Rowling: Elements, Houses, Card Suits

The defining qualities of the Hogwarts Houses are a big deal to Rowling. Not only does the Sorting Hat spell them out in every year’s Opening Feast song, even Dumbledore’s famous “Nitwit, Blubber, Oddment, Tweak” speech that he offers in Harry’s first year as his “few words” seems to be his commentary on the prejudices of each house (and his discreet criticism of the Sorting ceremony). In September, 2018, The Presence reaffirmed the importance of House characters and how much thought went into each when she answered a twitter question about the relationship of card suits and the Hogwarts Houses:

In July of 2005 at the publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, she told two fandom interviewers the intentional element correspondences she had made with the Four Houses:

It is the tradition to have four houses, but in this case, I wanted them to correspond roughly to the four elements. So Gryffindor is fire, Ravenclaw is air, Hufflepuff is earth, and Slytherin is water, hence the fact that their common room is under the lake. So again, it was this idea of harmony and balance, that you had four necessary components and by integrating them you would make a very strong place. But they remain fragmented, as we know.

If you combine these equations, House to Suit to Element, you get a chart that looks like this:

Gryffindor = Hearts = Fire

Ravenclaw = Spades = Air

Hufflepuff = Clubs = Earth

Slytherin = Diamonds = Water

There’s no arguing with her about the Houses correspondence; not only is it her world to create on her terms, but the associations make an almost visible sense. Gryffindor as fire evokes the idea of a consuming courage, a burning soul if you will, Ravenclaw as air suggests heights of intellectual abstraction from earthly concern, humble Hufflepuff being earth is a natural because humility is  derived from the Latin word for ‘ground,’ and slippery Slytherin with its underground drives and ambitions is a match with water.

I think you can see a similar connerction between the characters of Rowling’s Houses and the card suits she has matched them up with. Gryffindor as hearts makes sense because the courageous are known as the Lion hearted. Slytherin as diamonds is a match, too, becauseof the value this House’s natives place on purity (think crystalline structure), appearance, and money and power. Ravenclaw as spades is a bit of a stretch because a spade is an instrument for digging in the ground, pretty much the opposite of ‘air,’ but if you think of serious thinkers as those ‘digging’ for answers, it lines up. That the humble Hufflepuffs are left with clubs, instruments from trees grown in the earth? It’ll do.

But there’s a problem, one I suspect Rowling knows but chose to disregard — which problem I discuss after the jump.

The problem is that the four card suites are direct reflections of Tarot card suits — and these suits have traditional correspondences with the four elements.For the conventional match-ups of Tarot and playing card suits, see ‘How to Read Tarot with Playing Cards.

 

Playing Cards
Tarot
Hearts
Cups
Spades
Swords
Diamonds
Pentacles
Clubs
Wands
For how the Tarot suits line up with the elements, see this guide to the meaning of the Tarot:
And in the Tarot, each of the Suits is related to one of these four elements.
  • The Water Element (Suit of Cups) Water is fluid, agile and ‘in flow’ but it’s also very powerful and formative. …
  • The Fire Element (Suit of Wands) …
  • The Earth Element (Suit of Pentacles) …
  • The Air Element (Suit of Swords)

And just to show I’m not forcing the pieces, here is a chart you can find online that matches up the four elements, the four playing card suits, and the four Tarot suits:

Element/Suit
1. Water (cups/hearts)
2. Earth (pentacles/diamonds)
3. Fire (wands/clubs)
4. Air (swords/spades)

There’s much more on this at TarotTeachings.com for those fascinated by this sort of thing. This is not a set of correspondences written in stone, however. In the book Geddes and Grosset Guide to the Occult and Mysticism and The Pictorial Key to the Tarot by A.E. Waite, for example, the playing cards suits are associated to suits of the Tarot ‘Minor Arcana’ as such:

  • Wands – Diamonds
  • Cups – Hearts
  • Swords – Clubs
  • Pentacles – Spades

Only ‘hearts = cups’ matches the conventional view according to these authorities. But neither of these line-ups matches Rowling’s idea of the Houses, the Elements, and the House suits.

