Real tarot techniques – sign reading

This is Part 2 of an article originally written by theraggededge for TABI (Tarot Association of the British Isles).

In Part 1 – Moving Pictures, I talked about looking at the cards in a way that allows you to see how they interact with you and with other cards. Another way of pulling the right messages from the cards is the use of semiotic analysis. It sounds off-putting but it is quite simple and is one more implement in your tarot-reading toolbox.

Semiotics is, in the simplest sense, the study of signs. The aim of this article is to enable the reader to become aware of not just the meaning of the image on the card, but of the subtle signs which can elevate a good reading to a brilliant one. This is not the study of tarot symbolism other than the very basics, which you already know: – cups = water = emotions, etcetera.

Everyday signs are usually instantly recognisable – they are strong on visuals but may also incorporate words and phrases. The art of reading signs (and there is one; usually unnoticed and considered innate, because we take signs for granted in everyday life) is all about understanding the message in the context within which it appears. There are times when the message will make its point even if we are not consciously aware that we have understood it, or even paying it any attention; this happens with magazine and TV advertising constantly. Semiotics represents a means of communication that conveys all the intended information to the viewer in one succinct message. Can this not be applied to a Tarot card? Is it possible to view a card as containing ALL the information that we need to know about a particular situation at that particular moment?

It is important to recognise, within the framework of a spread, that the card’s ‘value’ depends upon surrounding cards for its context. The context is also affected by the reader’s mood, the energy of the querent and, of course, the question. There are a great many variables that affect ‘the way a card means’ as opposed to ‘what’ it means. However, by applying the most basic approach to semiotics it may be possible to isolate the right interpretation.

In the science of semiotics, relationships are everything. Colours convey different meanings, Green Santa Clausaccording to their surroundings. For example, if a man wearing a green shirt is depicted, the colour green doesn’t mean an awful lot.  However, if he is wearing a Santa Claus hat and holding a steaming plum pudding or a bunch of holly, the greenness, juxtaposed with red, denotes ‘Christmas-ness’. Remove the Santa hat, put a shillelagh or a pint of Guinness in his hand and the green will connote ‘Irishness’.


Semiotics in practice

The relationship of the sign to its surroundings enables swift delivery of the message. Let’s take an example. A mother is concerned that her student son has not found himself a summer job. He has made some effort but, in her view, not enough. He will need to boost his finances in preparation for the new academic year. Her question is, “What might help me to convey to my son the importance of finding himself a job over the coming weeks?”

We drew three cards in the classic tradition using the Universal Waite:

1.What is moving into the past?
2.What is the present situation?
3.What is moving towards the present?
Seven of Swords Universal WaiteSwords 1 Cups 7








1. Seven of Swords,
2. Ace of Swords
3. Seven of Cups.

One of the first things a student of semiotics is taught is to recognise what is not present. So what is not present that we might have expected to see? The question is (apparently) centred upon the son’s lack of money. Money is represented by Pentacles/Coins, right? None there. This immediately suggests that the crux of the issue is not money, or even the lack of a job, after all.

Anything else? The mother would like to see her son take some action. Action is generally represented by Wands. None there. So not much physical activity is taking place.

Ask the client what she sees – denotation

So what is there? Two Sword cards and a Cup. Mental in past and present, emotional in the future. It appears that the woman’s son has at least been giving his situation some thought. We begin to examine the Seven of Swords. The semiotics student will have learned that interpretation of a sign starts with ‘denotation’, i.e. what the sign denotes. This means regarding an image in its most literal sense. On the Seven of Swords, we see a male figure leaving an encampment with five swords. He leaves two behind him and he seems happy in the completion of his mission.

I ask the client to tell me what she sees. “Well, they’re his swords.” I ask her to go on, she thinks for a minute. “Yes,” she says, “he’s raiding his savings.” Well, that was a new one on me, but it made complete sense to the mother as the day before her son had withdrawn several hundred pounds from his Post Office account, in which he has been saving his birthday money since childhood. This is denotation Swords 7in action – looking at the image literally.

Connotation: What does it mean to *you*?

The next thing to think about is ‘connotation’, or what a sign actually means to us.

Connotation is the information we derive from a sign when placed in context of its environment or surroundings. In this case, the surroundings are formed by the issue, the question, the subject of the reading and the querent.

