A Study in Facing: Directionality in the Cards of the Tarot

I once had a friend whose English pronunciation was a bit on the ragged side. He added an “s” to many singular nouns (those of you from a certain part of the world will relate) and instead of the common idiom “Let’s face it,” he always said “Let me face it.” So let’s do that . . . .

Facing or directionality in the cards of the tarot has always intrigued those who use the cards for divination. One convention that takes advantage of this phenomenon is the assumption that the cards to the left in a line reading represent the past, the focus card in the center shows the present, and the cards to the right reveal the future. The facing of cards in the line will indicate whether they are moving with the flow of events (facing right) or “swimming against the tide” (facing left). The 78 cards break down into one group where the dominant facing of the figure(s) — or the visual “flow” of the scene — is toward the left, a second group that moves more or less insistently toward the right and a third group that is neutral, having no obvious pictorial “slant” and/or showing its human figures facing straight out of or into the scene. The key elements in this determination are the gaze (also called “regard”), posture and gesture of the human figures.

I find that facing is an under-valued arrow in my interpretive quiver. I don’t use it to determine the flow of the time-line in the Celtic Cross (it’s always clockwise) and I don’t use it at all with Lenormand cards. I do find value in the Golden Dawn’s stipulation that a King (the mounted guy to them) facing against the flow of the card sequence can mean that a person or event will be entering the matter, while one facing in the same direction as the flow implies that something similar will be leaving the querent’s vicinity. I also sometimes use the facing of a court card as a way to tell whether the subject of the reading is focused on the past or the future, and in a relationship reading, whether toward or away from the partner.

This last one has been on my mind in connection with the use of a court card as the “significator” in the Celtic Cross spread. I stopped using this avatar for the querent a while ago because it seemed redundant to the talking one sitting across the table from me. But I started thinking that randomly selecting a court card to place at the beginning of a CC might be a good indication of whether the querent or subject of the reading is still hung up on the recent past (left-looking) or leaning toward the near future and beyond (right-looking). Of course, in some decks the figure on the card is facing straight out of the picture, in which case I would use revered orientation to show a deep, abiding obsession with past matters and upright status as living entirely in the here-and-now. Reversal will also change the directionality of a normally left-facing or right-facing card, perhaps making the emphasis more covert.

I would do this by taking the court cards out of the deck, shuffling them as a sub-pack, and drawing one for the significator position. I would then reassemble the deck and continue. However, because one of the arguments against using significator cards is that the practice takes a card out of circulation for the balance of the reading, I would most likely use a second deck for the purpose. I wouldn’t read this card as part of the narrative other than using it as a kind of “pointer” for where in the time-line I should focus my attention. This would also be a useful consideration to bring up to the querent, who should be able to acknowledge one way or the other.

Part 1: The Court Cards

In the RWS deck, the court cards as a subset make for an interesting comparative study.

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Copyright US Games Systems, Stamford, CT

Nine of them are either nominally or emphatically future-oriented, with only the Page of Swords conflicted; all of his body language points toward the right, but he’s looking back over his shoulder and his unweighted right foot hesitates between being planted in the past or shifted ahead into the future. The bodies of the Queen of Wands and King of Pentacles assume a neutral posture but their heads are turned to the right; they are in control of past and present circumstances and are anticipating what’s ahead, although they aren’t yet actively pursuing it. The King of Cups has his right foot down and his body shifted like he’s about to push off to his right (or maybe he’s just doing the “one-cheek sneak”). The rest of the cards in this group have definitely decided to leave the past behind.

The King of Swords faces straight out of the picture, but his sword is held to the left side, implying that he is trying to fend off the past; because he is seated in a neutral posture, he is vulnerable to being overtaken by past problems and is therefore vigilant.

