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On All Fours: Tarot and The Wisdom of the 4

May 11, 2014

“If the four does not commit itself to action, it will gradually petrify.”
— A. Jodorowsky and M. Costa

If you’re looking for more stability, four is the number you want to call. Likewise, if you’re trying to break out of a rut, or over throw an oppressive power, four is the essence you’ll need to overcome. Fundamentally, fours are a signal that something is, quite literally, materializing. When a four appears in a tarot reading, it’s encouraging you to create a strong foundation, from which you can truly excel in your art. Fours represent the four elements, or four states of matter, witches of various sorts call in to begin their ceremonies: Fire (Plasma), Air (Gas), Water (Liquid), Earth (Solid). Since we are working our magic from here in the material world, calling in and celebrating the four elements is a good way to begin any magical practice. It reminds us that we’re all material girls, living in a material world. In my recent post, Kill The Emperor!, I discussed how fours represent stability, civilization, law and order, reliability, earth, etc. All of that is based on the qualities of the square, which, because of its four corners and four sides bears an obvious connection to the number.

Arc de Triomphe.

Arc de Triomphe. Image from the internet.

Since the square is a building block, stable and durable, commonly used in architecture, it’s also obvious how the square, and thus the number four, often represents civilization and empire. The architecture of empire is symmetrical and squat, the goal being to convey the idea that the civilization in question is enduring, unshakeable, solid.

But the number four has a caveat, an interesting feature that causes problems, but also leads to growth and change.

If we think about numbers as dimensions, 1 is a singular point, 2 is a line, 3 is a flat surface. Or we might consider 1 as length, 2 as width, 3 as depth. Either way, through this numerical progression we see the material world emerging. Arguments among contemporary physicists aside, most of us normally think of time as the 4th dimension.

But not only is time the 4th dimension, it is also the destroyer of empires. Ultimately, time is the destroyer of everything, isn’t it? But time is also a healer, as in “time heals all wounds.” Thus the great destroyer and the great healer are one. Fours are the embodiment of stability. But nothing stays stable forever. Fours teach us that too much stability leads to stagnation or oppression.  The Emperor’s strength is also his downfall since although empire can bring many gifts, with every footfall of the invading soldier, the seeds of the empire’s inevitable destruction are planted.  For instance, I lived in England for many years and remember several English folks telling me how many roads and schools they built when they colonized India, but then, I imagine the Romans said the same thing of their invasion of England. Either way, the English empire now enjoys frequent sunsets and the Roman empire is no more.


XIV Art, Thoth Deck

Major Arcana XIV, Art (or Temperance) from the Thoth deck.

The Evolution of the Emperor

So the Emperor must become dynamic. Change or die slowly. In the tarot, the Emperor’s four evolves into Temperance’s 14. I love this transition. Temperance is the stability of the Emperor transformed into a dynamic balance. Through self-control and mastery, the angel in Temperance utilizes the four elements to create.

In the Thoth deck, Crowley renamed Temperance, “Art”. Such a great transformation! The expansiveness, mastery and force embodied by the Emperor, is channeled and utilized for creation, rather than domination. The artist of major arcana XIV, is the ultimate alchemist, bringing together a perfect concoction of elements to create symbolic gold.

Learn the magic of the four and elements are at your command. Rather than simply accumulating more and accruing a false sense of security, put the material world to dynamic use, in harmony with all of nature. Create something only you can, and make it magical.

The Emperor rules all the fours. Explore the wisdom of the minor arcana and transform your emperor into an artist. See below.

Positive Aspects of Four:

Reliability, expansion, stability, balance, skillfulness, gaining mastery, materialization, ambition, vigor, victory

Negative Aspects of Four:

Stodginess, oppression, slavery, wrongful use of force, being controlling, gaining dominion, stagnation, ambition, rashness, bad temper


Four of Wands: Wands rule creativity, activity, social engagements, passions, adventure, energy, action, spirit, libido

Fours of Wands

The four of wands represents completion. Think graduation, writing the last page of your novel, crossing the line of the marathon. In fact, in the Thoth deck, the card is actually named completion. But as you can see, the idea of completion is similarly represented in all of the images. Both the Motherpeace and Waite-Smith decks show a celebratory event. A victory march, an entry into adulthood. As artists we know that celebration never lasts very long, as soon as you’re finished with the album, or your show opens, you have to confront the feeling of “now what?” or “what if this fails?” Your accomplishments can feel empty. It can be depressing, even panic inducing. But the four of wands recommends that you let yourself enjoy your triumphs for a little while. You’ve worked hard. Celebrate. It’s also interesting to note that in the Thoth deck, completion is represented as the coming together of opposites, something to think about when trying to bring a project to a close.

