Tarot Decoded: Understanding and Using Dignities and Correspondences
by Elizabeth Hazel
Review by Diane Wilkes
If you would like to purchase this book, click here.
A common complaint in the online tarot community is that publishers keep releasing books that cover the "same old-same old." In fact, this complaint was an impetus for the creation of Llewellyn's successful Special Topics series. Soon, the tarot community will have to find something else to find fault with...because now Weiser has jumped on the advanced material bandwagon with the release of Elizabeth Hazel's scholarly work, Tarot Decoded: Understanding and Using Dignities and Correspondences.
If you've ever had the opportunity to take a class with Ms. Hazel, you'll know that she is the Queen of the Verbal Knitting Pattern, weaving webs of connection that are often unexpected and electrifying. And she dispenses them at a dizzying 100 miles a minute! Her pithy, unique verbiage translates beautifully to the printed page--here are some of my favorite sentences or phrases:
Humans are mostly water, about 80 percent, which is ironic considering that the bladder is the first to go. (p. 11)
Even as a day-old infant he [Mercury] was up to hijinks, but this greatly amused and pleased his father, Jupiter. Though born to the nymph Maia (thus only semidivine), Mercury finagled his way up to full divinity within a few days of his birth. (p. 67)
Hazel mines varying and divergent sources that range from Sesame Street (the Muppet who sold a jar of air to the Cookie Monster) to Carl Jung (focusing on the four personality types and their functions), creating a deliciously literary Stone Soup.
When the topic of dignities (relationships between cards in a spread) comes up in tarot discussions online, they tend to be specifically about elemental (fire, water, air, earth) dignities. These are covered in depth, but Liz also introduces us to modal, numerical, planetary, zodiacal, and locational dignities. The mind boggles, doesn't it?
Well, not Liz's mind. And she tries to feed this information to us in bite-sized pieces, so we can absorb it all. After she introduces the various dignities, Hazel dives into the elemental elements--which elements/suits are harmonious/inharmonious--but reminds us that these classifications are a "flexible dynamic as opposed to ironclad rules." This isn't modernist psychobabble, but straight from Cornelius Agrippa's pen. Liz goes through the state and form of the elements in the various pip cards, which I think works as a great and poetic mnemonic. I don't always agree with her descriptions, though. For example, she writes that the Eight fire "dwindles" -- it seems more conflagratory to me than the Three, which is "welcoming candles in the window." The Queen of Cups is a steady river in Hazel's eyes....to me, Water of Water can be more of an overflow.
Speaking of the court cards, Liz devotes the next chapter to the elemental courts. Why? Because they are unique in that they contain two elements--one for their suit, the other for their rank. The author also discusses the decanates associated with each of the courts, as well as the modality attribution controversy as to whether Kings are Mutable and Knights are Fixed or vice versa. Hazel comes down on the side of the Kings-Mutable/Knights-Fixed side of the equation. Various methods of choosing a significator are also discussed. Finally, Hazel humbly offers an original spread that she claims serves a two-fold purpose, but really it's tri-fold-- it simultaneously teaches the court card "roles", provides our first hands-on work with dignities, and elucidates elemental themes. Not only that, it can be used to provide illumination on a specific relationship, as well as individual insight.
We are next introduced to modal dignities, which speak to the astrological behavioral modes: Cardinal, Fixed, and Mutable. (As I took my abbreviated notes, I realized the initials for the modes are C.F.M., which suggests a somewhat different behavior, when related to shoes. But I digress.) Hazel does an outstanding job of delineating the three modalities through their signs--possibly the best I've ever read. I still find it difficult to totally grasp why Knights, the movers of the Tarot, are given the "Fixed" attribution, but I'm also still processing why Fire and Water are opposites instead of Water and Air, since Feeling and Thought seem to be more contradictory.
Three examples of looking at spreads using modal dignities are provided--I suspect these get overly technical for those without an astrological background. Hazel occasionally includes concepts that haven't yet been covered, ie., Planet/Sign conflicts. In the three card reading, we are informed that because the first card is the Queen of Cups, the querent's plans involve her family. I wouldn't necessarily make that association (even though it might well be true), nor would many readers I know. I bring this up because this kind of psychic leap will often bemuse and intimidate newer or less confident readers.
