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Tarot Decoded: Understanding and Using Dignities and Correspondences

Tarot Decoded: Understanding and Using Dignities and Correspondences

by Elizabeth Hazel

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Understanding and Using Dignities and Correspondences


Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2004 Elizabeth Hazel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57863-302-9



Dignity is the relationship between cards in a spread, and its analysis is a fundamental technique of tarot interpretation. A relationship between neighboring cards may be good, neutral, or bad, and it is determined by comparing attributions, elements, and numeric components and by analyzing for strength or weakness, assistance or frustration. A card that enjoys friendly neighbors or is placed in a location suitable to its attributes is in good dignity, well-placed, or well-dignified, and occasionally may gain the status of perfect dignity. Cards placed near neighbors that are neither friendly nor unfriendly may be considered in neutral dignity. If a card is surrounded by hostile neighbors, it is called ill-dignified, debilitated, in detriment, or badly placed.

Western occult tradition is built upon the philosophical ideas of the early Greeks, who devised a dignity system to judge and classify relationships between planets and zodiac signs. Many of the tarot terms that are used to describe dignity, therefore, are borrowed from identical or similar terms in astrology.

There are also forms of dignity specific to the tarot, generated by the numeric structure of the seventy-eight-card deck and the geometric dynamics of the spread form into which the cards are placed. The fifty-six cards of the Minor Arcana consist of four suits divided into four sets of Ace through Ten (forty pip cards); four sets of court cards (sixteen cards); and the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana, usually numbered O-XXI. The symbolism of tarot art has also been supplemented with attribution systems that usually include astrological relationships, elemental assignments, and alphabet and numeric associations. These attributions form a background that enriches meaning by inferring specialized relationships between particular cards.

Reversals—cards appearing upside-down in a spread—change the meaning of a card, but the attribution remains the same. In a reversed position, some card meanings may become less favorable, while others are improved. Since dignities express the nature of card relationships through attributions, a tarotist may view reversals as a peculiar or muted form of attribution, adapting the improved or deteriorated implications of a reversed card to the surrounding card dignities. Some tarotists who specialize in analyzing dignities do not use reversals at all, and the demonstrations in this book show all cards in an upright position.

European mystics like Falconnier, Papus, Wirth, Etteilla, and Levi created separate and unique sets of attributions to the tarot between 1780 and the late 1880s. These early systems are focused mostly on the trump cards. In the 1890s, a group called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn taught a new group of tarot correspondences to their members, and this system is the one associated with the Waite-Smith deck and the Thoth deck. One advantage of the Golden Dawn attribution system is the detailed planetary and zodiacal assignments to the pip and court cards. This system is common to American and British tarotists (although certainly not unanimous), while Europeans often use the Continental attribution system, particularly with antique tarots like the Tarot de Marseilles. Various modern authors have created further original systems that are usually unique to a single deck. The Golden Dawn attribution system is used in this book as the basis for elemental and zodiacal dignity; the complete list of attributions is in appendix A.


There are several types of dignity that add to the spectrum of advanced forms of interpretation.

Elemental dignity is the most frequently mentioned usage and is based on assignments of the four elements, fire, water, air, and earth, to the four suits and trump cards. Elemental relationships provide basic clues to the interactions between neighboring cards. The elemental trumps—Fool, Hanged Man, Judgment, World—along with Aces and Pages (also called Princesses) have the virtues of pure elements, while the zodiacal trumps and pip cards share the element of their zodiacal attribution. Each level of status of the court cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Page or Princess)is also attributed to an element. Only the planetary trumps are free of elemental association, but they do experience affinities to certain elements. A significator card, the card that represents the querent in a reading, may be chosen by determining the querent's elemental traits.

Modal dignity may be conferred by any card with a zodiacal attribution. Modes are the triplicity of the zodiac; that is, the twelve signs are divided into three modes: cardinal, fixed, and mutable. A preponderance of a single mode in a spread gives emphasis to the specific energy type of that mode. Modes may also form sequences that suggest the direction of the energy flow between the card positions in a spread.

Shared Status is a specialized form of dignity for court cards, the sixteen cards designated by ascending royal titles. Court cards are assigned both element and mode. Shared status applies when sets (mode) or sequences (element) of court cards appear in a reading. For example, a set is a pair of Knights in a layout, and a small sequence the King and Queen of a single suit.

