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The Boiardo 15th c Poem
Tarot history in brief

quotations from various people

Functions of Readings
What is Tarot?


Med. on XVIIII

Emily E. Auger

Tarot and Other Meditation Decks

L. Atkinson

Orphalese Software review

S. Arwen

Memory & Instinct

Kathy Berkowitz

Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 1)
Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 2)
Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 3)
Waite's Mystical Tradition (Pt 4)

Nina L. Braden

Tarot in Literature

David Brice

Birth of Tarot

Colin Browne

Square & Compasses Tarot

Lee A. Bursten

Journeys in Tarot Creation
Vachetta review


Review: The Lo Scarabeo Story

Ross G. Caldwell

Tarot History

Bonnie Cehovet

Tarology - Poetics of Tarot
Review: Secret of Tarot
The Mystereum Tarot

N. Chishty-Mujahid

Concerning Ghisi’s Laberinto

Craig Conley

A House of Tarot Cards

A.B. Crowther

Rachel Pollack interview

Jean-Michel David

On Paneurythmy and Tarot
Tarot's expression of the numinous
Yarker, Tarot & Arcane Schools
Waite-Smith Sun card
The Fool as Wandering Jew
Tarot as Christian Art
Education through Tarot
Tarot: the vatical & the sacral
Fortuna, Ass & Monkey
Steiner and Tarot
1701 Dodal restored!
Enc. Tarot vol I-IV: review
Christ, World & Sin
Caveat Emptor:
       Visual Tarot

Tarot & AlefBeit
Review: Jean Payen Tarot
Tarot and Freemasonry
I-Ching and Pip Cards
Whither directing your course?
Tarot & the Tree of Life
Ovid, Egypt and Tarot
When the Devil isn't the Devil
Four elements and the suits
Court Cards & MBTI
Certification & Codes
Jean Dodal Marseille
Conference FAQs
Golden Dawn
Kabalah & Tarot
Golden Tarot review
Annual spread
Iraqi Museum
Two Brief TdM reviews
Meditations on the Tarot

Enrique Enriquez

The Joy of Wordplay
J-C. Flornoy interview
Embodied Tarot
Indirect Suggestions
Whispering to the Eye

Mark Filipas

History of Egyptian Decks
Lexicon Theory

Jean-Claude Flornoy

in memorium
from Oral Tradition

Roxanne Flornoy

Children and Tarot
from Oral Tradition

Mary Greer

Killing the Thoth Deck
On the Tarot of the Four Worlds
Egypt, Tarot and Mystery School Initiations

William Haigwood

The Sixties: Counterculture Tarot

Alissa Hall

Parlour Tricks

Kris Hadar

The Tarot

Claas Hoffmann

Crowley-Harris 'Thoth' deck

Michael J. Hurst

Tarot Symbolism review

K. Frank Jensen

Century with the Waite-Smith

Shane Kendal

A Poetry of Tarot

Ken J. Killeen

The Metaphysical Bible

Barbara Klaser

Language of Tarot

E. Koretaka

Cardinal Virtues

Dovid Krafchow

Kabbalistic Tarot

Lisa Larson

Perceptions of Spirituality

Suzan E. Lemont

Therapeutic Tarot Work

Eric K. Lerner

Diloggun and Tarot

N. Levine

Tarot of Prague review

C. Liknaitzky

Journey in Ceramics

Joep van Loon

Tarot Wheel

Karen Mahony


S.J. Mangan

Fool, Alef & Orion

Robert Mealing

Petrarch’s Triumphs
Jean Noblet Tarot
Hunting the "true" Marseille Tarot
Cary Sheet

Fern Mercier

Playing the Fool

C. de Mellet

Inquiries into Tarot

Sophie Nusslé

Fantastic Menagerie

Robert V. O'Neill

Tarot Symbolism
Tower Iconology

Michael Owen

Xultun Tarot

Dan Pelletier

Magic Manga Tarot
the Blank Spot

Robert M. Place

The Fool's Journey

Debra Rosenthal

Looking at the Jacques Vieville

Mjr Tom Schick

Tarot Lovers Calendar

Inna Semetsky

Counseling Reading for Spouses
Learning the language of images
Re-Symbolization of Self
Tarot (dis)contents

