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The Four Aces of the Tarot: Tools for Understanding the Elements

Part Two of The Warrior Priestess Tarot

The basic building blocks of the Tarot are the same basic building blocks of all occult knowledge; the four elements of Fire, Water, Air and Earth. These days, many people have a superficial knowledge of these elements because of the popularity of astrology. However, many astrologers get so caught-up in discovering the beauty and intricacy of the astrological system that they never give the study of the pure elements the attention they deserve, ending up with only a cursory knowledge of this basic ingredient of all spiritual knowledge. They know, for example, that people born under a Fire sign tend to be strong willed and volatile or that Water people are moody and emotional, but little more. An in-depth study of Fire and Water would do much to help them understand why.

Urban African earth mural
Symbols for the four elements exist in nearly all cultures. This mural from urban Africa depicts the element of Earth.

The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits that correspond with the four elements of astrology. The four suits go by various names in different decks, but can be standardized as Wands, Cups, Swords and Discs (or Pentacles). A card in the Wand suit will always represent the element of Fire. Likewise, Cups are water, Swords represent Air, and Discs are Earth. As you learn the cards, you will probably find it useful to start seeing the suit in terms of element, such as seeing the five of pentacles as five of Earth.

What Are the Elements?

No understanding of the Tarot or Kabbalah is possible without first having a clear understanding of the qualities of the elements. The four elements represent the four natural components of physical existence and, as no one has yet disproved Hermes Trismistgus’ ancient proclamation on the Emerald Tablet that “as it is above, so it is below,” we must assume that these four elements are also the components to other levels of existence as well. On the simplest level, the elements represent the four states of matter, with Earth being the solid state, Air the gaseous state, Water the liquid state and Fire representing the state of combining.

Like everything else in the Tarot, these elements are universal in scope. Not only can they be applied to esoteric spiritual studies, like the “four worlds” of the Kabbalah, they can be applied to the various components of the individual human being as well. For example, Fire represents that part of the person that is full of energy and passion. It also represents the spiritual part of a person that is masculine in nature, which we will call “spirit.” Water, on the other hand, is the emotions or feeling quality in a person and represents the spiritual part of a person that is feminine in nature, which we will call “soul.” Air is a person’s intellectual qualities. This element includes communications skills, a person’s “logical” ability and so forth. Earth, as that which is solid, represents a persons material side. Here is the body and it’s state of health. Earth also represents the material things that are connected with you, like your home and the furniture that fills it.

To understand how an element manifests within the individual person, we must only go so far as to study how that element manifests in nature. For example, if you want to understand the workings of “passion” within your life, study Fire and how fire behaves in a physical sense. Like the other three elements, Fire is a necessary component of life. Not only does Fire heat our bodies, but we have learned to use it to heat our homes and to generate electricity to power our computers as well. It’s Fire that drives the pistons which ultimately makes our automobiles move. But fire is only useful when it is controlled and contained. Uncontrolled fire is a most destructive force, as anyone who has ever witnessed a house burning to the ground can attest.

The Four Aces

Developing an understanding of the elements is the first task that one must undertake if one is to truly grok the Tarot and its deeper psycho-spiritual meanings. In fact, these four elements are so important that there are four cards in the deck that are devoted only to the elements and these are the four Aces. Out of all the cards in the deck, they are unique insofar as they represent the four elements without any modifications whatsoever. All of the other cards in the Tarot have the modifiers of sacred number theory, astrology and/or the Hebrew letters to help define their meaning. The four Aces, however, only have one component. Each Ace represents one of the four elements.

Ace of Wands
Copyright © 1971 by U.S. Game Systems, Inc.


Before you become mislead, let me explain that the Aces do combine number and element in exactly the same manner as the other numbered cards of the a Minor Arcana. According to sacred number theory, the number one is a totality, meaning that the totality of the respective element is found within each of the four Aces. In other words, since Wands represent Fire, the Ace of Wands has all of the attributes of the Fire element, both positive and negative, and any discussion of the element of Fire will pertain to this card.

As already mentioned, Fire is that which heats our homes and our bodies. An explosion in an ignition chamber moves our cars over the streets and highways. Fire is converted into electricity which powers our computers and entertainment systems while lighting our homes. Electricity flowing through wires is a controlled form of Fire, as is the fire coming from your heater or furnace. To carbon based lifeforms living on a planet that is rich in oxygen, fire is oxygenation. On any level, Fire is a “combining with” process that releases energy. Like the rest of the elements, Fire is an always necessary component of life.

A human being is a very complex energy system. Not only does the body exchange and store energy in the same manner that all matter does, it contains millions of complex biological systems as well. It’s all a flow of fire, this energy flowing through thousands of complex pathways, and it all requires energy to come to it through outside sources to keep the momentum sustained. Although some of the body’s energy supply comes in the form of food, most of it enters through the breath in the form of oxygen. Except for the very esoteric, all of our use of fire on this planet includes oxygen.