Looking at the reading in its widest context – the mother is worried about her son, the son is an adult but the mother finds it difficult to allow him to get on with his life. She feels he still requires guidance and hence the concern and the request for a reading. Looking again at the image, we see that the son is having to raid his savings account but is not happy about sharing this information with his mother – but if she does find out, then he is going to do it anyway. He has also made sure that he has only taken what he needs. The remaining money (swords) is safer left in the account.


The final ingredient in the analysis is ‘myth‘. In the semiotic sense, myth is defined as a widely-held cultural view that is taken for granted, (e.g. The American Dream). Applying ‘myth’ to the Seven of Swords means simply using its most common meaning, i.e. sneaky and secretive. This fits in, rightly or wrongly, with the woman’s view of her son’s actions.

Semiotic analysis, in this case, has told us far more about the woman’s perceptions of her son’s behaviour than we might have first expected.

We can now go on to applying the formula to the remaining two cards.

I ask her to look at the Ace of Swords in the present position (denotation). She gazes long and hard. Finally, she says, “He’s taking control, and, in the nicest way, he’s giving me the finger!” Well, yes Swords 1(conotation).

It made sense to me. Here is a boy who needs to put his mother firmly in her place. Whether he is doing the right thing or not, he has to use the energy of the Ace of Swords to cut through to the truth that she has to face (myth/traditional card meaning). He is no longer in need of her guidance unless he calls for it. This uses the connotation part of the analysis; the reader sees the card in relation to the querent, her son and the situation.

The client and I discussed this aspect of having to let children go; she agreed she still views him as about fourteen years old instead of nearly twenty. She will have to let him shear away from her; both mentally and physically, allowing him to make his own decisions and mistakes. ‘Cutting the ties’ – the myth, another popular meaning of the Ace of Swords.

We moved on to the Seven of Cups. Note the two challenging sevens split by the Ace. Following the same procedure, I ask her to describe what the card meant to her in connection with the situation. “He’s looking at all those things – he’s not sure which to choose, he’s amazed at the choice in front of him.” This, again, is the denotation part of the exercise, simply looking at what the message means to the individual.Cups 7

I ask her if she is aware of any choices facing her son at the present time. She tells me he is considering using some more of his savings to pay for an intensive driving course and that he has said he might prefer to work part-time when back at university; also that he also has talked about the possibility of a house-share with some other students. She adds that he has nearly £2,000 to see him through any lean times. My client has already seen for herself that her son is quite capable of taking care of himself and that her desire to see him working was fuelled by the desire to allay her own misgivings about her son’s financial security. This utilises connotation in reading the Seven of Cups in conjunction with the surrounding cards, the reader and the querent.

I tell her some of the most popular meanings of the Seven of Cups and, thinking about the ‘wooliness’ that this card engenders in me and the myth aspect of my semiotic analysis, I wonder aloud whether her son did a lot of daydreaming, “Well, he does think a lot, very quiet and sensible he is for a student,” Then she goes on, “I tell you what that card makes me think of too – he’s a chemistry student – look at him turning all that stuff to gold!” Alchemy! So literal, these cards!

Incidentally, these three cards were actually part of a larger spread, a miniature Celtic Cross. The other three cards were: In the crossing position – the Empress; in the root position, the Queen of Cups; and above, the World.

So next time you feel stumped, see if a bit of denotation, connotation and myth can help you see the signs more clearly.

The Universal Waite: Good for beginner and experienced reader alike.

The serene Universal Waite Tarot is perfect for meditation and readings. The deck is a soothing, eye-appealing complement to the traditional Rider-Waite deck. The drawings of Pamela Colman Smith have been beautifully recolored by Mary Hanson-Roberts.

Universal Waite


2 thoughts on “Real tarot techniques – sign reading

  1. Tamara

    I am LOVING your articles — thank you so much! I am interested in hearing more about the “miniature Celtic Cross” spread you used… THANKS!

    1. theraggededge Post author

      Thanks for your kind words, Tamara 🙂

      In essence the (my) miniature CC is one centre card to represent the issue, and four surrounding cards. At the base is the root cause of the situation, to the left is past (or what is presently moving into the past), at the top is the seeker’s aspirations or what they want from the situation, to the right is the future (or what is currently moving into the present). And of course, you have the option of adding in any further cards of the CC to provide clarification.

      Another way is to just lay out two cards in the centre as per the normal CC and then run the timeline across; one card to the left and one to the right. You can use the left-hand card as the past & the root cause. The card to the right is the future and outcome. I love the CC because you already have the structure and your preferred meanings, so you can use it or parts of it as you will. xx


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