Earth, Air, Water & Fire
The classical Western elements are one of the most ancient and fundamental principles to esoteric tarot. Sometimes a fifth unmanifested element that is called or corresponds to “spirit” is included. For this lesson, we are simply going to focus on the four elements and associated quadralities.
Virtually every tarot resource talks the four tarot suits and how they correspond to the classical elements. So I am going to just dive in with some more obscure lore.
In the middle of the fifth century BCE, Empedocles of Acragas formulated a philosophical program in hexameter verse that pioneered the influential four-part theory of roots (air, water, earth, and fire) along with two active principles of Love and Strife, which influenced later philosophy, medicine, mysticism, cosmology, and religion. – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Those active principles of “Love” and “Strife” correspond to Yang and Yin respectively. Empedocles set the example of talking about the elements as both material substances and spiritual/metaphysical essences. He described Fire and Air as reaching upwards (part of their Yang affiliation) and out and Water and Earth as turning downwards and inwards (part of their Yin affiliation) and then associated these principles with one of four deities as metaphor. He wrote:
“Now hear the fourfold roots of everything:
Enlivening Hera, Hades, shining Zeus
And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears.”
Thereafter in Hellenistic esotericism Hera ruled the fruitful earth, Hades ruled the central fire, Zeus the luminescent air, and Nestis (who evolved into Persephone) the mollifying water. This metaphorically married Yin aspected Earth to Yang aspected Air (ruling Yang aspected earth/heaven together) and Yang aspected Fire to Yang aspected Water (ruling the Ying aspected underworld together) . Fire and Air were intentionally associated with male (Yang aspected) deities, Earth and Water with female (Yin aspected) deities.
In Chinese philosophy, Yinyang has four aspects as well and while the language is different? The concepts that are being conveyed are very similar and have a lot of correspondence.
In fact, this system of binary principles birthing quaternary principles are found throughout a diversity of cultures but in the Western occult system, they can be traced specifically to Empedocles. I have read that Jewish mystic-philosophers were influenced by Empedocles’ writings when they began to speak of the Tetragrammaton.
You have probably already seen the set of alchemical symbols associated with the classical elements, which use equilateral triangles to demonstrate Empedocles’ designation to have fire and air point up, water and earth to point down.
The Elemental Symbols
- Fire 🜂
- Water 🜄
- Air 🜁
- Earth 🜃
The reason that Air and Earth have lines just above center has to do with alchemical hexagrams. The two unmarked equilateral triangles represent the polarity of opposites aka Fire (Yang) and Water (Yin). But the marked triangles represent what happens when the polarity is influenced by conjunction. As a visual learner? It all makes a lot more sense when I see the pictures.
The alchemists gave Air and Fire the shared trait of hot, Fire and Earth the shared trait of dry, Earth and Water the shared trait of cold, and Water and Air the shared trait of wet. Because Fire and Water share no traits, they are considered to polarize each other more than Fire polarizes with Air or Earth; likewise Air is more polarized with Earth because they share no traits.
List of Elemental Names & Associations
These are just the ones I consider most useful to know as a tarot reader. Unless I note otherwise, most of these correspond to Bill Whitcomb’s lists in “The Magician’s Companion“, a book I strongly recommend to everyone. A few like Spanish names are found elsewhere.
Whitcomb’s tables go Fire-Air-Water-Earth. I always go Fire-Water-Air-Earth. I blame the influence of the Tetragrammaton and the Law of Association.
|Hebrew Name||Esh/ אֵשׂ (ayish)||Mayim מַיִם (mah’-yim)||Ruach רוּחַ (roo’-akh)||Eretz אֶרֶץ (eh’-rets)|
|Latin Name||Ignis||Aqua||Aër or Caeli||Terra|
|Humor/ Temper(2)||Yellow Bile/ Choleric||Phlegm/|
|Blood/Sanguine||Black Bile/ Melancholic|
|Time of Day||Noon||Sunset||Dawn||Midnight|
|Life Cycle||Adolescence/Young Adulthood||Middle Age||Birth/Childhood||Elder Years|
|Alchemical Metal||Iron or Gold||Silver||Mercury||Lead|
|Tattwa||Tejas (Red Triangle)||Apas (Silver Crescent)||Vayu (Blue Circle)||Prithvi (Yellow Square)|
|Trigrams (Chinese)||Chien (3 straight lines)||K’an (Center straight line)||Li (Center broken line)||K’un (3 broken lines)|
|Astrological Signs||Aries, Leo, Sagittarius||Gemini, Libra, Aquarius||Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces||Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn|
|Medicine Wheel or Hoop||East/Yellow|
(1) Whitcomb uses black rather than green
(2) Mine come from same source as Wikipedia
(3) I will talk more about this in the lesson on Court Cards
Occultists will argue until the end of days about how elements “should” be associated to the four directions and four seasons especially with regards to setting up altars or rituals. There is no One True Way. Follow whatever associations feel right to you personally, just try to be consistent and make a habit of the same pairings.
The Law of Association
“If any two pattern have elements in common, the patterns interact “through” those common elements, and control of one pattern facilitates control of the other(s) depending (among other factors) upon the number of common elements involved”. – P.E.I Bonewits in Authentic Thaumatury)
I said in previous lessons that it is really critical in esoteric tarot to know the difference between associations, attributions and correspondence and be specific in phrasing. I said it was a bad idea to apply (attribute) or even associate value-based qualities (good/bad, right/wrong) or sex/gender-based qualities (female/male, feminine/masculine) to esoteric symbols and principles. Scrape away the stylized language of the Law of Association and you will an explanation for one of the reasons that cognitive bias happens.
The human brain via associations takes concepts like Yang + Fire + Sun + Masculine +Right + Good and catalogues this as “Men are yang and fire and masculine and right and good” and constructs a belief that isn’t intrinsically true and might not even be what you think you believe… but because of cognitive bias? You actually do.
I believe that humans are just really complicated. Each of us is a microcosm that contains within us the polarity principle, the trinary principle, the four elements, the seven planets, the ten sephiroth, the twelve planets and-
Yeah, you get the picture. Everything we do with the esoteric tarot to reinforce our belief in our own inclusive microcosmic selves reflects out and creates extraordinary things.
End of Lesson Exercises
Shuffle your RWS style deck and pick one card at random. Compare it to the chart of associations and write about what you see (and don’t) included in the card image. Start doing this with one card every day; you don’t need to complete this entire exercise before moving on to the next lesson.
Practice writing the elemental symbols (the triangles) a couple times a day until you automatically remember them and associate them correctly with their corresponding element.
Watch this short (~3 minute) YouTube video by Crescent City Conjure on building a spiritual connection to the four elements and associated quadralities. Take a walk of your own and then write down your thoughts about the four elements within yourself.
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