Paracelsus’ Elementals and the Suit of Swords, in Waite-Smith and Brian Williams’ Renaissance Tarot

Salamander in Fire, Michael Maier Atalanta Fugiens (1617)

Whatever Etteilla’s rationale, at some point someone decided it made more sense to switch things around a bit, so that Coins pair with Earth and combustible Staffs or Wands match up with Fire.  This is the disposition in the Waite-Smith and nearly every other modern deck I have encountered;[i] the arrangement is so prevalent that the majority of commentaries I have read do not support the position but merely state it, as though this series of pairings is so self-evident it does not even merit earnest discourse.

We have all heard how Alexander the Great “solved” the Gordian knot with his sword on the way to fulfilling his destiny and immortalizing his name; it is from this story (and perhaps a few similar anecdotes) the generalization that swords emblematize bold and incisive thought arises, making it possible to associate the suit with the element of Air.  However, we should not forget that Alexander entered Phrygia as a warlord, at the head of an army bent upon conquest, and the sword he raised was first and foremost a weapon undoubtedly consecrated with the blood of those who opposed him.

Pamela Colman-Smith seeded the court cards with symbols expressing the connection between Swords and the element of Air.  We see clouds (there are no clouds in any of the court cards of the other suits, though the figures are all outdoors) and birds in flight.  On the King’s crown, as well as the side of the Queen’s throne, is a sylph.  The 16th-century alchemist-philosopher Paracelsus, who coined the term for these mythological spirits, believed that within the four classical elements were creatures which moved about through them as easily as we move through air, earning them the designation “elementals.”  Gnomes are chthonic (subterranean) beings, approximately 18-20 inches tall, that guard underground treasures – a function for which they are well-suited as they can pass through solid earth and rock, even mountains.  Undines are elemental beings found in water; Paracelsus derived the name from Latin word “unda,” wave, and envisioned several species of undines, including mermaids and water nymphs.  To the element of fire belong Salamanders, a creature believed to be conceived within flames.[ii]  Finally, Sylphs are invisible beings that inhabit the air; Paracelsus described them as “reuher, gröber, lenger und sterker” (rougher, courser, longer, and stronger) than humans; because they are so physical in nature, they are closest to us of the four elementals and, like us, they will drown in water, burn in flame, and get stuck in earth.  At some point, probably in the 18th century, sylphs were reimagined as fairies, with delicate features and wings, and these are the airy spirits Pamela Colman-Smith envisioned.  We also see butterflies prominently displayed in the Knight, Queen, and King cards.  The Greek word psykhē (psyche) referred to the animating and ineffable quintessence of mindsoulspirit that resides within each of us during our lives and leaves our bodies at death; in ancient Greece, the departing soul was symbolically represented by a butterfly.  People also associate butterflies with rebirth and resurrection into a more refined, celestial form; nonetheless, the Knight of Swords “is,” as A. E. Waite writes in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot, “riding in full course as if scattering his enemies.”  He is a young warrior caught up in the bloodlust of battle, and no number of butterflies decorating the breastplate of his horse will change that or soften the violence of his sword when he brings it crashing down in the course of his onslaught.

Further in his commentary, Waite intimates a connection between his knight and that most perfect exemplar of chivalric virtue from King Arthur’s Round Table: “he might almost be Galahad, whose sword is swift and sure because he is clean of heart.”  We remember that Galahad came to Arthur’s court on the Eve of Pentecost [iii] with an empty scabbard and gained his sword by drawing it from the stone in which it was encased after Sir Gawain and Sir Percival failed in their attempts, proving himself the best knight in the world.  This adventure preceded the arrival of the Holy Ghost and the Grail into Arthur’s great hall.  Thus, Waite connects the suit again to the element of Air, yet it is only for a moment: when we examine the illustrations from the number cards of this suit, we find no further amplification of this idea, nor do any of the number cards suggest anyone is doing any thinking.  Instead, we are assailed by images of terror, brutality, and bloodshed.

Brian Williams’ Pairing of Swords and Fire in the Renaissance Tarot

In 1994, Brian Williams and U. S. Games published Renaissance Tarot (not to be confused with The Renaissance Tarot by Jane Lyle, 1998, or Tarot of the Renaissance by Giorgio Trevisan, 2001) and an impressive guide book to go along with the deck in which Williams suggests that the suit of Swords does not belong with Air at all but rather with the element of Fire, and this is the arrangement we find on the backs of his cards.

At the center are a man and woman, separate but joining hands, like a flesh-and-blood representation of the taijitu, the circle containing the symbols for yang and yin.  The two “phallic” suits are above the male figure, a sword to the left, with fire rising along the blade and a salamander in the upper left-hand corner while a stave, sprouting branches, is to the right, with the artist’s rendition of a wisp of air entwining it and a bird in the upper right-hand corner, betokening that suit’s connection with thought.  Below the woman are the two suits commonly associated with the feminine; though neither is vulvic per se, cups are receptive and coins round.  Williams tells us that it is a cluster of crystals below the coin, and in the corresponding corner, a tortoise to signify the element of Earth.[iv]  To the right we see a cup, a spray of water, and in the lower right corner, a fish to remind us that this suit goes with Water.

