Q&A with Joy: The Right Order of the Tarot Suits
Have you ever wondered what the right order of the tarot suits is? I have, and so did someone who came into the store yesterday. Discover that order and the philosophy behind it in today’s Q&A with Joy.
Q&A with Joy: The Question
I was in my office toward the end of the day yesterday, when Julie walked up to my door. “Come with me,” she said. Julie’s like this. You never know–is it a reading? A customer with a question? New tarot deck in stock? Something else? I followed. As we were walking down the hall to the store, she explained that she had a customer with a question she couldn’t answer, but she’d bet I could.
We arrived at the front and I saw a man standing by the tarot decks, holding an oversize yellow-box Rider-Waite-Smith deck in his hands. Julie introduced me saying that if I didn’t know the answer to his question no one did. Sheesh. I really hoped it was something easy. I shook hands with the man and asked his name, then inquired what the question was. He asked, “Is there a right order of the suits in a deck? Does one suit take precedence over another?” What a relief! I had asked that question myself years ago and had discovered the right order of the tarot suits.
What is the right order of the tarot suits?
Q&A with Joy: The Answer
When card makers in the fifteenth century added a trump suit to a deck of cards to facilitate the play of trick-taking games, the tarot was born. In the 18th and 19th centuries, French esotericists layered qabalistic correspondences onto the cards and the structure of the deck. In qabalistic philosophy, we have the premise of the four worlds, which summarize the steps of creation. This sequence is a descent from the spiritual level through the emotional, then mental, and arriving in completed form at the physical level. These four worlds are assigned to the four classical elements, fire, water, air, and earth. Because the four elements correspond to the four tarot suits, determining the order of the elements can help us identify the right order of the tarot suits. Following the Golden Dawn associations, the tarot suit of Wands is the element fire, Cups are water, Swords air, and Pentacles earth. Keep in mind that not all decks follow this system and so will follow different principles when determining the order of the suits.
Greek Philosophy and the Elements
The philosophy of the elements is ascribed in the Western World to the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, who postulated the four elements and claimed that everything that is is made of these elements through their interaction with each other via the forces of Love and Strife, or coming together and splitting apart.
Aristotle followed Empedocles and expanded on his ideas. In this philosophy, the elements are ranked according to factors including degree of heat, dryness, and relative weight. These ideas are the basis of modern metaphysical philosophy. Fire is hot, dry, and the lightest of the elements. Its motion is upward. Consequently, it is first in order by weight. Then air, hot and moist, is denser than fire, but still light, hovering, and expanding outward in all directions. Water tends to pool or follow an existing channel, flowing downward. Earth is the heaviest, most solid and dense, and least moving. Accordingly, it is the last in order by weight. The masculine or yang energies, fire and air, rise upward, while the feminine or yin energies, water and earth, sink downward. Following this paradigm, the order of the elements is fire, air, water, earth.
This philosophy is an important influence on modern ideas. It’s helpful to understand this to see how qabalistic philosophy differs.
Qabalistic Philosophy and the Elements
Qabalistic philosophy ranks the four elements according to the Divine Name YHVH and the four worlds. YHVH, called the Tetragrammaton or name of four letters, is the ineffable name of G-d. It can be translated as the verb “to be” and anagrams of these four letters form past, present, and future tenses of the word. This is an underlying component of the idea that the Divine is a creative process.
This concept is further developed with the idea of the four worlds. The highest world, Atziluth, or the World of Emanation, corresponds to the element fire and represents the initial spark or inspiration of an idea that comes out of nowhere. Next, we arrive at the second world, Briah, or the World of Creation, which corresponds to the element water. Think of this as the dream state, where you fantasize about all the variations of how you can make that idea work. The third world, Yetzirah, or the World of Formation, is the element air and limits those variations, making choices, and cutting away or editing to arrive at the best method for bringing the spark into reality. In the end, we come to a rest at the fourth and final world, Assiah, or the World of Manifestation, and the element earth. Here is the final finished product. The order of the worlds supplies the order of the elements: fire, water, air, earth.
Precedence of One Element Over the Other
In the qabalistic philosophy, there is a polarity to the descent of the energy. It flows from masculine to feminine, to masculine, to feminine. Fire, then its opposite water, then air, then its opposite earth. The interplay of yang and yin energies is necessary to the creation process. The Aristotelian philosophy also describes the way the elements combine to create things. However, due to the ordering of the elements by weight, it tends to focus on how they separate from each other. In contrast, the qabalistic philosophy while ordering the elements by opposition, alternates these opposites. This in turn stresses their interaction, how they receive each other and the outcome as they send the energy on. Consequently, they highlight the process of creation. The order of the worlds, and by extension the elements and the suits of the tarot deck, while creating a specific order, does not create an inherent hierarchy, in which one suit takes precedence over the other. Rather, each tarot suit interacts with each other in unique ways.
The Answer: The Right Order of the Tarot Suits
Following the qabalistic philosophy of the four worlds, the elements in order are fire, water, air, earth, so the right order of the tarot suits is Wands, Cups, Swords, Pentacles.