Diana Sobolewska

'Bateleur's tale'

Russell Sturgess

Jesus's New Testament

N. Swift

Sufism & Tarot

Arthur E. Waite

Symbols of Tarot

The four elements and the suits of the tarot

by Jean-Michel David

As I was preparing this article for the Newsletter, not long after organising an entry under the same topic for and updating my own webpage on the topic, I finally obtained a copy of Mary Greer’s 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card. I must admit that Mary is amongst the few that, except for the more historically oriented authors, I have no hesitation in adding to my shelf – and to refer to! I mention this simply because Appendix C of that book – or more specifically pages 252 – 255, make references to the variety of elemental correlations that is a delight to see, and that I likewise had prepared on my site.

So many authors write in ways that presumes an intrinsic correspondence between the four elements and the four basic suits that, in some ways, a diminution of the core of each suit results: some appear to even be blinded from seeing, for example, an Ace of Swords as a singular sword upheld aloft in one hand – with all the symbolic richness this brings, and instead see a ‘primary influx of the element of air’ (or fire, or whichever element is preferred).

Virgin and the Grail
   Virgin and the Grail

The suits depict not elements, but implements, albeit symbolic, reflective of all the virtues inherent in the uses and guises of the represented tool. What I would personally like to see is a book that took the time to draw out this rich… how shall I describe it… these rich implemental symbolic representations. For example, how far different to consider what Suger said of the sword in the 12th century in A Picture of a Good Feudal King: Louis VI of France:

“The archbishop of Sens, Daimbert, […] on the day of the discovery of the holy protomartyr Stephen [3rd August, 1108], he anointed Louis with the most holy oil of the unction. After celebrating masses of thanksgiving, he removed the secular sword and girded him with the ecclesiastical sword for the punishment of evil-doers, crowned him with the royal diadem and bestowed on him most devoutly the sceptre and the wand […]”

To adorn with a sword has quite symbolic meaning. Similar comments could be made with regards to Coins, to Batons, and to Cups.

But let us return to considerations of the four elements, for in this brief introduction, it is these that are under consideration.

Within the Occidental tradition, there are four elements that are seen as active behind the curtain of physical manifestation, these having their equivalence in a higher octave as the four ‘ethers’. The elements are, in their Alchemical order from most dense to most rarified, Earth, Water, Air and Fire. Essentially, these derive from Greek thought and the formal development of Western Philosophy.

The four elements have been seen to also reflect not only four states or principles or, indeed, substances, out of which matter is composed, but also various psycho-spiritual dispositions or temperaments. Thus we have the four temperamental dispositions: Phlegmatic; Melancholic; Choleric; and Sanguine. How these four humours relate to the four elements has, I would suggest, changed with time as understanding of the temperaments has shifted from a predominantly bodily-focussed approach to a psychological one.

The four humours are not, in any case, our primary concern here, save to mention that they are instructive when considering Court cards. More on that perhaps another time.

Various authors and card designers have made use of the four classical Greek elements in either explaining or in correlating tarot’s four suits, at times also adding trumps and the fifth Aristotelian element or the quintessence. There is no commonly agreed upon manner to correlate suit and element, though various preferences have gained dominance in different parts of the world because of either the popularity of a deck, author or adopted system.

The Greek version of the elements dates from pre-Socratic times and persists throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, deeply influencing European thought and culture. The concept of elements appears, to be sure, to have also developed at an even earlier date in the Far East and disseminated thought India and China, where it also became incorporated in both Buddhist and Hindu esoteric context.

Let’s have a brief look at the grounding of the four elements stemming from Ancient Greece.

Classical elements in Greece

The four elements considered by early Presocratic philosophers were based in part on observation of the world. With Anaximander, two contrasting qualities are suggested: that of heat and of moisture, and their respective absence, cold and dry. Thales had proposed that the world arises from primordial water or moisture, to which Anaximander commented that as moisture does not generate heat or fire, but rather destroys it, heat must be a separate principle.