Six of the cards are facing strongly leftward. The Knight of Wands and Knight of Swords are charging in that direction (perhaps fighting a “rear guard” action), the Page of Cups has an undecided stance but his attentive gaze leaves no doubt of his focus, the King of Wands and Queen of Pentacles are leaning slightly forward on their thrones, and the Queen of Cups is sitting back but nodding her head toward the chalice that holds her memories. The suggestion is that there is still unfinished business that needs to be wrapped up before anything new can be undertaken.

When the court cards are paired in a reading, facing can reveal whether: 1) they are openly communicating with one another (the degree of eye contact is also telling) and are most likely on the same page; 2) one has turned his or her back on the other, or 3) they are mutually disaffected and moving apart. Reversal may show that one or the other (or both) is being deceptive or dishonest.

I get the most value out of this breakdown when I randomly select a court card to serve as the Significator in a Celtic Cross reading (using the Eden Gray model). A left-facing, upright card shows that the querent has yet to shake off the effects of recent events and still has work to do; a right-facing, upright card indicates that the querent is fully prepared to move ahead with his or her life; a left-facing, reversed card implies that the querent is still deeply invested in some aspect of the distant past that won’t go away; and a right-facing reversed card means that the querent is firmly rooted in the present, staying in the “comfort zone”and only interested in poking one foot tentatively into the unknown.

Part 2: The Major Arcana

I separated the Major Arcana cards of the RWS deck into three subgroups: those cards that have either a pronounced or insinuated “lean” to the left (the past), those that are gazing or aligned straight out of the card, facing the observer (the present), and those that favor the right side (the future). The key elements in this determination are the gaze, posture or gesture of the human figure or the directional flow of the action in the scene.

Copyright US Games Systems, Stamford, CT

As we might have supposed in advance, a majority of the trump cards (13 out of 22) are neutral in orientation. After all, universal archetypes just are; while they may strongly influence a situation, they don’t do anything — it’s a human prerogative to “do” something in cooperation with them (or allow something to happen due to neglect). Of that group, only the figure in the World seems ambiguous: her body is facing to the right but her head is turned to the left. This implies the continuity of manifestation, acknowledging the past while stepping off into the future. It could be argued that the Hanged Man and the Tower are facing “down,” but they are still aligned with the center, suggesting circumstances in the “here-and-now.”

Of the left-facing group, the Moon as the key figure in that card imparts a “past” focus, which aligns well with the Moon’s correlation to “memory,” also reinforced by the crustacean emerging from the pool. The other four cards are clearly facing to the left. The Fool would seem to be miscast, since it usually implies “beginnings,” but much has been said in the esoteric literature about the figure carrying his memories of the last cycle in his satchel. He would seem to be looking back toward the World of his previous incarnation, another indication of continuity. With these cards, I would look for something of major importance from the past, corresponding to the nature of the particular card, that will be brought forward and resolved, whether or not the querent wants to deal with it.

Of the neutral group, the Wheel of Fortune has no human figures by which to determine facing, and the figures that are present are moving in a circular fashion, first forward and then backward; thus, directionality is conflicted. The assumption is that things could go either way; it implies a “one step forward, two steps back” scenario,” with hopes for the future riding a razor’s edge. In the Tower, the structure itself is the central feature and it gives no hint of a trajectory; the figures are falling straight down in “real time,” with only the lightning bolt coming from the right to show that arrogance could not be suffered to be continue. All of these cards suggest something unavoidable that is staring the querent in the face right now, daring him or her to blink.

Of the right-facing group, the Empress and Judgement give only the faintest impression of future developments. The Empress is comfortable where she is, and may only be idly contemplating the implied childbirth that has been proposed as her destiny. While Judgement has been seen as a harbinger of transcendence, the image isn’t giving anything away regarding the fate of the candidates for resurrection. Death and the Sun clearly indicate two sides of the same coin, with the Sun moving into the light and Death courting the shadow. The status quo is ripe for change either way. These cards — the smallest of the subgroups — stand at the threshold of significant change and are prodding it along rather than just letting it take its own course.

