Learning The Four Elements in Tarot

The four elements can provide a powerful lens for learning tarot and for understanding our lives. I learned to read tarot cards by starting with the four elements and numerology, which served as a scaffolding upon which my intuitive understanding could develop. Since I have a strong perfectionist streak, piecing together this grounding in traditional aspects of meaning-making offered me some baseline confidence that proved very helpful in allowing my intuition some room to bloom. (As an important reminder about my worldview, there are no “right” or “wrong” ways to read tarot cards, so please take or leave parts of my path as they resonate with your own intuition.)

The four elements in tarot are air, fire, water, and earth. These four “classical elements” have been a consistent presence in Western magic and spiritual philosophy, particularly alchemy and astrology, tracing back to ancient cultures in Asia and Europe and carried through to the magical associations of medieval Western Europe that shaped tarot from the earliest decks. In tarot, these show up both in the Minor Arcana (“lesser mysteries,” spanning 56 cards broken into four suits) as well as the Major Arcana (“greater mysteries,” the 22 cards representing major life phases and archetypal experiences).

I focus primarily on the elements as they are expressed in the Minor Arcana: each suit is driven by an element. (While the elements also guide each card in the Major Arcana, it can be a little trickier and more memorization-driven to learn that part of the deck, and sometimes easier to learn the elements by learning the astrological correspondences – stay tuned for a future post about working with Major Arcana cards.) Let’s take a tour through the elements as found in the Smith-Waite-Rider tarot deck!

Image of a cloudy sky overlaid with the words "swords: air"
A hand appears from the sky, grasping a sword topped with a crown with one branch of laurel and one branch of seaweed, flanked by six golden leaves, with the words "Ace of Swords."

The suit of swords is associated with air, representing the mind and related outgrowths:

  • Thoughts, ideas, mental paradigms
  • Communication (resonance with the planet Mercury) and conflict
  • Deliberate actions and decisions
  • Heavy or difficult emotions, especially those that arise from the mind, such as anxiety

Swords are also associated with the astrological air signs: Gemini, Libra, Aquarius.

Image of a camp fire with the words "wands: fire"
A hand appears from the sky, grasping a living wood wand with sprouting leaves, with the words "Ace of Wands."

The suit of wands is associated with fire, representing spirit and “fiery” qualities:

  • Creativity, generative intuition, flow states
  • Being fully present and alive to life
  • Vitality and life force
  • Flashes of clarity and access to acting on our will (in the sense of divine purpose/path)
  • Momentum and spontaneity as well as burnout and over-extension

Wands are also associated with the astrological fire signs: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius.

Image of a lake surface with the words "cups: water."
A hand appears from the sky, palm upturned to hold a golden chalice with the letter W, sprouting water, and a dove diving down with a communion wafer, with the words "Ace of Cups."

The suit of cups is associated with water, representing emotions and relationality (patterns of kinship and interdependence):

  • All emotions, especially the more “pleasant” ones like love, joy, being at peace in oneself and in relationship
  • Intuition by way of feeling
  • Relationships of all kinds, including with self
  • Mutable, emotion-driven way of being

Cups are also associated with the astrological water signs: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces.

Image of tiny sprouts in dirt with the words "pentacles: earth."
A hand springing out of the sky, palm up to cradle a golden pentacle over a lush garden, with the words "Ace of Pentacles."

The suit of pentacles* is associated with earth, representing our tangible, Earth-plane existence:

  • Our bodies and our embodied experiences
  • Money and work (not always paid) – can be our bigger “work,” in the sense of purpose
  • Physical, observable assets and dynamics in our lives: our homes, for example
  • Reflects on our relationship to our resources: abundance, scarcity, and everything in between

Pentacles are also associated with the astrological earth signs: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn.

Well, that’s a wrap on my highly subjective version of Elements in Tarot 101. I encourage you to note your own understanding of the four elements – what feels resonant, where do you disagree? If you have questions or would like to learn more about how the four elements operate in tarot, consider booking a live reading with me. Happy tarot reading!

* Sometimes I get questions about pentacles. While the Smith-Waite-Rider deck is heavily influenced by and in conversation with Christianity, pentacles are not inherently associated with evil/the devil/etc (that’s a whole other conversation). Pentacles originated in medieval Europe as a symbolic tool, as well as talismans (physical objects for ritual), to assist with evocation, or summoning a spirit. Pentacles have no such surface-level association in the tarot, however, and you needn’t fear any wayward spirits when you see them in readings.

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