Numeric dignity occurs when sets and sequences appear in a spread. This form of analysis is specific to card reading and draws upon rules from poker and rummy, where points (or tricks) are dependent on matching number or suit groups. A set increases the influence of the numeric vibration, and one may use numerology or the rules of cartomancy (divining with playing cards) to interpret these groups. Sequences are comparable to a straight in poker—for example, Five, Six, Seven (regardless of suit). Sequences suggest a progression, or a process of development or deterioration that is occurring in the layout. Sets and sequences in tarot are more generalized than in card games—trumps and pips may be blended in sets; and cards of various suits may form numeric sequences. Cards may also share numeric dignity by being in a spread position of the same number, a form of dignity more properly belonging to the next category.

Locational dignity is related to an astrological concept called "accidental dignity," but is actually specific to tarot reading. It occurs when a card occupies a position in the spread that assists or undermines its strength and meaning. Spreads are usually organized into geometric forms that suggest favorable placements, both by the order of the card spread and by the position meanings. The astrological form of locational dignity may be applied to Cosmic Axis or Twelve-House spreads (described in chapter 9). These spread forms are derived from the horoscope house system and are related to the natural order of the zodiac. Locational dignity may be simple or infinitely complex.

Planetary and Zodiacal dignities are based on the particular system of attributions used with the tarot. In the Golden Dawn system, signs of the zodiac are attributed to twelve trump cards and are also assigned to court and pip cards. Planets are assigned to trump and pip cards on the basis of decan (ten-degree segments) rulership assignments. The traditional rules of astrological dignities govern the interrelationships between signs and planets assigned in the tarot. Although full use of astrological tarot attributions requires some knowledge of astrology to apply, it's also the method that allows the tarot to mimic the scope and accuracy of astrology. The Twelve-House spread is stretched to its full potential by blending the conventions of both tarot and astrology.

* * *

Attributions and dignities don't change the divinatory meanings of the cards, or even specific deck-related meanings. By giving details to neighborly relationships, dignities add color and depth to the meaning of a card and provide underlying associations that define combinations and zones of emphasis (neighborhoods) in a spread. Dignities don't so much change a card's meaning as fine-tune it, as its neighbors increase its potency or dilute its intentions. Some cards, by nature, are more permeable and translucent, while others are relentlessly dynamic and aggressive. Dignities provide a basis for comprehending why the Knight of Wands might pop a baseball through the Tower's window. And although the various attribution systems applied to the tarot are myriad, the basic techniques and astrological conventions for using them are not.

The view of dignities offered in this book is "astrologically correct." In other words, my explanation of the use of dignities does not contradict astrological conventions, particularly in regard to the planetary trumps. Instead, I utilize astrological conventions to extend and amplify tarot dignities and blend them with card-specific forms of dignity. Thus given, the tarotist who chooses to learn astrology (or the astrologer learning tarot) will not struggle with incongruous methods but may proceed with a helpful foundation in the concept of dignity.



In tarot, astrology, magic, and alchemy there are four primary elements that clothe the spirit of life. These are fire, water, air, and earth, and these basic components have been a core part of the fabric of the occult sciences for about two thousand years, since the days of Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Plato.

The ancients determined there was an underlying order to the structure of the universe, and these four elements were the basis for all life on earth, all things in existence. The elements were superimposed on the twelve zodiac constellations and later became part and parcel of magic and alchemy. Henry Cornelius Agrippa gave detailed lists of the things composed of elemental blends around 1500 CE. Eventually, the four elements were grafted into the tarot.

There is some dissension about which element belongs to which suit in the tarot, but the most commonly used assignments are:

Fire = Wands

Water = Cups

Swords = Air

Pentacles = Earth

This is the system worked out by the Secret Chiefs of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and used in the Waite-Smith tarot deck, as well as in the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck. Since these two decks are the basis for the bulk of modern tarot decks (although certainly not all), this given system of attributions is a good starting point.

The four elements are like a family:

Fire = Father

Water = Mother

Air = Son

Earth = Daughter

The elements have affinities and preferences and characteristic results when one is blended with another. Elements are constantly trying to influence one another, to blend in new and meaningful ways. This view is the one held by Agrippa, and it is often neglected in contemporary explanations of elemental dignities.

In the basic concept of elemental dignities, there are friendly, neutral, and unfriendly pairings of the elements:


fire and air fire and earth fire and water
water and earth air and water air and earth

In this primitive schema, if a wand is sitting next to a cup, they are at cross purposes, each weakening the other. But in practice (and in the view of Agrippa), elements are much more subtle and prone to more intermingling than the above outline permits. Elemental dignities should be regarded as a flexible dynamic between neighbors rather than a set of ironclad rules. Fire and water may be at odds, but that friction accounts for the driving power of steam. Challenging relationships promote learning and growth, whereas compatible, easy relationships may devolve into inertia. The inherent characteristics of each element give a basis for understanding how it will respond to any of the other three elements.


