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.

How to Ask a Question for Tarot Readings

Sometimes, when I first prompt my client for a question, they ask me right back: “what makes a ‘good’ tarot reading question?” So, I share this post in the hopes that it can help put you at ease, ready to head into your reading with a sense that you are well-prepared to invite your intuition to respond. This post can be an especially helpful precursor to my pre-recorded video Intuitive Jump-start reading, in which I ask you to reflect on a question for your three-card reading.

My first reframe to offer is that there is no such thing as a good or bad tarot question. Instead of aiming for the “perfect” query, we are hoping to craft a question that can get you closer to the clarity that you are seeking. Take some time to consider: do you have a sense about what you are really hoping to uncover, clarify, and elaborate on during this reading? If you journal, that can be an especially powerful tool to reflect on your intentions – both conscious as well as hidden – for seeking professional guidance in connecting with your intuition via tarot. Deepening your sense of intention can be a powerful asset for the reading, shaping not just your question but also the lens through which you filter insights coming to you via your intuition and my reflections.

That said, here are a few aspects of questions that I think can pull you farther away from accessing constructive insight:

  • I don’t believe that the future is set in stone and I don’t offer “fortune telling,” so if you ask a question that’s more future-oriented, I hold those potential outcomes lightly. I feel strongly that our future-facing insights reflect only one possibility rather than set-in-stone fate and I’d encourage you to consider them through that lens, too. If you don’t like what you see, I invite you to ponder how you could shift your choices or get support to unfold a different future outcome – to the extent you have agency to make different choices in the given situation, recognizing all the complexities of our identities and material realities.
  • I don’t read with questions that involve other people’s feelings or actions, both for ethical reasons and because it is most often a distraction from reflecting on your personal feelings and possible actions. Instead, we could reframe that into a question that centers on you and your agency: for example, rather than “what does [person] feel about me?” we could explore “how can I show up as my fullest self in my relationship with [person]?”

Also, please don’t stress about refining your question too much: you will still receive a lot of insight during and after your reading whether it feels “just right” or not. For a long time, I didn’t even read with questions, though lately I’ve come to appreciate the additional focus and clarity that they can offer. It’s totally okay if you’re not really sure what you’re looking for yet…sometimes, it’s important to heed the call to get a reading, and the theme can become apparent in a reading based on a more general question, such as:

  • What guidance does my intuition have to offer me right now?
  • What does the universe [or your personal, specific cosmological source of insight] advise for me?
  • What could I keep in mind about [area of my life]?

Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask the question that you really want to reflect about. Readings are kept strictly confidential, so whatever you ask and say will not leave our session. I keep charts in a locked file cabinet, I keep reading recordings on a two-factor protected Google Drive, and I use Zoom for live readings (if you prefer, we could use Signal video, though that does not allow for recordings). Your ability to feel comfortable sharing as you wish is sacred to me.

Did this post inspire you with your own juicy question to explore? Take a look at my tarot offerings – I would love to read for you!

This post was written in September 2020, though I expect to update it in an ongoing way as my thinking about questions changes. – Mel

Connect and Reflect with Virtual Tarot Parties!

Looking for a fun way to shake up your next friend hangout via Zoom? Bring in your own personal tarot card reader to connect even more deeply with your loved ones & your authentic self! 

Image Description: Mel smiling while holding two tarot cards from The Numinous Tarot by Cedar McCloud

There’s nothing quite like tarot to cut through the mundane and connect each of us to our deepest source of insight & reflection: our intuition. In a time when many of us are getting sick of the same old routines, shake it up even further with an out-of-the-ordinary, spiritual (or if you prefer, psychological reflection) experience. Better yet, you can share this transporting experience with your friends and loved ones, bringing you closer in a unique way.

Gather with up to 8 of your friends for a virtual tarot party to share in the fun of either a collective reading or personalized mini-readings. You’ll walk away from the experience with…

  • An entertaining and enchanting hour, shared with your friends and loved ones
  • A greater sense of clarity, whether about your piece of a collective concern or your particular question
  • A deeper connection to your intuition, which can infuse your life with even more meaning & magic

Tarot parties include a private Zoom room and start at $80/hour (one hour minimum – please contact me to discuss your vision & the best time duration to meet your goals).

