Relating to the Tarot: Significators.

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This post is, in a sense, a continuation of the series of posts for the Tarot beginner I’ve called the “Basics“, the most recent of which deals with getting started using the cards (it’s really just a dip of the toes in the shallow end, but you gotta start somewhere, and there’s only so much objective advice I can give; click here to read it).

Learning all 78 cards of the Tarot when you are a complete novice can seem a daunting task, and I believe that finding ways to personally relate with your cards will, if not alleviate the challenge, at least make it more immediately interesting.

When I succeeded in introducing my friends and fellow Council members to the Tarot, I devised two (not remotely original) exercises to help them identify personally with their cards (and to help me know who I’m looking at when they turn up in my own readings). These exercises are not necessarily designed to help anyone learn divinatory meanings or anything like that. They are designed rather to connect the reader with his or her cards while simultaneously allowing for the opportunity to see how that person views him or herself. I like to think of it as giving the deck an opportunity to “learn” about who you are while you learn about it. The first of these exercises is to select your significators.

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Now, I’ve already written at least two posts that center around the idea of significators, so I don’t think I really need to go too in-depth here with explanations about what a significator is or how it might be used in a reading. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a significator, click here for an introduction, and here for a little context on how I like to use them for divining.

This exercise deals only with Court cards, so separate these from your deck before continuing. Because the Court is often the most difficult part of the Tarot to understand, I think doing this exercise first out of the two has the added benefit of getting familiar with them early on.

The essence of the exercise is simple enough to explain: select any and all of the court cards that you feel you identify with.

It is, of course, a little more complex than that in practice, because there are many ways of choosing which cards you identify with. The simplest and most straightforward of these is simple intuition and aesthetics. What cards just strike you? Which ones look most appealing to you? You can pick significators in this fashion with absolutely zero other knowledge of the cards.

Another very popular method is selecting your significator based on its zodiacal attributions, and while I think this method is perfectly valid (and indeed, is how I came to choose the Knight of Cups as one of my own), it requires a bit of knowledge or study on the part of the chooser. There are also divergent ways of assigning astrological correspondences with the Tarot, which adds another layer of confusion to the mix. The methods of the Golden Dawn are probably the most prevalent, and they are the ones that I use.

Aside from astrology and aesthetics, there are many other ways to choose. I highly recommend Understanding the Tarot Court by Mary Greer and Tom Little as a starting point. Among other things, this book elaborates on MBTI personalities associated with each card, career types, elemental dignities, and the admittedly outdated physical characteristics traditionally attributed to them. The possibilities are virtually endless, and they’re all valid. Whatever makes most sense to you is what I’d recommend you go with.

However you feel compelled to continue, choose at least one card to represent yourself. I suggest considering what sorts of issues you can imagine approaching the Tarot with, and come up with a separate significator for each of them (work, relationships, spirituality, etc.).

Once you’ve selected as many significators as you feel is apt, take some time to consider why you picked these cards, what roles they fulfill, and how they might relate to each other; consider the ways in which you are these characters.

For example, when I choose a significator, I almost always choose a knight for rank and either pentacles or cups for suit.* Occasionally, I’ll choose wands or a page or king; it is very rare that I choose a queen, and rarer still that I choose from among the suit of swords. There are many conclusions that can be drawn about my character and my perceptions about both myself and the world around me based only on this information.

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If you follow any Tarot forums or other Tarot blogs, there is a very good chance you’ve not heard many positive opinions on the significator. This drives me up a wall, because I consciously try not to totally trash ideas that I don’t agree with when it comes to the Tarot, and it bothers me (though it doesn’t surprise me) that so many people do not do the same. Tarot is an incredibly open-ended method of fortune-telling (or whatever else you might do with it), and no two people approach it in the same way – there is no wrong way. There are, however, a lot of people lurking out there in cyberspace who would like you to think they know everything there is to know, and that there is a wrong way – namely, any way that doesn’t match theirs. Don’t fall for it. Do it your own way, and the first suggestion I have for you in that vein is to try any suggestion you are offered while you are still learning what works for you.

It is true that the significator is not an essential component of divination – the success or failure of the spread should not depend on whether or not you’ve specified to the cards ahead of time which one of them represents you.** With that being said, though, many spreads exist that require or at least suggest the use of a significator, and I see no reason not to comply in those instances. What harm is there in that? (there are arguments that there are problems with it, but I’ve found these problems to be of negligible consequence to the validity of a reading)

But all this back and forth among the online Tarot community about the use of the significator in divination is missing the point, I think. If you don’t think it’s necessary to use a significator while reading a spread, by all means, don’t use one. But, if you are reading this post, and you are a complete Tarot newbie, I urge you to at least try this exercise. It is a very useful way to begin building a more personal relationship with your cards. Even if you’re not new to the Tarot, it’s a good way to get to know the court cards in a new deck, or even an old one if the courts give you trouble. This post is not necessarily an exercise to determine how you will read from now on; it’s rather an exercise in the theory of significators and how they might apply to your readings. Whether or not you continue to use them after choosing them is entirely up to you.

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Yes, I know these cards are not the same thing. I use them both.

Given what I’ve written about the subject of significators in the past (linked above), this post might be a little redundant in places. However, I think the next post about Tarot familiarization exercises (the Tarot Patron) will make a bit more sense with this one to build on.

