I recently did a Celtic Cross reading that strongly emphasized the importance of elemental qualities in tarot interpretation. I realize that many people don’t appreciate or apply esoteric correspondences in their readings, but if there is a single method that should be in every diviner’s toolbox, that would be a good grasp of the four classical elements of Empedocles: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. In this particular layout, the “heart of the matter” – shown by the traditional “covering” and “crossing” cards – was occupied by passive Water cards, while the four surrounding cards – the outer extremities of the “cross” section – were given over in equal measure to active (and elementally cooperative) Air and Fire. It was clear that a sensitive subject was being camouflaged – and perhaps subconsciously avoided – by a flurry of energetic, single-minded activity that deterred the querent from dwelling on the inner dimensions of the situation. It looked like a standard evasion tactic: “If I stay busy enough I won’t have to think about it.” There were no Earth cards in this part of the reading, so the imagination was given free rein.
The “staff” section, which in older systems was ascribed to the querent’s status in the matter as a subjective counterpart to the more objective situational focus of the “cross,” was dominated by two Earth cards, grounding the querent’s handling of the somewhat flighty dynamics of the “cross” in pragmatic terms. These cards were abetted by an elementally favorable Fire card of the nature of Mercury, and the outcome was represented by a powerful Water trump card emblematic of Mars energy, closely attuned to the utilitarian sensibilities of Earth and not dramatically at odds with the single Fire card. It appeared that the querent’s attempt at emotional suppression would dissolve in no uncertain terms despite the initial resolve to “keep a lid on it.” The good news was that the Earth cards – and especially the patient, unflappable Queen of Pentacles – were strong enough to prevent an emotional “melt-down” by providing a sturdy structure to capture the overflow. The Queen’s role in this reading was obviously to provide a symbolic dam or levee to contain and channel the resurgent feelings of vulnerability in constructive ways.
The very first thing I noticed about this spread was that it was fairly well-balanced in elemental terms, with no marked abundance or shortage of any one quality: three Water cards, three Fire cards, two Air cards and two Earth cards. While Water and Fire are inimical to one another, they were interspersed with and separated by mutually supportive Earth and Air cards, creating a synthesis of forces that bodes well for the querent’s ability to manage the situation.
I should probably mention that in my personal “Tarot Universe,” I stay with the accepted Golden Dawn correspondences: Wands are Fire; Cups are Water; Swords are Air and Pentacles are Earth. I’ve never seen any good reason to fiddle with these attributions, although some writers apparently feel an obligation to do so. (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I say.) Active Fire represents the Will (and by extension the Ego and all forms of drive and ambition), passive Water the emotional nature, active Air the cognitive function and passive Earth the realm of physical sensation and mundane affairs. Additional nuances are furnished by the traditional system of “temperaments and humours” (Choleric – hot and dry; Sanguine – temperate on the warm, dry-to-moist side; Phlegmatic – temperate on the cool, moist-to-wet side; and Melancholic – cold and dry). But that is too deep a subject to go into here. (William Lilly’s Christian Astrology is a reasonable place to start exploring it if you’re so inclined.)
Here is an early take of mine on the planetary “humours.” I need to rethink and adjust some of it, but it gives the general idea.