Reversals are often used to help the reader determine which of the many possible interpretations of a card are at work in the reading. However, many readers find reversals to be unnecessarily limiting as they can only be read up or down, positive or negative, black or white. Elemental dignities offer another system for providing nuance and depth to a card meaning in a more flexible and creative manner. Like other aspects of tarot reading, there is more than one approach to elemental dignities, and it is up to you which method you want to use. This lesson will take you through the various steps of developing your own personal system, which you can use instead of, or in addition to, reversals.
What are Dignities?
In tarot, the term “dignities” refers to anything that modifies the meaning of a card – the card may be read more positively or more negatively, or the card may be considered to be strong or weak in the reading. Although elemental dignities are the most common system referred to, there are other types of dignities that you may use without even realizing it. For example, you may use numerological dignities when you notice that there are three Fives in a four-card reading, and you tell the client that the energy of the Fives is very strong. Or you may be using “positional” dignities, when you receive a love card in a work-related position in the spread, and you tell the client that he is in a weak position at work because he is daydreaming about love instead of working! Anytime you use anything about the question, spread design, or other cards in the reading to modify the meaning of a card, you are using dignities. Perhaps you receive the Moon card and three of the four other cards in the reading have a depiction of the moon in the background – you might say that the Moon card strengthens that aspect of the other cards – this would be an example of symbolic dignities.
Exercise #1. Lay out a Celtic Cross reading on a question of your choice, or use any other spread of a similar size. Notice which cards seem to have an effect on or a relationship with some of the other cards. Think about what kind of dignities that relationship might represent, and how it would affect your interpretation of some of those cards. Look at it as many different ways you can think of.
The following steps will help you develop and use your own complete system of elemental dignities.
Step 1 – Developing Elemental Associations
Step 1 in developing an elemental dignity system is going through your deck and developing or choosing elemental associations for all the cards. This is relatively easy for the pips, a little harder for the courts (using the dual-element system), and more so for the Trumps. We will not spend a lot of time on this step, because it is covered in other lessons. A “default” approach for the trumps is to figure out the elemental correspondences based on the Golden Dawn associations with astrological planets and signs, but you should feel free to change these if you don’t like them. A table of default associations is included at the end of this page. Also note that these may vary by deck.
Exercise #2. Review your elemental associations for all 78 cards until you can write them out from memory in your journal. Especially with the trumps, but also the other cards, feel free to make your own choices if you are not comfortable with the default list.
Step 2 – Determining Elemental Interactions
Step 2 involves deciding how you choose to have the elements interact with each other. Here is the system I use. In Greek philosophy, and later in alchemy, the four elements were associated with combinations of certain qualities – they were either hot or cold, wet or dry, as follows:
Earth – cold and dry
Water – cold and wet
Fire – hot and dry
Air – hot and wet
Elements that belong together and are friendly to each other are those that have a primary feature in common – they are both cold (or passive/feminine) or both hot (active/masculine). These elements can be easily mixed and combined in nature. Elements that have a secondary characteristic in common (both dry or both wet) are neutral towards each other – they can be mixed with some difficulty (think of glowing ashes or air bubbles in water). Elements that have no characteristics in common are unfriendly and weaken each other – these elements cannot be mixed together and are not found together in nature. Based on these concepts, below is a table of elemental compatibilities, also known as elemental dignities.
Active Neutral Passive
Fire and Air Fire and Water Earth and Water
Fire and Fire Fire and Earth Earth and Earth
Air and Air Water and Air Water and Water
Under this system, you can determine whether any two cards are actively friendly, passively friendly, completely neutral, etc. For example, the Six of Pentacles and the Two of Swords would be unfriendly (neutral on active/passive). The Fool and the Four of Wands would be actively friendly. Notice that only friendly combinations can be fully active or fully passive – neutral and unfriendly combinations end up canceling each other’s active/passive energy out and being neutral. Therefore, this is mainly useful when assessing cards that are friendly toward one another – will they be actively friendly or only passively friendly?
Exercise #3. Decide what system of elemental interactions you would prefer to use, and record it in your journal. Practice drawing two cards and deciding what their interactions are until you can do it from memory.