In his deck, the trumps and court cards depict characters and scenes from Renaissance Europe; however, Williams illustrates his number cards with figures and episodes from ancient Greek and Roman mythology.  For the two “feminine” suits, Williams chooses to draw upon the story of Persephone for Coins and Apuleius’ tale of Psyche for Cups; he illustrates the suit of Staves with the labors and trials of Herakles, and to illuminate Swords, Williams tells the story of Achilles, the legendary warrior from Homer’s epic Iliad renowned for his superhuman strength, unparalleled courage, and petulant vengefulness. 

Homer’s Iliad spans only a few weeks during the last year of the Trojan War, a ten-year siege of Troy by a Greek army led by the Mycenaean king, Agamemnon; Achilles commanded the Myrmidon contingent and was undefeated in battle, striking terror into the hearts of the Trojan forces.  However, after a quarrel with Agamemnon, Achilles removed himself from the field and sulked in his tent.  His absence turned the tide in the war; the Trojans defeated the Greeks in battle after battle and seemed poised to drive the invading army from their territory when Agamemnon was forced to seek reconciliation with Achilles and admit they could not win without him.  Achilles sullenly refused to return to the battlefield, but his closest companion, Patroclus, convinced Achilles to lend him his armor, which was so recognizable to the Trojan warriors; then, disguised as Achilles, Patroclus rallied the Greek troops and charged straight to the gates of Troy where he was killed by Hector, son of King Priam, the leader of the Trojan army and its greatest hero.  It was the death of his friend that motivated Achilles to return to the war; in a frenzied madness, he slaughtered Trojan troops in vast numbers, filling the river Skamandros with their corpses.  Achilles met Hector outside the walls of Troy, killed him, then proceeded to drag the fallen champion behind his chariot around the city and back to the Greek camp where, in a final display of contempt, he dumped it on the rubbish heap.  This is the infamous scene which Williams depicts in his Nine of Swords.  Achilles’ hubris [v] angered the gods, and he was ultimately killed when Hector’s far less heroic brother, Paris, ambushed him and shot him in the one place he was vulnerable, the heel, with an arrow guided by Apollo. 

Thus, Achilles, in his quarrelsome and savage actions, embodied the Greek god of war, Ares, who, we remember, Zeus proclaimed the most hateful of gods.  This is the suit of a choleric disposition, the yellow bile of Hippocrates, and the element of Fire.  What’s more, when we consider the cruel imagery in the Waite-Smith and the myriad of decks following in that tradition, we would be hard-pressed to say that Williams is wrong in his reassignment.


[i]        As I write this, I am acutely aware that with so many decks on the market, the four dozen or so that I have some experience with are but a drop in the bucket; nonetheless, I believe my statement holds.

[ii]       While we can trace the origins of Gnomes, Undines, and Sylphs back to Paracelsus and his A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits, published posthumously in 1658, he only reinforced the mythology of salamanders that had already existed for nearly two thousand years by the time he wrote his book.  Both Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and Pliny the Elder (d. 79 CE) believed that salamanders not only dwelt in fire but could put it out as well with their cold bodies (though how they could both thrive in flames and extinguish them at the same time is a bit of a mystery).  Reportedly, Pliny tested this hypothesis and only succeeded in burning the unfortunate amphibians up.  The most likely source of this fanciful (and very incorrect) belief is that some salamanders live in logs and wood chips and might have been seen scampering out of flames when these were tossed in.  Alchemists drew upon this legend to distinguish between common salamanders and the Salamander of the Philosophers, which was also known as sulphur, “the hot, dry, active male principle of the opus” responsible for imposing Form upon Matter.  Thus, it is written in the Alchemical text Zoroaster’s Cave: “I tell thee that our Semen is the true Salamander, conceived by fire, nursed by fire and perfected by fire.”  The male seed is fire and air; the female seed is water and earth.

[iii]      The Feast of Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles fifty days after Jesus’ crucifixion, when “tongues of fire” appeared over the heads of the apostles, who were filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages. 

[iv]      While turtles spend most of their time around or in water, tortoises are not designed to swim and therefore live exclusively on land.  

[v]        Hubris, or Hybris from the Greek, originally meant wanton violence, insolence, outrage; it refers to a man arrogating to himself that which belongs to the gods, transcending proper human limits.  Achilles removed himself from the battlefield in a monumental sulk because he felt that Agamemnon had not treated him with the reverence he believed he merited, so he put his wounded feelings above the good of everyone else and subverted the Greek cause.  He only returned to the war when Patroclus, his companion, was killed, so his motives, once again, were entirely personal: he could not subject himself to Agamemnon’s authority due to his excessive pride, and then he committed an unthinkable outrage when he treated the body of Hector with such dishonor; he forced Hector’s heartbroken father, King Priam, to grovel at his feet in order to obtain Hector’s body, so he could give his noble son a proper funeral.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.