The Four Classic Elements


The Four Classic Elements

Element symbols with names color Alchemy

One who neglects or disregards the existence of earth, air, fire, water and vegetation disregards his own existence which is entwined with them.
~ Mahavira

Contents: click below to jump to a section

The Four Temperaments
The Number Four & Tetractys
Tetragrammaton and Kabbalah
The Four Elements Added to the Tarot
The Four Tarot Suits
Major Arcana & the Fifth Element
Elemental Dignities

Brief History and Development

Empedocles, an ancient Greek Pre-Socratic philosopher and poet, originated the theory of the four classical elements. He believed that there were four elements of matter, or ‘roots’ as he called them, that are the building blocks of creation; they are the beginning of all things and that all matter was made from a combination of these elements. He associated these elements with four Greek gods and goddesses – Air with Zeus, Earth with Hera, Fire with Hades, and Water with Persephone.

He also proposed these elements were influenced by two opposing forces: Love and Strife. Love united the elements, while Strife separated them.

Later, Plato, his student Aristotle, and the Greek physician Hippocrates, developed and expanded Empedocles’ theory even further. Plato wrote about the four elements being transitional in nature. Aristotle added a fifth element, aether, as well as added qualities to the four elements: hot, dry, wet, and moist.

Hippocrates used the four elements to describes the four ‘humours’ found in the body: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. In addition, based on these four humours, Hippocrates believed that they affected personality traits and behaviors.

The idea that these four elements – earth, water, air, and fire – made up all matter was the cornerstone of philosophy, science, and medicine for two thousand years. Many cultures have adopted these theories and developed their own beliefs of the elements by either adding to, or subtracting from, to make it their own. Modern science agrees these four element do align with the four states of matter: solid (Earth), liquid (Water), gas (Air), plasma (Fire).

Here’s an example how we connect with the classic four elements and how they affect each other:

Let’s consider a sun shower, a meteorological phenomenon –

The sun, a mixture of gas and plasma (fire), is shining, and it begins to rain (water) from existing clouds, while a collection of droplets or ice crystals, too small to see, begin to float in the Air creating more clouds. The rain moistened the soil (earth) creating mud.

The Four Temperaments

Hippocrates proposed that our bodily fluids contained four distinct humours, that when four humoursbalanced, they produced perfect health, and when unbalanced, produced diseases and disabilities in our bodies.

  • Black bile = a Melancholic person
  • Yellow bile = a Choleric person
  • Blood = a Sanguine person
  • Phlegm = a Phlegmatic person

Over the centuries, these Four Temperaments have been developed evenly further by the Greeks through Western philosophers, scholars, and modern psychologists, as well as creating a basis for personality tests that are used today.



As a direct result of Empedocles’ and Hippocrates’ theories, each astrological sign was associated with one of the four elements. This was an important development in Western Astrology and of the characterization of the twelve signs. Vettius Valens, a young contemporary of Plotemy, was the earliest known astrologer to assign elements to the triplicities.

There are three signs associated with each element and they are called ‘triplicities’. Further, each triplicity is grouped according to polarity:

Fire and Air signs are considered positive/male/yang.
Water and Earth signs are considered negative/female/yin.


  • Fire Signs: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius
  • Earth Signs: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn
  • Air Signs: Gemini, Libra, Aquarius
  • Water Signs: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces

Life is the fire that burns and the sun that gives light. Life is the wind and the rain and the thunder in the sky. Life is matter and is earth, what is and what is not, and what beyond is in Eternity.
~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca


The Number Four & Tetractys

Formation takes place in the number Four, a square, and represents stability, justice, and order. Pythagoreans considered the number four to be sacred, the root of all things,  and thus, the Cosmos was created through the Four.


  1. One – Monad: a dot
  2. Two – Dyad: a line
  3. Three – Triad: surface – a triangle (first geometric shape)
  4. Four – Tetrad: solid – a square

Through the sacred number Four, everything exists, and the sum of the first four numbers equals ten, the Decad, the perfect number. 1+2+3+4=10 – symbol of the human soul.

