Three Reasons Why You Should Use A Significator Card And Six Reasons Why You Should Not

by Douglas Gibb on August 10, 2009

A Significator or a Silhouette of perception

There is a certain school of thought that recommends the use of a Significator card in aiding the Tarot reader during a Tarot reading. Of course, like all subjects that suggest one approach, there is usually a counter argument on why not to use it and the use of a Significator card in a Tarot reading is no different. There are reasons for using a Significator card and there are reasons against it. This post will explore the use of a Significator in a Tarot reading, and in particular the pros and cons.

At one time, using a Significator was considered an extremely important part of doing a Tarot reading. Most Tarot spreads as a result, were designed to integrate this technique into the spread itself – such as the Celtic Cross Spread.

What is a Significator

This is a Tarot card that is specifically selected before the Tarot reading begins; not after or during but before. Spend some time before the reading talking to the client and assessing their expectations on what a Tarot reading can provide, and what they want from the reading. If you choose to use a Significator, the information you will gather at this stage will become invaluable in helping both you and the client select the appropriate card.

The Significator is selected to represent either the client themselves, or the subject of the question. For example, a Court card is most commonly used to represent the Client whereas a Pip or Minor Arcana card is used to represent the subject of the question itself. For instance, if the nature of the question involves a family inheritance, then the 10 of Disks would be an appropriate choice; or if the question involves romance, then perhaps the 2 of Cups is best suited.

How to select a Significator to represent the client

  1. Involve the client in this process. I usually discuss the client’s expectations before a Tarot reading. I use this conversation, amongst other methods to determine what Court card most accurately represents them.
  2. I show them two possible Court cards that I think most accurately represents them. I explain some of my reasons and usually they’ll select the most appropriate of the two.
  3. I would avoid using both Astrological methods and the Physical description of the Court cards as part of the selection process. I find these methods to be useless. However, I mention them in case you connect strongly to using one of these two options.

There are no hard and fast rules for choosing an appropriate Significator. In many ways this comes down to pure intuition and experience. Don’t worry if you’re unsure what card to choose. It’s a good sign that you’re learning and building up experience.

How to select a Significator to represent the question

In many ways this is the easiest type of Significator to select. It does require a basic understanding of the 78 Tarot cards but essentially the Significator is selected based on the exact nature of the question. If it is financial, consider using a Disk card; if it’s a relationship question, consider using a Cup card; if it is a medical or health related question, consider using a Sword card etc.

The card that is selected as the Significator is really not that important. It’s not something to be too concerned with. It’s actually much more important to the success of the reading to involve the client in this process. The involvement of the client is what makes the selection the right one, that and you’re guidance based on intuition.

Three Reasons to use a Significator card in a Tarot reading

  1. A Significator card gives the client something to focus on whilst shuffling the cards. It prevents their mind from wondering and helps produce a trance like effect. It also allows transference between Tarot reader and client, producing the right atmosphere to fully engage in a Tarot reading.
  2. It helps to open up unconscious content within the client when the Tarot reading begins.
  3. It seems to help the client relate to the other cards better. I suspect this is due, in part, to the unconscious content held within the client, which provides this content a chance to voice itself. It also helps, on a visual level, for the client to see themselves as part of something much bigger than just their own desires, hopes and fears. They can begin to see themselves as part of a much more complex set of causal relations which, as mentioned in a previous post, can help them rediscover their humanity.

