Etteilla, Quaternities, and the Four Suits of the Minor Arcana


“Quinta Essentia” Leonhard Thurneysser (1574)

Several years ago, a friend who shares my interest in Tarot symbolism, asked me to sum up for him in a single word what each suit represented.  It was an impossible request, of course, but such was the way my friend’s mind worked, so I did my best, relying heavily upon what I had learned from various books on the subject.  Cups, I told him, signified emotional connection (two words, I know, but my friend let that slip); Coins represented material wealth (he let that pass by as well); Swords went to thinking, but when I came to Wands, I drew a blank. 

I remembered the commentaries I had been reading linked the suit of Wands to fire, and considerable associations arose from that conjunction.  The problem was I could not encapsulate all those ideas in a single word or short phrase, and when I attempted to launch into a lengthy explanation, such as my wont, he cut me short, reiterating his demand, “One word!”

Etteilla, the Four Elements, the Four Humors, and the Four-Fold Structure of the Psyche

The French occultist Jean-Baptiste Alliette (1738-1791), better known by the pseudonym “Etteilla,” is the person largely credited with establishing a connection between the four suits of the Minor Arcana and the four elements of classical Western philosophy (earth, water, air, fire) which, according to the Greek philosopher Empedocles (494-434 BCE), comprised everything in existence.  The idea that correlations between various quaternities exits is nothing new; Hippocrates (460-375 BCE) hypothesized that our bodies consist of four metabolic agents (fluids) corresponding to Empedocles’ four elements; he called these humors and named them black bile, yellow bile, blood,and phlegm.  It sounds pretty disgusting, but Hippocrates was laying the groundwork for what developed into both modern medicine and psychology, for health practitioners began, for the first time, to look for symptoms (employ clinical observation) to diagnose various illnesses.  In the centuries that followed, the classical elements collected other quaternities about them such as the four seasons, the four winds, the four stages of man, and four temperaments or personality types, as well as aggregating to themselves various astrological congruities.

from Thomas Walkington’s Optik Glasse of Humours (1639)

Black bile, melaina cholē in Greek, from which we derive the words “melancholia” and “melancholy,” meaning deep sadness, desolation, depression, and despondency, relates to the element Earth and coincides with the north wind, winter, and old age; black bile is under the planetary influence of Saturn.  When someone is saturnine, he is gloomy, cold, often cynical, slow, weighed down by his pessimism; he is the negative senex, frequently older than his years.[1]

Yellow bile, also known as choler, allies with the element Fire; its season is summer, and it comes under the aegis of Mars, the planet that rules initiative, drive, and passion; in astrology the red planet is typified by such qualities as bravado, enthusiasm, aggression, impulsiveness, and impatience.  In Roman mythology Mars was the god of war and a father to the Roman people as he sired the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus; thus, he was a respected figure in the divine pantheon.  The Greek god of war, however, was of a very different cut: Ares, whose name was derived from the Ionic arē, meaning “bane, ruin, curse, imprecation,” [2] was destructive, brutal, reckless, quarrelsome, and dangerous; in Book V of Homer’s Iliad, Zeus proclaims him the most hateful of all the Olympian gods, and he is far more characteristic of the temperament choleric than his Roman counterpart, meaning that an individual with an excess of yellow bile is irascible, caustic, and violent. 

Blood links to the element of Air; its season is spring, and its ruling planet is Jupiter, named after the head of the Roman pantheon of gods.  Jupiter was the “shining father,” protector of Rome, and carried a thunderbolt; his symbols were, in addition to lightening, the eagle and oak tree.  In astrology, Jupiter is a benevolent planet, bringing good fortune and prosperity, but it may also give rise to greed, extravagance, and vanity.  Blood predominates in people of a sanguine [3] nature: they are confident, optimistic (particularly in negative circumstances), courageous, and boisterous. 

The last humor, Phlegm, has Water as its element, is associated with autumn, maturity, and is governed by the moon, the ruler of tides and tidal forces.  Just as the sun is the symbol par excellence of consciousness, rationality, and masculine spiritual ascension, the moon signifies the regressive pull of instinctual nature (as we see quite clearly in the 18th trump of the Tarot de Marseille, La Lune); irrationality (from the Latin Luna, we derive the words lunacy and lunatic, referring to a kind of mental instability believed to be triggered by the phases of the moon); and a deep connection with feminine mysteries (despite a lack of scientific evidence, people continue to believe today, as they have maintained for thousands of years, that the lunar rhythm regulates women’s menstruation cycles).  Phlegmatic people (people in which the humor phlegm predominates) are quiet and easygoing to the point of being passive and lethargic; they may appear disengaged or disinterested and thus able to remain calm even as upsetting events occur around them.[4]

Jean Dodal (1701)

We might ask at this point why such constellations developed at all and why we are so attracted to groupings of four.