  • Her Gryffindor as hearts and fire are not a match with conventional Tarot correspondes with ‘cups.’
  • Her Hufflepuff as clubs and earth also fail to match up with ‘fire’ if they do match ‘wands,’ traditional ‘clubs.’
  • Her Ravenclaw as spades and air do match with the conventional reading of air and ‘swords.’
  • Her Slytherin as diamonds and water do not match earth and ‘pentacles’ (often ‘coins’).

This is a non-problem if you note that Rowling nowhere mentions the Tarot card suit correspondences and it might be assumed that the author is blissfully unaware of the associations or of anything to do with the Tarot.

But that would be a mistake. As quoted in Eglantine Pillet’s Chestnut Hill talk,Harry Potter: A Fool and a King,’

One [of her friends from school] recalls, ‘Jo would entertain us with her brilliant wit and colorful stories. She was very inventive and clever at reading tarot cards and palms and weaving a story around it which was pure make believe but had us alternately gripped and then laughing’ (Sean Smith, J. K. Rowling: A Biography, p 62).

About which, “more tomorrow.” For today, however, just note that Rowling knew the Tarot well enough to do readings in her Comprehensive School cafeteria, which suggests a familiarity sufficiently serious to get the card suits in playing cards and the Tarot deck and the four elements at the heart of her series correct.

Let me know what you think!

Comments

  1. Brian Basore says

    Is there more to it than that? In GoF the book introduces Beauxbatons school, which, according to Wikipedia, was connected to Nicolas Flamel, the alchemist, and his wife. Batons=wands=clubs=fire?

  2. I think Rowling’s classification above is a lot more intuitive than the associations with the Tarot set below. But then, I don’t know anything about Tarot.

    The spade might be an instrument for digging in the earth, but its appearance evokes a spear, pointing up into the air, which works for me to fit with Ravenclaw.

  3. If you doubt the importance of the Four Houses’ characteristics, if nothing else, they are useful for a grand profit taking: Scholastic/Bloomsbury are issuing 20th anniversary editions of Prisoner of Azkan this summer in book cover colors and illustrations specific to each house. Collectors will be obliged to buy all four, of course, and true fans will buy another copy of a book they already own to complete their House’s set…

  4. Melissa D Aaron (Moonyprof) says

    Hmm. I wouldn’t have associated Slytherin with Cups, since the houses align better with the four humors. There are different ways to look at the correspondences, but I would almost always go with A. E. Waite for any number of reasons, the first being that almost all the modern “spins” on the Tarot come from the Rider/Waite deck.

    Where Rowling uses cards, as she does astrology, she uses Tarot. Trelawney uses playing cards, tea cups, and crystal balls because they are old school. Almost no modern psychic uses them…*except* for people who either are VERY old school indeed or who are so new school that they have become old school. I’d put into this category people who have researched “spirit boards.” Playing cards, crystal balls, and teacups are the equipment of “old frauds”: the fake gypsy tearooms that no longer exist. And since no one can see exactly what’s in a crystal ball, and as Ron demonstrates, the blobs in a teacup are mostly blobs, it is very easy to fake them. It is MUCH harder to fake Tarot cards, since so many people know what they mean.

    What initially puzzled me about Trelawney was why she predicted so many bad fortunes. Every psychic I’d ever seen put sunny gleams over everything, to the point where they would point at a particularly nasty Sword card, say that it meant “intellectual challenges and opportunities!”, and I would think, “that is the one about heartbreak and nightmares. You have GOT to be kidding me,” which, of course, they were. People in my experience wanted to hear something good, right? Why would they want to hear something bad? And then I learned that the truly old school style is to scare the willies out of your client. See some doom that only you can help them avert–and have them come back again, and again, and again. So-called “gypsy psychics” still do this. They have been known to scam their clients for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    Trelawney, though, is a recognizable type of comforting British psychic. A really good example of this is Madam Tracy in Good Omens. Madam Tracy is a nice, comfortable middle-aged lady who knows that her clients don’t really want to hear from the Other World: they just want a bit of reassurance. I cannot wait to see the television production of Good Omens. They’ve cast Miranda Richardson, aka Rita Skeeter, and I think she’ll be magnificent.

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