Numerical dignities - sets and sequences - seem more straightforward at first. These are not applicable to astrology, but are purely cartomantic in nature. These dignity sets include not only the numbered pips but the Majors within the constellation as well. Numerical dignity sets in particular seem to lend themselves solely to forecasting--three fives in a reading dictate "accidents, losses," and three sixes, "good travels, luck comes through friends and associates." Poker fans will be interested in noting that a straight or royal flush sequence is a particularly powerful dynamic in a reading--much as it is in Poker!
One of the spreads in this chapter is entitled The Hostile Pip (I suspect it's Bubba Knight resenting his sister Gladys' choice to begin a career as a solo artist). In all seriousness, however, the interpretation includes the term "degradation of the element," which is one that many modern astrologers reject, precisely because of that newfangled concept known as free will (just as most modern astrologers attribute Neptune as the planetary ruler of Pisces). The ancient rulerships, which are part and parcel of the astrological dignities, can be extraordinarily prescriptive and authoritarian. Hazel's grasp of them is masterful and she, like Agrippa, is quite flexible--but even she can get caught in their narrowing web.
Next up are the planetary trumps and how they operate as "free agents." Hazel explains the difference between planets and signs, detailing individual planets and their energies, and the tarot card to which they are assigned and/or connected. Again, the fullness and clarity of Hazel's explanations of the planets is outstanding. I also find the tarot card combinations and associations thought-provoking, such as, "The High Priestess struggles greatly with the Devil, as the Moon is in detriment in Capricorn. This is the sign of authority and limitation ruled by Saturn, the Lord of Karma. Karma is the work and learning process that all incarnate forms must endure. The Devil is the reality of temptations and lusts and their overwhelming lures to the senses and sensual desires, no matter how badly these may damage the individual who cedes control to them. These qualities are offensive to the solemn and pervasive inner eye of the Priestess, who desires belonging and unity through transcending the confines of ego and material attachment." The H.P./Devil card combination came up for me recently in a reading, and Hazel's words offered me some additional insights into my situation.
While Hazel generally adheres to G.D. attributions, she ascribes Saturn to Judgment, as opposed to The World (which she assigns to Earth). She presents cogent arguments for the shift, but it seems odd precisely because she remains faithful to some even more challenging attributions, such as Cancer to the Chariot. Of course, the outer planets (Uranus, Neptune, Pluto) were discovered after the initial Golden Dawn attributions, but Hazel offers associations to the Major Arcana for each of them. She makes the point that it is perhaps for the best that the outer planets don't directly rule any pip cards "because none of these godly characters are the type to invite to an afternoon tea party." Indeed.
Liz differentiates between planetary dignities (which apply to behaviors) and zodiacal dignities (which apply to environmental factors), and breaks the pip cards down by planetary rulerships, as well the planet/sign assignments, and whether the planet is in rulership (in its own sign), exaltation, detriment, or fall. She addresses the issue of "friendly" and "unfriendly" planet/sign/modality interrelatedness, as well. If someone doesn't understand squares and oppositions (which aren't addressed), this too might be a challenging concept.
The next chapter is devoted to various spreads that contain a cross (axis), which Hazel sees as an exchange of energies, a cosmic compass. The Celtic Cross is not included because of the last four cards in that spread, which don't cross. Hazel introduces "Axis Boy" to illustrate the relationship of the quaternity, the four points of the astrological cross, which is the foundation for the Cosmic Axis layout. The horizontal line speaks to individual interpersonal relationships, the vertical one to our relationship to our roots and the cosmos. The Cosmic Axis is the basis for other spreads Liz introduces, which increase in card number and complexity: the Vala Cross (13 cards), the 12 House Spread (13 cards), the Zodiac Spiral Spread (18 cards). The last chapter gives detailed reading examples for all of these layouts.
