A Pause: The Fours in Tarot

A Pause: The Fours in Tarot

This is one of a series of articles that I wrote over my five years as the tarot columnist at Planet Waves. I will be re-releasing these, one at a time, over the coming weeks and months.

After the energy of the Threes, there comes a little time to rest. Not much, mind. Just enough to stand back and recognise the opportunity to take stock of things. That is because the Fours are really the first pause for thought that we have in the evolution of the cards in each suit, as they run from Ace through Ten.

Four is a stable number. Building blocks are typically based on the principle of four. Most tables and chairs have four legs; most cars have four wheels; babies learning to toddle get down on all fours when they need a rest from the precariousness of two strange feet; people who are solid and predictable aren’t called “square” for nothing.

In tarot, Four enables something to come into balance more easily than its predecessors. It is a moment of suspended animation — as if there is a call to gather reserves, because they will be required soon enough as we move on again into the action and increasing complexity of the Fives.

As always, I’m going to go through the cards one at a time, having a look at what speaks out that builds on this idea of ‘taking pause’, and what seems to contradict it, and drawing parallels between the different suits when they become apparent.

Four of Wands

Four of Wands from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

At first, this card seems to be about action — and in a way the two figures remind me of the Three of Cups, where three women dance together, their cups raised in the centre. However, on closer inspection, this isn’t really about movement at all; or, rather, not directly.

In the far background, a grey edifice rises up into the yellow sky, topped with red turrets and a roof. In front of this, several figures are set close together in the bottom left corner of the card. Two figures stand closer than this, three of their arms raised, each holding a bouquet. They are framed by the four wands that stand in the foreground, supporting a canopy of leaves and fruit. This tiering of the different aspects reminds me that there is one further remove: we, as observers, are the furthest of all from the action, the wands a gateway into the rest of the picture.

So we have layer upon layer of degrees of inclusiveness. First, we have the structure in the background: a walled town, home to a large population of people. Then we venture outside the walls, and we encounter a small crowd, followed by two figures, and finally each of us as the observers. Thus we make a journey from the collective (town) to the singular (us) — both extremes not explicitly illustrated in the picture, but instead referred to indirectly.

All of the action that we see happens at a distance; we are not part of it. The wands emphasise this, standing as they are like sentinels, inviting us through their rich canopy and into the realm of the animated, the living. This invitation is echoed by the two figures, who seem to be saying, “Hey, c’mon! Join the party!” For now, though, we are on the periphery. We can look in, but we are not ‘a part of’.

The Four of Wands, therefore, is the pause before re-entering the creative, fecund potential of life, where we learn once again what it is to relate to others and to the world, fortified by our time in exile.

Four of Cups

Four of Cups from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

Often (though not always) when I come across the Four of Cups in a reading, it can be summed up in one interjection:


A young man sits at the foot of a tree, arms and legs crossed. In the foreground three cups stand next to each other, while the fourth cup is offered to him by a disembodied hand, which the man is unable, or refuses, to acknowledge.

The figure has looked into the mirror of the Two, experienced himself in counterpoint to others in the Three… and now he seems to have reached a state of disillusionment with ‘this whole life deal’.

And so he sits — dare I say it, sulks — under a tree. He doesn’t notice the flawless blue sky, the temperate weather, the grass offering itself as a cushion, the tree giving him shelter, the three Cups that he has at his full disposal.

No, wait — he has four Cups. There’s the fourth, hovering in front of his face. We’ve seen a Cup being brought into a card in a very similar manner, in the Ace. In fact, this is the Ace revisited. It is a reminder — a gentle kick in the ass, if you will — of the potential that is there, if only he would look up and see it.

The man says, “Meh!

The Cup responds, “Um, hello-oo?

The pause deepens. We wait for the light to dawn, his face to animate in recognition, at which point it might occur to him to gather up his Cups and move forward.

Four of Swords

Four of Swords from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

The Four of Swords exudes a heaviness that I don’t feel in the other cards in this series. The picture is set in a church; whereas the Wands, Cups and Pentacles take place outside and in secular life, we are cloistered away with the Swords, separate from the rest of the world. The setting lends the card gravity — and this gravity is translated from the realm of metaphor into the physical: the main figure is lying down; a woman in the stained glass composition is on her knees; the three Swords are suspended, their blades pointed earthward; the fourth Sword feels weighty as it underpins the figure, mirroring his position.

There is a preponderance of grey and mustard yellow in the image, the monotone nature of the grey especially contrasted with the stained glass in the window. The yellow is not the typical yellow associated with the cards in my version of the deck. Here, it is muted, the light unable to have free flow because it is inside a building.

Although the figure resembles a sarcophagus, he is not necessarily dead. Whether dead or resting, he is bathed in subdued sunlight, while the Swords have been rendered useless, as if cast in stone. The remaining Sword isn’t drawn, but laid flat beneath him — adornment rather than weapon.

In the image in the stained glass, it is as if the figure on the left is conferring a blessing on the woman at her feet. This, too, is playing out in the scene beneath. After returning from sleep/rest or his symbolic death, he will take up arms — his Sword beneath him — and will again be at the mercy of the Swords above him. Only this time those swords will be on the battlefield. Just as the kneeling figure receives mercy, so does he. For in this moment, his fighting life is at a pause. The church is a respite from the battles that are his more usual experience. He is replenishing his spiritual reserves, before diving into the fray of the Five of Swords. This state of grace is present, at times sombre, but temporary.

Four of Pentacles

Four of Pentacles from the Waite-Smith Tarot, created by A E Waite and Pamela Colman Smith © US Games, Inc.

The Fours seem to be talking to me today, and the Four of Pentacles has a particularly vivid snippet associated with it: I see a man, desperately trying to round up his precious Pentacles, which are threatening to roll away from him. As he grabs each one and keeps it in place, he issues the admonishment, “You… are not… going… *anywhere*!

The Four of Pentacles is about holding on to what we’ve got. In fact, the figure is holding on to what he has so tightly that he doesn’t have a chance to accumulate anything new: feet, hands, and head are already fully occupied with the matter at hand.

This is the pause for consolidation at a time when it is wise to focus on filling storehouses rather than lining pockets. The man is well-clothed, so perhaps this tactic has worked well for him in the past, too.

However, it is only a tactic, not a life plan.

He is sitting on his own on the outskirts of a large town. As in the Four of Cups and Swords, one of the four pentacles is set apart from the rest, out of formation: while he has a firm handle on three, the fourth is balanced precariously on top of his crown. At some point he is going to need to move, and to rejoin the ranks of humanity. To stay here any longer than necessary would be counter-productive and needlessly grasping.

Potential (Aces). Reflection (Twos). Interaction (Threes). Now suspension: the Fours are a reminder — sometimes a quirky one, it seems — that every journey needs its pit stops in order to rest, refuel, and review the mapbook. We’ll find out what’s round the next bend when we explore the Fives.