Recently someone asked about the use of elemental dignities in tarot, a topic which I addressed extensively in my book Tarot Beyond the Basics. This blog is a brief overview of the topic.
The basic idea comes from the teachings of Aristotle who believed that everything in the world consisted of four basic elements: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. In turn, each element had two major qualities, one active and one passive. Heat and coldness were considered active qualities, associated with energetic dynamism. Wetness and dryness were regarded as passive qualities, associated with the form in which energy was expressed.
The book Hot Dry Men, Cold Wet Women by Zirka Filipczak illustrates how these philosophical ideas were expressed in European art. Men were viewed as “hot and dry” (masculine, fiery, centrifugal and outer-directed) while women were considered “cold and wet” (feminine, watery, centripetal and inner-directed).
The Golden Dawn tradition assigned elemental qualities to each of the suits and cards of the tarot. The Major Arcana were all linked to planets or signs of the zodiac. The pip cards belonged to one of four suits which were assigned as follows:
Wands – Fire
Cups – Water
Swords – Air
Disks (Pentacles) – Earth
Wands (Fire) and Swords (Air) represent active, outgoing, self-centered, assertive, commanding, directive, solar, masculine Yang energy. The fiery Sun emits light.
Wants (Fire) and Cups (Water) are at opposite ends of a spectrum. Wands are hot and dry; Cups are cold and wet. They have opposite ways of viewing the world and conflicting manners of taking action.
Cups (Water) and Disks (Earth) represent receptive, passive, inner-directed, relationship-oriented, yielding, nurturing, conciliatory, lunar, feminine Yin energy. The watery Moon reflects the light of the Sun.
Disks (Earth) and Swords (Air) are at opposite ends of a spectrum. Disks are cold and dry; Swords are hot and wet. They have opposite ways of viewing the world and conflicting manners of taking action.
The following table shows the qualities which the various elements (and tarot suits) have in common.
H = hot, C = cold, W = wet (moist), and D = dry.
Certain characteristics are associated with each of the primary qualities:
- Heat expands and signifies energy, vitality, excess, enthusiasm, movement, activity, daring, speed, dynamism, extroversion and outward expansion. Think of someone described as “hot” or “being on fire.”
- Coldness contracts and signifies inactivity, self-control, cooling, containment, solidity, stasis, receptivity, contraction, internalization, introversion, slowing down, putting the brakes on, and keeping energy in reserve. We describe someone who is calm and self-composed as being “cool as a cucumber.” In extreme cold temperatures, water ceases to flow and turns to ice.
- Dryness desiccates and hardens by removing moisture and thereby increasing rigidity, brittleness, inflexibility, resistance, and definition of form. As plants dry, they shrivel and wither. A starving person is often described as being reduced to “skin and bones” for lack of access to moist nutrition. As the body loses moisture after death, we speak of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
- Wetness softens by adding moisture and tends to make things more malleable, flexible, pliable, soluble, moldable, adaptable, and plump. Someone who is strongly moved emotionally “dissolves into tears.” Wetness “goes with the flow.”
Let’s look at an example to see how elemental qualities might apply to a reading. At the beginning of August, 2021, a man in his 20s asked how the coming month might go for him. He drew the following four cards:
The first two cards suggest a great deal of haste and rushing about, which might lead to some sort of legal complication or dealing with the system of Justice. The World card at the end of the sequence could mean that he will bring some important matter to a conclusion.
If we consider the elemental properties, the 8 of Wands is a Fire card (hot and dry), followed by an Air card (hot and moist). The double dose of heat in the combination of these two masculine cards implies a situation of expansive or excessive dynamic action. There is no cold to temper the enthusiasm.
Justice is a Major Arcana card associated with the Air sign Libra (hot and moist). The adjacent Knight of Swords also belongs to Air. A pair of adjacent cards of the same element stand out in a reading. Somehow a man riding hastily on his horse combined with Justice will set the stage for the month of August for this querent. This Knight has already received an extra dose of heat from the 8 of Wands and now receives even more heat from the Justice card. The Knight of Swords in this spread is “on fire”, and perhaps his excess haste will cause a problem for the querent. In addition, the Knight receives extra moisture (wetness) from the Justice card, which increases his adaptability and flexibility. Clearly this Knight is “supercharged” by its adjoining cards and dominates the reading. The elemental dignities reveal that the main issue in August belongs to the Knight of Swords and whatever he represents in the querent’s life.
Justice (an Air card, hot and moist) lies next to the World (an Earth card, cold and dry, associated with the restrictive planet Saturn); they have no primary qualities in common and do not support one another. If anything, the elemental dignities of the World next to Justice suggest some sort of problematic legal issue.
Here’s what happened. A few days after the reading the querent was riding his bike late at night in the city where he lives. A car, traveling too fast for the city street, swerved to miss the querent on his bike but ended up hitting him anyway, destroying the bicycle and leaving the querent with muscle sprains and spasms but fortunately no broken bones or head injuries. It turned out that the driver of the car, a young man, had been drinking and driving too fast and did not have auto insurance. This led to legal complications because the querent needed to have the treatment for his injuries paid for. In the end, the driver agreed to pay the medical bills to avoid being taken to court to cover the cost of medical treatment.
Addendum: 19 February 2022:
I have noticed that some modern tarot books and YouTube videos have misrepresented the original Golden Dawn method of using elemental dignities. By way of clarification: in the Golden Dawn approach, Fire and Water are contrary elements or “enemies”, as are Air and Earth; such combinations greatly weaken and ill-dignify the cards involved. On the other hand, cards of the same suit (or element) greatly strengthen each other for good or evil. All other combinations are friendly, not neutral. Specifically, Air is friendly with Water and Fire, and Fire is friendly with Air and Earth. The Golden Dawn had only 3 categories of influence by elemental dignity: greatly strengthening, greatly weakening, and friendly. The idea of neutrality, mentioned in some modern texts and videos, appears to be a misconception of the original method.
All original material in this post is copyright Anthony Louis 2022.