The Fifth Element: Fire and the Tarot by Phoebe Tsang

Enjoy an exclusive guest post from Phoebe Tsang author of “Setting Fire to Water,” which is featured in our new anthology ON FIRE, out now.


The practice of associating elements with certain cards of the tarot poses an interesting challenge. First of all, consider that Western astrology recognizes four classical elements: earth, water, air and fire. Meanwhile, Hindu cosmologies have a fifth element, Akasha – meaning aether or sky. The Traditional Chinese Medicine model consists of wood, metal, earth, air,d and water.

Confused yet? The Rider Waite system of card reading may help: simply allocate each of the four playing card suits to one of four Western elements:

Fire = Wands

Water = Cups

Air = Swords

Earth = Pentacles, or Coins

Personally, I prefer a more inclusive approach. Why not? Asking questions rather than adhering to fixed solutions is what keeps any practice alive. The tarot is one of the most recognizable divination tools around but its origins remain obscure, no matter how many scholars, historians and occultists lay claim to having unearthed the truth. Tarot traditions are variable and multi-faceted as the people who read cards. So instead of surveying historical or current practices, I decided to go to the source and ask the cards directly:

How does the element of fire manifest in the tarot?

I shuffled my tarot deck, and drew this card:


El gobbo, from Budapest Tarot (Italy c.1600) restored by Sullivan Hismans. Published by:

I’m tempted to end here and let the image speak for itself – as it should and does, inevitably. Images have a life of their own.

And what life! My eye is drawn upwards and outwards by the joyous yellow that pervades – or does it emanate from? – this Hermit. A little haphazard perhaps, definitely irrepressible, his confidence grows with each step. The solar plexus chakra is activated. Life is infused with new optimism. He may have been struggling in the dark for as long as it took him to grow that beard, but he’s future-bound now, lamp held high. His coolie hat is Chinese-emperor-yellow. The weeds by the yellow-brick-roadside turn to gold at his Midas touch. Lest there be any doubt that a holy life could be one of passion, his robe is root-chakra-red. The poetic wisdom of a myriad traditions finds expression in this seeker’s fearless and fiery truth.


Phoebe Tsang is British-Canadian poet, short-story writer, librettist, and violinist. She is the author of the full-length poetry collection Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse (Tightrope Books), and her poetry and fiction has been published in anthologies and journals including the Asia Literary Review and the Literary Review of Canada. Her short fiction was long-listed for the 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize, and short-listed for the Matrix Lit POP Awards in 2016, rained, and, her chapbook of collaborative visual poems with artist John Riegert, was published in Spring 2017 by Puddles of Sky Press. She is currently completing her first solo album of poetry, music and song, through a grant from the Jack Straw Cultural Center (Seattle, WA).

ON FIRE is available now: Amazon, Nook, Kobo, and our press store.


Photo Credit (c) “The Hermit” by Mexzmero


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