In a person’s life, fire is often expressed as passion or rage. A passionate lover is called “hot blooded.” When somebody is angry we say that he or she is “hot under the collar.” When we are having a “high energy day,” that means that there is plenty of fire and that it is being channeled in appropriate ways. When we are feeling lackadaisical, that means that our fire levels are low. When we explode in anger, that is our fire bursting uncontrolled from containment. Fire is also the passion that burns between you and your partner when lovemaking.

When Fire is not contained, it will consume. Consider the speedfreak or cocaine user who artificially keeps the bodies energy levels in the red zone. These people usually burn themselves out very rapidly. Heroin, on the other hand, is a fire retardant. A heroin overdose is only the body’s energy lines being reduced to zero, illustrating the fact that if Fire is absent, there can be no life. Fire must also be used as it’s created as it cannot be readily stored. A boiler has a safety valve to vent unused energy to avert explosion and a nuclear power plant must use cooling rods to keep the reaction contained.

Much of the Fire within the body is generated in the sexual chakras. The Tantric yogis of India and Tibet have discovered that training oneself to work with this sexually generated energy in combination with the breath to open certain circuits to the brain is essential to maintaining perfect physical, mental and spiritual health and have developed techniques to help practitioners learn to use the energy generated in the sexual center efficiently.

In our personalities, Fire generally manifests itself as transformation or change. Remember, Fire is a “combining with” process, and you can’t combine with something without changing. The ancient Hebrews evidently understood this fact of physics, for they attributed the “mother letter” Shin to this element. Shin means “a tooth,” which comments on this ingesting nature of Fire. When you use Fire, you can’t help but change or transform.

Carl Jung discovered that their are basically four different “types” of people and others have since discovered that these types correspond nearly exactly with the four elements. Fire people tend to function on an intuitive level, that is, they “feel” their way through situations. An intuitive person does what seems right at the moment. They are the ones who can drive through strange streets in a strange town and not get lost and when confronted with a choice, they just seem to know what to choose.

Another correspondence to Fire can be found in the Kabbalah, which divides creation into four separate “worlds” or planes of existence. In this hierarchy, Fire is the highest of all levels and is given the Hebrew name “Atzuluth.” This is the divine sphere, and is as close to the source of creation as it’s possible to be while remaining in the causal world. This is a level that’s all but unattainable to us as human beings, since Kabbalists say that we cannot function is this realm while inhabiting a body.

Every element is also associated with a deva, and the devas associated with Fire are salamanders. These are not the salamanders that you find in your garden (although they do have some fire qualities), but are mythical, spiritual beings. The salamanders, therefore, are the devic spirit of Fire. They are reputed to be angry and difficult to control. My experience agrees. Working with a salamander is much like working with a circus tiger.

Ace of Cups
Copyright © 1971 by U.S. Game Systems, Inc.


The Ace of Cups represents the element of Water. In Hebrew, the language of the Kabbalah, Water corresponds with the world of Yetzirah, the “emotional” plane. This is the world of the astral, where the witches and the psychics go when they “trip the astral fantastic.” To the Egyptian, this is the world of the Tuat, the lower astral realms known as the underworld. To the Jungian, this is the collective unconscious at its most tangible. This world is very powerful, because it is the most accessible place to effect change in a way that it will become reality. It can also be dangerous, because the world of Water is the emotional world, and our emotions are often murky and sticky.

Water is first and foremost the emotions. As the emotions largely reside in the unconscious, this shows how clearly the ancients understood the human psyche. The magical beliefs of pre-Christian Europe claimed that magic begins in the unconscious. Within the realm of water are such concepts as clairvoyance and spiritual healing. Most neo-Pagan religions, like Wicca, work primarily with the water element and resonate to the Major Arcana card “The Moon.” These are Goddess religions and, according to the Egyptians, all Goddesses are connected to the Goddess of the watery night sky, Nuit, who is so connected with Water that the hieroglyph for Water is included in her Cartouche or signature. Any of the watery Goddesses, like Isis or Aphrodite, are good ways to enter into this element. So is sitting next to a brook in the woods.

A stream cleansing water
Free flowing water is clean and healthy, just as our emotions are clean and healthy as long as we let them flow.
Water can be very exalting, or it can be poisonous. The Hebrew letter associated with Water is Mem, which corresponds to the Hanged Man of the Major Arcana. This can be a world of desire and attachment, unless you understand Water’s principles and learn to work with this energy in a healthy fashion. Remember, when water flows it cleanses itself. In a creek or fast moving stream, the action of the water over the rocks rejuvenates the water with oxygen, its prana. The water is also filtered, so that it stays clean. When water is dammed up so that it can’t circulate, it becomes stagnant and poisonous, scum begins to appear.

