Suits as elemental qualities rather than elements

Most interpretations of the suit cards (“Minor Arcana,” if you must) in the tarot deck are based on mapping each suit to one of the four classical elements. Typically Clubs (Wands) represent Fire, Swords are Air, Cups are Water, and Coins (Pentacles) are Earth. Sometimes Clubs and Swords are switched. This is pretty standard, but I’ve always found it symbolically unsatisfying. This post explains an alternative system I developed some years ago.

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In Whitley Strieber’s tarot book The Path, he interprets the suits in a way which bypasses the traditional elemental mappings and instead focuses on the suit symbols themselves, drawing on the Gurdjieffian idea of triads. “In the Tarot, the two great opposing forces are symbolized by Swords and Clubs. . . . Masculine violence penetrates, feminine violence crushes. But when the two are in harmony with each other, there is a vast leap into another energetic level entirely. The suit called Money in old Tarots reveals the nature of this energy.” Money, as the power of “codifying wealth into a system of universally recognized symbols,” is “considered to have magical properties” and “actually represents the mind and the energy of seeing, which will be symbolized by the card of the Sun.” As for the remaining suit, Cups, it “contains the three other suits, which, in balance, make a fourth and much greater whole.”

Strieber makes no reference to the classical elements, though his reference to the Sun would seem to link Coins more to Fire than to the traditional Earth. However, in identifying Swords  and Clubs as the two opposing active forces, “penetrating” and “crushing,” respectively, he reminded me of Aristotle’s analysis of the elements in Book II of On Generation and Corruption. In Aristotle’s theory, underlying the four elements are four even more fundamental qualities: hot, cold, dry, and moist.

Hot and cold, and dry and moist, are terms, of which the first pair implies power to act and the second pair susceptibility. ‘Hot’ is that which ‘associates’ things of the same kind (for ‘dissociating’, which people attribute to Fire as its function, is ‘associating’ things of the same class, since its effect is to eliminate what is foreign), while ‘cold’ is that which brings together, i.e. ‘associates’, homogeneous and heterogeneous things alike. And moist is that which, being readily adaptable in shape, is not determinable by any limit of its own: while ‘dry’ is that which is readily determinable by its own limit, but not readily adaptable in shape.

. . .

The elementary qualities are four, and any four terms can be combined in six couples. Contraries, however, refuse to be coupled: for it is impossible for the same thing to be hot and cold, or moist and dry. Hence it is evident that the ‘couplings’ of the elementary qualities will be four: hot with dry and moist with hot, and again cold with dry and cold with moist. And these four couples have attached themselves to the apparently ‘simple’ bodies (Fire, Air, Water, and Earth) in a manner consonant with theory. For Fire is hot and dry, whereas Air is hot and moist (Air being a sort of aqueous vapour); and Water is cold and moist, while Earth is cold and dry.

. . .

The ‘simple’ bodies, since they are four, fall into two pairs which belong to the two regions, each to each: for Fire and Air are forms of the body moving towards the ‘limit’, while Earth and Water are forms of the body which moves towards the ‘centre’. Fire and Earth, moreover, are extremes and purest: Water and Air, on the contrary are intermediates and more like blends.

Hot and Cold are the active qualities according to Aristotle, and they map readily to Strieber’s Swords and Clubs, respectively. The cutting blade of the Sword represents the separating, centrifugal power of Heat; and the crushing Club (think of crushing not as breaking into pieces, but as mashing skin, flesh, and bone together into a single mass) corresponds to the centripetal, bringing-together force of Cold.

The mapping of the remaining two qualities and suits is less straightforward. One could argue for mapping Cups to Dry, since a cup contains other things and imposes its shape on them. Coins, especially if interpreted, following Strieber, as abstract “Money” rather than physical coins, could them be considered Moist, since money has no proper form of its own. However, this seems inconsistent with the identification of Money with the fiery Sun, and to use Cups as a symbol of Dry seems so counterintuitive as to be perverse.

The other option, which I prefer, is to see Cups as Moist and Coins as Dry. Here the suit of Cups does not represent the cup itself so much as the contents of the cup (in line with the traditional identification of Cups with Water), and as such stands for fluidity and the Aristotelian quality of Moist. Strieber’s Cup represents the surrounding environment in which the Sword-Club conflict takes place, and is thus readily identifiable with the Air and Water (the two Moist elements) in which living things live and move. Coins, as the universal and unchanging unit of value, can then represent Dry. The Coins in tarot are generally pictured as gold, and gold (like the diamond, the French-suit counterpart to Coins) is famously unchangeable and incorruptible — that is, “Dry” in the Aristotelian sense. The two Dry elements are Earth and Fire, allowing this system to accommodate both the traditional identification of Coins with Earth and Strieber’s link between Money and the Sun.

In fact this system is for the most part compatible with more traditional interpretations of the suits. Cups as Moist retain their association with Water, and Swords as Hot can be identified with either Air or Fire. The only radical departure from tradition is the identification of Clubs (which, like Swords, have traditionally been mapped to one of the Hot elements) with Cold.

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Aristotle’s elements have a natural hierarchy. Earth (purely centripetal) is the lowest (heaviest, closest to the center), then Water (relatively centripetal), Air (relatively centrifugal), and Fire (purely centripetal). The Hot elements are the highest, the Moist are in the middle, and the Cold are the lowest. There is also supposed to be Fire at the center of the Earth, so Dry should probably be considered even lower than Cold.

The suits also have a natural hierarchy, since they most likely derive ultimately from Chinese money-suited cards. Coins (single coins) are the lowest, then Clubs (strings of 100 coins), then Cups (tens of thousands), and finally Swords (hundreds of thousands). This order is still mostly preserved in French-suited cards, where Spades (Swords) are generally considered the highest (as in the expression “in spades”) with Hearts (Cups) in second place. In Bridge, Clubs are lower than Diamonds (Coins), but many other card games preserve the original ranking.

The hierarchy of the elemental qualities matches the original order of the suits. From lowest to highest: Dry/Coins, Cold/Clubs, Moist/Cups, Hot/Swords.

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