Six reasons not to use a Significator card

  1. By choosing to use a Significator card, you have removed what might have been a critical influence from the reading. In other words, if the subject of the question involved business, and in particular the negotiation of contracts, you might choose to use the Three of Wands. In this case, the Tarot might have wanted to use that particular card within the context of the spread itself to illustrate the negotiations, and in particular, how those negotiations will be effected by other causal events represented by the other cards. By removing the Three of Wands, the possibility for a complete reading has been compromised.
  2. It is not actually necessary to use a Tarot card as a Significator to produce the benefits I listed above. One method that I’ve read (I forget the authors name) is to actually ask the client to place a coin from their pocket onto the table so that they can focus on that whilst shuffling the cards. This method helps to create some of the benefits I mentioned above. In particular, the trance effect and the opening of unconscious content. This method therefore produces all the benefits of using a Significator without the compromise of removing a Tarot card from the deck.
  3. It is actually unnecessary to use a Significator of any kind during a reading because the dynamics and energy flow created in the act of reading actually produces a receptive atmosphere that assists in helping the client make choices. Although the atmosphere is not as strong, it is still strong enough to produce a good reading without having to resort to a Significator.
  4. Imagine a situation where you select a Court card to represent the client, and the reading itself concerns a relationship reading. For example, the Queen of Wands is selected but in the cards you have dealt, the Queen of Cups turns up. Does the Queen of Cups represent the client or a love rival? This kind of confusion can be avoided by not using a Significator at all.
  5. A person is continuously changing and so to represent them using one ‘fixed’ card can be limiting and inaccurate. For instance, in one area of the client’s life, they may be a Student and thus a Page or Princess, and in another, they may be a parent and thus a King or a Queen. We each have different roles in life that can be represented by different Court cards. No one role should take priority over another if we want to achieve a balanced and objective reading.
  6. Symbolically, using a Significator acts to remove free-will. Let me explain: a Significator is meant to represent the client, their true essence. In other words, the Significator represents who the client really is, not dependent on circumstances or events, but who they are outside of those events. By placing the Significator next to the Tarot reading, you are symbolically removing them from their life. In other words, you are looking at what is going to happen to the client regardless of their choices; this can be seen as pure fortune telling, and limits the client’s ability to take control of their lives.

Conclusion

I think the use of a Significator within a Tarot reading can be useful. The benefits for doing so are very positive. However, I do feel that in the majority of cases it is perhaps a little unnecessary. It’s almost like going to a knife fight armed with a missile launcher. It’s effective and gets the job done but was it really required to go to those extremes? I’ve done literally thousands of Tarot readings and I can honestly say I have only ever used this technique a few times. When I did, it surprised me how effective it actually was but those were special circumstances, requiring me to approach matters in a very specific way.

The use of a Significator depends on the question, not the person. The real key to a successful Tarot reading is to involve the client in the build up to the reading, the conversation before hand, the selection of the Significator, the forming of a question and the shuffling of the deck. All these little processes combine to produce a successful reading, not one technique on its own.

If you decide to use a Significator, I would suggest practicing this technique continuously for about a week, then switch and do readings without using a Significator. Oscillate between using this technique and not using it until you feel comfortable with the process. Try to understand, in an everyday context, what the benefits of it are, and also the drawbacks. Treat this almost like an experiment. I would suggest conducting this experiment over a four week period. This would allow enough time to assess the pros and cons of using this method yourself.

Let me know what your experiences are with using a Significator and if you feel it’s a requirement for a successful reading?

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15 comments… Let's discuss

Theresa August 10, 2009 at 9:09 pm

Another great, thought provoking article. I myself do not use significators, and never have. I believe the proper card for the current energy of the client will pop up without me having to make a judgment call. I also don’t like to “box” people in with one card. Too limiting and judgmental.

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Douglas August 11, 2009 at 12:10 pm

Theresa: I really like your comment:

I also don’t like to “box” people in with one card. Too limiting and judgmental.

I think this is a really important point. When I first started reading the Tarot a friend of mine gave me the best piece of advice a beginner could get; he said, “Doug be objective”.

I think you’re right to say that using a Significator is judgmental. In many ways, by making such a judgment on the character of the client we are bringing far too much of ourselves to a Tarot reading. Rather than the cards indicating the limitations within the client’s life, we would be adding our own limitations onto that client.

What you’ve said is something that I and everybody else should try and remember every single time we do a reading – be objective!

