Elemental Deck of Cards
For Paragon’s annual holiday mailer we opted to design a collectible, entirely custom deck of playing cards as a “Thank You” to our clients. The four suits were designed to represent the 4 elements (earth, air, water, fire), and included traditional icons incorporated into the face cards as well as new embellishments like latin text and intricate symbols of the four elements. The backs of the cards featured a graphic pattern created using our logo mark. Both the deck and custom box were printed on Shine paper appropriate for the holiday season.
The goal of this deck was to incorporate the symbolism and philosophies surrounding the Classical Greek Elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Once we began digging into the historical significance of each element we decided the only way to do it right was to allow each traditional kingdom (Hearts, Spades, Diamonds and Clubs) to represent the elements.
I began with sketches to update each of the traditional suits (Spades, Hearts, Clubs and Diamonds) so that they can represent the Classical Greek Elements (Water, Fire, Air/Wind and Earth). After establishing each of the kingdoms, I began working on how to create the royals.
Ignis Aurum Probat (Fire Tests Gold)
I love this latin quote, and thought it would be fitting to represent both fire and hearts. It is from Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman, Seneca, and reads in full “ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes homines”, in English translation,”as gold is tempered by fire, so strong men are tempered by suffering”. The meaning is that in order to become pure gold, the original gold-bearing ore must go through the tempering process of fire; the analogy being that for a man strong in spirit, adversity and suffering are the tempering agents necessary to refine his character and bring out his true potential.
The king of Fire bears a Phoenix on his shield. This enduring symbol of fire represents both death and rebirth. While fire is commonly associated with passion, the philosophy represented here is that of peace and order. The wrist of the king bears PAX (peace) and he is holding two fingers upright. His shield also features the phrase “Ordo ab chao” (Order from Chaos) and the powerful and mystical number 33. The king is holding the weapon of fire, which is the dagger.
The queen is clasping the offering for fire, which is a single candle. I tried to keep the heart as a central focus, which symbolizes passion and understanding.
The jack is holding the tool of fire, which is the bow. The traditional bow represented in literature is the staff or wand – but I loved the visual of the recurve bow and arrow. His arrow is on fire, and he is carrying a guitar, another traditional symbol of the fire.
- Cardinal direction: South
- Season: Summer
- Time of life: Youth
- Time of day: Midday
- Correspondences: blood, the guitar, thunder, drum beat rubies and in writing fire is sometimes represented by a red upwards triangle. Other mythic and legendary creatures of fire include phoenix, dragon and occasionally the hawk.
Generose puer sic atur ad astra (This is the way to the skies)
The ace of clubs has been transformed into a cloud to represent the air and sky. The symbolism of this kingdom focuses on the rational, scientific and observable. This is the kingdom of science, medicine and exploration.
I may have gone a bit overboard with the king. There is just so much to pull from history that I wanted to include. His shield features a snake, the traditional animal associated with wind, and the latin motto “Cogito ergo sum” (I Think, therefore I am). The philosophy of this kingdom is truth, which is why the king’s hand is pointing down at the earth (what we know and can observe) and his wrist features the latin word “Veritas” (Truth). The inspiration for this (and the placement of the left hand for all kings) came from Raphael’s painting “The School of Athens.” One of my favorite features of this painting is the conversation between Plato (pointing up to the heavens) and Aristotle (pointing down to the earth). Read more about the meaning of the painting here.
The king is holding the weapon of wind, which is a sword. Over his shoulder is a telescope, observing the movement of the stars and sky.
The queen is holding the traditional offering of wind, which is incense. I really tried to incorporate movement into the designs of this suit, which you can see in the central ornament of the queen.
And here is Harry Potter, the magical Jack. While magic may seem to conflict with the philosophy of this suit, the traditional tool of wind is the wand. I love the simplicity of this card, but because the Jack is focused on magic and arcane knowledge, instead of science and modern knowledge, I removed some of the ornate patterns that his parents feature.