Step 3 – Assigning Meanings to Elemental Dignities
Step 3 of developing a system of elemental dignities is to figure out what you want them to mean. There are a couple of different ways that elemental dignities can be used in tarot readings. To use elemental dignities, one looks at the cards that surround a card or are next to a card to see if it is weakened or strengthened by them. Complimentary elements or cards of the same element are strengthening, neutral elements are neutral, and opposing elements weaken each other. For example, if a Wands (fire) card is surrounded on both sides by Cups (water) cards, the energy around the Wands card will be considerably weakened (you can think of it as water putting out the fire). This can add a dimension to your reading of noting which cards are in the strongest positions, or which cards are strengthened or weakened by other cards. Of course, this approach is only applicable if you are using more than one card – a difference from using reversals.
Here are two possible ways of using dignities (and there are probably others):
Friendly interactions = a more positive interpretation of the card
Neutral interactions = a basic or neutral interpretation of the card
Unfriendly interactions = a more negative interpretations of the card
Friendly interactions = energies of the card are more powerful and dominant in the reading
Neutral interactions = intermediate or normal strength and influence on the reading
Unfriendly interactions = energies of the card are weaker and have less influence on the situation
Notice that the first method is like a replacement for reversals, with the added nuances of neutral meanings and active/passive interactions. The second approach can be used on its own, or in conjunction with reversals (we’ll discuss this in Step 5). Of course, any method you use with reversals can also be used with dignities. For example, if you use uprights to mean free-flowing energy and reversals to mean blocked energy, you can also use that interpretation for well-dignified and poorly-dignified cards. It is entirely up to you what meanings you assign to friendly, neutral, and unfriendly interactions.
Exercise #4. Lay out a 3-card reading on a question of your choice. Look at the interactions between the first and second cards, and the second and third cards and decide whether they are friendly, unfriendly, or neutral. Use Method A above to decide whether each card should be read in a positive, neutral, or more negative manner. For the cards on the end, you need only compare them to the middle card. The middle card will have two interactions that need to be taken into account. For example, if the middle card is neutral to the left-hand card and friendly to the right-hand card, then the card would be read as weakly positive. Now use Method B to interpret the same reading. How does the interpretation change? Do you have a preference between these two methods?
Step 4 – Develop a System for Reading the Cards
Step 4 of develop your system is to decide which cards interact with which in your readings, and whether you also want them to interact with elemental energies of the card positions and/or the question. This may vary by spread – some spreads are designed with the card positions having elemental qualities and others are not.
Working with the Card Interactions: In other lessons, we discuss spread design in greater detail, however, it can affect how you read elemental dignities, so I will mention a few points here. I prefer to design spreads of any size so that cards that influence each other are adjacent in the spread. This geometric arrangement of cards assists in many aspects of reading besides elemental dignities. For example, consider a 3-card spread. If your spread is Mind-Body-Spirit, and you believe that all three aspects influence each other equally, you might wish to place these cards in a triangle. If, on the other hand, your spread is Past-Present-Future, then placing the cards in a linear manner makes more sense, as the first and last cards do not influence each other as much as they influence the middle card.
Once the cards have been arranged in this manner, each card can be read separately for elemental dignities by looking at what cards are adjacent to and touching it in the spread, and adding up their influences to see how positive/negative or strong/weak that card is. In addition, you can see groupings of cards from an elemental perspective that may support or hinder each other.
Exercise #5. Conduct a reading using 6-10 cards using any spread and question that you wish – do not use reversals. Select one of the methods A or B from Step 3 to use with elemental dignities in your interpretation. For each card, make a list of all its interactions with adjacent cards, and summarize it into one overall conclusion, weighting each of its neighbors equally in terms of their influence. Now use these results in interpreting your reading. First, list the neutral meaning of that card in that position, with respect to the question. Then determine how elemental dignities changes the interpretation of each card, modifying it from its original meaning.
