Fire, the primordial element that both creates and destroys. In ancient alchemy fire was the element of transformation and change. Mankind has had a long obsession with fire, for it provides us warmth, but can also burn. Every culture on this planet has a myth or legend about how mankind was given fire by divinity in some form. Even the beloved bard known under the name of Shakespeare used this primordial element to describe a primordial emotion - love. Fire one of the most liminal elements that both creates and destroys, and for this reason it naturally appears symbolically within art and the Tarot.
Fire makes several appearances within the tarot. We see it in its natural form in cards such as the The Devil and The Tower. The entire suit of Wands is associated with fire and represents our creativity, our passions, and our actions. We also see more figurative representations of fire in symbols such as the Sun. All these symbols may be found within the images in the traditional Raider Waite Smith tarot, and if you know how to unlock these symbols it can bring a whole new level of understanding and meaning to your readings.
In the ancient art of alchemy, fire does all the work, it is the process, and it is the element that finds the gold. Nothing in alchemy happens without fire. Fire is the key to transformation. The process of changing one thing into another, be it one material into another, or one state of existence into another, e.g. evaporation. We see this concept of raw fire and its association with transformation most evident in cards like The Tower. In this card we see the fire literally burning the tower to the ground in order to make way for something new to come. A perfect example of the dichotomy represented in the element of its creation through destruction and transformative powers. The fire burns away the brick walls we put up around ourselves that can represent so many things from our belief systems to actual boundaries we may encounter in life with people or careers. The sundering of the tower by fire shows the transformations we go through that can be incredibly difficult but in the end always lead us to a better place.
In The Devil card we see the Devil holding a torch in his down turned left hand. Ancient alchemy's pursuit of transforming mundane materials into precious ones, particularly gold, was often considered by some to be in the highest pursuit of material goods and obsessions. A concept reflected in the meaning of the The Devil card itself. We also see this touch held upside which for viewers makes them uncomfortable as we all know too well even when holding a match in a similar fashion it is all to easy for the flame to engulf the torch and burn you. This gesture represents not only the fear but ignorance to the transformative power that we each hold to simply invert the torch, just as easily as the chained figures could remove their chains. Again, a visual nod to the transformative and dualistic nature of fire.
Great Balls of Fire!
Long revered as the great fire in the sky, many legends surround the sun. One of the more well known is that of Icarus, who's father crafted for him wings dared to fly too close to the sun on his wings made of feathers and wax. Even though his farther warned him not to. The sun's fire was so warm that the wax melted and he plummeted from the sky to his death. A classic story told told of heeding the advice of elders. The Sun as we know it to day is fire, a giant ball of continuously burning gasses, but the idea of of this celestial body being fire has had a long history of symbolism and mythos behind it and this translates directly into the Tarot. In the tarot we have several depictions of the sun. The Sun card itself represents a bright golden sun with a face radiating its light on the land and child below, representing new beginnings (keep this in mind for later). When we see bright yellow suns such as this it is often associated with enlightenment - the light that leads us to truth. We see this again reflected in Death, with the setting sun seen depicted between the two towers on the horizon. Waite himself describes it as "Between two pillars on the verge of the horizon there shines the sun of immortality." This is a direct reference to the idea of death being a transformative process, much like the transformation of one element to another we see in alchemy, and through that transformation you reach a higher state of enlightenment.
Another sun we see within the tarot is the White Sun, most notably seen on The Fool card. The White Sun is said to represent the light of Kether, the first Sefirot in the Tree of Life of Kabbalah (not to worry, we're not diving into Kabbalah just yet...). This is the light of creation, the point of origin from which everything comes from and to the point which everything inevitability returns. Again we have the concept of creation and destruction and the process of transformation. Remember when I told you to keep the idea of new beginnings in mind? This is a direct correlation to the child represented within the Sun card. Again, showing the forethought that both Smith and Waite had when planning out and using historical visual symbolism.
The Embodiment of Fire & Transformation
The concepts presented thus far talk about the duality within the element of fire, the way it can create, destroy, and change things. This concept is at the very heart of the Temperance card. On this card stands an angelic figure, often thought to be the angel Gabriel. The card itself is a visual allegory of the duality of fire, creation and destruction. Waite tells us "a winged angel, with the sign of the sun upon his forehead, and on his breast the square and triangle of septenary. I speak of him in the masculine sense, but the figure is neither male nor female. The figure is in the process of pouring the essence of life from chalice to chalice... one foot upon the earth and one upon the waters... illustrating the psychic and material natures."
The meaning behind all of this visual and literary symbolism distills down to the balance between all things, creation and destruction. Light and dark. Life and death. Here we have combined many of the symbols we've seen before, the golden sun on his crown - a symbol both of enlightenment and of Kether. The setting sun between the mountains - it is important to note this card follows death in the Major Arcana - represents what lies beyond death - enlightenment and balance. (There are many more kabbalistic references here, but we'll dive into that another time.) The squared triangle (the alchemical symbol of fire) as Waite describes is the septenary - relating to or divided into seven. This card being the first card of the last septenary of the Major Arcana if you include the Fool and set The World card apart (not everyone's favorite way of doing it, but I find this symbol to be a key indicator to Wait's intention for Temperance being the ..first of the last septanary.) Interestingly the origin of the word Temperance from the Latin 'temperantia' which means moderation speaks to the balance we must find in life in order to reach enlightenment. As Katzs & Goodwin so eloquently put it "When we are tempered, when we rise above our nature into the mountain of initiation, all becomes light." The temperance card is the embodiment of all of the symbolic representations of fire, but of the other elements as well and is a card one could spend hours decoding - perhaps for next time.
As you explore the Tarot and the meanings locked within the flames of symbolism I encourage you to look for the symbol of fire, and pay close attention to what it is trying to tell you. Want to know more? Check out the live mini-class that I did live over on my YouTube channel here: https://youtu.be/XlKrxqj9Hxo
Chang, T. Susan. Tarot Correspondences: Ancient Secrets for Everyday Readers. Llewellyn Pulbications, 2018.
Dean, Liz. The Ultimate Guide to Tarot: a Beginners Guide to the Cards, Spreads, and Revealing the Mystery of the Tarot. Fair Winds Press, 2015.
Gardner, Helen, et al. Gardners Art through the Ages. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991.
Katz, Marcus. Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot: the True Story of the Worlds Most Popular Tarot: with Previously Unseen Photography & Text from Waite & Smith. Llewellyn Publications, 2015.
Waite, A. E. Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Dover Publications Inc, 2005.
Wen, Benebell. Holistic Tarot. North Atlantic Books, 2015.
Images Sourced From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Public_domain_image_resources