The Tetractys, the Holy Tetrad, is a mystical symbol/pattern secretly worshipped by the Pythagoreans, who swore an oath to it. Tetractys (Greek: set of four) is arranged in the form of a triangle; One at the top, then Two, then Three, and ending with Four.


Pythagorean Universal Patterns – Ten Sets of Tetractys

  1. Numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4
  2. Magnitudes: Point, Line, Superficies (surface), Solid
  3. Simple Bodies/Elements: Fire, Air, Water, Earth
  4. Figures: Pyramid (Fire), Octahedron (Air), Icosahedron (Water), Cube (Earth)
  5. Thing Rising into Existence: Seed, Length (shoot), Breadth (leaf), Depth (trunk)
  6. Communities: Man, House, Street, City
  7. Judgement/Faculties: Intellect, Science, Opinion, Sense
  8. Soul and Body: Rational, Irascible, Epithymetic (3 Parts of Soul), Body
  9. Seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter
  10. Ages of a Man: Infancy, Lad, Man, Old Man¹

We also have the four directions, four phases of the moon, four triplicities in astrology, and so many more in the universe, alchemy, religions, et cetera.


Tetragrammaton and Kabbalah

The Tetragrammaton (Greek: four letters) is the name of God in the Hebrew bible,
YHVH – Yod, Heh, Vau, Heh (read right to left).


Although there is no evidence to support it, some believe the Tetractys is an imitation of the Tetragrammaton, as well as the Ten Sephiroth on the Tree of Life (see below) of Kabbalah, the mystical teachings of Judaism.

In Kabbalah, the Tetragrammaton is also related to the four Kabbalistic worlds, the four elements, the four archangels, and the four cardinal directions. Kabbalah doctrine states there are four stages of the manifestation of creation though the Four Worlds – similar to the Tectractys.



The Four Elements Added to the Tarot

Jean-Baptiste Alliete, also know as Eteilla, associated the four elements to four of the Trumps in his own deck and implied them in the four suits. However, Eliphas Levi is the first occultist to actually attribute the four elements to the four suits in the Tarot.²

Although Levi accepted Court de Gébelin and the Compte de Mellet’s theories that the Tarot was influenced by Egyptian lore and he believed the Kabbalah, astrology, Hermeticism, alchemy, magic, and more, were all entwined in the Tarot.

The four living creatures in Ezekiel’s vision (depicted in the RWS Wheel of Fortune and the World, as well as Eteilla’s fifth card) are known as Cherubim or Cherubs and at this point in history, they had long been attributed to the four zodiac signs. Eliphas Levi took it one step further and maintained that the tools in the four suits, corresponded with these Cherubs. He also attributed the four parts of the Assyrian sphinx to known quanternaties – like the 10 sets of four/Tetractys above. More importantly, he included the name of God, the Tetragrammaton in his book, The Doctrine of Transcendental Magic, and assigns each suit to each letter:
Yod – Wands, Heh – Cups, Vau – Swords, 2nd Heh – Pentacles ³


Gerard Encausse, also known as Papus, continued and expanded these assignments in his book, The Tarot of the Bohemians and the rest as they say, is history.

The Four Tarot Suits

Element symbols with names color

Above are the symbols of the four classic elements along with their color

  • Wands are associated with Fire*
  • Cups are associated with Water
  • Swords are associated with Air*
  • Pentacles are associate with Earth

Each element, each suit, has both positive and negative qualities and we need each element in order to survive. Each element can give life as well as take it away.  In addition, the elements can intertwine with one another on some level. For example: Fiery people can have issues with anger, which is an emotion. Further, most people do not inherently match one suit/element over another. Instead, they embody a combination of the characteristics of two or more elements, usually the latter.

If you can study and learn the elements inside and out, you’ll have a complete and comprehensive understanding of the suits and what they represent. The element each suit is associated with, is the essence of that suit’s meaning, especially the Aces.

Here’s my tips for remembering which element corresponds to which suit when you’re an absolute beginner to Tarot:

  • Wands – think of a flame on a wand, that would light your path in a dark place and how a spark creates fire. What can your spark create?
  • Cups – think of fluid (or water) overflowing the cup and how emotions can too.
  • Swords – think of how words from breath, can cut both ways like a double-edge sword.
  • Coins/Pentacles – think of money which can offer stability and foundation, just like earth or soil can and the resources/nourishment they offer.

