systems, ultimately modernizing the symbolism into what it is today.
It is considered likely that the card suits were developed from earlier mythological references. Although some scholars hold the interesting theory that the suits derive from the emblems sometimes held in the four arms of the Hindu deities, these emblems are so varied in common depictions as to dilute any possible association with the tarot suits. The Hindu iconography utilizes five elements, adding in ether, which do indeed relate to the emblems. However, Hindu symbolism provides no established set of emblems held by any one deity. Also, there is no historicity regarding an association of the emblems with Indian playing cards, which are quite different from European.
More likely the suits developed from the twelfth century idea of the Grail Hallows—Grail, Spear, Paten, Sword of Spirit. It is probable that these in turn developed from the Celtic treasures—Cauldron of regeneration, Spear of Lug, Stone of Fal, Sword of Nuada (Walker 28 and Douglas 37), because these Celtic myths were being translated into French around that time, the period of the Norman conquest of Britain.
A final apposite but mundane postulation is that the suits are representations of the Medieval European class structure: nobility (swords), clergy (cups), merchants (Coins), peasants (clubs) (Douglas 36).
The next question I asked myself was how each element came to be associated with a particular suit. Eliphas Levi, whose work bridges the Renaissance occult traditions of the Kabbalah and alchemy with the Victorian post-Theosophist Golden Dawn, which in turn has provided us with the Waite-Smith deck and all its contemporary derivatives, assigns the suits to the Tetragrammaton, YHVH (Levi, M Greer). Tetragrammaton means “The Name of Four Letters” and is the most sacred, unpronounceable name of God, often transliterated by scholars as Yahweh or Jehovah. Like Sanskrit, another ancient spiritual language, Hebrew does not always place the vowels in words, creating an inherent poetic flexibility in the language. YHVH can be translated as “to be” and by anagramming its letters becomes the past or future tense of that verb. The ideas of “was,” “is,” and “will be” are especially relevant to the suits of the Tarot, which we will see utilize the symbolism of the Tetragrammaton to suggest a cyclical pattern of transformation.
Hebrew is also a very symbolic language. Each letter has a meaning and a numeric value, and the occult tradition assigns each an astrological value as well.
Yod means the first spark of energy, the original initiating force the sets the creative process in motion. Solitude, isolation, innocence, seed before germination. “fist”. Virgo and The Hermit. The Father. (Greer, Paths 23-24) Chokma. Yang. Fire (Greer, Circles 346).
Heh is the environment in which the energy of Yod manifests itself. The matrix of creative process, the existing pattern, stable and balanced, unable to create on its own. When set in motion by an outside force it has great power. Receptiveness, passivity, stability. “Strength in motion, calm but overwhelming as the current of a great river.” “window.” Aries, the Emperor. The Mother. (Greer, Paths 24) Binah. Yin. Water (Greer, Circles 346).
Vau is the product or issuance of Yod and Heh, the interaction between the pure creative force and the stable but receptive situation it encounters. The act of creation, process of change, old giving way to the new. Heh completely absorbs Yod, Yod completely transforms Heh, destroying each other in the production of this new thing. Progress, continuation, stability united with movement, labor and endurance. “Nail.” Taurus, the Heirophant. The Son. (Greer, Paths 24) Tiphareth. Air (Greer, Circles 347).
Heh final is the conclusion of the creative process, the establishment of a new pattern of balanced forces. Crystallization, solidification, the return to stability. The new environment has many qualities of the old (first Heh), but not the same. The Daughter. Now able to be the matrix for a new initiating force. Indicative of the never-ending process of creation and renewal. (Greer, Paths 24-25). Malkuth. Earth (Greer, Circles 348).
Get more information on the Tetragrammaton and an associated tarot spread in my article We Will Become The Story That We Tell: The Revolutionary Wheel Spread.
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Joy Vernon has been studying and teaching energetic and esoteric modalities for more than twenty years. She is the organizer of the Denver Tarot Geeks and Denver Tarot Meetup, and she served on the faculty of Avalon Center for Druidic Studies. She is one of the Psychics of Isis and has been featured at SpiritWays, the Mercury Café and psychic fairs throughout the Denver Metro and Northern Colorado. She is a Certified Professional Tarot Reader and a member of the American Tarot Association and Tarosophy Tarot Association. Joy also teaches Traditional Japanese Reiki. For information on upcoming classes or to schedule an appointment, please visit JoyVernon.com.
© 2014 by Joy Vernon. All rights reserved.
Joy Vernon is widely recognized by tarot professionals as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty years’ experience teaching energetic and esoteric modalities, Joy brings expertise and practiced familiarity to her specialty of esoteric tarot, which layers astrological and qabalistic symbolism onto the traditional tarot structure. Under her leadership, the Denver Tarot Meetup has grown into one of the largest and most active tarot-specific meetups in the world. Joy works as a tarot reader, astrologer, and teacher at Isis Books. To learn more, please visit JoyVernon.com.