Another approach derives from an older Golden Dawn tradition. In this approach, the spread consists of a large number of cards in a line, usually an odd number. The central card becomes the primary focus or resolution of the spread (alternatively, a significator may be chosen and placed in the center of the line). The cards are read from the outside in, pairing up each card with its opposite in the spread. Cards pairs that are unfriendly cancel each other out and are not considered to influence the central card. Using this method, the card positions are not normally defined, but are read more as a story line, in a free-form manner. There is a great deal more to this spread, including dividing the deck initially into 4 piles representing the four elements, looking in the piles for where the significator lies, using a counting technique in which each type of card is assigned a particular value to determine the order of the cards in that pile in the spread, along with a variety of other complex manipulations. Because I do not use and am not very familiar with this method personally, I am not emphasizing it in this lesson. Readers that would like to pursue this approach are recommended to Paul Hughes-Barlow’s web site for a more complete discussion of this manner of reading elemental dignities, as well as to The Book of Thoth, Appendix A for a complete description of the shuffling, counting, and laying of the spread.
Working with Spread Positions: Certain spreads are designed to make use of elemental energies, such as the Elemental Pentacle and variations on the Mind-Body-Spirit spread. One very effective version of this spread is to place positions representing the four elements in the four directions (N,S,E,W) and a position for Spirit in the middle. Opposite elements should be placed opposite one another in this spread. The five elemental positions represent various aspects of your life, corresponding to the natural suit associations, and the central spiritual position to the Trumps. In this type of spread, the cards not only interact with each other, but they are also affected by the definition of the card position. For example, a natural card in the Fire position would be any Wands card or any trump that is associated with Fire. A card that has an unfriendly interaction with the position it is in will be poorly-dignified, in addition to any effects from neighboring cards. When you have two types of elemental dignities operating in a spread like this, it can get really complicated. One way to handle this is to consider the card position just another card interaction and weight it equally with all the rest. Another way is to use Method A for the position interaction and Method B for the card interactions (or vice versa).
For spreads in which the card positions are not defined in terms of suits or elements, consider their interactions with the cards to be elementally neutral.
Exercise #6. Use the 5-card spread described above to look at influences on different areas of your life over the coming month, using only upright cards. Work through each card in turn, identifying the elemental influences from both the card position and adjacent cards. Choose a method to use for both types of influences, and then apply it to determine how the combined influences affect each card.
Working with the Question: It is also possible to assign the overall reading an elemental “backdrop”, based on the type of question that is being asked. This would be read as yet another elemental interaction with the cards. This approach would work well with some of the Golden Dawn spreads described above, for example, since in those spreads the significator for the linear reading is found in one of four elemental piles to begin with and the other cards in the reading come from that pile.
My personal choice is not to assign questions an elemental quality that serves as the backdrop for the reading. The reason is that assigning “work” to Pentacles or “relationships” to Cups seems too simplistic. For example, my work contains large amounts of analytical (Air) qualities, many people’s work would contain strong relationship components, and Wands is generally considered the suit of careers. So I prefer not to make the assumption that any given question falls “naturally” into one of the four elemental realms. However, even if you choose not to use a pre-assigned elemental quality to the reading, you can still look at the overall spread that results and look for a preponderance or absence of any elements. Then you can make an appropriate comment, such as “It appears you are approaching the sale of your home from a very emotional standpoint – it may help to try to gain some distance or objectivity during this process, perhaps by focusing on the details and everyday tasks more than the big picture.”
Step 5 – Court Cards and Elemental Dignities
Once you have figured out your basic system, there are still some nuances that need to be addressed, such as the use of court cards. Court cards are difficult to handle with elemental dignities, because each court card is associated with two elements, and sometimes they are opposing ones. This gives two possible elemental interactions with each adjoining card, and can be very confusing to readers. There are two basic schools of thought on how to handle court cards and their elemental associations.
In the original Golden Dawn approach, each element was composed of itself and minor parts of the other three elements. Half the element was considered to be the primary element, and the other half was composed equally of all four elements. So for example, Fire is really 5/8 fire, 1/8 earth, 1/8 water, and 1/8 air – each element containing small bits of the others. These small bits are called the Earth aspect of Fire, the Water aspect of Fire, etc. These small pieces are assigned to the rank of the court card, and the main elemental attribution comes from the suit. So in the Golden Dawn system of elemental dignities, the main element you would use would be the suit, and the minor element (1/8 the effect) would come from the rank. Some practitioners of this system ignore the secondary element altogether.
