One way to develop your understanding of the tarot is to look at how the four elements — earth, air, fire and water — play out in the cards. You’ll see symbols of these four elements popping up all over the place in many tarot decks, and learning to spot these visual clues can really help you to understand the nuances of a card’s meaning, and develop your own interpretations too.
To me, earth, air, fire and water represent four different aspects of my self — physical, intellectual, energetic and emotional, respectively. In this article I want to show you how to relate these elements to the four suits in the tarot, and to spot elemental symbols throughout your tarot deck.
There are plenty of approaches you can take here. Some people add a fifth and even a sixth element to this system, others work with an entirely different set of elements. Here I’m just focusing on the four ‘classical’ elements that I use in my own tarot practice.
Also, I’m aware that every deck is different and some depict the elements far more than others. If you use a deck like the Wild Unknown, for example, you might struggle to find elemental symbols, whereas others (like the Rider Waite Smith or the Shadowscapes I’ve used throughout this post) are rich in visual clues.
The Minor Arcana
The best place to start understanding the elements in tarot is by linking the four suits of the minor arcana — so that’s the wands, swords, cups and pentacles cards — to their corresponding elements. These 56 cards are all about day-to-day life: the stuff we go through as living, breathing, interacting humans, the things we create, the things we feel, the things we think, the things we do.
Each of the four suits in the minor arcana corresponds to one of the four elements, like this:
Pentacles = Earth | Cups = Water
Swords = Air | Wands = Fire
Below I’ve given a few examples to show how the elements are used and illustrated in a brief selection of tarot cards. The aim here is not to give any definitive guide to these cards’ meanings (you’ll probably have your own ideas about these, which I hope you’ll share in the comments!) but more to get you looking at your own cards through this lens.
This is your physical self. So the element of earth represents my body and health, my sex life, my physical surroundings and my relationship with nature and the built environment, and other ‘practical’ areas of my life – crafts, work, money. Earth is tangible, weighty and real – I can hold it in my hands or experience it via my senses.
Similarly, the suit of pentacles in tarot represents these physical areas of our lives, and you may see lots of seeds, fruit and trees in these cards, as well as mountains, buildings, marketplaces, gardens and so on.
As the first card in the Pentacles sequence, people often say that the Ace of Pentacles represents a new job, an improvement in your health, or it might suggest moving house. These are all ‘earthy’ areas of our lives, so the Ace is like a seed from which something beautiful may grow. In the Ten of Pentacles we see a close-knit marketplace with lots of people, buildings and buying and selling, representing a high-functioning community (in capitalist terms, at least).
The Seven often has a gardening theme. There’s this real earthy metaphor of taking stock of your work so far, seeing your efforts beginning to bear fruit. I love this gorgeous version from the Shadowscapes Tarot:
The Five of Pentacles often feels like sexual rejection to me — literally being ‘out in the cold’ rather than wrapped in hot sheets — whilst the Page, holding up a pentacles in that flirtatious way, could be an adventurous new bedfellow who wants to teach you something new.
This is your soulful, emotional self; your feelings and your intuition. Water has flow, right? Sometimes it’s an uncontrollable torrent, sometimes more of a dried-up trickle. Sometimes it’s a running river, sometimes it’s blocked up by a dam. It’s the inexplicable, the irrational, the stuff that comes straight from your heart and flows in all kinds of directions (whether you want it to or not).
The cards in the suit of cups tend to represent the way our feelings play out. Look for watery clues such as rivers, oceans and fish. Where are they placed in the cards and what are they doing? If there are people in the card, how are they responding to the water?
The Ace could be a new love, or the start of a new emotional ‘era’, like your heart has turned a corner. Then the next card, the Two of Cups, often shows the heartfelt exchange of feelings between two people. In this version two women are literally offering each other full cups of water/emotion, sharing their hearts. That could be romantic, or it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the point is that in offering their cups, each is saying “I want to be emotionally open with you.”
To me, the Queen of Cups is the minor arcana’s answer to The High Priestess, a deep and intuitive, witchy character with her feet in the water, whereas the Knight of Cups, gazing at their cup as if it is the only thing that matters, is that obsessive lover you can’t shake off.
