The Four Suits – The Four Elements

From Way of the Panda Tarot

Here’s a bit of context for some of the terms you’ll see in a lot of discussions about individual cards: Minor Arcana, suits, and elements.

From Way of the Panda Tarot

The Minor Arcana make up 56 of the 78 cards in a tarot deck.

In the tarot, once you get past the first 22 cards (these are called the Major Arcana and numbered 0 -21), you find a pattern of Ace – 10, + page, knight, queen, king, that repeats through four suits: wands, cups, swords, and pentacles.

If you know your standard poker deck you can see the family resemblance:

  • Wands correspond to clubs
  • Cups correspond to hearts
  • Swords correspond to spades
  • Pentacles correspond to diamonds

Together these four sets are called the Minor Arcana.

The cards of the Minor Arcana bring a tight focus down to a specific area (element) of life, and provide a context or mirror in that moment.

Each of the tarot suits also aligns with one of the four “original” elements, taking on and portraying variations on its characteristics.

  • Wands aligns with Fire: energy, identity, creativity, charisma, will-power, flashy power, impulsivity, passion
  • Cups aligns with Water: intuition, the unconscious, relationships, emotion, adaptability, healing, cleansing
  • Swords aligns with Air: communication, clarity, logic, knowledge, change, force, quiet power, speed, coldness
  • Pentacles aligns with Earth: the body, the home, material wealth, steadiness, depth, slowness, property, warmth

If you can remember that cups correspond to hearts, and the pentacles to diamonds, that might be a helpful reminder of what their suits are tied to.

Traditionally, the minors are different from the Major Arcana because the minors refer to elements of our life that are more or less under our control.

From Way of the Panda Tarot
  • Are you going to go to that party tonight? (3 of cups)
  • How am I going to occupy myself while my investment does its thing out in the world? (3 of wands)
  • What am I willing to invest in my learning? (3 of pentacles)
  • Will I recognize this heartbreak? (3 of swords)
From Way of the Panda Tarot

These can be significant parts of our lives, affecting our futures, but they are the times of choices or actions we more or less understand the shape of.

The Major Arcana, in contrast, feels like much larger forces at work. They represent settings, unexamined tendencies, and things we didn’t see coming – or couldn’t do much about if we did.

  • Life-challenges: What is our capacity to accept (XII The Hanged One) or live in the in-between, always adjusting (XIV Temperance)
  • Personality: how we handle alonenness or responsibility (IX The Hermit, IV The Emperor)
  • Does anyone know exactly what makes us fall in love? (VI The Lovers)

Not everyone reads such big differences between the two sets, but this is the most common teaching.

Smaller or equal to the Majors, the core thing to keep in mind when it comes to understanding the minors is their specific focus, strongly informed by the element of their suit.

5 Reasons to Study Tarot (or purchase a reading)

1. Tarot offers an alternative to language (and a bridge to get there)

My whole life I have been a student and teacher of language. Words form the bowls or other containers that collect the “broth” of our experience, collecting, containing, and giving it shape.

There is, however, an end to words. Not necessarily to their power, but to our mastery of them. We have all experienced reaching the end of our words, but not the fullness of what we are trying to shape or express.

When I found the tarot at age 36, I was already adept at managing (and often getting around) these limitations, but when I began to understand the images, and how each deck’s iteration of the same card was something of a visual synonym, I began to think visually for the first time in my life.

I experienced the new (to me) sensation of being able to skip the words for now, and interact with the thoughts and feelings that – like a mote on the edge of sight – chased away from the direct capture of words.

After a traumatic situation, I was able to sit (even for the barest moment) with two images and feel the same relief I’d previously achieved with a half-hour of journaling.

2. Tarot gives you a chance to exercise an underutilized part of the brain

Our everyday world calls on us not only to focus on language, but also on the concrete and time-bound. All those things that have been labeled “left-brained.”

Tarot offers a rest to that part of our processing, and offers a challenge to the less-often exercised “right-brain” strategies of visualization, storytelling, and  abstract connection.

Odd are good this will tire you at first. This is not a flaw in you or a malevolence in the “energy” of the cards. This is basic muscle building, and it will contribute to increasing overall mental strength and aptitude. Read more

Reading Reversed Cards

I love reversals. People who don’t use them insist that all the possible meanings are in a card, upright or not, but that’s a huge load to make a card (or reader) carry.

By including reversals, I only have to see half of that stuff at a time.

From the Monstarot deck

Reversals have been read a number of ways:

  1. Something opposite the core meaning
  2. The worst version of the card topic
  3. a smaller or specific aspect of the card
  4. intensifying the core meaning
  5. in protection aspect (kind warning)
  6. delay or resistance to the topic/essence
  7. fear related to the topic of the card, or placement in the spread.
  8. Not at all (every reader chooses for themselves, and have all of these element still available to them).

There are more, of course, but these are the ones I’ve run into personally.

How do you know which one it is? Read more

What is Tarot?

The basic answer begins with the physical deck itself.

A tarot deck is made up of 78 cards, 52 of them analogous to the 52-card deck you are familiar with for poker, Gin Rummy, and Go-Fish.

Their familiarity is part of what makes them the every-day level of “sharing.” Minor Arcana, they’re called. The little secrets.

Another 4 cards belong to the minors as well. A fourth face card for each suit. Instead of the Jack/Queen/King arrangement of the traditional deck, Tarot decks include Page/Knight/Queen/King.

78-52 -4= 22

The last 22 are the archetypal or storytelling cards, and these are the cards least-familiar to the average card-player: The Major Arcana. The skookum secrets.

These include the kinds of cards that can look scary – Death, or the Devil, for example. And what about all that nudity? Don’t worry, we’ll get there.

Or avoid it. You know what I mean.

Tarot is the overarching term I use to describe both the physical decks I use, the act of laying out cards, and the practice of discussing what the images on those cards represent.

So when I say, “I do tarot,” I am saying that I have a comfort with and an understanding of ways to use these 78-card decks, some of which I’ll share on this blog over time.