One way of discovering incredible background information in a reading is by using a basic knowledge of elemental dignities in your tarot.
The idea of dignities in card-reading comes from early cartomancy through the Golden Dawn, who established certain rules for reading these interactions between cards.
However, the whole idea originates in astrology, where a planet might be “dignified” in a particular location in a chart.
This means that the planet Mars is “dignified” in Scorpio, making it potentially better or more influential in a chart than if it were in Cancer, where the same Mars nature or energy becomes cruel rather than empowering.
In the Golden Dawn teaching, the tarot dignities were based on the four elements (Fire, Earth, Air and Water), to which every card could be assigned.
Here is what Book T, the primary Golden Dawn rulebook of Tarot, mainly written by MacGregor Mathers with W. W. Westcott, said about dignities.
A CARD is strong or weak, well dignified or ill dignified, according to the cards next to it on either side.
Cards of the same suit on either side strengthen it greatly, for good or evil according to their nature.
Cards of opposite natures on either side weaken it greatly, for either good or evil.
Swords are inimical to Pentacles.
Wands are inimical to Cups.
Swords are friendly with Cups and Wands.
Wands are friendly with Swords and Pentacles.
If a card fall between two other which are mutually contrary, it is not much affected by either.
This is a little bit confusing, but there is some logic to the rules, as they are based on the elements which correspond to the Suits and the Major Arcana.
We can see that Swords correspond to Air and Pentacles correspond to Earth. As Air and Earth do not get along with each other, being so opposite, they are “inimical”, so “weaken” the card that falls between them.
If we had the 2 of Cups fall between the 4 of Swords and the 3 of Pentacles, we would see that the 2 of Cups (Water) was “weakened” by the “inimical” opposition of the Swords card (Air) and Pentacles card (Earth) either side of it.
This is even before we look at reading the cards themselves – the dignities, as in Astrology, give us a background picture of forces upon which the reading is constructed in more detail.
Consider Three People and a Stepladder
One way of looking at dignities is by seeing any set of three cards as being three people and a stepladder.
The central card is perched on the stepladder and the two cards either side are either supporting the ladder or not – they may even be arguing and rocking the ladder.
The central card can be either a “good” card or a “bad” card, in terms of the overall reading, so the impact of the two cards at the base of its support can help a good thing or cause difficulties for a bad thing – which might then be a good thing, overall.
So, whilst the central card is trying to do its job, whether that is robbing your house or rescuing a child from a burning building, the other two cards can affect how it goes about the job.
Back to the Elements
Bearing the stepladder in mind, let us see who gets on together and who does not.
Fire (Wands) and Water (Cups), or Swords (Air) and Pentacles (Earth) are opposite, so do not get on with each other and rock the ladder.
Fire (Wands) and Air (Swords) do get on with each other, so support the ladder, like blowing on a flame.
Water (Cups) and Earth (Pentacles) work together, like mud, so support the ladder in a slow way.
Fire (Wands) and Earth (Pentacles), and Air (Swords) and Water (Cups) are “friendly” so are busy chatting with each other at the base of the ladder, letting the central card get on with the job.
The same elements (like, Fire and Fire) get on together and “strengthen” or accelerate/amplify the central card, whether that card is for good or bad in the overall reading. We might not want the 3 of Swords to be amplified by two identical elements either side of it, unless the question was ‘will the separation happen quickly?’ in which case, it would be positive.
Good Becomes Bad and Bad Becomes Good, Quickly.
When we read with dignities in mind, our readings become far more nuanced and subtle. It is like having a back-story to the leading characters in a drama. We understand their motivations and likely actions far better, because we know where they are coming from and where they might want to go.
If we read each card as a separate character, we sometimes miss things because we are seeing it in isolation, with no influence from the other cards in its life. This can lead to a very bland or generic reading.
If we look at the 4 of Pentacles, for example, that is generally a “positive” card in most questions, where we might read it as “saving” or “holding onto what you have gained”. We would also likely advise not to “expand or risk” your resources, and avoid spending time or energy on new projects. It is a “holding” card.
When we consider it as Earth, and see it fall between two Fire cards, (say the 8 of Wands and the 10 of Wands) that might show that we are resisting a lot of fire energy to burn through our cash. It would indicate that the “back story” was the person often spent rapidly (8 of Wands) and ended up hoarding (10 of Wands) too many things. The more they moved (8), the harder it got (10). So the 4 of Pentacles will be difficult for them to maintain, given this back-story. As a reader we might want to discuss this and show that the ‘Earthing’ of what is possessed already can be a lot better, more pleasurable, most enduring, and more realistic, than the constant activity of fire that can only burn and has to be constantly re-fueled.
That is a far deeper and more empowering reading already, just from considering the three elements at work on that step-ladder.
Adding the Majors
When we add the Majors, as they do not fall into the Suits, we must make a little leap of correspondence and discover their “element” through the planets and signs which correspond to each card.
There are four Major cards that are directly assigned to the elements already, which means that they are more ‘powerfully’ elemental than the other Majors:
Hanged Man: Water
Last Judgement: Fire
The rest of the Majors follow from their planetary and zodiacal correspondences:
Air: Magician, Lovers, Justice, Star
Water: High Priestess, Chariot, Death, Moon
Fire: Emperor, Strength, Wheel, Temperance, Tower, Sun
Earth: Empress, Hierophant, Hermit, Devil
As an example, if we had the 3 of Swords between the Empress and the High Priestess, that would be Air on the stepladder, with Earth and Water getting on slowly below, somewhat positive, but muddying the ground on which the stepladder was stood. It would indicate that the separation or flow (air) of the 3 of Swords would be somewhat slower than might be expected, particularly if it was allowed to be dragged down or muddied in any way.
If you like our teaching methods and find them useful, this draft text is taken (& modified for any deck) from Secrets of the Thoth Tarot to be published 2017.
To celebrate the writing of the book, we would like to offer you 50% OFF this week on our Secrets of the Thoth Tarot video course!