AUTHOR’S NOTE: As an “old-school” tarot reader with metaphysical roots in the early days of the New Age, I take a dim view of drawing additional cards to clarify an original pull merely to avoid struggling with what we at first don’t understand, instead of trying to puzzle our way through it. But after arguing with myself over the last few years about the admission of failure implied by the use of clarifying cards, I finally decided that there are limited instances where this approach — while still not an all-purpose panacea for our lack of persistence or patience — should be built into the process. This is one of them.
The four classical elements of the Greek philosopher Empedocles, Fire, Water, Air and Earth, are traditionally represented by the tarot suits of Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles, respectively. (They have also been attributed to the Major Arcana through astrological correspondence but that is a more complex matter.) It sometimes happens that one of these suits and its associated element are completely absent from a reading, even in larger spreads like the ten-card Celtic Cross where the likelihood is more remote. This is typically felt to be significant, and can be dealt with in a couple of different ways.
We can take a page from natal astrology, in which unpopulated elements (triplicities containing no planets) are considered to reveal: a) character traits where a lot of work is needed to compensate for their lack of emphasis in the native’s personality, or b) energies that are already “squared-up” in the individual’s karmic ledger and don’t need any further attention in the present life. The astrologer offsets the deficiency with some creative rationalizing that envisions whether the resulting ride will be bumpy or smooth. Bringing this down to the level of a situational tarot spread, an elemental void could be read as a lost opportunity to apply that quality directly to the matter at hand. But I have never seen a structured way to accommodate this event; recovery always amounts to an ad-hoc adjustment in the narrative.
The notion I’m presenting here is to take the fourteen “suit” cards associated with the missing element from the remainder of the deck, shuffle them, and pull one card to show how the energy deficit might be restored to the reading as a kind of “hidden agenda” related to the element (e.g. the “Fire agenda”). If you’re feeling especially ambitious you could add the Major Arcana of that element to the mix as well (the Emperor as Fire, the Empress as Earth, and so forth), but the mundane nature of the situation may not warrant such lofty gestures (I call it “swatting a gnat with a sledge hammer”); it may be best to set them aside. How and where to infuse this insight into the flow of the reading is up to the reader.
It might be handled as an archetypal disadvantage affecting the whole spread, in response to which all of the cards could be inflected in their meaning to fulfill the covert mission of this elemental “shadow” (for example, we might ask ourselves as a codicil for each position “How would the Ace of Wands deal with this?” and draw useful advice from the answer) We could also tack it onto the outcome as a postscript suggesting an alternate outlook on the projected consequences. In the second instance we could conceivably come up with an entirely different closure scenario that was not effectively foretold by the cards of the other suits. Rather than simply pulling any random “clarifier,” we might favor this focused alternative in an elemental-shortfall scenario where the “end of the matter” card is inconclusive,
Here is a small spread illustrating the premise. I recognize that when there are very few cards in a layout it is possible to have more than one missing element, in which case this solution would most likely yield conflicting results and become too unwieldy to be worthwhile. Unless its use is clearly indicated, I would reserve the “elemental agenda” technique for larger spreads that are appropriately detailed and elastic enough to absorb the input.
This is a straightforward reading that asks the questions “Where am I right now?” (the left-most card); “What is my path?” (the three cards in the middle) and “Where am I likely to wind up?” (the right-most card). The missing suit here is Swords.
The 10 of Cups is often viewed as a showing a blissful home life: all emotional needs are being met and there is no need to look beyond one’s back yard for comfort.
The 2 of Pentacles and the 8 of Wands together imply destabilizing change that comes on rapidly.
The 10 of Pentacles conveys familial contentment hardening into domestic indifference and inertia. (Maybe, like the woman I read for years ago for whom this “three-generations” card accurately described her grown son and grandchild landing uninvited on her doorstep after his divorce, my adult children will come home to roost. Yikes!)
The Queen of Pentacles wants to settle out in a quiet, orderly place (it certainly can’t mean my mother or mother-in-law arriving on the heels of my offspring since both are long gone). This would all be fine if I didn’t have to pay attention and could just coast, but I can’t recall the last time I was able to get away with that.
All of this seems organically unforced, with no guiding intelligence calling the shots as would be provided by the presence of Swords energy. It suggests sleepwalking into complacency. So I shuffled the fourteen cards of the Swords suit and pulled the King of Swords, the ultimate expression of “adult supervision,” as the underlying “Air agenda” card. His sword is canted toward the left, echoing the blocking sword of Justice; it seems to be saying “What’s done is done, don’t bother me with your petty regrets.” Or maybe “You made your bed, now lie in it.” Or he might be scolding the Queen of Pentacles for slacking. There is plenty of “I told you so” but scant sympathy here. If it is interpreted as the unexpressed “mental shadow” of each of the other cards, it could be offering an opportunity for sober reflection before each step on the path is irrevocably taken. I believe this card-by-card supplemental approach is the way I will use it in most cases.