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Amaranth August 11, 2009 at 2:01 am

I tried using the Significator card back when I first began to read tarot. I believe in many ways that this could well have been what confused me whe I attempted to do readings. It always seemed as though something wasn’t quite right, and things didn’t make sense. I haven’t used one since then and I haven’t had any problems.

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Douglas August 11, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Amaranth: I couldn’t agree more. Using a Significator can add a level of confusion to a Tarot reading that is unnecessary. I also had the same problem when I first started learning the Tarot. I just couldn’t get my head around the point of a Significator. It just didn’t make any sense to me. Why use one?

After the first couple of years working as a Tarot reader, I began to understand some of its potentially positive uses but there are so many problems associated with using a Significator that it’s hard to justify using one for every single Tarot reading. In my opinion, the use of Significator can be useful, but only very specific circumstances. Theresa mentioned one of the main problems with using a Significator – limiting and judgmental.

As Tarot readers it is important to examine what we bring to a Tarot reading; our own personal fears, anxieties and morality. Unfortunately, besides being mindful of our own personal perceptions of reality, there is nothing we can do about this. In a sense, we will always bring a part of ‘ourselves’ to a Tarot reading.

Do you think the use of a Significator is over stepping the mark in this respect? By using one are we bringing far too much of ourselves and judgments to the reading?

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Ginger August 12, 2009 at 12:07 am

Thanks for stopping by my blog…this is a great piece…and I really agree with numbers four and five under WHY NOT to use one…Funny though I was just thinking about a spread today to use with the Fairy Tale Tarot and the one I’m contemplating creating has a significator in it…BUT it is simply the Fool not one of the court cards which may have specific characteristics associated with them…although I suppose…so does the Fool. Hmmm…more to ponder

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Douglas August 12, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Hi Ginger, thanks for dropping by :)

The Fool can be a good choice as a Significator because of its associations with the Heroes journey. It would be very fitting for Fairy Tale Tarot – Archetypes, and unconscious content. In this context, the Fool’s specific characteristics would be to enhance the focus on hidden aspects of Nature and the Mind (especially for the client) – and Man’s place within these two realms. A great idea. Let me know how you get on with it and if you feel the use of a Significator has enhanced the Fairy Tale qualities of the deck, spread and reading for which you have created and performed.

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Jason August 17, 2009 at 1:14 am

I use a significator when it’s required by the nature of the spread or its methodology. I don’t use one if it’s not. For example, with Opening of the Key I would first choose a significator; for the Celtic Cross I would not.

For me the significator is mostly useful when I need, or want, to identify the querent in a spread. I find it has more use in older and non-positional methods of reading.

What do you think of older tarot methods that automatically used the Magician or High Priestess as the significator? Most modern readers hate tying up those cards; I think there’s a welcome simplicity to it. Even Paul Foster Case taught this method at one point (for OOTK no less).

Choosing a situational card is interesting to me; this is a common technique when reading European cards like Lenormand. Sometimes this is to provide an “index” for a subject when the whole deck is layed out. I don’t quite see the value for tarot, although you make good points about the discussion that can ensue to narrow down the queren’ts question.

“One method that I’ve read (I forget the authors name) is to actually ask the client to place a coin from their pocket onto the table so that they can focus on that whilst shuffling the cards.” –> Raymond Buckland has written about this and its origins in the saying “cross my palm with silver.” He suggests that a coin held by the querent can be laid out as a significator, and will hold some of the owner’s energy; which puts it in the same class as a significator card.

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Douglas August 17, 2009 at 11:30 am

Hi Jason,

I’d totally forgotten that it was Raymond Buckland. Thank you for reminding me ;) . I’ve always liked that idea.

What do you think of older tarot methods that automatically used the Magician or High Priestess as the significator? Most modern readers hate tying up those cards; I think there’s a welcome simplicity to it. Even Paul Foster Case taught this method at one point (for OOTK no less).

It’s a good method if you’re comfortable with using significators.

