Welcome to a new feature on TABI’s Blog: Tarot Tutorial. We have just retired our monthly email newsletter and are bringing some of the newsletter features over to the blog, with some changes. Tarot Tutorial replaces the newsletter’s Card of the Month. This feature will continue to bring you a small taste of a wide variety of tarot decks that you may not already be familiar with and connect you to their creators. Each Tarot Tutorial will showcase a brief example of a specialized tarot reading technique, allowing us to explore a wide range of approaches. There are a diversity of skills and interests among tarot readers on TABI’s Forum, so expect to see many different voices and methods on display in this space on the first Monday of every month!
December Tarot Tutorial: Elements
featuring Major Arcana Card XIV Temperance,
from the Modern Witch Tarot by Lisa Sterle
The Modern Witch Tarot by Lisa Sterle
Lisa Sterle’s new Modern Witch Tarot published by Liminal 11 follows the Rider-Waite-Smith imagery very closely, but she prioritizes race and gender diversity in illustrating her youthful characters on the Fool’s Journey, and she brings them into contact with contemporary objects and symbols (the motorcycle Chariot is my absolute favorite!). Her distinctive style, recognizable from her work in comic books, is astonishingly classic in its mirroring of the original Rider-Waite-Smith and doesn’t veer toward the cartoonish, making it feel like an authentic update that preserves most of the traditional meaning and symbolism. (This may be a positive or a negative, depending on how radical one expects decks that aim to disrupt race and gender norms to be). It’s a fun, accessible deck that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to tarot beginners.
The fourteenth card of the Major Arcana, associated with the astrological sign of Sagittarius, Temperance is a crucial transition between experiencing Death (card thirteen, Scorpio) and confronting the Devil (card fifteen, Capricorn). We see an angel with red wings bearing the symbol of a triangle enclosed by a square on her chest. She is pouring water from one vessel to another in a nearly horizontal position that seems to magically defy gravity. She stands with one foot on land and the other in the water, foreshadowing the same dual position of the figure on card seventeen, The Star, who also holds two water vessels but is pouring them both out. In the Rider-Waite-Smith Temperance card, yellow irises grow nearby, and Lisa Sterle has replaced them with sunflowers.
Temperance is a complex card to read, and there are many approaches one might take. Astrology, geometric symbolism, archetypes, color correspondences, and even the language of flowers could be drawn from to interpret this card. Many of these approaches will be demonstrated in future Tarot Tutorials. For this one, we’ll focus on a fundamentally important, but not always easy, technique: interpreting the card through the Elements (Fire, Water, Air, and Earth).
The Four Elements in the Minor Arcana
All tarot decks include within their structure their own key to the Elements through the four Minor Arcana suits. In the well-known traditional Rider-Waite-Smith deck, Wands correspond to Fire, Cups correspond to Water, Swords correspond to Air, and Pentacles or Coins correspond to Earth. Some systems associate Swords with Fire and Wands with Air, and usually the creator of a deck will make it clear which correspondences they are using. In modern decks, different symbols than Wands, Swords, Cups, and Pentacles might be used, but without fail the symbols still refer to the four Elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. Each Element is widely accepted to symbolize a part of human life. Earth is the body and all physical, material concerns, including wealth. Air concerns mental activity, including thoughts, fears, logic, truth, communication and writing. Water evokes human emotions and interpersonal relationships, and Fire corresponds to our passions, drives, inspiration, willpower, and creativity.
Because a suit is devoted to a single Element, the Minor Arcana cards are relatively simple to interpret through the lens of Elements. If you know that Water corresponds to feelings and relationships, then you know that every Minor Arcana card in the Cups suit has something to say about our emotional connections with others.
Major Arcana Cards and the Elements
Major Arcana cards tend to have many more layers of meaning than the Minor Arcana cards, which typically deal with mundane, everyday life. Majors are the larger spiritual life lessons, the transformative turning points on our journey, and may contain influences beyond our direct control. Major Arcana cards aren’t “assigned” one Element the way that the Minors are. So how do we read from an Elemental perspective for the Majors?
One way that I see some readers use is to look at the astrological correspondence of the card, which could be a zodiac sign or a planet, and use the Element that is associated with that sign or planet. For Temperance, the astrological association is Sagittarius, which is considered a Fire sign.
