The World with its four elements we see;Within, a naked Goddess dances free.The water and the wind, the earth and the fire,All That which doth beyond them all aspire.Doreen Valiente, The Tarot Trumps
THE first tarot cards I saw was an early Ancien Tarot de Marseille. The first tarot cards I owned was the Caroline Smith and John Astrop The Elemental Tarot.
Smith-Astrop’s cards proved influential to my approach to tarot and cartomancy. These cards provided me with an introduction and understanding of the four elements – and what is called elemental dignities, the topic of this article.
Here will will focus on the the suits (pips) and elemental triads. The second article, released next week, will look at the courts. I do not associate the trumps and Fool cardwith the elements. The reason is as follows:
Cards related to the twelve celestial houses (signs in modern parlance) would have a specific elemental attributes, but their planetary counterparts do not. The planets inhabit the seven spheres between the sphere of the firmament and the sphere of the elements. Thus, planets themselves, and primum mobile (zodiac), exist above the elemental sphere and therefore cannot be conflated with the temporal energies.
The Four Qualities
From the Middle Ages, the Aristotelian conception of the elements have proven dominant with each one being the product of four qualities: heat, coldness, dryness and moisture. Few, however, followed Aristotle in his assertion that air is primarily wet and water primarily cold.
Of these four attributes, heat and coldness are active, or primary; dryness and moisture are passive and secondary, arising from the toing and froing between the heat and coldness. Coldness is heavy, slow, and centripetal whereas heat is light, fast, and centrifugal. Dryness is hard and resistant, and wetness is malleable and slippery.
Each element is formed through the interaction between one of the primary qualities (heat and coldness), and one of the secondary qualities (moisture and dryness). For example, water arises through the interaction of coldness and moisture. It is slow, introverted and receptive (cold) but adaptable, flowing, and irrigating (moisture).
From the union of heat and dryness, we see fire. Air arises from a mixture of heat and moisture. Elemental earth is formed through a mixture of coldness and dryness.
In the diagram below we can see the traditional triangular emblems for the elements.
The two upright triangles represent the two active elements, air (yellow) and fire (red). Both elements derive from the primary quality heat.
The two inverted triangles denote the passive elements, water (blue) and earth (green). Coldness is the primary quality of both these elements which passive.
- Elements that share the same primary modality (fire/air and water/earth) have the same mode (active or passive) and are friendly.
- However, elements that share the same secondary quality (either moisture and dryness) will have a differing mode but are not incompatible, acting in a nonpartisan manner and are thus neutral. These are fire/earth and air/water.
- Those elements that have no shared qualities are inimical to each other. These (fire/water and air/earth) neutralise.
You can see this in the diagram above: friendly elements are placed horizontally next to each other; neutral elements touch vertically; inimical elements face each other diagonally.
The aforementioned relationship that exists between the elements is the basis of elemental dignities.
First outlined by MacGregor Mathers, in his typology for Book T, the theory was devised to determine prominent cards and those which were immaterial within the reading.
Over time, elemental dignities have been interpreted as indicative of beneficence and sometimes also conflated with reversals. Whether this stance has merit is dependent on the cartomante; it is not, however, consistent with the concept of dignity.
Dignity neither refers to goodness nor inversion but instead to how congenial the environment is for the element to function. In an environment contrary to its own nature, elements can become chaotic and unsteady and struggle to manage its affairs. The greater the difference the less operative the element can be. Should the element be dignified one will find a more constructive and stable expression.
Mathers’ instructions centres on interpreting cards in lines vis-à-vis counting, and as in classical cartomancy, reading the card in conjunction with those either side. These flanking cards are the conditions the central card’s (element) finds itself, e.g. its dignity. Dependent upon the cards’ elemental attributions we can find cards overcome, neutralised, strengthened and counterbalanced.
For example, three cards fall on the table. The centre card is an air card. On its left, we have a fire card. To the right, an earth card. The air card is moderately robust. Fire and earth share the same secondary quality (dry) and are thus create a neutral environment. However, as earth is contrary to air, that will lessen the central card’s dignity, or strength to act.
Should the cartomante find three fire cards together, then the central card is essentially dignified and therefore operative and strong. Such dignity, however, does not encroach on concepts of beneficence or associations derived from cards being upright. Although the cards are strong and very active, both context and individual cards will determine if this is for good or otherwise.
I have two examples below. I have utilized readings done with the Smith-Waite and the Crowley-Harris tarots. The elemental associations are: wands = fire; cups = water; swords = air; pentacles and disks = earth. I do not agree with these associations; however, they accepted by many Anglo-Saxons. THus for the sake of clarity we will utilise decks that conform to that model. The spread is the line of three.
Tarot Cards © Rider/Waddington Playing Card Co Lt (1971)
Here we have two water cards (cups) flanking a fire card (wands). Neither water nor fire shares any of the same primary qualities and is therefore antagonistic. As water cards are dominant, the central card is without dignity and consequently neutralised (evaporated).
The client in question, a former colleague of mine, had asked whether she would be able to pursue a promotion soon. Despite being very keen on progressing at the time of the reading, that ardour cools in the cards (the active card is neutralised). I said that although an opportunity will arise (wands active), but the contented life and good working partnerships she has will see her less keen to move on as other areas in her life develop themselves (water passive).
Not long after the reading, she was encouraged to pursue a secondment in another division (the Three of Wands) but was not keen to leave the division and group (Two and Ten of Cups). Shortly after that she began a new relationship and found promotion less of an aspiration.
Aleister Crowley® Thoth Tarot © AGM AGMüller (1986).
Now we have three cards of three differing elements. The central card is a water card flanked by an air and earth card (Five of Swords and Two of Disks). Air and earth are contrary to each other, as air is light and subjective and earth is heavy and objective, and under MacGregor Mathers’ system would be ignored, as the two cards are neutralised. Ignoring certain cards is not something I would advocate.
The client in question had asked whether her boyfriend would return, and the cards’ response is negative. Any reconciliation is thwarted by the shifting ground, precluding any idea of how it would be realized, with the result being an unhappy timidity where it is all just too much.
In Crowley’s writings, both swords and disks are the children of wands and cups and represent their duality as warring siblings. Although both cups and earth are friendly, they are passive, and the central card becomes moderately strong, but the inherent nature of the Eight of Cups is a failure due to the inability of knowing how to act. It was beyond the client’s ability, or her own resources, to move towards a place where reconciliation was, and it never occurred.
As you can see, elemental dignities do not change the cards meanings (as in reversals) or define them as positive and negative. Elemental dignities concern solely how cards are poised to function.
In a subsequent article, I will discuss the elements and dignities of the court cards.
Dame Fate’s Picturebook © abCartomancy 2010 – 2020
Crowley, A. (1976). The Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians. New York: Weiser.
Dykes, B. (2011). Traditional Astrology for Today. Minneapolis, Minn.: Cazimi Press.
Peach, E. (1988). Tarot for Tomorrow. 1st ed. Wellingborough: Aquarian Press.
Smith, C. and Astrop, J. (1988). Elemental Tarot. 1st ed. [London]: Viking.