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Discovering The Elements

Why are the Swords so full of conflict? Why are some Cups cards so wholly positive, while others are full of misery and pain? Why do two of the suits end in happiness while the others end in defeat? A lot of readers overlook these essential questions because they do not know the true nature of the four suits in the Tarot deck. It may seem like a simple matter, but from simple things like the Minor Arcana can often emerge great wisdom.

The key to understanding the suits is understanding the elements which they represent. Elemental correspondences should be approached in the same way as everything else relating to Tarot - learn an established system, compare it with others, then discover and implement your own. Most people start with the traditional attributions of Fire to Wands, Water to Cups, Air to Swords and Earth to Pentacles. If you prefer a different set of attributions, use that instead. What is important at this stage is having a solid foundation to work upon.

To explore the natures of the four elements, we'll use a process of directed brainstorming. Take four separate pieces of paper, and in the middle of each, write one of the element names - Fire, Earth, Air and Water. Put three of them aside for now, leaving just one of them in front of you. Now think about whatever element is on the paper and list all the words that come to mind. I will offer an example but I suggest that you do not read it unless you do not understand or unless you have tried but are getting stuck.

Say I decide to start with Fire. The first word that comes to my mind is "hot" so I write that down. Then I think of "burn" which, in turn, makes me think of "bush" as in "burning bush" and therefore Moses. Moses had a rod or staff, so I would put down both those words. Other things have a staff, like corporations, and when there is a staff meeting new ideas are generated. So "new" and "ideas" make the list along with "creativity". From this might come "fertility" and then there is a vast sexual metaphor to explore than I won't get into.

Suffice it to say that these little brainstorming trips can get quite complicated, but in the end you will find that everything you have written relates to the element, directly or indirectly. Everything you have written will give you insight into the nature of the element you are studying. Once you are finished, try to condense your list into a dozen or so "key words" for that suit. Keep everything you write down, especially this keyword list.

Repeat the exercise for each of the remaining three elements and see what you come up with. Do not do all four at once; leave at last half a day between each. Are there some words that appear on two of the four lists? Are there any that appear on all four? What about pairs of opposites (light/dark, hot/cold)? What about synonyms or words with similar meanings? All of these things will hint at the subtle connections between the four elements.

Once you have finished exploring the elements, link the suits to the elements according to your chosen system. Now look at each of the key words you chose for an element, and try to apply them to the cards in that suit, one at a time. (I might say that the Five of Wands is "resistance to a new idea" while the Ace is the "spark of creativity", for example.) Experienced readers may use the meanings they have learned as a basis for this, and beginners can either look at the pictures or use their intuition.

If you were already already comfortable using the Minor Arcana, fine. Hopefully, doing this exercise will have given you a few new ideas and perspectives. If, on the other hand, you didn't know the Minor Arcana beforehand, you will probably know them very well by now. There are many other ways to explore the Minor Arcana, of course, including the Qabalah, numerology, astrology, and more. These topics are left as exercises for the dedicated student.

Copyright 2000 James Rioux