On the other hand, modern systems of psychological typing such as Myers-Briggs have found that the four elements correspond well to the four basic personality types – Intuitive, Sensing, Thinking, and Feeling. Along with four additional characteristics – Introvert/Extrovert and Judging/Perceiving, these eight attributes can be combined into 16 personality types – the same as the number of court cards. These characteristics can be very easily used to develop personality profiles for the court cards. When using this system, the two elemental attributes for each court card could have equal weight (although some people might be closer to one end or the other of any particular scale). In this case, you would need to take into account both elements in determining how these cards would interact with those around them.
Exercise #7. A client asks you for a reading on improving her marriage. You decide on a 3-card reading and pull the following cards:
Situation – Seven of Cups
Challenge – Knight of Pentacles
Path Forward – Queen of Swords
Interpret this reading using elemental dignities along with each of the two methods for handling court cards described above. How does the method you used affect the overall reading?
Step 6 – Using Elemental Dignities and Reversals Together
Elemental dignities and reversals can be used together, if you wish. The key to this approach is using reversals to determine the positive/negative aspects of the card, and elemental dignities to determine if the card is strengthened or weakened. Reversals and elemental dignities must be assigned two different meanings in order to work well together, otherwise you may get contradictory results. An example of a reading using reversals and dignities together is provided below.
For this reading, upright cards are defined as being the more positive aspects of any card (including successfully learning life lessons represented by the Trumps), and reversals are defined as the more negative aspects of the cards and/or having trouble with the aspects of life that the card represents. Then the strengthening/weakening approach to elemental dignities will be added.
Question: How can I become a better tarot reader?
Using a linear spread:
Position 1 : What I already do well – Temperance, reversed
Position 2 : What I need to work on – Queen of Cups
Position 3 : External resources for improving – Knight of Swords
Position 4 : Internal approaches for improving – Four of Rods
Position 5: Overall advice – Seven of Cups
Rather than doing a full interpretation, we will just look at the reversals and dignities. Overall, there is only one reversal in the spread, which suggests a generally positive outlook for becoming a better tarot reader, and that the resources and approaches suggested by the spread are likely to be accessible and learned without undue difficulty (energies flowing freely). The one reversal is in the position of areas in which this person is already doing well. Since this is by definition a positive spread position, the reversal might be read less negatively than usual – perhaps something the reader actually does well but thinks she does poorly, and is therefore not allowing her full potential to shine through. (This is an example of “positional dignities” – defining card positions as positive or negative and then modifying the meaning of the card accordingly). As an example of upright meanings for the other cards, the Knight of Swords would be read as an intelligent mentor or acquaintance who could bring a burst of new ideas or enlightenment to the reader and rapidly cut away old and unproductive ways of thinking – as opposed to his more negative and destructive character traits that would appear if he were reversed.
Now, let’s look at the dignities and add them in to the reading. Temperance (fire) has a Cups card next to it (Water), weakening it strongly. This would suggest that even though it is a trump, it should be given no more importance than the minor arcana cards in the reading, and we have already seen that the reversal is somewhat weakened by the card position. These two cards are antagonistic, suggesting that what she already does well is in opposition to what she needs to learn to do better. Perhaps the fire energies are more her natural strengths, and the water energies are harder for her. She may be having difficulty learning to deal with the emotional aspects of tarot reading because she relies instead on her natural strengths in other areas. This is also suggested by the last two cards in the reading. However, Temperance requires a blending of fire and water, and that is probably the most important message for her from that card – she needs to learn to use these energies in more equal proportions and blend them together.