Why “Release Intuitive Healing?”

Names are powerful: names can serve as identifiers, invocations, commitments. I spent weeks last summer wrestling with many drafts of a name, rolling around lists of adjectives with a handful of nouns. Then, all at once, it was clear and easy – this had to be the name! As I practice sharing more of myself so that I can better serve, my intuition nudged me to write about why I chose to name my practice Release Intuitive Healing.

Release – so many restorative, exciting connotations and possibilities come up for me with this word:

  • I have this word tattooed on the inside of my right wrist. I sometimes feel sheepish: it was my first tattoo at age 22, chosen at a time when wrist tattoos were all the rage and without more than a few weeks’ deliberation. But when I get clear on why this called to me, I can relax into all the ways in which it feels right: I got it with my friend & fellow healer Charlie providing loving support, I got it after receiving it as a clear flash of insight, I got it to remind myself that sometimes you do need to be a little bit impulsive. Rather than hiding it with a wrist watch, I now invoke the power of “release” to guide my life. This message stays there, already a bit faded nearly six years in, a gentle reminder of who I was and who I am becoming.
  • I also had a clear and compelling meaning behind “release,” a meaning I continue to evolve and co-create with the universe. I charge “release” with the intention that every one of us can connect deeply to liberating, generative possibilities by attending to and healing the many layers of harm heaped upon us by the world – no one is beyond redemption, no one is beyond reclamation of their deepest and freest selves. Part of that healing includes deeply collective action & co-creation so that we dismantle/transform oppressive systems into new systems that are life-giving, that respect each person’s sovereignty and agency, that allow everyone to experience pleasure and joy.
  • As a bodyworker, “release” has taken on some more literal meanings. I often tell my massage therapy clients, “now, take a nice deep breath at your own pace, without straining…try to visualize and invite your muscles to release.” I learned in massage school that “emotional release” (crying, sighing, rushes of emotion) can spontaneously occur as clients receive bodywork – this continues to be a fascination for me: how can I most fully support my client and their soma in feeling a sense of safety, allowing stuck/frozen emotions held in body tissues to be released?

Intuitive: relating to, unlocking, cultivating a relationship with our intuition. Intuition – wow, what a beautiful and numinous thing! It can be a “sixth sense” that comes through like other senses; it can be an intentional connection to an inner self that serves as a guide or connects to non-self guides; it can be whatever and however you receive insights, feelings, guidance that land as “right” and clear in your body/mind/spirit. To me, invoking “intuitive” in my practice looks and feels like:

  • centering your intuition. I have my own deep relationship with my intuition that shapes how I hold the container of our reading, but you are the expert on your own life, body, and feelings, so your own intuitive guidance is the most important for you to recognize and heed.
  • paying attention to my own intuitive nudges & calls in my own life and business (such as writing this post!). I can think of so many times I’ve either been held back or actively hurt by not listening to my intuition and so many times that I’ve listened to my intuition to make decisions – even BIG life changes like moving back to my hometown – that turned out to be incredibly constructive and aligned.
  • celebrating intuition as a valid, powerful force. We are conditioned under capitalism to believe that only the material plane is real and instructed from a young age to repress and discard feelings, intuitive knowing, anything immaterial (at least, anything spiritual or intangible that falls outside of Christian hegemony – talking to capital-g God is valued, but not listening to our own inner guidance). As with anything, oppression metes out stigma unevenly: women, people of color, mad/disabled people are especially diminished and ridiculed for cultivating intuition…so it can be quite scary and tangibly risky for those of us with one or more marginalized identities to openly identify as intuitive.

Healing: another word that evokes SO many meanings, feelings, possibilities for me. Here are a few things I know, as of right now, to be true about healing:

  • healing can be non-linear and often goes sloooowly: it can feel like one step forward, two steps back, forward and backward and in a circle in time. Slowing way down can be important – to allow time and space for feelings. Healing moves on its own pace, and it’s important to me as a practitioner to honor the pace each client wants & needs.
  • healing can be cyclical and iterative: Patterns are often so deeply held and we must strive to be gentle with ourselves when we cycle around the same old loop we thought we already healed. There are layers upon layers to keep moving and healing through.
  • healing is both personal (we have an innate capacity to heal) and collective (we heal in restorative, interdependent, and mutual relationships). As a practitioner, I hold space and strive to act in ways that honor and support you, the client, but the actual transformation that you experience all comes from within you and your own collaboration with the universe.
  • You can read more about the many people who have influenced how I think about healing on my Learning page.

