The Four Elements: Links between Tarot and Astrology

The four building blocks of our existence...
The four building blocks of our existence…

When it comes to metaphysical disciplines, I’m a huge fan of Tarot and Astrology. Both are rich, fascinating, and deep as fractals, and they each provide their adherents with methods for peering into the very fabric of reality. However, beyond those overall similarities, the two are extremely different systems. One thing they do share, though, is a fundamental embracing of the classical worldview that everything in existence can be broken down into four “Elements.”

Empedocles: the point of origin for our familiar Four Elements system.
Empedocles: the point of origin for our familiar Four Elements system.

This theory originated with the Greek philosopher Empedocles, who held that everything is composed of some combination of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. This notion, or some variation of it, was then embraced by virtually every major culture and philosophical belief system that came about in its wake. As civilization evolved, humanity began to regard Empedocles’ concepts in more of a metaphorical light, rather than as literal truth, but his work remains hugely influential in modern metaphysical thought. One outstanding byproduct of this development is the fact that an understanding of the basics of the Four Element system will give anyone a terrific leg up in trying to become conversant with both Tarot and Astrology. In fact, as different as the two latter systems are in so many ways, they do tend to interpret the meanings of the Four Elements in remarkably similar fashion. In Tarot, the Elements primarily come into play when we look at the Minor Arcana. This is a 56-card subset of the overall 78-card Tarot deck, and one of its primary characteristics is the fact that much like our standard playing card decks, the Minor Arcana is subdivided up into four Suits. The names of these Suits can vary from one deck to the next, but the most common designations for them are Pentacles, Cups, Swords, and Wands. In the majority of decks, Pentacles are associated with the Earth Element, Cups with Water, Swords with Air, and Wands with Fire. More on what that all means in a moment…

Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: where, and what, would we be without them...?
Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: where, and what, would we be without them…?

But first, let’s take a look at how Astrology incorporates the Four Elements into its own structure… One of the ways in which Astrology differs from Tarot is that while the latter can arguably be summed up as one set of 78 complex symbols (i.e., the Tarot cards themselves), Astrology is more like a system comprised of three interlocking sets of symbols: the Planets, the Signs, and the Houses. Each of these three symbol-sets can then be broken down into terms that probably would have received the ancient Greek equivalent of a thumbs-up from Empedocles. Working with the Planets can be tricky here, as some of them are seen more as fusions of a couple of the Elemental energies we’re discussing than as pure embodiments of any single one of them. The Signs and the Houses, though, are each assigned one of the classical Four Elements much like the Tarot’s Suits are.

Here’s a handy table that captures all of this in simple, graphic fashion:

Element

Tarot Suit

Astrological Signs

Astrological Houses

Earth

Pentacles

Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn

Second, Sixth, Tenth

Water

Cups

Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces

Fourth, Eighth, Twelfth

Air

Swords

Gemini, Libra, Aquarius

Third, Seventh, Eleventh

Fire

Wands

Aries, Leo, Sagittarius

First, Fifth, Ninth

So if this breakdown into the Four Elements runs all through both Tarot and Astrology, what, then, are the basic meanings of each? Another user-friendly table can summarize that in fine, cheat-sheet style:

Element

Meaning

Earth

Associated with the physical realm: career, home, family, the body, money, possessions.

Water

Connected to the emotional sphere: love, compassion, dreams, feelings, psychic perceptions.

Air

Mental/intellectual concerns: reason, logic, analysis, ideas, information, thought, communication.

Fire

Experiences of a spiritual nature: creativity, passion, impulse, courage, life-force, determination.

Some would say that if you understand these four things, you'll understand all of reality...
Some would say that if you understand these four things, you’ll understand all of reality…

So whether you’re confronted with a Tarot card drawn from the Suit of Cups, or you’re trying to interpret a bit of astrological data having to do with, say, the Sign of Pisces or the Eighth House, you’ll know that you’re dealing with issues that are rooted in the emotional plane. You’ll then want to look at matters such as romance, feelings, the subconscious mind, or even altered states of consciousness. A Pentacles card, though, or an astrological placement in Capricorn or the Second House should all lead you in equal fashion to delve into questions revolving around physical phenomena such as work, health, and/or money…

This schematic is necessarily a bit oversimplified here so as to fit into a standard blog post, but if this kind of analysis is new to you, this should be a great aid in getting you started. It can also be incredibly enlightening to occasionally look at life through that four-layered lens of physical/emotional/mental/spiritual, and realizing what your own natural predispositions are in this regard is massively illuminating. Also, the understanding that not everyone else will be wired in similar fashion can be a true epiphany, and one that can actually generate a tremendous amount of understanding and compassion for your fellow humans. Empedocles’ name might not have lodged in the greater modern consciousness, but there’s a reason why his Four Elements theory has enjoyed such widespread and enduring popularity down through the centuries…

8 comments

  1. Great content here! Reading this makes me question why I see the two modalities as very similar….so this is good inspiration for me to write a blog post from that angle. It’s so funny you just wrote about this topic because I’ve been in the process the last two weeks of revamping my website to connect with clients through the four elements.

    • Thanks, Nicholas — and I’m very curious now to read that blog post! In fact, I’d even like to have that discussion with you in real time whenever I see you next. It’s true, I love both Tarot and Astrology, but I guess I see their differences first and foremost way before I get to their similarities. I’d love to see your take on this…

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