I’ve carried on at some length in previous posts about the concept of Elemental Dignity, which is a method of inflecting the meaning of a card according to the elemental influence of its neighboring cards in a spread (that is, the level of agreement or disagreement between the qualities of the classical elements [Fire, Water, Air and Earth] assigned to the cards by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). I won’t repeat myself (much) here, but suffice it to say that, for fairly obvious reasons found in Nature, Fire and Air cards get on well and share a notable harmony of expression, as do Water and Earth cards. Conversely, Fire and Water cards are antagonistic to one another in most situations not involving the intentional generation of steam, while Air and Earth cards represent extremes of “active” and “passive” functionality and are thus mutually unsympathetic. The remaining elemental pairs (Fire and Earth, Water and Air) are essentially neutral when blended, neither friendly nor hostile, although for reasons that are somewhat mysterious they are considered “supportive” of one another (for the record, I prefer to treat them as “complementary opposites” that set the stage for cooperation but don’t actively participate in furthering it, serving more as an inert “binder” than an “active ingredient”).
When card combinations are taken in triplets (which is the way most people use them), things get interesting and complex rather quickly. One useful analogy that just struck me is the dynamic of boiling water. In practical physics, trying to mingle Fire and Water requires careful regulation of both or the results will be spectacularly unsuccessful; however, insert Earth between them in the form of a metal pot and there is an effective transfer of energy that requires little intervention. Earth – which is on good terms with both Fire and Water – mediates between the two natural enemies, creating a third option that simplifies the dilemma of injecting either too much Fire or too much Water into the mix.
Which brings me to the real point of this post: Elemental Dignity as commonly used with the tarot seems to have been the brainchild of Golden Dawn chief Samuel Liddell (“Macgregor”) Mathers (although for all we know it may have come from another member of the Order or was in fact a cooperative effort). Regardless of its origin, it was liberally sprinkled throughout the tarot study material of the Order that was compiled into what is known as “Liber (or Book) T.” In nearly every interpretive passage, the words “according to dignity” pop up as a kind of postscript to the text, a mantra suggesting that nothing preceding it should be taken at face value when cards are brought together in a spread. To those trying to learn the “A-B-C’s” of reading the tarot through keyword assimilation, this categorical muddling of literal sense can be maddening. While it permits a remarkably nuanced approach to weighing the contribution of each card in a series, you can’t “take it to the bank” unless you first calculate the rate of exchange. Not everyone is so inclined, so they quickly retreat to the familiar territory of upright and reversed meanings, or they avoid the whole issue of positive and negative reinforcement and just stay with stacking up keywords like Lego blocks and drawing their own conclusions about mixed meanings. To those with the right disposition to navigate its intricacies, learning to cope with elemental interaction between the cards will be time and effort well spent. It won’t necessarily change your perspective on “how tarot works,” but it will certainly sharpen your wits.