When I see the pips, the elements do not come first, instead, as I mentioned in the opening of this series, their phenomenological virtues (qualities) comes first. By this I mean their tangible physical life applications and the processes arising out of their applications and uses, and what is mirrored in the cards at play.
In other words, a cup does not stand in for the abstract element water initially. A cup is a cup, and how we ascribe elemental meaning to the cup arises out of our own experiences of cup, chalice, drinking vessel.
Instead of diving into what each suit is not elementally. Let me dip into what they are once more, swerving into their elemental connotations. Let’s first define element as per Merriam-Webster dictionary:
1. any of the four substances air, water, fire, and earth formerly believed to compose the physical universe; the state or sphere natural or suited to a person or thing.
2. a constituent part; a distinct group within a larger group or community
Going back to cups, a cup is a vessel, concave with a deep center so as to allow for the holding of liquid. A cup holds and contains. It is held close and just as it contains it shares, as from its deep center where the swirling liquid rests, when tipped over it falls in-to an open mouth (in most cases). The actions that accompany cup give it a quality in relation to and in service with liquids, with liquid as sustenance, something that nourishes, replenishes, satiates. The cup itself is the medium through which we experience the liquid inside. In this sense it is receptive, open, and enjoining, in that it joins together, the more cups sharing and drinking, the merrier.
A sword is a sharp blade that pierces, cuts, and divides, it is cold, hard, metal. It wounds and causes blood to flow. It is held far from the body, pointing at others in combat, or for protection. In other words, it keeps others away from our body and that which we protect. Swords denote separation and death. As a sign of war, it underlines analysis and calculation through the framework of best plan of attack to conquer. Victory through strategy and might.
A baton is a wooden stick, some are polished others are more rustic. The more rustic ones are stacked to build things, whether home or furniture to facilitate living. Other batons are polished, and waved as a sign of authority and power. On occasions, batons are used to bruise in defense against an other. Batons are also held far from the body, they are heavy and blunt. Denoting raw strength. And, I can’t help but repeating, sometimes many batons together are a forest.
A coin is round, shiny, and held very close, in the pocket, in a purse, our a pouch. Exchanged for goods and put into circulation for gain. Coins are shiny and round like our eyes which often get entangled with lust for a thing sighted. Greed and avarice are a possibility just around the corner. One is good but many is best. They are a metal made warm by our touch, and because we keep them near to our bodies, and not just our bodies but our thoughts. Our thinking is often preoccupied with how to make more coins and keep more on our side.
So what about their elements? The suits in their element are articulated through the lens of how we experience and use them. Elemental connotations are filtered through the alembic of the body. If element is defined as the “sphere natural to a thing, which itself is a part of a greater whole, then one can assert that each of the suits have particular characteristics described through their use, and composition. Yet as part of a whole, the suits themselves interact with the greater part of the rest, intermingling amongst themselves in their descriptive and perceptual potential. When reading the pips from this stance, the categories are kept loose and rely on how the body reacts to and uses the tool(s) itself(themselves) while always in relation to the question. Hard categories can be restrictive, and calcifies the suit in question in relation to the others and to the reader. Creating strict boundaries that categorically separates the object as tool from the abstract symbol.
Meaning arises through play.
Swords are not stand-ins for mental gymnastics and thought-processes. Swords are a weapon first, and our own experience of sword takes us to its meaning at the moment of reading. All the tools presented in the pips, such as swords, cups, batons, and coins, involve thinking. Different ways of thinking. How we think with defenses, war, and protection; thinking with value, money and wealth; thinking with joy, the heart, and those near; thinking with authority and order.
Nonetheless, let us swerve for, a moment, into the elements. This is the common arrangement of the elements in the minors, albeit not in this exact order:
- Swords= Air
- Batons= Fire
- Cups= Water
- Coins= Earth
When seen from this angle, of the classical elements, roughly put, air is the intellect, fire the passion or will, water the emotional and sacred, and earth the material and objective. When seen from this range, a symbolic, neoplatonic, symbol set is superimposed upon the the 56 minors. All of which map conveniently, although with varied alterations or interpretations depending on who is doing the descriptive coding, to cabalistic and astrological frameworks. These frameworks are fit into the kircher tree, and the tetragrammaton: Yod He Vau He. Through this superimposition the minors and majors acquire an overarching esoteric quest and narrative through which the tarot reader then inserts the question at hand. From this perspective the suit of swords becomes air and describes intellectual, mental, gymnastics. Batons describe the pursuit of passions, power, glory, and enterprises. Cups the realm of emotions, the heart, and sacred psychical explorations. Coins, in turn, the material realm, money, resources, and possessions. This of course is reduced in scope for brevity’s sake. † What this achieves is a hard or rigid categorization of the minors to a specific narrative.
The point I’d like to spotlight is that one can also arrive at a rich tapestry of forms, movements, and meanings with another type of displacement, and that is a phenomenological one. Wherein we engage the suits through our bodies, through our own experience with what we see on the cards. In contrast to having a narrative already categorically complex encoded in the cards, the narrative created with the cards is one we engage with spontaneously and in the moment of asking the question and laying down the cards. Gauging how uncomfortable, or vulnerable swords make us feel in relation to the cards and the question. How weighed down or even ambitious the batons move us toward a vision. The cups, how indulgent, and the coins how frivolous or calculating in our goals. Cups and coins can be seen through desire dynamics that are sometimes opposing, and at other times complementing. Although truthfully, desire weaves itself throughout the whole pack as it also weaves itself through all our living. The adjectives can expand outward from here. How much of one thing weighs on the surrounding cards, or how little? What is moving, what is staying put? What is being cut, pushed, bought, invested in? What is being sensorially, and heart-fully explored? Through all these mirroring and perceptual dynamics we explore the poetics of the body through form and movement.
In other words, the suits in their element is found in the poetry of the body engaged in doing, being, living.
† Tarot of the Bohemians by Papus.
Animating The Tarot Pips by Natalia L Forty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at mistandether.wordpress.com.