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Four Elements

Imagine that the world is only made up of four elements. Only four. They are Fire, Water, Air and Earth, and ANYTHING, literally ANYTHING can be explained in terms of these four elements. They are the four elements that the world used for thousands of years, and they are the four elements that the Tarot bases itself on.

So what's become of the Periodic Table then? Well, the problem with modern chemistry is that you cannot use it to explain or find correlations between emotions, states of being and a whole lot of other everyday things. I'm not saying that modern chemistry is wrong, just that it's not very useful to us when dealing with the Tarot. You cannot analyse the colour of greed, you can't cut yourself a kilo of anger or three metres of inspiration.

Think of it this way... you see someone you are attracted to, and if you're of a scientfic turn of mind, you'll know that their eyes are not really that colour: it's just that their eyes absorb the light and reflect only certain shades. You'll know that their hair is just strands of protein and that (according to the ads, anyway) you are only attracted to a certain type of pheromone that that person puts out. But of course, knowing all that probably doesn't make the slightest difference to you.

So, bearing in mind that we play these doublethink games with ourselves everyday, that we've all heard about the 97 cents' worth of chemicals on the one hand and about the wonderfulness of humans on the other stretch the ambivalence of your normal thinking a little bit further and see the world as being composed of only four elements. Just while you're dealing with the Tarot.


Take a couple of minutes to think about fire. It warms us up, but it must be fed constantly. Left to itself. it consumes all that it touches and soon dies. It can rage uncontrollably, and it is completely unpredictable. It has no body or weight. We cannot get too close without being burnt. It can never stand still. Once started fire'll go where it pleases and stop for nothing (well... almost nothing, but that's where the other elements come into things)

I've always liked the story out of the Gospels where, after Christ returned to heaven, the apostoles sat together in a room, waiting for the Holy Spirit that had been promised to them. And all of a sudden it came down, as well... as tongues of fire. And, touched by the Holy Spirit, the Apostoles went out onto the balcony of their house. A crowd had gathered there, curious to see what all the noise inside the house was about. And the apostles (inspired by the Holy Spirit) spoke out to the crowd. And even though there were people from many lands outside, later every man there claimed to have heard the apostoles speaking in that man's own native tongue.

That's what fire is like, a sudden urge to do things, to live and breathe and just BE. To murder and create, to jump out of your skin and do things on the spur of the moment. To fall in love, to get into a fistfight, all manner of things that happen on impulse and soon die out. Fire.


Water is the natural enemy of fire. It will immediately put out the fire, or the fire shall make the water boil into steam and lose its true nature.

But we cannot live without water, we are, what is it? 70% water? Let's look at the nature of water to understand it a little bit better. Water is associated with dreams, with imagination, with emotions. Lets take the idea of dreams first of all and see where the water association comes from. Dreaming refreshes us, much as water itself does. Hold up one glass of water to the light and it is crystal clear, we can never hold water in our hand. It always trickles away, much like dreams do.

Now look at the ocean and imagine how much water is on the planet, how murky and deep and heavy it is in large quantities. The deeper the water gets, the darker and colder it gets. It becomes rather menacing in the end. We also associate water with a sort of secrecy, "Still waters run deep". Water has an undeniable fascination for us, we can travel hundereds of miles for a look at the ocean, and we can never look at the ocan without dreaming ourselves away to who knows where. We imagine what lies beyond the horizon and dream ourselves there. Centuries ago, the ocean carried sailors off the edge of the world and into the jaws of monsters... Who knows how many dreams are born beside the ocean shore?


Ideas are like the wind and the air. We cannot see an idea, but we can see its effect on things. In the same way, a breeze by itself is not very much, maybe only enough to bend a small twig, but over the centuries it can shape a mountain. Air is the element that rules over ideas and abstract thought. We fight wars over ideas: a form of government, the possibility of buying and selling goods. We argue constantly about intangible, elusive things such as principles, morals, laws. An idea, like the wind cannot be contained, it cannot be forced into any particular shape, it always reforms itself and can never be grasped in one's hand.

Air is a natural ally of fire, it fans and feeds it. And anyone can see that Fire cannot survive without air. To continue further with the metaphor, an idea (air) is useless without action (fire): nothing would ever get done. And the other side of the coin is true too... action by itself, with no ideas or plans behind it, is completely futile and short lived.


All the elements discussed so far have been pretty airy-fairy things: emotions, impulses, ideas. Nothing you can really put your finger on. Now let's look at the element of Earth.

All the things we see around us that are neither Air nor Water nor Fire are made of Earth. Houses and cars and mountains and trees are all made of Earth. It is the element of concrete, solid, tangible things. This affinity with the solid and the tangible is maybe the one drawback to the element of Earth. At its worst it is a rather slow, ponderous element, dead and inert. At its best it is a fruitful and nurturing element and obviously allied to water. Water makes the earth bloom and turns desert into farmland and forests. It is also the enemy of Air and Fire.

Because Earth deals with finished products rather than the concepts behind them, the element of Earth closes the chain, so to speak. There is nothing left to say or do. After Earth there are no other Elements.

All things are attached to this cycle of four elements, in quite sensible ways. Let's look at the following, rather simple example. A guy wakes up one morning and says to himself "I'm sick of sitting on the floor, I'm going to make myself something to sit on." That's inspiration, Fire. He thinks about it for a moment, sees whether he likes the idea, how he feels about it. And that's Water, the element of emotions. He begins to think a bit deeper, maybe visualizes a chair in his head. He thinks about all the materials he'll need and how to procure them. That's air. And then of course, he makes the chair and we've arrived at the element of Earth.

By the way, if you're awake, you will have realized that there are hundreds of smaller versions of this cycle within the big cycle of the guy building a chair. Deciding that this is the moment to pick up the hammer, seeing how much faith he has in that hammer's usefulness for the job, deciding where to place the nail, the nail in place...

If there is a lesson in all this, it is that the Ancients saw the world as a group of interlocked forces which interacted endlessly with each other combining into new and wonderful shapes all the time. It was a vision of a balanced world where too much fire killed as surely as too much water. We need air to live, but also the fruits of the Earth, our planet.

Please don't get the idea that I'm saying the Ancients were better than us, they would have treated the world just as badly as we have, had they only had the means to do it. But their vision, based as it is on agricultural and other natural cycles and forces was in its own way quite as realistic and profound as anything we've managed to invent today.