Three Card Perms

cutting cards into three

Three Card Permutations – 4 elements

Interpretation of three card permutations is best done in this order:

  • Which element is strongest?
  • which element is weakest?
  • Excess of an element
  • Influence of a “missing element”
  • Is the Principal card active or passive?
  • Is the Principal card Major, Minor or Court?
  • Reversed cards
  • Individual meanings of the cards modified and combined according to the analysis

Once you have done this, apply and combine the meanings of each card with proper weighting. This is such an important point – the meaning of the individual cards is the last thing you look at! If this sounds strange advice, in some respects you deal with situations in your daily life in similar ways. When you walk into a room full of strangers, you instinctively know how to act simply by observing the position, actions and attitudes of the people. You know when to be deferential, arrogant, polite, friendly, stand-offish, cold, good-humoured, intimidating, etc. These attitudes can be maintained, or they change as you meet different groups of people, meeting friends, strangers, enemies, colleagues and family members.

If you are wondering exactly what the qualities of an element is within a Tarot card, then it is simply the meaning commonly given to a card! The author or designer of the Tarot deck you use should have taken into consideration the elemental qualities. If your Tarot deck follows the Golden Dawn, Rider-Waite, or Book of Thoth system, you should not have too much of a problem.

Familiarity and practice with the simple rules of the Elements brings these qualities to life in a reading, particularly when trying to analyse complex situations that involve the Court Cards.

I suggest you follow the order of Exercises given here, but do experiment. As you will see I have only interpreted each combination up to rule 5. Please come up with your own interpretations and insights. The comments below are not, and could never be, exhaustive.

Exercise 1

We will interpret the 3 Card Spread purely on elemental principles. It may help to make up some Flash Cards with only the elemental symbols or colours on them.

As an example, we will deal out three cards as above. We can transpose the cards three times to subtly change the interpretation. In each case there are two active elements and one passive element. At each stage note how the dynamics change, even though the cards are exactly the same.

In ideal situations, all four elements should be present, in varying proportions. If there are only three cards being considered, we have an imbalance. Extra information can be gleaned in each situation by looking at what is missing, namely the Earth element in Exercise 1.

Missing Element

Earth provides stability and support to the others, but is an enemy of Air. In the three situations below, we should expect a lack of practicality, or situations that cannot last.

The centre card is friendly, so it is strengthened. It is active, therefore whatever it represents is likely to happen. Air is even stronger, and can rise over any problems caused by the modifiers. Water provides a passive, more emotional role. We could be looking at a thought or idea that is trying to reconcile conflicting actions and feelings.

Air is the strongest card. However, the Modifiers are friendly to each other and are therefore stronger. As Fire is active, and Air supports, the event is likely to happen, but not without either emotional turmoil or a complete disregard for feelings. This could be an action that attempts to be rational and logical, but founders for lack of emotional support.

The Principal is passive, while the modifiers are active. The Modifiers are friendly. The conclusion is that we have an unsatisfactory situation that is unlikely to change quickly. The Principal is likely to be pulled in different directions. This combination is the weakest we have seen so far. Water is extremely uncomfortable – it is being stirred up or channelled in directions that it does not want to go.

Exercise 2

Here is the same exercise as number 1, but this time we have replaced Air with the Earth element. In each case, Air is missing, so there will be a lack of intellect, discrimination, and thought. The potential for conflict is lessened, particularly as there are now two passive elements and one active. We would expect Earth to be stronger in any position.

Water is the Principal, it is supported by Earth, but weakened by Fire. We have a basically settled situation that gets concentrated with time – the Earth thickens the Water, while the Fire turns the heat up. The modifiers are friendly to each other, and they could be seen to gang up, which is under great pressure.

Earth is the strongest since it is between the fighting elements of Fire and Water. It is as though it is dividing and ruling simply by being there.

Once again Earth wins. Fire is the Principal, but it is weakened by Water, and since they are friends, the heat could be extinguished. If the situation is more benign, we see the Earth and Water combining as a fuel, supporting the actions. There is no finesse, only brute force without the influence of Air, but on the other hand, Fire does need oxygen to continue burning.

Exercise 3:

Obviously Water is missing, so we know that this combination will be predominantly active, Earth will be weakest since it is an enemy of Air, and Fire will in general be strongest as it is friendly with Air. The lack of Water will indicate the absence of compassion, comfort, and any emotional content.

The modifiers are friendly to each other, providing a solid base for the thoughts represented by Air. Unfortunately Earth acts like a dead weight, while Fire urges action on Air. The thinking process will be utilitarian and functional, possibly brutal, and any actions contemplated will be done without consideration of the feelings and needs of others

Earth is very weak – it is being urged into action by Fire and Air, which is a quality alien to it. When Earth gives way, the back-pressure released could be explosive.

Fire is very strong: it has material basis, and intelligent control. The only problem is that I hope the actions contemplated show any kind of compassion and consideration. Without Water I very much doubt it. These are qualities of Establishment and Action, quite possibly of the police or military. Processes started that are difficult to stop.

Exercise 4

Two passive elements; Air and Earth are enemies. The simple conclusion is that Air will be the weakest element. We have a kind of daydreaming scenario – certainly without fire there will be little action.

The intellect and analytical skills are the focus, but there is little to inspire. If the imagination is fertile, we could expect inspiration, but the mind here is feeble and unable to cope – nothing is done without Fire. We have an image of bubbles rising up through a swamp.

Fire would be the catalysis, converting the chemical processes into heat. Certainly the introduction of a spark into the foetid gases would be explosive.

Another mixed situation. The modifiers are friendly to each other, but Air and Earth are enemies. One could see this situation as fog over the ground.

Without the energy of Fire, little will happen to clear the atmosphere.

Bubbles and detritus suspended in the water. One could also see fishes and plant life in a pond or lake, perhaps by the seashore. There is the fertility of the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. Water is very comfortable here, surrounded by friends.


This has been an exercise about reading three cards not an actual spread. I have avoided mention of any individual card or meaning deliberately. There is another advantage in that one’s own interpretation of each card does not have to change, however idiosyncratic they may be.

I have deliberately kept the vocabulary of the four elements to a minimum – I could have written the above scenarios more in terms of ‘hot’, ‘cold’, ‘moist’, ‘heavy’, ‘light’ etc, so much beloved of Agrippa.

Interpretation of the Courts also becomes much easier, as all one has to do is see what the two Modifiers are hinting at, using the rules delineated above.

Article Name
Elemental Dignities; Three card permutations
Three Card Permutations will have the elements of either Fire, Water, Air or Earth. The rulership of the Major cards is determined by astrological rules

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