To quote from Wikipedia: ‘The belief that apparently unconnected things share a mystical connection is common to most cultures; it is one of the principles of sympathetic magic identified by anthropologist James George Frazer in The Golden Bough. Examples of the theory of interconnectedness in Western culture include the Platonic concept of macrocosm and microcosm, expressed in Hermeticism by the aphorism, “as above, so below”; the doctrine of signatures advocated in the Renaissance by Paracelsus; the Jewish mystical practice of Kabbalah, which Renaissance humanists attempted to Christianize; and the doctrine of correspondence in the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg.’
The four suits have been with us since the earliest days of the tarot (indeed, they probably pre-dated the Major Arcana), and we have no idea what ‘correspondences’ were in use at the time, although we may surmise that Swords were linked to the army, and Coins to merchants, while Cups could have been associated with the Church, and Wands or Rods to the court or the peasantry. However, according to fraterbarabbas , the concept of linking the four medieval elements (fire, earth, water, and air) to the suits is a fairly recent idea, and certainly over the last few centuries the associations were fluid. Cups were not always linked to water or the emotions, Staves also had roving correspondences, and fire was often connected to the suit of Swords – which makes complete sense to me.
However, since the Rider Waite deck was published, it has become traditional to link the element Water and feelings with the element of Cups (very few people argue with this one), Earth is identified with Coins or Discs, Air with Swords and the intellect and Wands with fire (the creative force, ‘fire in the belly’). As with every tenet, arguments can be made for and against, and I am not overkeen on Waite’s views becoming Dogma with a capital D. After all, as I said above, we have no way of discovering how the original cards were used, and what correspondences medieval users saw (if any). Even if we did, our views on the tarot have presumably moved on – and after 600 years, one might hope that we can see things in a more nuanced light.
Tarot cards were described in Western Europe around 1425 – by priests railing against these works of the devil (presumably because the first decks were used for gambling and, perhaps, foretelling). The first decks we know of were large illuminated cards produced for the nobility (e.g. the Visconti and Charles VI decks), although it’s pretty certain that there were smaller cheaper versions around as well. The Sola Busca deck was produced around 1492 and, as it is fully illustrated (pips as well as trumps), we can assume that there was a predictive element to it. However, as society moved on we hear of very little to do with the Tarot until the 1770s, when a series of books were published on the tarot and how to use it. The dates tend to be slightly confusing as one of the writers, Jean-Baptiste Alliette – who, once he’d had his grand awakening to the tarot decided to call himself Etteilla – claimed he started card readings in 1750 and first came across the tarot in 1757. However, his various books Manière de se récréer avec un jeu de cartes (“A Way to Entertain Yourself With a Deck of Cards”, and Jeu de Tarots, ou le Livre de Thoth (1783-1787)), were published a few years after the other writer, Court de Gébelin, published a massive eight-volume tome entitled Le Monde primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (“The Primeval World, Analyzed and Compared to the Modern World”) (1781). In these books, de Gébelin posited the idea of the Tarot as an arcane repository of ancient esoteric wisdom. He had been initiated into freemasonry in 1771 so the elemental correspondences could well have originated there. He also suggested a correspondence between the 22 trumps and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet which has since fuelled enthusiastic debate linking the tarot and the Qabbalah.
Etteilla, meanwhile, designed a deck specifically for divination which was published in 1788, and is still in use today. He was the first person to use reversals, and popularised the idea of linking the four medieval elements (fire, earth, water, and air) to the tarot suits, as well as identifying correspondences between the tarot, astrology, and the four classical elements and four ‘humours’. These were personality characteristics, which in Greek times Hippocrates had described as sanguine (pleasure-seeking and sociable), choleric (ambitious and leader-like), melancholic (analytical and literal), and phlegmatic (relaxed and thoughtful). In medieval times Galen, a well-known physician/philosopher, used these characteristics as a basis for medical treatment. He later extended the correspondences to connect the humours to the four elements and to the tarot itself. (The tarot had been used as early as the 16th century to compose poems describing personality characteristics (tarocchi appropriati)).
After De Gébelin’s and Etteilla’s publications, the next influential writer was Eliphas Levi, author of Dogma and Ritual of High Magic (1855). Levi, a French occultist whose original name was Alphonse Louise Constant, published the actual correspondences with the Hebrew Alphabet (which de Gébelin had posited but not defined), and the elements. Levi reversed the order of the tarot as it had been known to Etteilla and de Gébelin, which was designed to be ordered and read from the twenty-first card to the zero, or Fool.
In the late 1880s, yet another influential writer on the Tarot appeared – Gerard Encausse [Papus], a physician and hypnotist. He studied the Qabalah, alchemy and magic, and was a member of Madame Blavatsky’s French Theosophical Society for a year in 1884. He too formulated a system of tarot in a book The Tarot of the Bohemians. Like earlier writers he wanted to marry together various different occult theories into one system (for instance Qabalistic associations and astrology). Papus reassigned the Fool card to number 21, even though it remained unnumbered in the deck.
Soon afterwards the Order of the Golden Dawn, a late Victorian esoteric society, took the lore of tarot to a new level, linking it to their initiations and spiritual teachings. Arthur Waite (1857–1942), an influential Freemason, joined the Golden Dawn in 1891, and although he left in 1914 to form the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, his writings were particularly well-received. He asked Golden Dawn member Pamela Colman Smith to illustrate a new tarot deck and, crucially, they decided to illustrate all the cards, rather than having the pip cards purely symbolic. The deck was first published in 1909 and – rightly or wrongly – has become the pattern for most subsequent decks. (Interestingly, the model for the deck was the Sola Busca, published in 1492 – Coleman-Smith cleverly adapted many of the concepts in that deck. We know so little of the early history of tarot that the extent of the tradition and artistry behind the Sola Busca will probably never be known; and the RWS is now seen as classic tarot.)
Aleister Crowley, occultist, ceremonial magician, mountaineer and poet, had joined the Golden Dawn a few years before Waite. The two men could not abide each other. Crowley considered Waite an upstart, and in 1938 he decided to design an alternative tarot deck using the artistic talents of Lady Frieda Harris. This became the Thoth tarot, and – while extremely well thought of and undoubtedly aristically far superior to the RWS – does not enjoy the same popular appeal as the Rider Waite (having said that, this is probably in its favour). Crowley changed the titles and order of some of the cards, but the correspondences remain as Waite identified them.
Relation of various four temperament theories
Classical ……. Element ……. Adler (modern)
Melancholic ……. Earth ……… Avoiding
Phlegmatic ……… Water …….. Getting
Sanguine …………. Air ………….. Socially useful
Choleric ………….. Fire ………… Ruling
In one of my many books I found a table giving the different correspondences from writers such as de Gebelin Eteilla, Papus, etc. and began this blog post thinking I’d be able to insert the table. Unfortunately, I can’t find it now – so if anyone knows the book or the table, I’d be most grateful. (There is a website that purports to list all the correspondences, but it isn’t what I was after.)