Modern authors sometimes suggest that each element has its advocate in terms of primacy, and it is commonly listed as: water or moisture, which can exhibit its solid or frozen, liquid, and vaporised staes (Thales); air, that can condense to moisture, and further condense to earth (Anaximenes); earth, through a modern perspective the democritean atomistic view is cast back as an instance of the primacy of earth (Xenophanes); and fire (Heraclitus). This last, as an example, is not strictly correct of Heraclitus, who proposed that each element arises out of the death of another element. He was advocating a state of the world in perpetual motion, rather than a static one, for which the transforming aspect of fire is the clearest. Yet he claimed that fire arises from the death of air, and air from the death of fire; water from the death of earth, and earth from the death of water (cf Guthrie’s The Greek Philosophers: from Thales to Aristotle for a succinct and excellent overview of the period and its thoughts).

Empedocles proposed that they all existed together in fixed quantities from the beginning. Plato later conceived of them as consisting of atoms with the geometrical shapes of four of the five Platonic Solids described in the Timaeus.

Aristotle adopted these elements, adding aether, as quintessence, in which was held aloft the stellar region.

Both the Aristotlelian and Platonic views were ultimately in some form or other adopted and accepted right through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, and hence prominent at the time of tarot’s development.

The four ‘lower’ or basic suits of the Tarot

The four suits used in traditional tarot, apart from the Atouts, are (in alphabetical order) Batons, Cups, Deniers (Coins), and Epees (Swords). These are the ones that have been subject to long-ish associations with the elements.

Personally, I prefer to allow for each element to be considered in each and every suit, and thus for myself: suit does not equal element!

This does not mean that interesting insights cannot be gained from considering an element in relation to a specific suit and seeing how it can add further understanding. In such a case, however, the fiery aspect of a sword, or its watery aspect, or its aerial, or its earthy aspects, are not overlooked, but only provisionally put aside.

For example, there are times when a suit’s characteristics in a specific reading at hand clearly reflects an element more so than others. In a specific instance, the sword, as an implement of war, combined with the courage (and rage) it can display carries with it a fiery connection… but its judicial and more airy aspect is then diminished, as are its watery ecclesiastical characteristics, and its political establishing earthy ones.

Another example, to show something that has not, to my knowledge, been mentioned or displayed in decks that make strict correlations, are the fiery quality of the Cup as grail: the Chalice is infused with the flames of the Holy Spirit (see image above), and the cup is more a vessel (a dish or ‘grail’) than a watery container. In such a consideration, the Fires of the Cup have the ability to transmute or totally transform the individual. For the sake of completeness, however, it should be mentioned that Ed Buryn, in his Blake Tarot, does make a correlation of sorts between cups and fire.

Blake Tarot
   from the Blake Tarot by Ed Buryn

Of the other two associations not previously (to my knowledge) made, Batons and Water can ‘easily’ be considered as the wood that requires, for its very existence and growth, its roots to draw water up and along its outer layer – precisely the layer seen. Cups and Earth can have, as example, an anthroposophical understanding of the redemptive and transformative power of the blood of Christ within the transformed Earth being.

Though change is afoot, most books in print still advocate a strick suit to element correlation.

For the sake of interest, below are correlations made by various people:


























Select bibliography:
Goering, J. The Virgin and the Grail: origins of a legend, Yale Uni. Press, 2005
Greer, Mary 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card, Llewellyn, 2006
Guthrie’s The Greek Philosophers: from Thales to Aristotle Harper, 1960
Suger, in The Portable Medieval Reader, Viking Press, 1949

1 comment to

The four elements and the suits of the tarot

  • Christine Houde

    This article hit right at the heart of an issue that has become very important to me. I want to stop automatically thinking suit is element. What were they before Levi? At least where the RWS is concerned, the pictures often do not reflect the meaning of the element assigned to them. I am most aware of this with respect to to the suit of swords. I’m looking for more information with which to expand the central idea above. Thank you so much for writing it.

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