The First Operation: Adapting a Traditional Method in the “Opening of the Key” to Contemporary Tarot Applications

The First Operation is the first step to an extensive divination method called the “Opening of the Key,” a method associated with the Golden Dawn approach to tarot reading. Paul Foster Case’s book, Oracle of the Tarot (1933) provides a great instructional on the First Operation. A PDF of the book can be downloaded HEREFor a recent publication on “Opening of the Key,” read “The Golden Dawn Opening of the Key Method” by Marcus Katz of Tarot Professionals, linked HERE.

Now I’ve extracted the First Operation method from the Opening of the Key to use contemporaneously with modern approaches to tarot reading.

Selecting the Signifier

There are many ways of selecting a signifier card, also known as the significator. A classic “old school” Golden Dawn approach is to use The Magician for a male and The High Priestess for a female. However, I was taught to use court cards. The following is my court card approach to selecting the signifier:

Astrol. Signs, Sun Sign Dates


Court Card Signifier
Aries, MAR 21 – APR 19


PAGE for young female
Leo, JUL 23 – AUG 22 KNIGHT for young male
Sagittarius, NOV 22 – DEC 21 QUEEN for adult female
KING for adult male
Cancer, JUN 21 – JUL 22


PAGE for young female
Scorpio, OCT 23 – NOV 21 KNIGHT for young male
Pisces, FEB 19 – MAR 20 QUEEN for adult female
KING for adult male
Libra, SEPT 23 – OCT 22


PAGE for young female
Aquarius, JAN 20 – FEB 18 KNIGHT for young male
Gemini, MAY 21 – JUN 20 QUEEN for adult female
KING for adult male
Capricorn, DEC 22 – JAN 19


PAGE for young female
Taurus, APR 20 – MAY 20 KNIGHT for young male
Virgo, AUG 23 – SEPT 22 QUEEN for adult female
KING for adult male

Cutting the Cards

After a signifier card is selected for the Seeker, shuffle the signifier card back in with the rest of the deck. The Seeker should then concentrate on his or her question (if consulting for a specific inquiry) or clear the mind with meditation techniques (if consulting generally) and shuffle the tarot. Once the Seeker is satisfied, he or she hands the deck to the practitioner. The tarot practitioner then cuts the deck into two piles, illustrated below as 1st and 2nd. Cut them right to left.

Then taking part of the 1st pile, cut left again to form the 3rd pile illustrated below. Taking part of the 2nd pile, cut left to form the 4th pile.


You should then have four separate files. Right to left, the piles represent IHVH, the four constants forming the Hebrew tetragrammaton or name of the supreme being. The concept can also be extended to represent the cosmic qi, a universal vital energy, or the collective unconscious.

Pile Correspondences: I H V H

Next, the practitioner goes through each of the four piles to locate the signifier card. The pile that the signifier card is found in (i.e., I, H1, V, or H2) will indicate the nature of the Seeker’s question.


Personal Development; Health & Wellness. Seeker is asking about matters of personal development, such as work or career. Could indicate an interest in beginning a new venture or carrying out a new idea. Pile is also associated with the physical, such as body, health, or wellness issues. (Corresponds with Wands.)


Love, Marriage, Family. The internal sphere: Seeker is asking about emotions, feelings, personal relationships, or desires. This pile pertains to the domestic sphere and interpersonal matters. (Corresponds with Cups.)


Politics, Ambitions, Social, Mental. The intellectualized sphere: Seeker is asking about ambitions and high aspirations. This pile corresponds with the Seeker’s role in society. Activists and leaders often find their signifier cards in this pile. This pile could also pertain to conflict resolution, imbalances or disappointments. Note further that this pile could suggest intellectual matters at play, or a mental struggle. This is the hardest of the four piles to read, but curiously enough, the signifier rarely appears in this pile–only for the most unique of Seeker spirits does the signifier appear here (Corresponds with Swords.)


Money, Business, Property. Seeker is asking about a material matter, finances, property, or wealth. When the signifier appears in this pile, the Seeker should be focusing on financial concerns, wealth management, or the settlement of a particular piece of property. (Corresponds with Pentacles.)

If Seeker consulted for a general inquiry, then the pile indicates what the tarot reveals should be Seeker’s main focus in his or her life right now.

If the Seeker asked a specific question but the pile the signifier card is found in is not the nature of the question asked, then per the Golden Dawn approach, it is recommended that the reading does not proceed further. However, I suggest that the Seeker should then be asked whether he or she would like to proceed with a consultation on the issues that the First Operation revealed. If yes, the practitioner can proceed with a reading on the issue that the First Operation selected. If no, the practitioner can then stop here.

I like to use the First Operation as a preliminary diagnosis of any sub-issues within a main issue that Seeker should focus on. For instance, if I consult the tarot about a creative project I am working on, I might perform the First Operation to identify which component of the project may require greater consideration: its development (I), the people involved (H1), potential conflicts, goals, ideological influences, or communications (V), or the financing and material concerns of the project (H2).

Final Notes

Even though I don’t have the intelligence to explain why the First Operation works for me in readings, it does. It is uncanny at pointing out the sub-issues I need to address.

I also provide a worksheet for practicing the First Operation, “Quick Review of the Case Method First Operation,”  available on the Tarot Worksheet Downloads page.

Note that my correlations to each of the four piles differs from the correlations espoused by Paul Foster Case in Oracle and perhaps may differ from other prevailing texts on the First Operation or Opening of the Key Method. After my years of practice, I have found the foregoing to be a more accurate approach in assessing where the Seeker is at in his or her stage of life. Those who are interested in insights into their career prospects often have the signifier card appear in either the I or H2 pile; those who have been more concerned with a spouse, love, romance, or family issues find their signifier cards turning up in the H1 pile; and those who seem destined for a higher purpose in life, a mission involving greater influence over the community at large will find their signifiers appearing in the V pile.

See also: A 10-Week Independent Study Course with Paul Foster Case, link:

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