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*I should say “at the time of this writing,” because my suit and rank affiliations are liable to change, as are anyone else’s. As a pentacles sort of man, though, I think it’s safe to say that any changes in this area are going to be a very long time in coming. The point of this footnote, though, is that you should not feel constrained to whatever significators you choose. Nothing is permanent, least of all in the fluid world of Tarot-reading.

**Or the querent, if you’re reading for someone else. Having the querent select a significator, even if he or she has no knowledge of Tarot, can be handy because it gives you a bit of insight into them before the reading has even really started.

 

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The Structure of the Minors.

The Minor Arcana are interesting. Most people are immediately attracted to the Major Arcana when they come to the Tarot, and this is understandable. The pictures are captivating, and they hold all manner of symbols and secrets. Even in the RWS and similar decks, where the Minor Arcana cards are illustrated, they tend to get brushed to the side in favor of the Majors. I’m often guilty of this, I admit. But the Minor Arcana deserves to be studied, as well.

The Minor Arcana consists of two different kinds of cards: Court cards and small cards, also sometimes called pips. We’ll deal with the small cards first.

If the Major Arcana is considered like an alphabet (an esoteric hieroglyphic alphabet, perhaps, but it can be considered an alphabet nonetheless), then the Minor Arcana small cards are like numbers. Two concepts we learn in grade school today, and the two fundamental building blocks of communication. The small cards consist of numbers one through ten, a complete numeric cycle. The full deck of Tarot cards therefore becomes a sort of code of letters and numbers, almost like its own language.

Of course, there are four suits in the Minor Arcana, with ten small cards per suit, making a total of forty small cards. The number four is significant for many reasons. It represents stability, it represents the four elements (with which the four suits identify), the four Hebrew letters that spell the unpronounceable name of God, and finally, it represents the physical world (as opposed to the number three, which represents the spiritual – this is why seven is such a holy number, being the sum of the worldly and spiritual). I think this last reason fits best with why there should be four suits to the Minors. After all, the Minor Arcana is supposed to represent the mundane physical world, in contrast to the spiritual realm of the Majors. The four elements are the stuff of which this world is made, which is why each element is assigned to a suit.

These suits represent abstractions related to the elements as well as the elements themselves. These are usually associated with realms of human experience. Wands are associated with Fire, which is associated with spirituality, creativity, and passion, Cups with Water, which is love, emotions, and social interactions, Swords with Air, which is intellect, conflict, and sorrow, and Coins with Earth, which is the material world, money, and work.

In this way, with the numbers representing levels of gradation or concentration of the appropriate element, the entirety of worldly human experience is theoretically contained within the small cards. Each number is significant in itself, as is each element, and these two factors are combined in each small card to give a distinct meaning. In many cases, this meaning is further refined with the addition of astrological or other esoteric correspondences.

The cards of the Major Arcana symbolize various aspects of the spiritual realm; the small cards symbolize various aspects of the worldly realm; the court cards, then, bridge the gap by symbolizing the only thing that has ever made such a connection between these realms: human beings.

There are sixteen court cards – four to each suit (there’s that number again). They are pictured as different ranks of medieval society: usually a page, knight, queen, and king, although almost as common is to call the page and knight princess and prince. Each of these is often given an elemental association aside from their suit, namely: king – fire; queen – water; knight – air; and page – earth. Thus, the Knight of Coins would be associated with Air and Earth, by virtue of his rank and suit, respectively. Astrological associations are often applied to court cards as well, which is a popular method of selecting significators.

Using astrological and elemental qualities as a basis, personality traits are assigned to each court card. This allows them to signify real people should they turn up in a spread; alternatively, they could signify something about the querent’s personality that may be influencing a given situation. Each card has positive and negative traits attached to it, illustrating that no one is perfect, and any good quality in an extreme measure can turn bad.

There are many other possible ways to interpret court cards, and as such, they are often the most difficult cards for beginners to understand. I won’t go any further into detail about the myriad of possibilities represented by the court cards here, though. Another time, perhaps.

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Most people recognize in the Minor Arcana a pack of regular playing cards (the main difference being the addition of the Knight among the court cards). The Tarot as a full deck or as a partial deck can indeed be used for gaming – there is even a trick-taking game that was specifically designed for this deck.

A lot of Tarot enthusiasts forget this frivolous function of the deck amidst all of the occult and esoteric hullabaloo that has come to be associated with it. As far as we can reasonably tell, though, it was for gaming purposes that this deck was originally created, and nothing more. That might seem disappointing, but I find a certain comfort in it. After all, just because all the symbolism came as an afterthought doesn’t make it any less real or true. If anything, it makes it all the more potent that it occurred naturally over time, or so I believe.

The humble beginnings of this magical deck as a mere game serves as a reminder to never take things too seriously. It’s a lesson that I think a lot of people in this age of Information and all the stress that comes with it would do well to remember. Tarot is a metaphor for life, and life is a game. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But as long as you’re this side of the grave, you’ll be dealt a new hand at the end of each turn. It’s all for fun if you let it be. That might just be the most important lesson the Tarot has to offer, and it’s not even taught by the haughty Major Arcana, but rather by the lowly Minors. They deserve a little more credit.