*Note: Arthur Waite transposed Air and Fire – The Golden Dawn corresponded Air with Wands and Fire with Swords. Waite switched them probably due to his oath of secrecy. It’s surmised that he only changed those two because Cups and Coins (Pentacles) wouldn’t have made sense; they were too obvious. There are current decks that do follow the Golden Dawn associations. I can see arguments on both sides however, this is the way I learned Fire and Air so I have continued with it. It all comes down to your personal preference. There is no right and wrong – follow the associations that work best for you.

Wands – Fire/Masculine/Active

The Spirit: your personal drive, willpower, courage, passions, desires, career, strength, leadership, enthusiasm, confidence, expansion, lust/promiscuity, creative spirit, and spirituality or philosophy; your inner fire – what you want.

“Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.”
– Buddha


Fire is the spark –  the spark of ideas, beginnings, creativity; the seed in which everything grows. This is why you will often see shoots off the wands symbolizing growth.  The Wands suit represents all that you are passionate and enthusiastic about; our drive, our ambition and taking action regarding them. This is your pure potential. Wands people are the initiators of the suits.

Wands people are confident, innovative, courageous, passionate, strong people who have the willpower to pursue their dreams and goals. They are career oriented and like to be in charge and thus, many are leaders or are self-employed. Wands can be competitive and are not scared or put off by challenges, in fact, they welcome them. They have a “go for it” attitude, which can be good and bad.

They can be exciting partners however, they do best in a relationship with like minded people. Their high energy may be difficult to match and they like to live life to the fullest. Due to their zest for life and high energy, if they don’t feel stimulated, boredom can easily set in and they don’t like feeling tied down. Their free spirit is always calling them. This is also true when it comes to their work. They wouldn’t be happy in a nine to five, office job. They would feel stifled, bored, and disinterested.

Wands people love adventure – they’re fearless and love living life on the edge. They love to travel and tend to like sports that are fast, dangerous and/or risky such as, hang-gliding, base jumping, racing cars, rock climbing, spelunking, et cetera.

Another side of the Wands, is their spiritual and/or philosophical side; their search for a higher self or, a deeper awareness of their psyche, as well as other’s. Although this could point to a religion, it doesn’t have to. But it would be something they feel connected to on a higher level. Meditation, Mindfulness, and/or yoga, is a great example, or it could even be a charitable or political cause, such as the Peace Corp. or Green Peace.


Negative State-
As fire can quickly get out of control, so can the Wands.

Wands people are in a hurry and can be over ambitious or take on too many projects at once and as a result, they burn or have a difficult time focusing because they are all over the place. When they fail, they can become jealous and envious of other’s success.

Wands can also be aggressive, overbearing, temperamental, and have a lack self-control and are known for their bad tempers. At times, they may seem to thrive on drama and conflict. They can be impatient, impulsive and impetuous, and be so overconfident, that they’re cocky.

While being adventurous is fine, some like to push their limits. They can be reckless and take life-threatening risks. Wands can be lustful and promiscuous, looking at sex as recreational sport, having one night stands or even cheating on their partner.

Wands are creative people and so, in their negative state, this creativity can be stifled or blocked.


  • Season: Spring
  • Astrological Signs: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius
  • Direction: South
  • Timing: Noon to Twilight & Weeks
  • Symbol: Salamander
  • Color: Red
  • Quality: Hot and Dry

Societal Expressions
– s/he has a fiery temperament or personality; s/he’s on fire; hot-headed.

Famous Wands Person: Richard Branson – founder of Virgin Records and Virgin Airlines. He’s innovative who’s taken on many different projects and who also thrives on adventure and risk taking sports.

Cups – Water/Feminine/Passive

The Heart: your emotions, love, feelings, sensuality, receptivity, reflection, passivity,  artistic side, compassion, and intuition- what you feel.

“Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.”
– Lao Tzu


Water ebbs and flows with the tides – our emotions can be a like a roller coaster ride; having ups and downs, twists and turns – emotions constantly change. Cups are all about our feelings and how we deal with them. Water is receptive as well as reflective. Cups people are imaginative, artistic, compassionate, gentle and sensitive, sexual/sensual, and highly intuitive.

Love is important in their lives and there’s different types of love – love of their family, their friends, their children, and their lover/partner. In addition, their community and possibly their co-workers; the Cups suit represents all of these relationships. We need to love ourselves to be able to love another and as much as we need to love, we need to be loved; love is both giving and receiving. Further, these relationships can bring joy and happiness, as well as disappointment and pain.

As partners, they are romantic and love being in love. They’re sensitive, gentle, unselfish, and sensual. They’re the type to give flowers and sentimental cards, as well as wanting them and then saving these items as nostalgia.

Cups people are social butterflies. They thoroughly enjoy being around their loved ones and people in general. They’re devoted, selfless, loyal friends and like to go to parties and host them. However, they can be shy and timid around strangers, and don’t like to be the center of attention.

They are imaginative, expressive, and creative and tend to be poets, artists, painters, sculptors, et cetera. Water can be therapeutic and salt water has healing properties. In turn, Cups people are caring, empathetic, and compassionate and are nurturing souls. Therefore, they make great therapists, nurses, social workers, counselors, and work well with children.

Water is reflective and acts as a mirror. Some Cups people are extremely in tune to their unconscious mind and as a result are introspective, highly intuitive, perceptive beings. They are good at reading people and situations.


Negative State-
Just as the Moon’s gravitational pull increase the tides, outside influences can have the same effect on our emotions.

Cups people can be overly sensitive and/or overemotional. Emotions can get the best of them and cause mood swings and worst of all, depression. These emotions can bring on stress, which could cause both mental and physical harm. One of the causes of this stress may be a present or past situation dealing with some type of abuse.

We see vices and addictions in the Cups. Of course some can be due to depression but on the other hand, some people just have addictive personalities. They can have vices such as alcohol, drugs, smoking, gambling, food, and even being addicting to people because they hate to be alone.

In relationships, both platonic and romantic, they can be needy, get hurt easily, and may find it hard to forgive and forget. They may have such low self-esteem and low self-worth that they want to but can’t trust people because they can’t understand why you would want them in any way, shape, or form. In addition, their love for someone can turn possessive or obsessive due to jealousy or paranoia and it become out of control and even dangerous.

As I explained, Cups people are creative and artistic and in their negative state, they can feel blocked or uncreative and this can be cause any of the above or sometime it just happens.


  • Season: Summer
  • Astrological Signs: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces
  • Direction: West
  • Timing: Twilight – Midnight & Months
  • Symbol: Undine
  • Color: Blue
  • Quality: Wet and Moist

Societal Expressions
– s/he’s warm or cold; going with the flow; bubbly personality; a wet rag.

Famous Cups Person: The ultimate nurturer is Mother Teresa, however I think Princess Diana embodies the Cups’ qualities maybe a little more because we know she was also social, was a loyal friend, and her relationships brought her both joy and pain.

Click here to see my mind map of Water

Swords – Air/Masculine/Active

The Mind: your intellect, mental thoughts, logic, reason, clarity, communication, planning, ideas, conception, law and order, justice, honesty, organization, challenges, and conflict – what you think

“An arrow may fly through the air and leave no trace; but an ill thought leaves a trail like a serpent.”
– Charles Mackay


Air is ever moving and so is our minds. Swords people are intellectual beings. They are witty and have sharp minds. They analyze, rationalize, and can think with their head instead of their heart, giving them the ability to use logic and reason void of emotion thus, they make great problem-solvers.

Swords people are full of thoughts, ideas, concepts, and strategy and are good at planning and organizing. They are smart, rational, clear-thinkers and are great communicators. Like breath, they can communicate all these ideas and thoughts to inspire others or debate issues. They like to talk and chat as well as express themselves through words and prose. This is why thye make great writers, journalists, bloggers, inspiration speakers, solicitors, disk-jockeys, teachers, et cetera.

