Tarot Identity: On Significators


A longstanding point of discussion among Tarot scholars and students alike regards the use of a so-called “significator” card to represent the querent in a spread. Some readers always use significators, while some seldom or never do. Some follow a formulaic application of zodiacal attributions to the court cards of the Trumps Minor, while more advanced readers, who may make use of the entire deck in a reading that can last for hours, may select a card from the Trumps Major—most likely Trump 0, The Fool, since he is where the royal road of the Tarot’s voyage of self-discovery begins.

For what it’s worth, I don’t use significators as a rule, but when dealing with the court cards, it is wise to memorize their various attributes—and, perhaps, to invent some of your own—based on your growing knowledge of the “members of the court” and how they affect, and are affected by, their respective suits. As an example, the court card I associate most closely with myself is the King of Swords—mundanely because he is associated with the air sign of Gemini, which happens to be my birth sign; because he is a man of maturity, as am I; because he is an authority figure, as I have been in the business world; and more precisely because his mercurial “personality type” is, admittedly, rather similar to my own. Aleister Crowley describes it as

a pure intellect who destroys as soon as he creates, intensely clever, admirably rational, unstable as to purpose because he knows that each of his ideas is as worthless or worthwhile as the last and the next, and thus reduces everything to unreality. [It’s] totally impossible to get a grip on such people.

I hate to own up to it, but much of this has rung true for much of my adult life, at least the first half of it—and were I to be honest, it’s probably the reason why I began the study of the cards, and all the esoteric systems of knowledge that are embedded within them, so many years ago. It’s probably related to the same reason why most of us embark upon esoteric path-work: To find out “what makes us tick.” (As mentioned in previous posts, one “gets” the most out of this path-work if one enters into it having arrived at an honest assessment of one’s best qualities and one’s worst shortcomings. This is, needless to say, easier said than done.)

For the novice, there are plenty of good books on the subject to get started: Mary Greer’s Understanding the Tarot Court (Llewelyn, 2004) is a good single-volume source, and her Who Are You in The Tarot? (Llewelyn, 2011) applies many of the same associative principles to the cards of the Trumps Major. There are many ways to arrive at a proper court-card attribution—Greer even uses the Myers-Briggs personality test, to name one example—but a helpful guide for the beginning to intermediate student are the following “astral roadmaps” (taken from Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn) showing the relationships between the court and pip cards of the Trumps Minor with the traditional planets and the signs of the Zodiac. First, the pip cards, numbered 2 through 10, with their planet-astrological assignments:


Then the court cards and the Aces are added.


In this system, each zodiacal sign is divided into three “decans”, or ten-day units (give or take), thirty-six in all. Each decan has a governing court and pip card, as well as a ruling planet. It can be daunting for the beginner, but over time, the logic of the layout becomes increasingly self-evident, and the willing student is well advised to devote a great deal of time to the study of these charts; learning the associations of all the Trumps Minor—not only the court cards—can provide the reader with a mnemonic “Rosetta Stone” that can greatly facilitate “translating” a spread.

Sharp-eyed readers will note that in the above arrangement that Kings, Queens, and Princes all “straddle” zodiacal signs. The King of Swords, for instance, covers the third decan of Taurus (roughly May 11) to the second decan of Gemini (roughly June 11)—so someone born under the sign of Taurus, an earth sign, might possibly be governed by the King of Air. If this seems at all contradictory, it is simply a reflection of Tarot’s flexible and anti-dogmatic nature. In truth, anyone born under any zodiacal sign could be signified by virtually any court card. It all depends, again, on your psychological makeup and its compatibility to the conventional meanings of the court cards. Using the Myers-Briggs test referenced above, for example, Mary Greer attributes this card—not the King of Swords— to my personality type:


I don’t see the resemblance—she’s much too innocent and impressionable, in my opinion—but who’s to say it isn’t really accurate? (Ironically, this same card appeared in a ten-card Tree of Life spread that I laid out this morning before I sat down to write this post. Perhaps I should spend the next few days getting better acquainted with this young lady! )

Another thing to bear in mind is that people can change over time—sometimes radically—so yesterday’s Prince of Cups (the significator card I used in my 20s) may become today’s King of Swords. In general, however, Kings and Queens typically represent older people in a spread while Princes and Princesses stand in for younger folks. How old, exactly, is “older” and how young is “younger” will vary from individual to individual, and sometimes, intuition is the best guide when picking a significator rather than being hamstrung by some arbitrary age limit.

As mentioned earlier, I don’t use significators as a rule, but when the King of Swords appears in a spread that I am reading for myself, I take it as a sign that the spread is addressing more immediate, temporal concerns in my life, and this can help greatly in interpreting a spread. Even if you choose not use a significator to begin a spread (as with the Celtic Cross, for instance), it’s good to familiarize yourself intimately with all of the court cards so you will know when “your card” appears in a reading.

When all else fails, if you want to use a significator and you’re not sure which court card most closely resembles you—or if you only want to use the 22 cards of the Trumps Major, and discard the “little cards,” a smart alternative is Trump 0, The Fool. As the “first card” and “first seeker” of the Tarot deck, he is a shape-shifting archetype, a creature of pure potential who can assume any identity. In any event, the Golden Dawn charts posted above can enhance your appreciation of the Minor Arcana, and can help you to hone your own “Tarot identity.”

Dante DiMatteo

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