Elemental Dignities is the most misunderstood topic in Tarot. It is a method of giving importance to cards in a spread that is based on the relationship between the cards’ elements (fire, earth, air, water) and used to identify cards that strengthen or weaken each other.
It was first discussed by MacGregor Mathers, for members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in a manuscript called “Book T,” which included his instructions on reading the cards. The problem is that few people study “Book T” and really look at the examples that Mathers gives for using Elemental Dignities.
The system was a way for determining how ‘strong’ (i.e., powerful and important) each card or set of cards was in a reading and, therefore, which cards to pay most attention to. It was also a way to eliminate irrelevant cards. It was designed to go with specific spreads in which the cards were read in pairs and triads.
You need to actually lay out the cards he used as examples and follow closely what he did if you want to understand the GD system. For one thing, Mathers used the terms “neutral” and, in a different context, “neutralize,” and they signify two different but important things. Secondly, the term ‘friendly’ does not mean that the cards act nicely toward each other. Any combination can be for ‘good or ill’ depending on the cards!!!
Here are Mathers’ basic rules (see my book 21 Ways to Read a Tarot Card for a more complete explanation):
1) Cards are “Strong” when the suits/elements are the same; they are “very strong for either good or evil, according to their nature.”
In other words, two swords cards are like-minded and egg each other on. They can greatly increase either the good or ill in each (depending on their individual meanings).
2) When the suits/elements are both masculine/active or feminine/passive, they are “moderately strong because they are friendly to each other.” [Fire+Air; Water+Earth.]
They increase the power and strength of the other, but whether this is good or bad depends on the specific cards.
3) When the suits/elements complement each other, they are “somewhat friendly” (also called neutral). [Fire+Earth; Air+Water.]
They show relatively ineffectual interactions. (Personally, I like to think of them as irritants that can be mildly correctional and therapeutic to each other but without great impact as to whether they strengthen or weaken the other.)
4) When the cards are of contrary elements they tend to “weaken each other greatly for good or evil, and neutralize [cancel out] their force.” They are sometimes referred to as enemies or ill-dignified. [Fire+Water; Air+Earth.]
In practice, Mathers often cancelled out the effect of cards with contrary elements. He simply did not read PAIRS that were of contrary elements!! (They could not co-exist in the same room so BOTH would leave.)
In TRIADS, if the two cards flanking a central one were contrary to each other, he simply didn’t read those flanking cards but, instead, concentrated on the center card as if it were alone.
However: “If the contrary element is only in one flanking card, then the other becomes a connecting card so that the first [center] is not weakened, but is modified by the influence of both cards and is, therefore, fairly strong.” In other words, the center card overcomes the neutralizing force of its contrary flanking card through the support of the flanking card that is more ‘friendly’ to it – for good or ill.
If both flanking cards are contrary to the center one then they dominate it completely; the effects of the central card become extremely weak.
People have modified this system to make sense to themselves (and often because they didn’t understand the original). It’s fine to modify the idea to your own use, just understand that you are doing so, and that none of these adaptations are “right” while others are “wrong.” The important thing is what works for you.
When looking at a spread in terms of pairs, what you end up with are, if it were a book or movie:
1) Strong: the leading characters (they can be lovers or antagonist and protagonist). The focus of the action is on them.
2) Friendly: supporting actors – secondary characters – the best friend, a mentor, the malicious co-worker: those who further the action of the story through support or by throwing a spanner in the works.
3) Somewhat Friendly/Neutral: those who add in a little but aren’t terribly significant: brief encounters, comedic relief, etc.
4) Weak (neutralizing): non-speaking parts: crowd scenes, background at a restaurant, faces on the street, etc. If these people are alone in a room (without the characters mentioned above) then simply NOTHING happens.
This is not an exact analogy, but it should get the point across. I want to emphasize again that you can devise a system of elemental dignities that goes beyond this, using psychological, astrological or even alchemical principles for the interaction of elements. But, then understand that this is a personal adaptation of the original idea.
Want more? Step-by-step instructions for reading all variations of Elemental Dignities with three-cards can be found at Tarot Elements.