We have an inherent tendency to form or detect concordances or patterns; it is one of the ways we make sense of the world, bringing our outer and inner experiences into meaningful alignment.  The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung discovered in the course of his work that just as we have a common biological design that defines us as human beings, so that as varied as our outer appearances may be, we are far more similar than disparate, we also have a common psychological arrangement.  To put this in the simplest terms, we all think in pretty much the same way; this is not to deny the rich diversity of our ruminations through the eons, but it is to say that when we strip away details, the structure supporting our thoughts and dreams is collective rather than individual.  As we read in Ecclesiastes 1:9: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (NIV).

Joseph Campbell, a pioneer in the field of comparative mythology, wrote in the prologue to Primitive Mythology, the first book of his monumental, four-volume Masks of God series:

The comparative study of the mythologies of the world compels us to view the cultural history of mankind as a unit; for we find that such themes as the fire-theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero have a worldwide distribution – appearing everywhere in new combinations while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same (italics mine). 

This brings us to another of Carl Jung’s discoveries, the existence of a basic fourfold structure in the psyche; we tend to arrange things in groups of four: there are four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west); four intercardinal or ordinal directions (northeast, southeast, southwest, northwest), four seasons (spring, summer, autumn, winter); four phases of the moon (new, first quarter, full, last quarter); four evangelists in the Christian Bible who authored the four Gospels; and, of course, the four humors or fluids in the body which corresponded to the four classical elements listed above.[5]  There are other examples as well, but these will suffice to make the point.  All these arrangements are arbitrary; there is no objective reason why it must be four rather than five, eight, or ten, but we favor groupings of four because that is how our psyches are structured.  Four is also considered to be a perfect number, representing order, stability, and completion.  Thus, we have four minor suits in the Tarot to supplement the major arcana of twenty-two trump cards (which some refer to as a fifth “suit”); and this invites people to make mental connections between the various quaternities and “discover” harmonic resonances that open pathways to fresh insights and expose new truths.

When Etteilla created a tarot deck toward the end of his life known today as the Grand Etteilla he illustrated in the Twos of each suit his inspiration bringing these cards into the evolving constellations that had aggregated around the four classical elements.

At first glance, Etteilla’s logic appears to be pretty straightforward: Staffs are made of trees, which grow in the ground, so the coupling with Earth makes a lot of sense; Cups hold liquid, so the pairing with Water is a natural; the association of Swords with Air takes a bit more work, but we can get there: swords are sharp and cut through restraints the way incisive thought slices through obfuscation (once we conflate thought with air, we have our connection); finally Coins go with Fire…  This is the match that is most difficult to apprehend.  I like to believe Etteilla had a reason to bring these two together beyond the obvious: these were the two left over; however, if there is a logical consistency here, I have been unable to determine what it might be (and would welcome any theories other people might have on the subject).


[1]       I have written more extensively on the Senex and the senescent old man in my post “The Rose and the Philosopher’s Stone.”

[2]     Wikipedia and noted as coming from Georg Autenrieth, A Homeric Dictionary; Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.

[3]      Sanguis is the Latin word for blood and gave rise to both “sanguineous,” relating to or involving bloodshed and “sanguine,” optimistic and hopeful (as well as blood red).

[4]       Of the Four Humors, Phlegm seems to be the one with the most inconsistencies and least consensus.  The term “phlegmatic” means self-possessed, calm, composed, yet this humor is ruled by the moon, which brings on lunacy; furthermore, the term “moonstruck” designates someone who is crazed, particularly when his derangement is of a romantic nature.  One source states that Phlegmatics are meek and submissive introverts who try to please others, while another source asserts that they are disengaged, disinterested, impassive – such individuals would not seem to care one way or another about pleasing others.  In a third source, we read that Phlegmatics are unemotional, stolid, while a fourth characterizes them as being sensitive and sentimental.  None of these speak to the regressive instinctuality associated with the moon or the feminine mysteries which are so much a part of moon lore.

[5]       Although the tendency to form associations of four is universal (though not exclusive, for we also organize things into groups of threes and fives) I am not asserting that all cultures adhere to the categorizations I have enumerated; I am writing specifically from a Western perspective since the Tarot is a European product (assuming beliefs about an Egyptian origination are inaccurate); some tropical regions, for instance, recognize only two seasons: rainy and dry, which makes sense for them, while some South Asian countries have three or six, and even in Ancient Greece, to the four classic elements a fifth, aether, was added.