The names change, but they all still mean the same: Earth.
When referring to the classical elements for occult purposes, Earth often seems to get the short end of the stick. It’s the lowest of the low.
And how come Fire, Water and Air each get a Major Arcana card (Judgement, Hanged Man, and the Fool, respectively)? What makes them so special, while Earth is excluded (yes, I know, Crowley and some others attributed Earth to the World card, but that’s an afterthought, and its double-dipping, because the World is already associated with Saturn)?
Something should probably be explained about the traditional conceptions of the classical elements. I’ve discussed previously that the classical elements are more a philosophical way of understanding the world than scientific.That’s important to keep in mind, because things are about to get abstract.
The idea was that the elements of Water, Air, and Fire existed in their pure forms in layers above the Earth. Water was closest, being the heaviest or least energetic, followed by Air, and finally Fire on top, just before we reach the first sphere of Aether (occupied by the Moon). Earth, being the heaviest of all, sinks right to the bottom. You can’t see these elemental layers; they are the pure essences of the elements, invisible and intangible. Earth, on the other hand, is solid and material by its very nature – its essence, in other words, is as it is. This means that what we perceive as water or air or fire on earth are really debased forms of themselves. They are the elements manifested upon the Earth, and we only perceive them as components of the Earth element. Does that mean that you should be calling your drinking water Earth? Well, no, it’s still water. But it is not the essence of Water; pure Water does not exist as a physical thing that can be touched or drank. Consider the suits of the Minor Arcana: They all deal with abstract human experiences. Only the Coins deal in the physical realm.
So, when we consider the Major Arcana in terms of their astrological/occult associations, in descending order, we get the twelve Zodiacal cards, the seven planetary cards, and the three elemental cards. The lowest layer is the Earth, which in this context, consists of all four suits of the Minor Arcana. This means that if we consider the Fool to be the pure Elemental Air, the suit of Swords becomes the earthly element of air, or the stuff that we breathe.
In a sense, the lowest of the low (Earth) shares a characteristic with the highest of the high (Aether). In the post linked above, I discussed how Aether carries within itself the potential for all of the other elements. This refers to the essences of the elements. Earth, on the other hand, contains within itself the potential of all of the other elements in their tangible form, except for Aether. Just as the Earth only exists in a tangible form, so does Aether exist only in an abstract form. The other three elements exist in both forms, to varying degrees (water being more tangible, fire being least), giving us a sort of gradation scale of the elements.
The Earth does not contain Aether, but because the Aether does contain Earth, a loop of sorts is created. Energy descends into matter, and when it falls finally to Earth, the lowest point, it is transferred automatically back into Aether, beginning the process again. To put it in Kabbalistic terms (which you will hear a lot if you study occult Tarot, especially of the Golden Dawn tradition), Aether is the highest Sephirah, called Kether. Energy descends down the Tree of Life, through each of the next eight Sephirot, until it reaches the last one, which is pure Earth, called Malkuth. What is Malkuth on the first Tree is Kether on the next one, thus ever-renewing the cycle. Or rather, Malkuth leads to Kether. The Ten of Wands is not the same thing as the Ace of Cups, after all. In the Tarot, each suit is its own Tree of Life, all connected to each other as described above, beginning with the Ace of Wands and ending with the Ten of Coins. Of course, the Ten of Coins isn’t really the end. It’s associated with Mercury, which you may remember is also associated with the Magician, or the first card in the Major Arcana, which I like to think of as the Suit of Aether. At the bottom and back up to the top, in an ever-turning wheel. The 22 Major Arcana represent the paths between the ten Sephirot, rather than the Sephirot themselves, so in this sense, the Suit of Aether is not like the others of the Minor Arcana. Rather than having its own Tree, paths of Aether are present in all of them. However, the Magician is on a path leading directly from Kether, so the principle of the bottom-to-top still applies by virtue of his connection with the Ten of Coins.
This is complex stuff, and I’m sure I’m doing a perfect job of mangling it.* The main point I’m trying to get at, though, is that Earth may very well be the lowest of the low, but that very aspect of it makes it special. At first glance, it might seem like it’s less important than the others, but in reality, the others would not exist if not for Earth. All of the lofty ideals represented in the Tarot can only be made a reality through the power of Earth. Earth might be muddy, dirty, and dark, but it’s only so because it combines everything else into one. Like when you mix all of the bright colors while painting, eventually everything turns brown. In short, Earth is everything, made tangible.
When I think of the suit of Coins (or Pentacles or Disks or Stones), I naturally think about the material world and money, the two things typically associated with the suit. But I also think of the inherent power of Earth as an element. It is tangibility when everything else is an abstraction. I always thought it was unfair that the Court of Coins is often associated with boring or otherwise lackluster personality traits (there are reasons, but still). There is a depth and a strength to Earth that is difficult for many to fathom. Invisible as a grain of sand, or imposing as a mountain, the Earth is always there with firm resolve. As the Ace of Stones from the Wildwood suggests, it is the Foundation of Life.
*For those of you interested, I got most of my information on this Kabbalah stuff from Tyson’s book on Tarot Magic, and Duquette’s book on Crowley’s Thoth deck (and to a lesser degree, Crowley’s own book). In fact, I recommend reading these sources for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that I was working totally from memory while writing this, so I very likely didn’t get everything straight. I believe I got the gist right, though, and because this was a post meant to explore the suit of Coins and the element of Earth, and not a Kabbalah study, that’s all I was really aiming for. I’m not qualified to talk Kabbalah seriously, anyway.
Addendum: Happy Earth Day, everybody! This was a happy accident.