Elemental Dignity (ED) is a method of adjusting the interpretation of a card during a reading according to the elemental influence of its neighboring cards in the spread (i.e. 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). The upshot of this interaction is that the potency and effectiveness of a card placed between two others is either enhanced or diminished by how well it “gets along” with its adjacent partners, although its core meaning remains largely unchanged. The middle card will be either more or less prominent in the narrative according to the harmonious or antagonistic impact of its associates; that is, whether it is strengthened or weakened by the affiliation. A favorable emphasis will make the card stand out, a less agreeable one will cause it to fade into the background or at worst steer it into greater difficulty than would otherwise be the case.
For general purposes, suffice it to say that, for fairly obvious reasons found in Nature, Fire and Air cards get on well and share a notable fluency of expression, as do Water and Earth cards. Conversely, Fire and Water cards are inimical 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 joined, 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 with ED), things get interesting and complex rather quickly. One useful analogy is the dynamic of boiling water. In practical physics, trying to directly 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 efficient 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 essay: Elemental Dignity as commonly used with the tarot seems to have been the brainchild of Golden Dawn chief adept 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.
For 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 regarding blended 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.
A couple of years ago, while preparing a presentation on the subject, I had a small epiphany. In the Golden Dawn system, Fire and Air are considered mutually friendly because one works hand-in-hand with the other in the act of combustion, just as Water and Earth are entirely agreeable to one another as long as they are kept in proportion for agricultural purposes. Fire and Water are hostile in combination for obvious reasons (unless you want to make steam, but you still can’t let them come into direct contact; Earth must intercede). Air and Earth are unfriendly for less apparent reasons that I assume have something to do with the wind’s drying effect on soil (in this case, Water must intercede to create equilibrium). That is all fine as far as it goes, and it is admirably explained in Liber Theta, Jim Eshelman’s Thoth-based update of Liber T that can be obtained as a download from the College of Thelema.
That leaves the relationships between Fire and Earth and Water and Air. Mathers called them “neutral and supportive” in their influence. This has never seemed like a very satisfactory assumption to me. It sounds like they are “neutral” because they don’t actively engage with one other in a dynamic way, yet still “supportive” because one cooperates passively with the other even while not affecting its potency. It sounds like “aiding and abetting” to me, or an “accomplice-before-the-fact” scenario, or maybe even “one lies and the other swears to it.” There is just something dicey about the whole arrangement that had me scratching my head; it seems that Mathers could have chosen a more persuasive pair of adjectives than “neutral” and “supportive,” which appear at least mildly contradictory (like Switzerland selling laser gun sights to NATO). Once again, Liber Theta sheds some much-needed light on the matter that led me to the idea of opposite natures that unite in ways that will augment rather than degrade their interaction.
What struck me about these combinations is that one supplies what the other lacks: Fire gains form and fuel from Earth while Earth in turn acquires solar warmth and quickening; Water takes on buoyancy and effervescence from Air, while Air derives nuance and definition from Water in the meeting of emotion and intellect. I decided that a much better definition for these would be “complementary opposites.” Fire is more “opposite” from Earth than Water is from Air, but the distinction seems to hold true well enough for this purpose.
Seeking corroboration in other systems of metaphysical thought, I took a look at the I Ching hexagrams Chin/Progress (Fire over Earth) and Ming I/Darkening of the Light (Earth over Fire); and Ching/The Well (Water over Wind/Air) and Huan/Dispersion (Dissolution) (Wind/Air over Water). While there isn’t an exact match between the titles of the trigrams and the classical Greek elements, some interpolation gets you there. However, I didn’t see any major correlation between the I Ching judgments and Mathers’ concept of benign cooperation.
I should probably mention that in my personal “Tarot Universe,” I stay with the accepted Golden Dawn correspondences: Wands are Fire; Cups are Water; Swords are Air and Pentacles are Earth. I’ve never seen any good reason to fiddle with these attributions, although some writers apparently feel a compulsion to do so. (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I say.) Active Fire represents the Will (and by extension the Ego and all forms of drive and ambition), passive Water the emotional nature, active Air the cognitive function and passive Earth the realm of physical sensation and mundane affairs. Additional nuances are furnished by the traditional system of “temperaments and humours” (Choleric — hot and dry; Sanguine — temperate on the warm, dry-to-moist side; Phlegmatic — temperate on the cool, moist-to-wet side; and Melancholic — cold and dry). But that is too deep a subject to go into here. (William Lilly’s Christian Astrology is a reasonable place to start exploring it if you’re so inclined.)