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Saturday, 20 August 2016

Elemental correspondences -- have you thought about yours?

I've just been reading The Oracle Travels Light by Camelia Elias, again. The first time I tried to read it, it just didn't click for me. I couldn't follow. It was a bunch of gobbledygook. And this after I was so utterly smitten by Marseille Tarot: Towards the Art of Reading. I admit, I was trying to charge through with a pen in hand, looking for the 'good stuff' to incorporate, and not really reading it the way it was meant to be read. Several months later, it seems to be falling into place. And today, I felt a real paradigm shift with regard to elemental correspondences -- the elements we assign to the tarot suits. I initially rejected this when I read it in Marseille Tarot, and even wrote in the margin of that book: 'These are off base -- but as long as she is consistent, I guess it doesn't matter.'

I learned on the Golden Dawn system, which is used in the Rider Waite Smith and most tarot decks. Nearly all readers in the English-speaking tarot world use this system:

Fire - Spring - Wands
Water - Summer - Cups
Air - Autumn - Swords
Earth - Winter - Coins

If you want a book that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about applying this particular system to tarot, then Benebell Wen's Holistic Tarot is the book for you. I read that one cover to cover and thought my life was complete, until I got hold of Marseille Tarot directly after reading it!

Now I'm not an expert on various systems and don't know the origins, but I do know that some decks switch Air and Fire, having Swords = Fire and Wands = Air. Decks such as Silicon Dawn and Legend Arthurian do this.

The Crystal Tarots by Elisabetta Trevisan switches Cups and Swords so that Cups = Air and Swords = Water, which is really hard to fathom.

Let it be known that you don't have to use elemental correspondences in tarot readings. It's not necessary in the slightest. And you don't have to use a widely accepted system, or follow the system of the deck you're using -- though it may be a challenge to deviate, as some decks make the elemental correspondences very plain in the art work and colouring. But if you do use correspondences, you ought to have a good reason behind your choices, beyond, 'It's the one everyone uses,' or 'I just like them like that.'

In Marseille Tarot, Elias gives her set, saying, 'This is my own rendition, and based on my understanding of how the card readers of old, the cunning-folk, must have thought of it when they passed down the essential idea':

Fire - Spring - Coins
Water - Summer - Cups
Air - Autumn - Wands
Earth - Winter - Swords

What? My brain could not compute how Coins could be anything but Earth, or how Swords could be anything but Air. She wasn't even switching Wands with Swords, which at least I'd seen before in other decks. No, she's switching Wands with Coins and Coins with Swords!  I dismissed this as some personal quirkery and moved on, because her explanations were too impressionistic and I could not follow them:

'Coins/Diamonds are for spring and fire. A fresh idea is a hot idea. Coins are chiseled for exchange and culture. We hold coins in our hands. They denote working with our head. Coins represent the nervous system. All things on fire. Travel vehicles that use an engine. Expensive computers. A cooking range. The kitchen. The dining room. The roof of the house. East.' (Marseille Tarot, page 123)

What what?? Coins, fire engines, computers, what the hell?

'Batons/Clubs are for autumn and air. An idea needs to be harvested. Trees grow in the air. Tall trees turned into batons to fight with are at arm's length. We exercise with a stick. Make fences. Clubs represent the muscular system. We run. We use our legs, or take an airplane to whiz through the air faster. West. The floors of the house.'

Okay, I thought -- whatever! This must be really over my head or else this lady's just got some very kooky ideas, but it doesn't matter, because the rest of the book is so useful. Those are some crazy words and phrases hooked together there. I made question marks in the margin and turned the page.

Then, this morning, I was up at an even more ungodly hour than usual (4.00 AM -- sciatica), and encountered these notions again in the book The Oracle Travels Light. This time, it seemed to click. Reluctantly, I might add, because I do not like writers meddling in the affairs of my fixed ideas, for I am subtle and quick to anger. :) But click it did:

'What are the four suits in a pack of cards? Nature, our own bodies, and prompters of action,' I read. Hmm. Tell me more...

'The cups suggest our blood, and the way it circulates in our bodies. Without our blood streaming we are dead.' Yes, true. Cups are essential. Liquid is life. Yes, yes.

'With the diamonds or the coins, we make transactions. We can feel our adrenaline making our blood hot when we're about to close a deal that's important to us. Having your brain on fire is no small thing.' Pause. Squint. Coins as fire? NO. That's not right. I pictured all those tarot cards showing coins nestled in earth or growing on trees. And yet...my own feelings about money aren't cold like the earth, or in any way about growth cycles. My feelings about money are fevered. I have to admit it. I carried on reading...

'With the clubs or the batons, we build dwellings, or compete.' I pictured wattle and daub construction, and cavemen hitting each other with sticks. 'They have the energy of the wind. Before they are cut down, tall trees know who whispers in their leaves.' By god, I suddenly saw treetops swaying in the breeze and heard the noise and thought holy crap! Trees are wind! That's how they talk! What else is here?...

'With spades or swords, we dig the earth. We go to war to conquer territory, more land - more earth.' Great gods, I see this. Spades ARE used to dig the earth, and swords ARE forged to conquer, and to conquer what? More land! Holy paradigm shift, it hurts to have your gears switched. But I could actually see how swords could be EARTH.