The QoC (water) has a weakening card to the left and a neutral card to the right. That weakens it a little. The Knight of Swords has a strengthening card to the right and a neutral card to the left, and is somewhat strengthened in the reading. The Four of Rods has a strengthening card to the left and a weakening card to the right, and is therefore neutral. Finally, the Seven of Cups is strongly weakened by the Four of Rods. The strongest card in this reading (relatively speaking) is therefore the Knight of Swords, and this is where the reader should look first in becoming a better tarot reader. This is the area where the reader is likely to get the most help – and he also supports the cards on either side – what she needs to improve and her own internal processes. She should be aware of the fact that her natural abilities and intuitive approach to tarot revolve around fire energies, and it appears that this is making it harder for her to develop her emotional or nurturing side, which is needed to bring elemental balance to her tarot reading. She can use Swords (intellect) to help bridge these elemental opposites, and should look for a mentor or discussion partner to help stimulate new ideas and ways of doing this.
There are a couple of things to notice here about interpreting elemental dignities. First, if a central card has a strengthening card on the left and a weakening card on the right, it will be neutral overall. Yet it will be drawn to and supported by the card on the left, and will draw away from and be interfered with by the card on the right. This type of analysis can provide great insights into the interactions in the situation being asked about. Second, the overall elemental balance in the reading is important. In this reading, there is no earth energy at all, so she may not be grounding herself adequately or paying attention to practical matters. Also, there is a pattern of antagonism between water and fire, held together by the central strong Air card. Third, the bridging function of elements is important in suggesting approaches and solutions. As discussed above, this reading suggests that a person who personifies the Air of Air Knight of Swords can assist in bridging her current fire abilities with her needed water abilities, perhaps finding ways to blend them and turning the Temperance card upright. Whenever two incompatible elements interact in a reading, it is helpful to imagine what third element could help reconcile them and bring the warring elements into harmony by interposing itself in the middle.
Exercise #8. Do your own reading using both reversals and dignities using the question and spread above. Analyze the reversals and dignities that appear, as well as the other ways in which the elements interact in the reading.
Step 7 – Practice, Practice, Practice
‘Nuff said :). Elemental dignities are difficult to learn, and they only become easy to use with practice.
Exercise #9. Practice using elemental dignities (with and without reversals) whenever you have readings to do for others or yourself. Try out different combinations of the systems above, until you find one you are comfortable and conversant with. If you are preparing to take your CTR exam, you should be able to explain this method in writing and/or verbally to your instructor.
Table of Elemental Associations
1. Suit and court associations are those most commonly used. Some decks switch Air and Fire associations, both in the suits and in the courts.
2. All court cards will have two elemental associations – one for the rank and one for the suit. For example, the Queen of Swords is known as the Watery aspect of Air.
3. Elemental associations for the Trumps are based on their astrological associations, as given by the Golden Dawn. Astrological associations are given in parentheses. Alternative associations are possible and even likely, particularly when using pre-GD decks. Trumps are also considered neutral by some authors, or as belonging to the element of Spirit.
4. Prior to the discovery of certain outlying planets, several of the trumps were directly assigned to the four elements rather than having astrological associations. These are also given below.
5. Though not shown below, I personally consider the Wheel and the World to contain all four elements equally, and the Fool to be composed of pure Spirit. Other personal modifications to trumps are possible, especially using older (e.g., Renaissance) associations, such as Mars/Aries with the Chariot or Venus with the Lovers.
0 The Fool – Air (Air/Uranus)
1 The Magician – Air (Mercury)
2 The High Priestess – Water (Moon)
3 The Empress – Earth (Venus)
4 The Emperor – Fire (Aries)
5 The Hierophant – Earth (Taurus)
6 The Lovers – Air (Gemini)
7 The Chariot – Water (Cancer)
8 Strength – Fire (Leo)
9 The Hermit – Earth (Virgo)
10 Wheel of Fortune – Fire (Jupiter)
11 Justice – Air (Libra)
12 The Hanged Man – Water (Water/Neptune)
13 Death – Water (Scorpio)
14 Temperance – Fire (Sagittarius)
15 The Devil – Earth (Capricorn)
16 The Tower – Fire (Mars)
17 The Star – Air (Aquarius)
18 The Moon – Water (Pisces)
19 The Sun – Fire (Sun)
20 Judgment – Fire or Water (Fire/Pluto)
21 The World – Earth (Earth/Saturn)
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