Swords are also connected to legal issues, law and order, and justice. Swords people are honest, open-minded, objective, and can see both sides of arguments. With these qualities, along with having logical and analytical minds, they can reach a fair and balanced judgment/decision. Therefore, they can be attorneys, judges, police officers, and private investigators.  Their blunt, frank, and serious personalities serve them well in these positions. In addition, they are drawn to professions in science and psychology.

As romantic partners, they like to plan their goals and dreams together, have endless conversations, and enjoy fantasizing about their future; they think together. Because of this, they would probably do better with intellectuals, who have similar interests. They may not do as well with a Wands type, because they’re interests are so different. Swords people also have high energy, but they act upon it mentally instead of physically. Regarding Cups, the Swords aren’t as sensitive, as social or emotional. In fact, they’re sometimes considered cold and aloof. Now Earth and Air could work.


Negative State-
Air can become windy and destructive – much in the same way, our minds can be still in the moment or, our thoughts can cause worry and/or anxiety.

Just as air moves quickly, think of those sleepless nights when your mind is racing all over the place. Our thoughts or worries can overwhelm us, creating stress or anxiety and actually cause us to lose sleep or to have nightmares and as a result, cause insomnia. These are some of the challenges Swords people face.

Just like a Sword has a double edge, words can cut both ways. Swords people can be witty and well spoken but, their tongue can be just as sharp as a blade. They can yell, argue, insult you, be rude, be spiteful, or bully you. They can be mentally and verbally abusive and know just what to say to hurt you the most. They’ll stab you with a knife and then give it a twist. Because of this, Swords can also cause conflict.

Highly intelligent people can tend to be overly serious, less social, and keep to themselves. They can also be arrogant, thinking they know everything and that they are better than you; acting superior and belittling you. Some can be judgemental and opinionated, offering up “honesty” when others aren’t asking for their opinion.

Swords can be master manipulators. They have the ability to analyze you and the situation so well, they’ll know just how to manipulate the situation and all who are involved. In addition, they can plot, scheme, and scam. With these traits, they can make great charlatans.

Some may have such a great imagination they tend to daydream and/or live in their own world; fantasizing and having unrealistic ideas or thoughts. In their worst state, they can become mentally unbalanced experiencing delusions, paranoia, and wind up living in an alternate reality. On the other hand, Swords writers and poets, may find themselves experiencing writer’s block in this state.


  • Season: Winter
  • Astrological Signs: Gemini, Libra, Aquarius
  • Direction: East
  • Timing: Sunrise – Noon & Days
  • Symbol: Sylph
  • Color: Yellow
  • Qualities: Hot and Wet

Societal Expressions
– s/he’s an airhead; has their head in the clouds; daydreamer; light as air; pie in the sky; she’s an ice queen.

Famous Swords Person: Neil deGrasse Tyson – astrophysicist, author, and science communicator.  He’s brilliant, he’s an author, and a great speaker.

Pentacles – Earth/Masculine/Passive

The Body: your physical world, stability, loyalty, dependable, practicality, resources, finances, work, manifestation, fertility, environment, material possessions, and health – what you have.

“On Earth Day, we celebrate all the gifts the world and nature make available to us. We recognize our complete dependence on its bounty. And we acknowledge the need for good stewardship to preserve its fruits for future generations.”
– John Hoeven


When I think of Earth, I immediately think of our planet and nature; fertile ground, mountains, trees, flower, vegetation, and animals – all the beauty Mother Earth, Gaia, gives us; our physical world.

Pentacles are associated with our body and our health. Earth provides us food and nourishment, and a solid foundation, and due to the gravitational pull, Earth keeps us grounded. Being grounded, solid, stable, and reliable, puts us in a good position for attainment. Pentacles are the doers of the suits. They are practical, resourceful, and are productive hard workers. However, while the Wands will work at what they’re passionate about, Pentacles people are looking for a reward, whether it be physical, monetary, or something that will help them later on, like a connection.


I want to discuss the subtle differences between work and career in the Wands suit versus Pentacles.

A person who wants to be an actor (career/Wands) may work as a waiter (work/Pentacles) because it’s the type of job that’s flexible and allows him the time to go to auditions. It also allows him to put food on the table for his family (resource/payoff).

