In tarot (and also in astrology) elements are often used to describe similarities between groups of symbols and properties. It is perhaps best to say that elements are a way of taking the giant mess of the world and framing it in four more-or-less neat boxes which can then be used to interpret life and steer it (though life steers like a cow).
The four Greek elements are Earth, Water, Fire and Air (other element systems exist, such as China's five elements); in tarot these are represented by Pentacles, Cups, Wands and Swords respectively. (Some readers refer to Court Cards in the same manner - Pages are earthy, Knights are fiery, Queens are watery and Kings are airy - but this is less common).
These elements are said to have the same qualities that their adjectives evoke:
Earth is about the body, and about work - both paid work and other labour, such as the care you take for your personal finances, your home and your health and the maintenance of your skills. Earth situations are those that call for practical thinking, hard work, and good planning. Earth may also refer to the Earthy parts of your life - work, your home life, possibly sex or money.
Water is about emotions, and about communicating; it asks you to be aware of the way you communicate, the way you express your feelings, and of the currents on which your feelings flow. It can describe your social and emotional life; a Water situation calls for recognition of needs, for compromise and above all for compassion.
[edit: Agla, who is much better than me at this stuff, sent this in email:
"It's odd that water means communication to you-to me it's always been more of something uncommunicated or hidden, if you know what I mean. Air's the message element for me-way traditional I know, but it seems to fit.
"A very long time ago I remember reading somewhere that the sea is often used in the Bible to symbolise the unknown and the terrifying. The place where people can't live and monsters lurk. God's power over the sea (Jesus calming the storm, etc) is seen as what you might call the opposite and complimentary side of his power over the world to the side invoked with the business of the water and wine or the feeding of the five thousand. In those miracles it's pointed out that God made and regulates all that sustains us. In the sea-calming it's made clear that he's holding the reins of all in the world that terrifies, too.(He calmed the storm, yeah. But that implies that if he wanted to he could whip it up again.) (Although the five-thousand were fed with fish as well as bread, so it's clear the sea is necessary as well as scary and that if you dare it you can bring back rewards!)"]
Fire is about the soul, and about taking what is in your soul and making it manifest. Fire tells you to explore your dreams and your deepest perceptions, and then to seek them out; it calls some to write, draw or craft, guides some through their religion, and sends some on impulsive and life-changing journeys. Fire describes your creative life and your religious life, and the dreams of adventure that you've always had burning in your core. In fire situations, you must follow your instincts and dreams, and if in doubt, always do rather than not do.
Air is about the mind. Air is learning and logic, debate and reasoned moral judgements. Air tells you to detach and do what's right; whether that's what adds up to the best outcome, or what you think your gods want you to do. Air could describe what you know in the cool of your mind - it can describe your academic life, or your most cerebral connections with others and with the world. In tarot, air often carries pain and conflict within it. Why is this? I don't know, but I do know that within the body (and all awareness starts with the body), air is the least stable element; homoeostasis can keep your body warm, wet and earthy even without shelter or sustenance, but our air needs to change over every few seconds.
But. But. This is how elements are in tarot - it's how tarot uses elements, rather than what the elements actually are, when you dig past their use for demarcation of little people's little lives.
If elements could be neatly defined in words, they wouldn't be elements. If you look for elements, and the feel of elements, in scrying and in energy work (and energy games, which are perhaps more important), if you explore what you're drawn to and what you're made of, then elements soon become more than ways to divide; they become the stuff the world is made of - deep-running, fuzzy-edged stuff that can be expressed in words or on card images, but can only be seen below all this.
[I originally put this in the Ace of Pentacles entry, but realised it needed its own. It's a technique I learned from someone who I haven't spoken to in a while, but who I hope is living well today.]
Here's something you can try, a way to bring element to the surface of your world:
Relax, and explore your proprioception - your awareness of having a body. Notice where in your body you seem to have the strongest sensations of awareness - places that feel as if they are ready to be touched. (I find these mostly in my feet and spine - YMMV.)
'Push' this awareness and sensitiveness toward your hands, until they feel a bit buzzy.
Put your hands close together (not touching), with the palms facing each other. Move them in circles.
Move your hands slowly further apart, to about 8 or 12 inches.
So, that thing between your hands now - what's it like? What does your imagination say it's made of? (Closing your eyes might make it easier to imagine this). YMMV, but, this is a way you might find that you know the feel of an element, or a mixture of elements.
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