It is the same with the feelings and the emotions. To stay healthy and clean, a person’s emotions must flow freely. Most of us have learned that when we damn our emotions up inside they become stagnant and toxic, but when we let them flow freely we maintain emotional health. Water also adapts to the shape of its container and when that container is full the water must go somewhere. If you try to seal the container, so that water only goes in and can’t come out, then eventually pressure will build up and there will be an explosion, an emotional outburst.

To the Jungians, Water represents the “feeling” type, a person who acts primarily on her feelings. While the Fire person does what she intuits as best, the Water person does what will make her feel good. For this reason, a Water person can be prone to alcohol and drug abuse. If not careful, this personality type can be moody and melancholy, prone to wallow in self pity. She can tend to live her life based only on what is emotionally satisfying and can be prone to go to great lengths to avoid feeling bad.

On a more positive note, a water person can be very empathic. If well balanced, she can be a joy to be around and her presence can have a healing effect. In “Gone With the Wind,” Melanie Wilkes exemplified positive aspects of the water person. She went by her feelings and her feelings told her to be generous of spirit and to dedicate herself to helping others.

The devas associated with this element are the undines. These are seen as mermaid like beings who can be moody and selfish, but also healing and loving. In my experience, whenever I’ve connected with the spirit of water while out in nature, I’ve found that spirit to be invasive. The spirit of water changes the overall feel of an area in a way that pulls on one’s feelings. Where the water is happy, where the brook falls playfully over rocks, the mood and feeling is cleansing, for that is what water does in such a place. Where water is stagnant and collecting toxic pollutants, the mood is foul and unsettling.

Although water doesn’t need to be controlled to the same degree that fire does, it can still be a destructive force. Just think of the destructive power of a hurricane’s water surge or a flash flood and realize that water must be properly channeled.

Ace of Swords
Copyright © 1971 by U.S. Game Systems, Inc.


Swords are Air and Air is the intellect. Air fluctuates and vacillates. It flip-flops back and forth, from one side to the other. Air fixates, usually demanding the right to apply energy to that fixation. Air is education. It is doctors, lawyers, businessmen. It is the loftiest ideas from medicine, psychology, mathematics and philosophy. At the same time, Air is strip malls, open pit mines, clear cutting and chemical pollution.

To the Kabbalists, Air is associated with the world of Briah, the mental plane, considered by some to be the highest world to which we, as humans, can attain. Most believe that it’s not even possible to be in Briah while in a body, that the watery world of Yetzirah is the highest that we can attain. In the Hebrew alphabet, Air corresponds to the “mother” letter Aleph, which means “an ox,” an apt metaphor for Air.

The ox is a beast of burden that has been trained to obey the wishes of its master. The ancient Hebrews saw the ox as a symbol for “the prime mover,” or the life force. Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, indicating that consciousness was the spark at the beginning of creation and that all of the universe is a product of a conscious thought. In the Major Arcana of the Tarot, Aleph is associated with the card “The Fool,” which has a numerical value of 0, indicating that thought, or consciousness, was present from before the beginning.

That being the case, you would think what Air would be the greatest of elements. In many ways it is. Air gives us televisions, newspapers, the Internet and all the other playthings of the technological age. If fact, without Air, there would be no technology. But have you noticed how technology has overtaken every aspect of our lives? That too represents a quality of Air, which thinks that it’s more important than the other elements.

Harnessing the power of air.
Air likes to solve puzzles and explore. It compels us to compute pi into infinity, even though we know the sequence will never end. The problem with Air is that it tends to dominate and be void of feeling. In modern human society, Air runs amok, untempered by the human laws of water and earth. Many of us let air run ramshod over our feelings, shutting them down for what is “practical” or “economically good,” forgetting that to be spiritually practical we must take into account our emotional life and delve into our unconscious issues, no matter how illogical they may, at first, seem.

In a Jungian sense, Air is the “thinking” type whose feeling ability is often lost in the unconscious until late in life. An example of an Air type would be Data from “Star Trek,” who eventually learns that he can’t develop emotions by analyzing them, but must understanding his feelings and take them into account if he is to become human. Another example would be Mr. Spock, who represents a person whose dominant intellect has repressed his emotions.

Tornados, hurricanes, and severe thunderstorms give evidence to the destructive power of Air in nature. It is the same with human beings. Our consciousness can erupt into “storms” that have an uncanny likeness with their natural counterparts. Some mental outbreaks are like tornados, thoughts feeding into a vortex for a brief frenzy of destructive energy. Others are like hurricanes, taking a while to build up speed and taking a few days or weeks to blow over. Air is best when there is a gentle breeze. Like Water, when Air is stagnant it becomes poisonous.