Here’s an example of the difference in payoffs:

A Pentacles person may work out for a healthy, body that also looks really attractive. So the reward is health and looking good (very Pentacles). However, a Wands person, who is a body builder, will probably be proud of how he looks, but for him, it’s a kind of religion; a spiritual payoff.


Earth is also slow moving, and so Pentacles are patient, tolerant, and have strong endurance. They are sound, reliable business people, who will make a commitment and stick by it. They know how to pace themselves and are willing to work as long as it takes to get the job done, as long as they’re rewarded for it in some way. They can take a business from scratch and build it into an empire. They take pleasure in creating a solid foundation, that will hold up for years to come.

The Pentacle are also known as Coins and it’s befitting to their personality.

Pentacle people love money. They love working with money, investing money, saving money, and spending money. Although, they are not risk takers and will make smart, sound investments. Nevertheless, they tend to be materialistic and like to flaunt  their money and possessions. To these Pentacles, money equals success. They’ll have a big house, a luxury car, fine jewelry, and take lavish vacations; only the best will do. Because they love working with money and are good investors, then tend to work in the financial industry as bankers, financiers, venture capitalists, stock brokers, C.P.A.s, and financial planning, et cetera.

When it comes to relationships, they are just as committed and stable and marry for life. They are family oriented and love being a family unit. They enjoy being parents and some can’t imagine a life without children. In fact, that could be a deal breaker to some in a relationship. They’re affectionate, touchy-feely types, who love to hug and cuddle and they like to do things together as a family. Their idea of romance, is buying their partner an expensive gift. However, I would expect the Pentacle who loves nature (see next paragraph) to take their partner on a picnic. They are also loyal, dependable friends, who will give you the shirt off their back.

Pentacles people also love nature. They are very involved with their environment, our planet, and conservation. They like to be outside and enjoy sports and activities such as hiking, nature walks, bird watching, working with animals, horseback riding. These types of Pentacles like to work with nature or animals, so they may be farmers, geologists, archeologists, veterinarians, zoologists, botanists, and so on.


Negative State
Just as earth can offer a stable foundation, outside influences such as water, can quickly turn it to mud, and wash the earth away, causing the foundation to crumble.

Some Pentacles people can be too materialistic. They could be obsessed with money, so much so, that they don’t care about anything else. They value their money/possessions over their loved ones. These types of people should be careful not to overspend and forget to save for a rainy day. If they begin to feel like they do not have enough, they will panic and may have an unrealistic, gloomy perspective, thinking their whole world is about to end. On the other hand, sometimes Pentacles may need to lose everything to learn that money can not buy happiness. When you lose the fancy house and cars, you can also lose your ‘so called’ friends and/or spouse. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but possibly a necessary one.

When feeling down and out and desperate, they could make poor investments, or get involved with get rich quick schemes, and even getting their friends involved.

Some Pentacles can be superficial, choosing a spouse for their looks (think trophy wife/husband) or maybe for their inheritance or connections. These Pentacle types are all about “me”. They may be a gold digger, loving money and nothing else. Some may even choose to become a high end escort or have a “sugar daddy”.

Another aspect of superficiality is being vain and caring too much about how they look. They tend to care too much what their friends, peers, and community think of them, so they can become obsessed with their outer appearance; how thin they are, what clothes they wear (designer), getting plastic surgery, and so on.

The same way you can get stuck in mud, Pentacles can be stubborn, get stuck in their ways, and get stuck in a rut. Pentacles can be too slow moving, sluggish, and lazy, making it difficult to keep up with their commitments. This can lead them to neglect their health, their family, and their pets.


  • Season: Autumn
  • Astrological Signs: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn
  • Direction: North
  • Timing: Midnight – Sunrise & Years
  • Symbol: Gnome
  • Color: Green
  • Qualities: Cold and Dry

Societal Expressions – s/he’s down-to-earth or earthy; S/he’s the salt of the earth; a tree hugger; stick in the mud

Famous PentacleWarren Buffet – One of the most successful investors and a philanthropist, pledging to donate 99% of his money to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which included global development.