Questions for Further Development:

What are you celebrating now? (For example, if you just graduated, are you celebrating the diploma, your potential freedom, all the hard work you’ve done?) What lessons can you take from your recent accomplishment? How do you want to employ them in your next adventure?

Four of Swords: Swords rule mind, words, ideas, problems, struggles

Fours of Swords

Swords rest in four. Usually dynamic, here swords are balanced and still. In the Thoth deck, this card is known as “Truce.” If you’re involved in a creative project, you might have reached a moment of stasis. This might be a good time to impose a set of rules on yourself in order to generate material and not get stuck in the infinite possibilities. This is not a moment of aggressive action, but one of contemplation. Now is a time to get organized and realign. Incubation. Now is the time to withdraw, collect yourself, contemplate. Convalesce. Go on a retreat, apply (or better yet, go) to a residency, get a way for the weekend, or even just for the day. In the Motherpeace image, the central figure grounds herself in a pyramid, which has a four sided base, in order to draw down fresh energy from above, and pull up the grounding energy from below. Through her physical form, she unites these two polarities. Now is a good time to balance your mind through meditation and yoga (or other centering physical practice). Get healthy. Get clear on what you’re doing.

Questions for Further Development:

What do you need to meditate on? How can you find time to rest? What kind of structure can you impose that could help you create clarity and focus? What do you need to bring into harmony right now? What is the most peaceful way of doing this? How can you get clear?

Four of Disks: Discs rule money, property, physicality, security, health, material world, survival, sustenance

Fours of Discs
Strength, guarding your space. Protection. Financial security. Isolation. This is not a four of conquering, as the Emperor might normally imply, this is a four of already having and accumulating more. Capital provides stability, isn’t that why people want capital? To ward against the anxiety of not knowing what will happen next? With capital comes security. Of course, how you interpret this card depends upon the context and how it relates to the cards around it. But notice how each one of these cards implies being guarded in some way, or standing apart. In the Waite-Smith version, the royal in the card uses money as his defense, it’s what he’s all about (on, above, in his arms), it protects him, but, he’s alone. In the Thoth deck stands a castle, strong and protected by a moat. In the Motherpeace version, the figure is in her sweat lodge, gathering strength and focus, she’s careful about who she let’s in, and who she keeps out. In the Tarot of Marseilles, the four coins are defended by a coat of arms. This card signals property, acquisition, financial security, sanctuary and separation, saying no. Feeling secure. Not feeling obligated. A defensible position. Make investments, use your resources to foster growth. Acceptance what is…and then (you decide).

Questions for Further Development:

How much is enough security? What are you needing protection from? What do you want to use your power to do? How can you use your resources to foster growth? If you knew you were secure, what would you try?

Four of Cups: Cups rule emotions, love, desire, dreams, visions, the subconscious, materialism, exercising dominance

Fours of Cups
This card can indicate a discontent with what you have. There might be a tendency here to dwell too much in the past or worry excessively about the future. If you’re caught between these two places, you might not be aware of the messages you’re getting. The messages and omens from the fairy realms. Haunted by the past, anxious about the future. You might be wallowing in hallow pleasures. Decadence. Enjoy the luxuries of the present moment, but if you revel too long, you might face addiction. This card can often indicate anxiety soothed by unhealthy means, often from a source of past shame. Wallowing in luxuries can be an indication of not wanting to face the larger reality. To find the path to the healthy angle of this card listen to voices of wisdom, allow yourself to sit in the space of ambiguity and uncertainty, without trying to escape. Stay focused on the present moment. Take a look at where your wealth (your resources, whether they be emotional, financial, or spiritual) come from. Soon, a clear path with emerge.

Questions for Further Development:

What do you want to abandon yourself to?What would likely be the end result of that abandonment? What are you haunted by? What are you anxious about? You already have the tools, what can you do to find peace? What is the most appropriate way to find balance? Is there a voice of wisdom that you can trust, where can you find it?

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