But here we run into the limits of strictly assigning a card an Element based on its astrology. When we look at Temperance, we can’t help but notice water, water everywhere. The angel is standing in a pool of it and the focal point of the image is her act of pouring water between the two vessels, which are themselves reminiscent of Cups, the symbol for Water. To try to read Temperance just as a Fire card brings about some cognitive dissonance when faced with so much Water imagery. As it turns out, this “confusion” about seeing Water where Fire “should” be is exactly the point of Temperance. While it has become popular to use “balance and moderation” as shorthand for the meaning of Temperance, the more precise (and more interesting) meaning has to do with holding opposites in your mind at the same time. This is quite different from the “balance” of Justice, which asks you to make a choice.
Moderation or Expansion?
For years I was confused about how Temperance could possibly mean moderation when it was associated with Sagittarius (my own Sun sign). Comparing the Rider-Waite-Smith card with its counterpart in Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck was no help: Crowley calls card fourteen “Art.” (Look for Thoth cards explored in more depth on their own in future Tarot Tutorials.) Art is a human expression that reaches far beyond what we consider the “bare necessities” of life and yet, somehow, is itself still essential and necessary – it actually expands our understanding of what is essential and necessary for humanity. Sagittarius, ruled by indulgent Jupiter, is also all about expansiveness, seeking further, reaching higher. I could not square this with Temperance as “moderation.” I looked into the etymology of the word “temperance” and found that it has the same root as words like temporal (as in time) and temple (as in a place of worship or that stretch of skin on the sides of your forehead). In fact, the “temp” prefix comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “stretch.” Before it came to be associated with the safe middle ground between excess and deficiency, “temperance” had to do with the process of “tempering,” as in “tempered steel.” It is an act of mixing elements into the appropriate proportions. A metal’s abilities are literally stretched (and expanded) by the act of adding heat, mixing in other compounds, and cooling it with water. It’s easy to see why “right proportion” or “proper time” (from tempus, meaning season) came to be associated with moderation and propriety, especially in the context of hegemonic Christian morality.
Reading Temperance through the Elements, though, can bring us back to the magic of alchemy, of mixture, of blending opposites to find a way to stretch and expand beyond the possibilities of either one alone. Instead of relying on the astrological association to give us one Element, instead we look for the Elemental symbols from the Minor Arcana, and for examples of the Element in its natural form (actual water, fire, land, and air).
Reading Temperance Using The Elements
We might read the angel’s wings as representing Air, demonstrating that she is able to reach a higher plane of truth than she did before Death. There are no Swords, so the mental calculations of everyday life may need to be set aside here. There could certainly be significance in keeping one foot grounded in the physical concerns of Earth, while staying deeply in touch with our emotional nature with the other. How might we interpret the fact that she holds her vessels, or Cups, with such authority that she can control the way that water flows between them? The triangle on her chest, the Sun, and the sunflowers all are symbols associated with Fire, and we might see significance in Fire existing both within and all around her. What do we imagine will happen when we mix Fire and Water, knowing that the former is the capacity for directed willpower and the latter is a receptive capacity for compassion and intuition? Both Elements relate to creativity in their own ways, from the Water’s dreamy imaginative visions to Fire’s spark of inspiration driving one to act on their vision. Something more than the sum of these parts will synthesize, something expansive, something not wholly explainable in practical terms, like Art or perhaps spiritual awakening.
When we set our biases aside in order to hold space for opposites to work together and push each other further, we experience the power of Oneness and multiplicity at the same time. Temperance is the spirit of “unity without uniformity and diversity without fragmentation.” Yes, this can be interpreted as finding a moderate, middle ground in some situations. But seeing the interplay of the Elements in this card, especially the opposites Fire and Water, might help you to see that it could very well be “stretching,” expansion, or the integration of something that had been excluded. Temperance asks us to hold both opposite meanings, moderation and expansiveness, in our minds at once. It’s up to the reader to interpret what proportion of each meaning applies to a particular situation. Having more possible meanings ready to hand rather than sticking to a single keyword like “moderation” will help bring more depth and specificity to your readings.