Meanings of the Elements and Nature On Tarot Card Images
There are four symbols commonly used to represent the four elements, derived from alchemy:
- Earth – upside-down triangle with a bar
- Water – upside-down triangle
- Air – right-side-up triangle with a bar
- Fire – right-side-up triangle
You can see all four symbols in the Spiral Chariot card, as emblems on the four pillars holding up the canopy of his chariot. This shows that in order to make this Chariot go, the driver has to not only be able to integrate and control his yin/yang energies (the Sphinxes), but also have command of the four elements. There is a larger downward-pointing triangle to the right, which indicates that the overall card is considered a Water card, since it has the ruling sign of Cancer. This deck is one in which most of the symbols have been drawn right on the cards, particularly the trumps and court cards, and is useful as a reference deck for that reason. See for example the Spiral Empress – over her head from the left and going in a clockwise direction, we see the symbols for Earth, the Hebrew letter corresponding to this card, the number of the card (III), the astrological symbol for Venus, and a miniature Tree of Life with the path corresponding to the Empress highlighted. The court cards also have these attributions – for example, on the King of Swords you can see the symbol for Air, and a small symbol for Aquarius in the belt buckle.
Although these basic elemental symbols are used in many decks, Waite chose not to incorporate them into the Rider-Waite deck, perhaps preferring more arcane symbology. The only exception I have found is the Temperance card, which has rather obvious fire and sun symbols in it. The RW Charioteer wears a tunic covered with alchemical symbols for various elements, rather than the more straight-forward symbols described above. Similarly, on the Wheel of Fortune card we can see evidence of Waite’s interest in alchemy by the four symbols on the middle ring of the Wheel. Starting in the east or 3:00 position and moving counter-clockwise around the wheel we have:
- Sulfur – expansion
- Mercury – integration
- Salt – contraction
- Water – dissolution
The first three elements listed above represent three basic principals in alchemy from which all life is considered to be derived – these could be listed as the process of birth, life, and death and can be considered to correspond to other 3-part systems like Maiden/Mother/Crone. However, there is a tension here between the number three and four. Like the Goddess cycle being of three parts but represented by a four-phase moon cycle, Waite felt it was appropriate to add a fourth principal – partly because it made his Wheel more aesthetically balanced, but also as a counter-principal to Mercury’s integration. Dissolution could be considered as that phase that takes place between death and rebirth, when the personality of the physical lifetime dissolves away and only the higher self remains.
Moving from the esoteric to the more direct, some decks have represented the elements more directly on the cards, such as Robin Wood. For example, her World has visual representations of the four elements in the four corners of the card, in the form of mountains, clouds, flames, and waves. Her use of the elements in the four Knights cards is also wonderful – each of the Knights has a steed that is moving through the element in question, and is particularly adapted to that element – in the Knight of Cups, the Knight and his horse are riding into the sea, and his horse is really a mer-horse, with a mane of seafoam.
As an environmental scientist and one who is tuned into nature, I noticed right away that the natural world does not play a strong role in traditional tarot decks – it is more of a backdrop for people and their activities. This fits with the prevailing religious and cultural attitudes of the times, in which the natural world was largely considered to be present in order for man to exploit. These days there are several decks that have stronger nature elements, such as Greenwood, Wheel of Change, and various pagan/Celtic decks. Robin Wood, for example, uses fairly traditional RW symbology, but somehow her cards are much more firmly rooted in nature and the outdoors, especially the Pentacles. Arthurian Legends is another deck in which the characters seem to live in the natural world, and where some of the court cards are replaced by animals. If you feel a strong pull toward the natural world, and miss it in the traditional decks, then you may want to explore some newer or alternative decks.
Sky – Try as I might, I have been unable to find a clear link between the color of the sky in UW and any specific meaning, except that yellow often appears on beneficial cards or those closely linked to the sun, and a very dark blue indicating cards that are dominated by night/moon energy. However, the weather is an indicator of what is going on – stormy weather typically seen in cards like the 5 of Swords and the Knight of Swords where destructive and precipitous activity is occurring, gloomy clouds in cards like the Ten of Swords and Three of Swords indicating pain and suffering, and snow in the Five of Pentacles to emphasize the misery in this card. Perhaps the reason so much “weather” appears in the Swords cards is that the Sky is part of Air, which is the element associated with Swords. Therefore, the state of the sky represents in part the mental state of the querent.
Fluffy clouds, such as those that the hands emerge from the Aces cards, generally seem to indicate mysterious or heavenly origins, and also appear in the Four of Cups (the fourth Cup being offered), the Seven of Cups (surrounding all the Cups) and the various flying creatures in the corner of the World card.
Water – Many cards have some form of water in them, and this is one important clue to what is going on in the card. Water generally represents the subconscious mind or the emotional state of the querent. If the water is calm, the emotions are calm. If they are turbulent, the emotional state may be distressed – sometimes only at a subconscious level. Decks may vary in the portrayal of the water – Two of Cups and Two of Swords are cards in which the water is calm in some decks and stormy in others. This should be read however it appears in your deck, and is one of the examples of how decks can vary in their nuances of meaning by the portrayal of minor details.
One interesting example is in the Six of Swords – in some versions of this card, the water is more turbulent on one side of the boat than the other – indicating a passage from a stormy past to calmer waters. Note also that this apparent physical journey over water also stands for an emotional journey to a better state of mind. Also notice whether the water is still or flowing in your card – this can indicate whether this is a card of stability or whether there is motion. Flowing water is often associated with a link to memory and the past, passing through the present into the future.
Mountains, Cliffs – Mountains generally indicate challenges or obstacles. The prevalence of steep mountains in the background of the Emperor card shows his mastery at overcoming obstacles. There are mountains shown in the background of the Fool card, although the Fool himself stands on a more temperate place at the moment. In the Hermit we see that he has surmounted the obstacles and reached the top of the snowy peaks. Cliffs can indicate danger, as in the Fool card, or dangers and challenges successfully faced, such as in the Seven of Wands. Rolling hills and smaller cliffs may appear in cards where there is an element of challenge, but not as severe, such as the landscape in front of the Knight of Cups (note also the flowing stream). One thing to specially look out for is twin hills or peaks, particularly with paths leading up to them. These appear in notably in the Temperance card, but also many other cards in a variety of decks. These twin hills are simply another form of the twin towers or gateways that we will discuss next week, and usually represent a far-off goal that can be reached by working through the lessons of the Trump.
Greenery – In the traditional Rider-Waite decks, greenery is used relatively sparingly, as a symbol rather than an integral part of the landscape. As in the Empress card, it stands for fertility, abundance, and growth. The wooden Wands in the suit of Wand are usually portrayed with buds, showing that they are not dead instruments, but sources of new growth, ideas, and change. This is also true of the tree from which with Hanged Man hangs, showing that his suspension is not stagnant, it results in inner growth. Another related symbol is plowed fields, appearing for example in the Death card and the Knight of Pentacles. This represents a dormant state with the potential for new growth in the future – sowing the seeds of future change and in the case of the Knight, material rewards and abundance.
Seasons – As mentioned in the suit correspondences, various suits are associated with the seasons in some decks. This is possibly best illustrated in the Ancestral Path deck – four examples of which have been uploaded to the files. In this deck, each suit is associated with a season and with one of the world’s major cultures in the east, west, north, and south. Note that the directional and seasonal correspondences in this deck differ from the Golden Dawn attributions.
Teresa Michelsen is a well known and highly respected tarot reader and instructor, and also the original creator of Tarot Moon.
Theresa has over 25 years experience in reading tarot.
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