The Major Arcana Correspondence & The Fifth Element

Although this page is about the four elements, I would be remiss not to mention the fifth element, Aether, the element Aristotle added to the four. He and Alchemists believed heaven and heavenly bodies (stars) were made up of Aether. Modern science proved them wrong. However, Aether, also called Quintessence, remains in an esoteric sense.

Mirriam-Webster Dictionary: Definition of Quintessence

1: the fifth and highest element in ancient and medieval philosophy that permeates all nature and is the substance composing the celestial bodies
2 :  the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form

Aether or the Quinta Essentia, (Latin for fifth essence) is spiritual energy, the Divine Essence, Prana, the Vital Life Force. It is intangible and synthesizes and binds the four elements together; without it, they would scatter. As the definition says, it was believed that the fifth elements permeated all nature. It is everything yet nothing at the same time. Aether allows all life forms to exist, connect, interact, and function in harmony. It is the microcosm and the macrocosm.

Pythagoras believe the number Five was the marriage of heaven and earth – hieros gamos; As Above, So Below. The Five was the Pentad or the Pentagram, which later represented all five elements with Aether as the top point. Interestingly, Christians used the Pentagram to symbolize the five wounds of Christ, until it was deemed evil.


The Major Arcana – four elements

The Golden Dawn linked the Hebrew alphabet to the Major Arcana, based on the Sepher Yetzirah and they began with The Fool as Aleph. In addition, they added the four elements, planets, and zodiac signs to the Major Arcana.

Here’s which cards corresponded to the four elements:

  • The Fool (Lord of the Spirit of Aether) – Air
  • The Hanged Man (Lord of the Spirit of Mighty Waters) – Water
  • Judgement (Lord of the Spirit of Primal Fire) – Fire
  • The World (Lord of the Great One of the Night of Time) Earth*

*Initially only the Fool, the Hanged Man, and Judgement were assigned elements. They correspond with the ‘mother letters’ of the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph, Mem, and Shin respectively.

Further development

Tarot readers will also associate all the Trumps, not just the four above, with one, two, or even three elements. I have seen so many different associations, there’s too many to list here. Some readers base their correspondences on the Four Worlds of Kabbalah. some base them on the Chakras, while others base them on the astrological correspondences. There is no rule how to use these associations; use whichever attributions that work best for you.

The Major Arcana – fifth element

Some readers do not follow any of these. Instead, they attribute the entire Major Arcana to the fifth element Aether only and I am one of those readers.

Personally, I believe the Trumps represent a path to our higher self, deeper awareness, and involve esoteric lessons. Therefore, the Major Arcana is the Animus Mundi of the Tarot deck. They represent lessons of our spirit, of our soul, and in my humble opinion, it’s a logical choice. The four elements are represented by the four suits in the Minor Arcana and it’s logical the fifth is represented by the Major Arcana.

But…once again, use the correspondences that work best for you. This is extremely important and can not be emphasizes enough. You must feel comfortable when reading  in order to give the best reading possible.

Elemental Dignities

One way to utilize the elements in a reading is to consider the elemental combinations for good or ill. I need to learn much more about this method but I can offer this:

Some elements will make each other stronger, while others will make each other weaker, and even further, some will not have much of an affect at all; they’re neutral.  Thus, these combinations can modify the card interpretation and reading.

General Rules:

  • Fire and Air; Earth and Water – Friendly/Strengthen
  • Fire and Water; Air and Earth – Enemies/Weaken
  • Fire and Earth; Water and Air – Neutral

This is an intricate method of reading the cards however, it can add another layer to a reading. Until I learn more and I can write about Elemental Dignities myself and  I recommend the following sites and books if you wish to learn how to used them:
Tarot Beyond the Basic by Anthony Louis
Beyond the Celtic Cross by Catherine Chapman, Paul Hughes-Barlow
Tarot Decoded by Elizabeth Hazel


  1. Thomas Taylor (translation), Iamblichus’ Life of Pythagoras – loc 3136 – 3183 (kindle)* can also be found: Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy -Book 2, Chapter 7.
  2. Ronald Decker, A Wicked Pack of Cards: pg. 171
  3. pg. 186


: This is a revised version – June 7, 2017

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