We are then introduced to Locational Dignities, which relate to a card's position in a spread, for good or ill, based on various associations, such as card meaning, numeric designation, or attribution. Hazel provides various examples, ie., the Lovers in a relationship position is a positive placement if the question concerns romance. Also included is a chart that provides the natural house and the sign/ruler/element-exalted for each Major. Liz also covers the four angles and their corresponding tarot rulerships. Despite this section, Hazel suggests later that card position should not be over-emphasized, as the placement of the cards can define the meaning. I agree that when using dignities, this is true, but specific card positions offer a concrete clarity that I prefer.
Liz's next chapter is entitled Directional Scanning, which is not an Ultrasound, but a way of viewing and observing cards in a reading once one has thoroughly absorbed the various attributions. She demonstrates this with a three card spread exercise in which you are taught to look in all directions. Various layouts are shown with arrows to depict cards and directions to be scanned. Hazel then sets out steps for interpreting a 12th house spread using various dignities. After all this, Liz states that familiarity with the symbolism on the cards is essential ("the primary device for tarot interpretation"), but considers the ideal reading one that combines that understanding with the various dignities to intensify the range and accuracy. The demonstrations tend to focus on the dignities, and not a card's symbolism, which I think is putting the cart before the horse, so to speak.
In the last chapter, the author demonstrates all the cross spreads she introduces earlier and suggests you pull out your cards to follow along. I agree, and also recommend using Thoth or another deck where the astrological information is included on the cards. Because Hazel's approach to dignities uses older correspondences, it was a struggle for me during the first sample reading to remember that Saturn rules Aquarius (even though I was able to keep Hazel's Saturn/Judgment attribution in mind). Those who are used to modern rulerships will initially have problems with this system, I suspect.
Sometimes Hazel assumes a competence that is not likely to be universal in her readership. We are told that Venus and Saturn are friendly during the Cosmic Axis demonstration, but that information doesn't appear elsewhere in the book. Then another card is added to the mix, even though it's not mentioned beforehand--and since it's a positive card, we don't need any dignities to tell us that the reader is trying to cheer the querent up (because the cards in the Axis reading aren't particularly positive). This first demonstration made me realize how much I had missed (in terms of looking at the dignities) and inspired me to do another--but at the same time, I had come to the very same conclusions about the reading without using the dignities.
You need to read this book in order, because each chapter builds on the information from the prior one. I wish all the chapters had at least one spread or exercise that integrated the new techniques for the reader in an interactive manner. It is hard to absorb this material without doing hands-on work with it. In addition, worksheets listing the various kinds of dignities to look for and steps to take when working with each spread would have been extremely helpful.
While Hazel never mentions the Golden Dawn Opening of the Key Spread, I find the material in her book to be an invaluable primer for "decoding" its operations. The appendices are filled with relevant information: Golden Dawn card attributions (along with some suggested alternatives by the author), planetary and zodiacal dignities, as well as dignities for the houses and elements. She also provides a diagram of locational dignities in horoscope-form and a bibliography.
For two reasons, I have never been overfond of dignities except as a way of focusing on the elements in a spread to glean additional insight. The first reason is that I find them arid when compared to the loamy richness of an image-based reading. Secondly, they are fairly cut and dried, and seem to fit a more predictive style of reading than I generally employ. While I am always interested in investigating new tarot techniques, dignities will always be for me, at best, a lagniappe on the main course repast of an image-based reading. But that lagniappe, assuming the individual has thoroughly absorbed the astrological and numerical correspondences, can be the mark of a true professional and add a touch of élan to a session.
I must be honest--I had mixed feelings before I started this book. I've long been a fan of Hazel's writing, but I thought this book would be deadly dull, because of the subject matter. I was afraid it would take me weeks to complete it, but it's written in such a clear and engaging manner that I raced through it in three days.
Those who are interested in developing an understanding of the dignities and correspondences will not find a more abundant and reliable resource than Elizabeth Hazel's book. Additionally, even if one is uninterested in working with dignities, the author's expertise and information illustrates connections between astrology and tarot and will help the astrological novice understand them.
Tarot Decoded: Understanding and Using Dignities and Correspondences
by Elizabeth Hazel
Publisher: Weiser Books
If you would like to purchase this book, click here.
Cited text © 2004 Weiser Books
Review and page © 2004 Diane Wilkes