The Five of Cups could illustrate a period of ‘processing’ something painful — check out the water flowing under the bridge — and the Eight, knowing it’s time to turn your back on old feelings and walk away.
This is your intellectual self — your thoughts, your sense of right and wrong, the stuff that goes through your head and your ability to strategise. In its best form, it’s when you climb to the top of a mountain on a clear day, breathe in that clean, fresh air and check out that wide-ranging view. In this sense, air can be pure, beautiful truth.
Huh. If only it was always like that! As fallible humans, our minds torment us. The suit of swords is often known as the ‘suit of sorrow’, because of the way we so often are victims of our own thoughts and insecurities. In the Eight of Swords, for example, we often see a figure ‘penned in’ by a prison of swords — as in, her thoughts are keeping her captive:
Another ‘airy’ clue to look out for is the sky. Is it clear or cloudy? Blue or black? What might that mean in terms of a person’s mental state? In the card above, the sky is actually clear and blue, but the woman looks into a mirror and sees only grey clouds and gloomy thoughts.
In the cards below, the Knight of Swords dashes single-mindedly at an idea…but the stormy sky says his judgement may be clouded. Meanwhile, the Queen sits high above the clouds where the air is still and clear; a single bird flies above her head, surveying the ground below.
The Six of Swords is an interesting card. In some decks, we see a figure leaving swords behind on the bank of a lake, in others, they take the swords with them in the boat. If swords are symbolic of our difficult thoughts, what might it mean in either case? Also notice that the two people are in a boat, crossing a body of water. So there is an emotional element to this card: these people are symbolically traversing a choppy emotional sea. How do you think that air and water work together to convey this card’s meaning?
The same can be said for the Two of Swords. Here, a person guards themselves with their swords, putting up a strong mental boundary. They are claiming time to think, and they clearly want to do it alone. Again there is water in this card, a very calm-looking sea of emotion in the background…which the person is willfully ignoring.
Fire is the most primal of the elements. It is our passion and drive, the spark that gets us all fired up, the inexplicable reason why we do the things we do, the starting point for…pretty much everything! It’s also about confidence and, of course, ego. Look for sunshine, flames, sunflowers, lightening and flounces of red, yellow and orange — anything bright, bold and possibly dangerous — to represent fire in your tarot cards.
Correspondingly, the suit of wands is all about ideas and projects, risk-taking and strong personalities. The Knight of Wands is a favourite of mine. Charismatic and untamed, she’s obviously got a great idea and she wants to show it off. I know when I see this card that I might need to get my ego in check (pride comes before a fall and all that) but in the moment, it’s pure confidence and fun. The ‘flames’ of her tunic and her horse’s mane all shout “look at me, I’m fabulous!” And yet, there is no sign of water in the card, and the earth she rides through is a dusty, barren desert. The feeling I get is that there is waaaaay too much fire here, completely untempered by intuition (water) or earthy realism.
The Ace might represent a new project or a brilliant idea. It’s the striking of the match, that sparky moment when you know you want to do something. Next in sequence you have the Two and the Three of Wands, which to me represent the process of really forming that idea into something possible.
Take these cards from the Shadowscapes Tarot. In the Two, although a fiery sun beats down, this person is very still. There is the element of air here — the person sits in a high place, quietly surveying the view…they are still thinking about how to bring their idea to life. By the time we reach the Three, they are standing and seem ready to act, and now we can see all four elements present. The earth, represented by the ground below, the fiery sun still hight in the sky, the river winding its way through the landscape and the breeze lifting the figure’s cape.
These are just a few examples using the cards I have at hand. Dig out your own tarot decks and check out the elemental symbols in your cards! Try looking for all four elements in cards from every suit, not just air in the swords cards or earth in the pentacles. Look also at which elements are missing, and whether this is significant. And think about how the elements interact with each other, like the air and water in the Two of Swords I mentioned above.
Of course, all of this is without even mentioning the major arcana, where the elements come through in even stronger and more complex ways. If you’re feeling confident, you could also turn your attention to the majors and look at how symbols of the suits and elements crop up here too.
Over to you! How do you view the elements within (or separate to) your tarot practice? Do you use an entirely different set of elements? Which cards to you seem to have strong elemental correspondences?