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Elemental Dignities in Tarot
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Arianna Ferguson

One Tarot technique which is coming into the limelight these days is the use of Elemental Dignities. Its function is primarily that of card meaning modification, like reversals, but is considered more sophisticated due to its involving several cards at once, if not the entire spread. This is considered a superior method since the cards are meant to be read in groups, and tend to function best in that way. The method is fairly simple: one assigns an element to each card in the deck with each Minor suit receiving one element; fire, earth, air, or water, and each Major card having an assigned element of its own. When two cards are placed next to each other, their elements will interact by either strengthening or weakening each other. This, in turn, influences the meanings, which will shift to either the positive or negative end of the spectrum. The end result is similar to that of using reversals, but in fact allows the reader greater leeway in determining the extent of positive or negative meanings for each card.

This method, however, is not without its disadvantages. One is that the reader must be absolutely clear on the elemental rules s/he uses – which cards in a spread are supposed to influence each other, and so on. Having a clear picture of this may involve working out a mental diagram of influences within each spread the reader uses. In many spreads, it is intuitively obvious which cards are related and which are not. In others, however, it’s best to sit down with a diagram and make the connections beforehand.

This brings me to another point for would-be users of this method. There are generally two chief ways of determining influences between two cards. These are the positional and thematic influences between cards. The first of these terms simply means that adjacent cards will influence each other – what adjacent means to you is something you will have to work out on your own; this is a particular issue for non-linear spreads, such as the Celtic Cross. Thematic influences, on the other hand, involve cards which are related by their positional meanings, no matter where in the spread they are. All the cards in the positions of the past influence each other, as will all cards in “advice” positions, etc. Again, this is something best determined by the reader before using the spread in conjunction with Dignities.

So, the question becomes, why would anyone want to use reversals? After all this fun stuff with Dignities, reversals can seem awfully boring. Well, for one, reversals are unmistakable – whereas one can make an incorrect judgement about dignities, there is little danger of doing that with reversals. There is the card, right in front of you, upside down, and there is much less to be concerned about when it comes to relating it to other cards. With Dignities, you are forced to relate cards – with reversals, you have the choice of doing so. In my opinion, it is best to try out each system for a while, to find out the one that works the best for you. If I were advising a complete beginner on this, their best bet would be to begin with reversals, because they would not have to worry about getting all the meanings and relationships according to dignities. After a while, they could make their own decision about how satisfied they are with the reversal system. The most important thing, however, is that s/he have more than one option to choose from.

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