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.