If this post resonated with you, I hope you’ll consider booking a tarot session with me! I’m also accepting bodywork clients in State College, PA – please email me to discuss.

Tarot for liminal times

The featured image is from the Dark Days Tarot by Wren McMurdo Brignac. [Image description: It is the Tower card, depicting a tall and solidly-rooted pine tree being struck into two pieces by a flash of lightning. Rain is falling from a big, gray stormcloud as small birds flock around, with a crescent moon hanging low in the sky.]

I am writing this during a liminal time: we are all walking an edge between what was, what is, and what might be. During this pandemic – a global emergency that is truly reaching into each of our lives to differing degrees – time is bending, surreal, ever-shifting. For many of us, this period of crisis is fraught with heavy emotions and also feels exceptionally strange. Anything I try to say feels a bit flat, too like an empty platitude, so I write with the intention to share possibilities rather than answers. Whenever I am overwhelmed or struck by spiritual mystery, I turn to tarot, so I am moved to share a few ideas in case any resonate. Connecting to our intuition can help us tap into our own inner wisdom and feelings when so much about the world around us is changing and transmuting.

Here are three tarot offerings that I have been using as we walk through the unknown:

  • Invite playful reflection through a daily tarot card pull. You could do this in the morning as a token to carry with you for that day, in the evening to wind down or spur further self-reflection through journaling, or simply pull a card whenever you feel called. The practice can be simple: shuffle until it “feels right” and select one card – then look at the card and allow space to receive your own intuitive insights, symbolic connections, and other information. (Don’t have a deck? There are many free online sites that will randomly pull you at least one tarot card.) I say playful because I don’t believe there is ever any “right” interpretation for a card, so give yourself permission to feel and think whatever arises in you. I also feel that your own innate understanding is the most important part of any interaction with the tarot, so please don’t shortchange yourself on this time if you plan to look up others’ perspectives on the card afterward. If you feel blocked or worry that you must just be making stuff up, you can try placing a hand on your heart and offering yourself a moment of self-compassion before pulling a card, perhaps even offering a loving counter-narrative, such as “I accept my own intuition without self-judgement.”
  • Call on a specific tarot archetype to channel what you need in this time. Personally, I have had the Tower on my heart since the start of this crisis, even placing this card on my altar about a month ago. While placing this card on my altar, I also wrote a short prayer to channel my intention that we replace what structures are beginning to crumble with life-sustaining, anti-oppressive, and healing new systems. For me, the Tower represents sudden, ground-shaking change; the collapse of all paradigms built on false foundations; dramatic renegotiation of power. Along with all of this rapid, unexpected change can come destabilizing waves of terror, grief, rage. The Tower also showed up in my life through an experience that felt very painful but also initiatory, where I was asked to cast off old, limiting selves and step into a more authentic (and completely scary) unknown. So many pieces of this resonate as we, collectively, grapple with how to navigate this immense crisis…which archetypes, either major or minor arcana, are resonating for you? You might envision a different way to channel a tarot archetype that feels right to you: dancing or embodying an archetype; painting or drawing your own version; acting out or writing an imagined conversation between you & an archetype…let your imagination flow.
  • Invest in a tarot card reading to access a different lens on your feelings and experiences. I find that when my mind and heart are especially full, asking someone else to give me a tarot reading helps me access greater ease and self-insight, helping to grab onto a few threads from the many messy loops of thoughts and feelings. Speaking aloud your intuitive insights can strengthen your felt sense of their resonance, while hearing your reflections mirrored back – paired with insights from the reader – can also clarify what you know to be true (or not) for you. The internet can connect you with an abundance of compassionate, thoughtful tarot readers, many of whom offer sliding scale access. If you are curious about a reading container that centers your own intuitive insights and weaves them alongside collective wisdom for each card, I would be glad to offer you a reading.