- Cardinal direction: East
- Season: Spring
- Time of life: Infancy
- Time of day: Sunrise
- Correspondences: mind, intellect, study, consciousness and communications.
Terras irradient (let them illuminate the lands)
Full disclosure, the actual meaning of the representative quote for this suit is actually talking about the word of God, an allusion to Isaiah 6.3: plena est omnis terra gloria eius (“the whole earth is full of his glory”). But, I loved combining the idea of “illumination” and “earth” to represent diamonds.
This is the rich kingdom. The Lannisters, for those of you who watch Game of Thrones. They represent power and might at all costs. I think I actually like this suit the best, and had a great time designing each of the figures. The king features a symbolic animal of power and earth, the Stag, and the quote on his shield is “Audaces fortuna iuvat” (Fortune favors the bold). He is holding the traditional weapon of earth, the staff, and his sleeve features the latin word “Potentia” (Power). There are also 3 hidden symbols in this suit, which I will not discuss (I need to keep some secrets).
The queen is holding the traditional offering of earth, which is the Pentacle (an amulet used in magical evocation). She also has a tree growing over her shoulder, since harvest and nature are supporting symbols for earth (reference the king’s shield again).
The Rich Jack, he is holding the traditional tool of earth, which are coins.
- Cardinal direction: North
- Season: Winter
- Time of life: Aged
- Time of day: Twilight
- Correspondences: strength, stability and abundance. In rituals earth is represented by burying objects in the ground, carving images out of wood or stone, herbalism or using animal fur and bones. The manifestations of the earth element are found in plants, trees, mountains, forests, caves and gardens. The bear, boar, bull, sow and stag are also thought to personify the element as are all burrowing animals, such as the mole or rabbit.
Aqua Vitae (Water of Life)
This is the kingdom of believers. They are healers and have faith in higher powers. I had some trouble with this suit, because the weapon, offering and tool are all the same (a cup), so I had to try and find ways of showing the same object in different styles.
The king features the weapon of water, which is the cup. His wrist shows the philosophy of this kingdom with the latin work “Fides” (Faith), and his hand is pointing up to reinforce this. His shield has a fish, an obvious symbolic animal for water, and the latin phrase “Deum fons et origo” (Source and Origin, or God). Over his shoulder is the symbolic Rod of Asclepius, a serpent-entwined rod wielded by the Greek god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicine.
The queen of water is holding the offering of the element, a cup. Her cup is overflowing, which symbolizes not wealth of power or money, but abounding faith.
The Prodigal Jack, he is pouring his cup out, which represents a rebuke of the symbolic water. The tool of water is, again, the cup.
- Cardinal direction: West
- Season: Autumn
- Time of life: Youth
- Time of day: Midnight
- Correspondences: emotion, compassion, divination, intuition, healing, dreams and psychical abilities. The manifestations of the element of water are rivers, oceans, lakes, wells, rain, fog, ice, snow, streams and all drinks. Animals, especially the seal, dolphin, crab, turtle, frog and all types of fish are also thought to personify the element of water. Other mythic and legendary creatures of water include the Mermaid, Oread, Naiad and Sea Serpent.
Mundus vult Decipi (The World Wants to be Deceived)
This is a common phrase in magic, but its origins and original meaning are what make it important to me. The philosophy of the Joker is that of self preservation, deception and self gain. The full quote is Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur (the world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived) is talking about religion as a tool to control others. According to the pontifex maximus: people should be deceived in religion, there are many truths which it is useless for the vulgar to know; and many falsities which it is fit the people should not suppose are falsities.
Probably my favorite single card, the joker has a few fun adornments. His face is both smiling and frowning – to illustrate the duality of mischief (deception). He also has an ace up each sleeve. He is adorned in the symbols of all suits, because his nature is apparent in every philosophy.
Along with a unique King and Queen, the box features the hidden alchemical symbols for each element on the closing flap. The queen is holding a flower, a symbol for peace, and the king is holding a sword, symbolizing war.
So that’s it, I hopefully covered most of the symbols and meanings for this deck. To get a better look at each card you can view the entire deck here: