I thought I would use this evening to talk about the fundamental elements of Tarot, namely the four (five) elements represented in the cards. These would be Swords, Wands, Cups, and Pentacles/Coins (the fifth element being Spirit and represented by the Major Arcana).
When talking about the four suits, or elements, if you will, I like to start in the East, with Swords, the element of Air, the direction of the rising sun and the seat of Thought and Truth. My oldest deck, the Tarot of Transformation, has the Server of Swords (Paige) slicing the air with a sword, basically cutting through the bullshit. That is my favorite representation of the innate qualities of the suit of Swords.
I'm a Gemini myself, so my element is Air (actually, my moon signs and rising signs are Libra and Aquarius respectively, so basically I'm ALL about Air). I'm rather fond of the Swords suit, even though the Swords cards contain some of the hardest Tarot lessons.
Next comes Wands, the direction of South, the element of Fire, and the seat of Creativity and Action. Wands are most often represented by a sprouting or growing branch, or a branch on fire. Like a tree, Wands inspires your ideas (thoughts) to sprout and grow into a creative or passionate endeavor. The most powerful image I've seen thus far of Wands is the Nine of Wands from the Legacy of the Divine deck. It shows a man bowed before a wand he is holding, with another eight wands behind him. I think it shows how we can be ruled by our passions, and often end up defending them to others.
After Wands is Cups, the direction of West, the element of Water, and the seat of Emotion. Like a cup, we are often filled with emotion. Though the most powerful image I've seen for Cups is the Five of Cups from the Legacy of the Divine deck, I am more partial to the Rider-Waite-Smith Five of Cups, which shows a figure who is not only sad over his/her spilled Cups, but cannot even see the two Cups he/she has remaining. Emotions are like that sometimes. We become so focused on what we've lost and negative emotions that we ignore or do not even register positive emotions and experiences.
Finally, there is the suit of Pentacles/Coins, the direction of North, the element of Earth and the seat of the physical (the human body - head, arms, legs) and often financial. Its main concern is safety. Am I in good health? Do I have enough money? Etc. For me, the image that speaks to me the most with regard to Pentacles/Coins is the Five of Pentacles/Coins. This card, put simply, depicts not having enough. The Legacy of the Divine Tarot has the most heart-wrenching image of the Five of Coins. It shows a beggar outside a church (not invited in, of course), seeming to reach out to the reader for alms. However, in today's political climate, I am most reminded of the Five of Pentacles from the Santa Muerte Tarot, which depicts someone in heavy boots crushing skulls beneath their feet. The entire deck is designed around the calaveras from the celebration of Dia de los Muertos. So, basically, not only do these particular skulls not have bodies, they're also being stomped on.
All these suits make up a Tarot deck, along with the Major Arcana. As Rachel Pollack's book 78 Degrees of Wisdom suggests, there are 78 cards ready to pour out wisdom about your life. That and a good reader can lead to an awesome and enlightening experience.