Fire is hot and dry, according to Aristotle, thought by many to be the primal element of the universe (the biblical version: "Let there be light."). Prometheus was kicked out of Olympus for bringing the secrets of fire to humanity. Fire embodies the descent of spirit into matter, the primordial spark of life. But on a more practical level, as Prometheus knew, fire was a key survival tool, allowing people to cook their food and warm their wigwams. Providing both heat and light, fire is a critical necessity, and understanding how to use it is a great boon to humanity and the development of civilization. Likewise, the fiery light and warmth provided by the Sun's fusion is necessary for life and growth on Earth.

Some of the less friendly aspects of fire occur when it isn't controlled or is in the wrong hands—devastating fires that destroy forests, homes, and books that are out of favor with the goon squad. Fire is also demanding, because it needs to be fed. If there's no more wood or other flammable substances around to burn, it gets mighty cold in the winter. Fire is the enemy of trees. The Sun's fiery heat, in excess, can cause droughts, deserts, and miserable wastelands.

Fire can be the element of last resort, too. The Russians burned Moscow to the ground to prevent Napoleon from capturing the city, and General Sherman burned Atlanta to hasten the end of the Civil War. This method of warfare even has a fiery name—"scorched earth" policy. The dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan topped them all, raising the devastation by fire to the potential destruction of the world.

Fire, like all the other elements, has a range of behaviors, some quite uncontrollable. The suit of Wands exhibits many of these faces. We see the torch that lights the darkness in the Ace, ambitions and enthusiasms sparked in the Two. The Three has signal fires and welcoming candles in the window. The Four has the home fires freshly lit, ready for warmth, cooking, and fellowship. The fires of ambition rage in the Five; the Olympic torches mark champions in the Six. In the Seven, we keep the fire stoked to keep predators from attacking. The fire dwindles to the unearthly glow of coals in the Eight and Nine, with the popping of sparks as the fire shrinks. The deepening shadows keep the watcher looking over his shoulder. By the Ten, the fuel is gone and the fire has died, and there is nothing left but ashes.

The Wand court cards have fiery personalities. The Page is the pure, infant flame, nurtured on kindling to an awakening glow. The Knight burns with energy and ambition; he's hot to trot and has a combustible temper to match. Fire is better managed by the Queen; she has all the fuel she needs and knows how much to use for the size of fire she needs. The King masters fire—he has bellows to make white heat, furnaces, torches, flashlights, flares, and maybe even fireworks for celebrations.

This suit is motivated and informed by fire. Fire requires devotion, diligence, loyalty, and caution. Carelessness in fiery matters can result in destruction, whether this means an untended fire that burns down a house or a hot temper out of control. Whether a survival tool or one of mass destruction, fire commands respect. The fire of a spotlight can mark human triumph, but an untimely light cast into the shadows can catch a person with his or her hand in the cookie jar. Fire is the glory of stardom, and the ignominy of notoriety. It's never dull, however. And once a fire dies, it's difficult to rekindle.


There isn't enough paper and ink to describe all of the faces of water, the mother element. From the dripping of a leaky faucet to the roaring of the rapids of the Colorado River, water embodies the extremes of mood and size. The qualities of water are cold and moist.

Before being born into the light of the world, fetuses float in a dark world of fluid in a placenta. For nine months, this inky, solitary ocean is a private universe, quiet and undisturbed. We long for a return to this preternatural, undifferentiated water. Water moves and seeks; it travels and changes form. It is rain, river, and ocean. Each mood of water has a voice, gurgling in a fountain or bellowing like the incoming tide in the Bay of Fundy. Water can be fresh and clear, like the cold streams running down from a mountain; it can be muddy and murky like a polluted river. It can be turbulent, salty, and colored an angry teal, like the high seas, or a pure dazzling turquoise like Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela.

Water is the symbolic mother of all liquids—frothy beer, hydrochloric acid, India ink. Water is the basis for every soup, sauce, and salad dressing ever invented. Humans are mostly water, about 80 percent, which is ironic considering that the bladder is the first to go. Powdered ochre and minerals mixed with water and fat were the first paints, and the slapping rhythms of the waves gave voice to the first primitive drum beat.

Emotions and feelings are the stuff of water, with their panoply of range and intensity. Falling in love is like the magnificent Angel Falls, where water heedlessly drops hundreds of feet from a cliff into vernal rain forest. Sorrow is like stagnant marsh water, fraught with chartreuse scum and the drone of mosquitoes and gnats. Belonging to a family or a group is like a wide flowing river, carrying us to a destination.


Excerpted from TAROT DECODED by ELIZABETH HAZEL. Copyright © 2004 Elizabeth Hazel. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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