Sylphs are the devas of Air. They are like the best fairies that you knew as a child, and are generally friendly. However they can be demanding and sly. It’s important to remember that the spirit of Air has control over swarms of insects like wasps and hornets, but also controls the butterflies.

Ace of Discs
Copyright © 1971 by U.S. Game Systems, Inc.


To the very ancient, there was no element of Earth, only Fire, Water and Air. Back then, people were still a part of the Earth and it would never occur to them to separate themselves from their mother the Earth. Somewhere on the road to civilization, we individuated and in doing so we separated ourselves from our planet. Eventually, it became time to make the Earth an element. We can wax idealistic about how great the tribal days were and I am certain that many people feel a yearning in this direction (I know I do). We can argue about the wrong steps we took as we civilized ourselves and regret that we ever left the garden, but the reality of the modern world will still be the reality that we all must share. For better or worse, this is the world that we are given and this is where we must do our work.

Although some of my teachers still have vivid past life memories of the times when the temple was the center of a community and when Hathor and Bast were throwing spiritual soirees in Dendera or when Padmasambhava was teaching powerful Yoga in India and Tibet, they all agree that we can never go there again. To do so would be to waste all that we’ve learned over the past thousands of years. What we must do is make this world as perfect as we can, complete with its computers, space shuttles and toxic waste dumps. If we don’t like the world in which we are living, we must take responsibility for it and change it.

But, to the ancients there were only three elements. The Hebrew alphabet devotes only three letters to the elements, Aleph, Mem and Shin – Air, Water and Fire. When needed, most modern Kabbalists use Tau, the letter for Saturn, for Earth. In fact, many of the medieval alchemists saw the element of Earth in an almost purely Saturnian sense. Earth was a restricting force that trapped our spirits into the needs of the body. The alchemist assigned Earth the color black, the same as Saturn. The earth was seen as a vortex that sucked-in the light. Black is still used by a few modern Kabbilists to denote Earth.

Since Victorian times, however, most Kabbalists have associated the color green with the element Earth, a color that is also associated with Venus, the planet of the feminine principle and of fertility (which might be considered one and the same). Most modern Kabalists recognize the life sustaining principle as being key to understanding the element, because Earth is literally the world on which we live, the world that gives us life and which nurtures and feeds us.

In an individual person, Earth can be said to be the body, but a person’s sphere of Earth energy almost always extends beyond the boundaries of the body. There are many things on this planet that act as physical extensions of a person. For example, the house in which you live is a part of you, for your home represents an extension of your psyche (most of us have noticed that people with cluttered minds tend to live in a cluttered environment). Besides your home, there are all sorts of Earth things that are connected with you. Your money and financial affairs, your car, or anything else that’s “solid,” for solidity is a key to this element. Earth doesn’t move well and is usually not very portable. It is the densest of all of the elements.

Earth is attributed to the the world of Assiah, the causal plane, which is pretty much the world in which we function in our day-to-day lives. This is the “real” world, and physical laws take preeminence here. You would think, given the trouble many of us have surviving on a day to day level, that the Tarot would treat Earth in a negative manner. Actually, the opposite is true and Discs are probably the most positive suit in the Minor Arcana. The Earth, it seems, is a benevolent force and Earth energy usually has a positive effect on people.

To the Jungians, Earth represents the “sensation” type. This person is like the Missourian who says “show me,” a person who functions on the level of the five senses and works best when she can see, feel, taste, smell and hear whatever it is she is working on and prefers “hands-on” experience to studying books. Being the opposite of the “intuitive” Fire type, the “sensation” person must go from point A to D by stopping at every station along the way to keep from getting lost. As a general rule, Earthy men are the type of men that our mothers wanted us to marry. They are stable, dependable and practical with money. When we are younger, these types often seem dull and uninteresting, until we realize that there can be great depth hiding beneath that practically.

The devas associated with Earth energy are the Gnomes, who are sometimes depicted as troll-like creatures. Although on the surface, they can often seem angry and assertive, this generally doesn’t run too deep and they can usually be counted on to be cooperative if they can be made to see that the Earth will gain from their cooperation. In many ways, these devas represent the consciousness or spirit of a place or location and it’s important to remember that we humans don’t necessarily come with a good reputation. An obvious example would be a location where a timber company has just decimated the land by clear cutting. In a place like this, the energy might be very ragged and the devas very angry. To work with the devas in a place like this, it will be first necessary to gain their trust.

As a priestess, when I work with the devas I try to remember that I am a representative of the human race. It may sometimes be necessary to diplomatically explain to the devas that all humans are not heartless and bent of destroying our mother the Earth. In this case, “actions speak louder than words.” If you plant a tree, perform a major clean-up, or do something else that will help the Earth in that area, you will be showing the spirits of that location that you are a healing person who wants to help.

There is one more thing about Earth that is essential to remember: the more firmly you are rooted in Earth the healthier you will be.