So here I am. Changed again. I've already given up esoteric blah-blah when thinking about the suits. Taking the example of Enrique Enriquez, I've started looking quite literally at cups, batons, swords and coins in my readings. And it feels to me as if these correspondences are also more literal and mundane, more suited to the actual emblems themselves. I could never really see how batons were fire, but I can relate to trees swaying in the wind; it is an image that is much more deeply meaningful to me than imagining sticks burning. And I can relate to the fire in the brain caused by coins. Yes. And digging the earth with spades and battling for land with swords makes far more sense than the vague image of a sword slicing through the air. So yes.

Will this last? I'll just have to try a few readings and see. And with the TdM, no artist has imposed any elemental ideas onto the cards for me to fight against. I can use whatever I want, or not use any. Beauty.


  1. The Tarot of the Silicon Dawn has Coins as Fire and Wands as Air...

    For the rest, I dunno, maybe I'm just being a stick in the mud.

    Still, for me, Coins as earth works - it is the ground from which we harvest food, physical sustenance, and from which we mine gold to make those coins, to buy all the things that we need, that all come from the earth. It is our physical body, which will be returned to the earth, to base materials, when we die.

    Wands or batons, well, we hit people with sticks when we get over passionate about something, sometimes ourselves, as we may beat a dead horse. Trees were used to build carts and boats, so we could go off adventuring, good fiery pursuits. They extend our reach, so that we can ignite the fire in other people, or just affect the world beyond our initial grasp. They are used to make all kinds of tools that extend our reach - think farming equipment, or even pens (though the latter may be making the air case): when you are on fire with an idea, you want to spread it around, reach further, do more.

    I'll admit, I'm less sure about Swords as Air. Quills would be much better, or arrows, both have connections with air in reality. Hmm, will have to ponder that one some more...

    1. I got rid of Silicon Dawn so long ago I couldn't recall and looking at images online helped none whatsoever!

    2. I think she's also looking at air for action and fire for thoughts, though I'm not sure and have pretty much dismissed most of this sort of thing from my readings in any case. It's so freeing to let go of esoteric twaddle.

    3. there I will try again... also a thought. I am drawn to the 5 element concepts of Chinese Medecine, etc. and in that vein swords and wands would indeed be different . I have an oracle deck made by a friend that uses this in amazing ways.

    4. Hm, I don't know anything about Chinese medicine. That would be interesting to read about.

    5. Funny, I've been thinking about this a lot, and also wondered about the Chinese elements correspondences: they use fire, metal, wood, earth, water. Didn't get much further than pondering it, though.

      However, I've been churning over the Swords/Air thing, and here are my thoughts. Both a spade and a sword are not really about the earth, they are about planning and thinking ahead. You make a spade to dig the earth to harvest its wealth (back to earth/coins) months down the line. And similarly, you make a sword to take it with you to attach someone for a bit of earth because that earth is seen as being of intrinsic worth (back to earth/coins, and different to a wand/baton which you can just pick up off the floor and bop someone on the head with). These show forethought and strategic planning, hence the connection to the mind. As for why the mind would be air, they are both subtle and can only be perceived through their effects. You only see the air when it fills a sail or flies a flag or lifts a leaf. You only hear the wind when it whispers through the trees or howls through a window or rocky crevice. Equally, you know someone's mind only through the effects it creates - writing a letter, speaking, creating tools. These are all things which show aspects of the mind, but we can never fully grasp someone else's thoughts, understand their mind, in the same way that it is hard for us to understand or perceive air except through its effects.

      Not sure that'll be my last thought on this, but it has been interesting to consider.

      And it will also be interesting to see whether changing over your elemental correspondences in reading the TdM will make a difference to your readings. In some ways, precisely because they are just objects rather than scenes, I don't think it matters which suit you pick for which elemental correspondence. In the sense that whether batons are earth or coins are earth, you're looking more at the number and the element, rather than at the picture. And the extent to which you look at the picture is also rather symbolic: those leaves that reach out in the Ace of Coins could also be seen as holding in, depending on your perspective. In many ways, the pips give you more room for your intuition, rather than less (a reason I often enjoy non-scenic pips). It's not esoteric, perhaps, but it is the play of your own mind and emotions in the moment of the reading affecting what you see and how you perceive that... Or not, you'll tell me if your reading style feels different to that, I'm sure :)

    6. I really don't have particularly strong feelings about it, but it was freeing in the moment for me to consider ideas different to what I've learned and not reject them out of hand. I haven't used elemental correspondences in my readings at all since using the TdM, and they would remain as before for magical purposes.

      It certainly in my opinion makes no difference which elemental correspondence you use with TdM, if any. Although perhaps if you focus more on swords in the sense of tools for profit and war, this will direct your readings away from certain paths that might have taken if you associate them more strongly with thoughts and plans. So in that sense, it could certainly colour the tone and content of readings.

      I have spent a long time in a space of making the cards esoteric and highly symbolic. Now I am striving to look upon them in their most mundane and straightforward aspects. Cups are tools for our most basic need, liquid. Wood is a tool for building things. Coins are a tool for acquiring things we need but can't produce. Spades are tools for tilling the ground, swords are the tools of war. Keeping the meanings of the suits to the most mundane level helps anchor readings in the real world so that they don't float off into airy fairy spiritual talk, when a querent has come to you asking about a mundane matter and not for spiritual enlightenment. That's the value of this method of card reading for me, and I am feeling invigorated by it.