A phenomenon you will come across during Tarot card study and Tarot readings are sub-elements and contradictory elements. Mainly associated with the Rider Waite-Smith Tarot deck and decks inspired by it, at its most simplistic explanation, sub-elements are those underlying elements that are secondary to the main one normally associated with a Tarot card. They can either compliment the main element and theme of the Tarot card, or they can in fact appear contradictory.
Criteria For Deciding On Sub-Elements
What’s important to remember when looking at sub-elements, and in particular, seemingly contradictory elements, is to make sure you’re seeing the big picture with the particular Tarot card you’re looking at. For example: Water cards generally show a scene depicted on land, this doesn’t mean they have a sub-element of Earth. The scene depicted within the card should be conveying the meaning, the fact the scene is on land doesn’t make it a sub-element or even contradictory. As an example, the Ten of Cups perfectly conveys the meaning of the card despite the setting on land.
So when looking for sub-elements, or indeed if you feel you’ve identified one, consider the following:
- Look at the scene of the card to make sure the deck creator is depicting the meaning of the card within the imagery
- Double check the meaning of the card and see if you feel it’s conveying an underlying meaning not depicted on the card
- Is there a strong portrayal of two or more elements in the card?
- Likewise, is the associated element apparently missing from the scene altogether?
Sub-Elements In Other Decks
Another thing to remember when looking at sub-elements and contradictory elements is scene portrayal in other decks. The Three of Swords is a very painful card, indicating break up of a serious relationship, a broken heart etc, and yet it’s element is Air. It wouldn’t look out of place in the suit of Cups. If you look at the imagery for this card across many decks you will find a similar scene, but the Quest Tarot does show a background that is all water, indicating a sub-element that’s not shown in the Rider Waite-Smith. The same is also true of the Seven of Swords; the Quest Tarot shows a background of all water yet this is an Air card. When you consider the emotional aspect to this card, I feel we’re looking at a role reversal that we will see with the Four of Cups later in this post.
Let’s look at a couple of cards in detail that I feel display this phenomena very clearly.
Two of Swords
The imagery of the Two of Swords shows a woman sat on a bench. She holds a sword in each hand, with her arms crossed over her chest. She is blindfolded and therefore cannot see, though the timing in the card shows the evening. Behind her is a large body of water, which is choppy and unsettled. The moon above her is in crescent. What can we make of this scene?
Associated with the element of Air, the Two of Swords indicates a period of peace. Depending on your position, this can either mean a need to instill peace, restore it or that you indeed are experiencing it.
If we look at the imagery again in this Tarot card, we can see that the crossing of her arms forms a centrifugal point in her chest, indicative of her heart. She could be said to be centering herself, calming herself. She is blindfolded and I have read that this means she is refusing to see her situation; I prefer to see this as a continuation of her centering – while she is blindfolded, she is looking inward, not outward and so the process continues. This is all very much in the realm of Air; her thoughts and mental processes. It’s also very emotional. She’s calming herself and also her emotions. There may be a need to ‘restore peace’ or even refind it, but an underlying factor is that during a turbulent time (think of the unsettled water behind her), no matter what the subject matter, the emotions will be involved. The moon in crescent though shows that her emotions are being overcome, that she is regaining control. So while the underlying issue is emotional (Water), her logic and mental ability and processes (Air) have restored her situation.
Six of Swords
Another Sword card that contains a lot of water. Amongst other definitions, this Tarot card often depicts a journey or rite of passage. The definitions between the Rider Waite-Smith and the Crowley Thoth differ somewhat, but in terms of a personal psychological journey, both point to a rite of passage and so hint at learning.
If we look at the imagery, we can see a hooded figure and a child being taken across water by a ferryman who is steering and propelling the boat forward. Six swords are carried on the boat in front of the people. Although in open water, the boat appears to be headed for a wooded area in the distance. The water itself is calm and only disturbed by the pole of the ferryman.
On examining the imagery, it’s clear that a journey of some description is taking place. If we stay with the suit of Swords for the moment, and the six swords carried on the boat over calm water, it can be said that we are perhaps coasting along with our problems, just riding it out so to speak. If the six swords represent troubles or problems, then I think it’s safe to say they’re not insurmountable; they neither weigh the boat down nor or cause distress in the boat. It’s reasonable to say these troubles are not new to us and could even be called bedfellows, we know them that well.
We can’t ignore the fact though that this scene is on open water, and as we know Water represents the emotions. This water is calm though, so it’s safe to say there’s no emotional issue being dealt with in this card. If we recall my earlier interpretation of a journey, and staying with the element of Water, then this very easily can be seen as a spiritual journey – the rite of passage I mentioned earlier. Taking this theme even further, and remembering this scene is depicted during the night time, spiritually this could be seen as a ‘dark night of the soul’ which is a personal, spiritual journey in itself.
Talking spiritually in this way then brings in another element, unrepresented in the imagery, but one I feel cannot be ignored – Fire. There’s often a thin line that divides Fire and Air, spiritually, and in this card perhaps more than others, we can see how the two elements have been associated with the other suits in other belief systems and Tarot decks; namely Swords have been associated with Fire, and Wands have been associated with Air. While this association is in the minority, I feel its justification is shown well in the Six of Swords. This Tarot card also shows the often overlooked spiritual aspect to the Air element, but one that is represented well the Star.
Examples of Tarot Cards With Questionable Elements
Tarot cards with questionable elements for me personally, are the Seven of Cups – making a choice falls into the realm of the mind; granted it has emotional overtones, and other meanings attached, but the scene itself is set amongst clouds, high in the air (or in the mind of the querent?). The Four of Cups is a similar scene; the person ignoring the fourth cup being given from the ether (Air), but suffering apathy and perhaps nonchalance with his situation. It could be said this lives in the realm of the emotions, but for me it’s very Airy; apathy after all is a state of mind too.
Looking at the Major Arcana, we cannot ignore the Lovers. Associated with Air and making a choice, the theme of love that runs through this card is apparent in most decks. The Gilded Tarot shows two lovers standing in a body of water – a sea of love?
The Star, as mentioned earlier, as an Air card also depicts water in the imagery across most decks and while it feels Airy, the element of Water and consciousness cannot be ignored either.
In the Quest Tarot, the Aeon (Judgement) clearly shows Fire and Water, rebirth and consciousness respectively; Fire and Water being a theme expressed in the Temperance card, the blending and melding of opposites.
Tarot cards that some might say have the completely wrong elements, though that debate is for another post, include the Chariot. Associated with Water and therefore passive, clearly shows a vehicle and movement with no Water depicted anywhere except for the crab, symbol of the Astrological sign of Cancer.
The Hanged Man is another card that calls into question its elemental association. As far as I can see only the Thoth deck hints at a watery scene. How Watery Is The Hanged Man? by Paul Hughes-Barlow explores this idea in great depth on Supertarot News. And finally, for my own questioning, is the Wheel of Fortune. A Fire card that I feel would equally be at home in the Air pile.
There are many sub-elements and seemingly contradictory elements throughout a Tarot deck; and while I haven’t listed them all here, for the sake of space and my own ramblings, it’s a worthwhile exercise to look at your favourite Rider Waite-Smith deck, or clone, and browse it for the sub-elements I haven’t mentioned. This will assist you in finding out new things about certain cards you may well have missed before, but most of all, it will open your mind to explore and question preset associations attached to the cards. If you weren’t in agreement with them before, I hope this article will assist you in pursuing your own ideas and expanding on them.
Are there other Tarot cards that you think have sub-elements that I haven’t talked about here? Do you ever question the element associated with a Tarot card? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about sub-elements, please feel free to share them here.