The associations of the classical elements Fire, Water, Air, and Earth with their respective suits Wands, Cups, Swords, and Coins is generally agreed upon within the Tarot community. These associations ring true in my collection of decks; even when the titles of the suits change (the Coins seem to change the most often, having been renamed Pentacles in the RWS, Disks in the CHT, and Stones in the WWT), the elements remain the same. I don’t intend to discuss why these associations are as they are; I’ll take it for granted that if you’re reading this, you already understand and accept why these symbols were assigned to each element.
Instead, I am here to discuss the lesser-known but very important fifth element, and why I believe the “suit” associated with it should be the entire Major Arcana. There are some who already agree with me; this post is for the rest of you.
First of all, I suppose I should explain what I mean by the fifth element for those of you who may not be familiar with it. This element is called Aether, and was originally believed by classical and medieval philosophers to be the substance which made up the invisible spheres that held the planets in place around the Earth, and which had a direct influence on worldly affairs. There were supposedly eight of these spheres concentric around the Earth, each fitting inside of the other like nested dolls. Each sphere contained a “planet”, the closest of which was the Moon, followed by Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and finally the fixed stars, which included the belt of the Zodiac.
Of course, nowadays, we know that these heavenly bodies do not revolve around the Earth (with the exception of the Moon, of course), just as we know that Water, Earth, and Air are not elements themselves but compounds of chemical elements.* These ideas are rather philosophical in nature, and represent ideas about the states of matter. To reconcile these ideas with current scientific thought, we can broaden our definitions and associate Earth with solids, Water with liquids, Air with gases, Fire with energy, and Aether with the whole fabric of space-time.
Using the classical elements as denoting terms serves a double purpose: they describe the physical nature of literally everything of which we are aware, as well as the abstract qualities these things possess. The exception of course is Aether, which is entirely abstract by its nature. It’s common practice to call Aether “Spirit”, and on some level, I agree with this term. It means that which we cannot identify with any worldly element, nor even perceive with our five senses, but which exists nonetheless. So by this definition, it can be said that our very souls are comprised of the same abstract material – or lack thereof – which makes up space (please keep in mind this discussion is purely philosophical). There is nothing there, and yet we know it to exist.
Another important point about Aether to keep in mind is that it contains within itself the essence or potential for all four of the other elements, while remaining distinct from them. To illustrate this point, refer back to the geocentric model of the Universe, in which the Earth and all of the elements therein are contained within spheres of Aether (the Element Earth has certain characteristics in common with Aether, such as containing other elements within itself, which I intend on exploring in a separate post about the suit of Coins, but if you’re interested, the best explanation I’ve read is in DuQuette’s book on the CHT). In other words, Aether can theoretically exist separate from the other elements, but not vice-versa.
The alchemical term for Aether was Quintessence, and I think this term accurately describes the relationship between Aether and the other four elements. The idea was that, if you could somehow combine the pure essence of each of these elements, you would be able to synthesize Aether in a tangible form. This “new” element, Quintessence, would have within it all of the other elements, and yet, it would be something entirely different than any one of them.
Now, on to the matter at hand. It is my belief that a system such as the Tarot, which is a veritable model of the Universe (again, in a purely philosophical sense), ought to come complete with the element Aether. The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits, each suit representing one of the four “worldly” classical elements. It is fitting that Aether should be separate from these, yet contained in the same deck. This is why I think the Major Arcana represents the fifth element. Consider that the Minor Arcana contains the court cards and the small cards, which are generally taken to represent people and day-to-day situations. The Major Arcana, on the other hand, is usually interpreted as symbolizing either internal “spiritual” concepts, external Universal forces or “acts of God”, or things otherwise greater than the individual or the physical world in which he or she lives. Or, to put it more simply, the Minor Arcana represents the physical realm of the worldly elements, and the Major Arcana represents the higher realm of the spiritual element.
This would answer a question as old as the study of Tarot itself: why in the world is there an extra 22 seemingly arbitrary cards included with an otherwise normal deck of playing cards? It is an awareness of this fifth metaphysical element that sets this deck apart from its baser counterparts in gaming. And the people who lived during the time that the Tarot supposedly originated would have generally been more familiar with the classical conceptions of the elements, and therefore with the existence of Aether, than we are today. Assuming the original creators of the Tarot intended the four suits of the Minor Arcana to be associated with the elements, it follows that they should include the fifth element as well. This is all speculation of course, but I think it stands on a logical foundation.
I want to point out that the relative number of cards in the Major Arcana compared to the suits of the Minor Arcana is totally irrelevant. After all, there were eight Aethereal spheres to the one Earth. While I do believe in the significance of numbers in the Tarot, this is not an instance in which that should come into play. The asymmetry may bother some, but I honestly don’t believe it would be an accurate representation of the mystery of Aether if it were uniform with the rest.
As a final thought, I would like to draw your attention to the Aces of each suit. The Ace, being the first card, has pictured upon it the symbol of its suit, representing the element in its purest, most abstract form. The Ace is the essence of its element. Now compare these to the first (numbered) card of the Major Arcana: the Magician. The Magician embodies the essence of all that can be achieved through the path of the Majors, and he has laid out before him the four symbols of the Aces. Remember, Aether contains within it the essence for all four of the worldly elements. If it weren’t for the tools of the Magician, I would probably not even make the case for the Major Arcana as the suit of Aether. As it is, I’m pleased (almost relieved, even) to see them, because no system based on the division of the classical elements would truly be complete without Aether, least of all a tool of such dimension and universality as the Tarot.
*To be fair, the ancients did not actually fully accept the geocentric model of the Universe; they were aware of the heliocentric possibility, but for the sake of their philosophies (note: not science), held onto these erroneous ideas, because they were based on visible observation. Religious dogma caused the geocentric models to then be widely accepted as fact during the Middle Ages, but even then, it’s not as black and white as your typical high school history textbook appears to make it. But then again, nothing ever is.