In my opinion it all comes down to whether or not, you, as a Tarot reader, feel the use of a significator is appropriate. If the answer to that question is yes, then it’s a matter of personal preference as to what technique to use. The methods taught by Paul Foster Case, that of using either the Magician if it’s a male or the Priestess if it’s a female, (or even his use of birth dates) is an excellent approach.

I think the main goal of using a significator card is to assist in creating the right atmosphere for the reading; by providing an object for the client to focus on. In terms of the client, there might be something quite empowering in the selection of either of those two cards. For instance, the Magician has an air of confidence which might be useful while the Priestess has an air of knowledge or understanding.

As you pointed out, the downside of using either of these cards is that they remove them from the divination. Regardless of the pros and cons, if you feel the use of a significaor is useful within the context of the reading then the methods taught by Paul Foster Case are excellent.

The use of a situational card is something that might be appropriate in only a small number of cases, but when it is appropriate it can be very effective. It’s especially good for assisting a client that can’t focus, or is deeply confused about a variety of different issues or, from personal experience, has so many questions that need answering that their concentration on any one question is minimal. In this sense, it’s a good technique to help get the client into a slightly more relaxed, receptive and focused place.

I use a significator when it’s required by the nature of the spread or its methodology. I don’t use one if it’s not. For example, with Opening of the Key I would first choose a significator; for the Celtic Cross I would not.

That’s a good method for using the significator. Some spreads have been designed with it in mind while others haven’t.

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Mystic Chick October 22, 2009 at 1:57 am

I admit I am probably in the minority when I say that I am a significator user. However, I had been trying to figure out how to streamline the process for situations where I have to read quickly for many people. Thank you for giving me such helpful ideas. I also got to thinking, that maybe a crystal (either clear quartz or one of the querant’s choosing) could also be used as a significator. Food for thought.

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Douglas October 22, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Hi Mystic Chick,

Thanks for dropping by :D

There are people I know that use Crystals, not only to represent the Significator, but as a way of structuring “Magick” into the reading process itself.

I’m glad you enjoyed the post :)

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Phillip St Clair Martin March 8, 2010 at 8:30 am

I’ve often found that using a significator as a focus point can be a very useful tool. I just don’t choose it. I just draw a Significator the same way that would any other card. It often ends up being what the client REALLY came to find out, rather than what they asked.

All in all, an excellent article.

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Douglas Gibb March 10, 2010 at 12:38 am

Hi Phillip,

Thank you for your kind words :)

I like your method. I’m starting to work with the Tarot in a similar way – looking for methods that foster a deeper connection, level of trust and relationship with the Tarot. Allowing the Tarot to select the Significator, in my opinion, definitely ticks those boxes!

It often ends up being what the client REALLY came to find out…

This is the sign of a great technique!

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Steven Winterfeldt May 6, 2010 at 3:05 am

I haven’t tried using significators much, mostly because of the difficulty in choosing one. However, on the point about limiting the spread because you take out a card: I have read of choosing a significator and then placing it back in the deck. You simply pay extra attention to it if it pops up in the spread.

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Douglas Gibb May 8, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Hi Steven,

Thanks for adding to the discussion. The method you suggest does seem to have merit, in the sense that it’s a low effort approach. Low effort approaches are the most valuable kind when reading for other people. It allows us to focus more on the client and their particular needs.

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Richard December 27, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Hi I’m new to tarot reading I’ve not done many and olny just started to use a significator. The way I do a reading is to sit down with the client and talk about y he is here and wat he wants to achieve from it. I use the same method on here to select the significator but chooseing the sute that best for the client question or situation leaving them to choose one from the ones I’ve selected. I would then get the cliant to put the card back and start them shuffleing the card, but befor the shuffleing I tell the cliant to focuse there question on to significator while shuffleing. I like to believe that by putting the card back and the focuse and energy of the cliant on the significator this will spread throw the cards to bring the right cards out for the reading. So if the significator is drawn from the card for the reading I place extra value on it

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