Part 3: The Minor Arcana

The Minor Arcana, or numbered “small” cards, of the RWS deck are by far the most diverse population from a directional standpoint, since there are more cards that I would classify as “ambiguous.” This includes cards with posture/gaze misalignment and cards with multiple figures that give no clear sense of facing or “visual flow.” There are 12 cards in the left-facing (past) category, 14 cards that display a neutral (present) orientation, and 12 cards that face toward the right (future). The ambiguous cards include the 9 of Wands, the 4 of Cups, the 7 of Swords, the 9 of Pentacles, the 5 of Wands, the 10 of Pentacles, the 6 of Cups and the 2 of Pentacles. While the 4 of Swords, the 8 of Swords and the 10 of Swords appear to have nominal directionality, they are really going nowhere so they are binned with the neutral subgroup.

Copyright US Games Systems, Stamford, CT

Of the left-facing group, the figure in the 9 of Wands appears to be glancing warily over his shoulder, perhaps thinking that the momentarily vanquished enemy is sneaking up on him. The man in the 4 of Cups has his hands full with the current crop of goblets, but another one is appearing stage-left, demanding his attention. Both of these individuals are firmly rooted in the present, but their past threatens to overtake them. The 7 of Swords is the most conflicted card of the bunch, stealthily retreating back the way he came but strongly compelled to rehash his recent adventure, clearly plotting another foray. The woman on the 9 of Pentacles is comfortable with what her past life has brought her, but she can’t help anticipating more. What I’ve always noticed about this card is that there is no path leading out of her garden, so she is essentially a prisoner of her own success. The little bird, which has the freedom to fly wherever it wishes, is her only solace. The figures or scenes in the rest of the cards in this subgroup either face or flow decisively to the left, and are interested in what they may be leaving behind.

Of the neutrally-oriented subgroup, the facing of the 5 of Wands is a toss-up that will be decided by the outcome of the battle, the 4, 8 and 10 of Swords are essentially static and bereft of purpose, and the 10 of Pentacles shows three generations that appear to be at cross-purposes with no clear trajectory. The rest of the cards in this population are unmoved by “time or tide” (although the 7 of Wands remains so only by sheer force of will), reflecting immersion in the present with no consideration of anything outside of the moment.

Of the right-facing subgroup, I decided that the man on the 3 of Wands — although he appears to be facing directly away from the observer — has his right arm outstretched toward a future which is symbolized by the merchant vessels starting out on their voyage. The 6 of Cups earns inclusion due to the left-to-right visual flow of the image, with the older child giving way to the younger one; although a common interpretation of this card is “nostalgia,” its trajectory bets on a future “refresh” or “reboot” of one’s stale emotional state, not on memories of the past. The figure on the 2 of Pentacles is struggling to maintain his equilibrium through fancy footwork, but his gaze is firmly fixed before him and not behind. The rest of the cards leave no doubt about the direction in which they are facing, and their interest in what awaits them is apparent in the images.

Here is a spread named in honor of the aforementioned acquaintance:

The “Let Me Face It” Action/Initiative Decision-Making Spread

This spread uses the facing of the court cards to indicate which of four rows of face-down cards to select for the reading. The court cards are separated from the deck, and the rest of the cards are shuffled and dealt face-down, in any order, into the twenty positions of the layout. The court cards are then shuffled and dealt face-up, top-to-bottom, into the left-hand column until a right-facing court card appears. This card is the “pointer” that identifies the five-card line to be read for the question or topic area. These cards are intended to represent the most accurate expression of ways in which the characteristics, attitudes and behaviors of the highlighted court card can be leveraged (or could emerge unbidden) in any actions or initiatives the querent might be advised or compelled to take.

Recognizing that not all court cards will have a distinct left-or-right orientation of its central figure, other distinguishing features can be used; these include posture and gesture (aka “body language”), dominant-hand-held objects (like the sword in the right hand of the RWS King of Swords, who faces straight out), the flow of the landscape (downhill implies movement in that direction) and anything else that suggests obvious directionality. Reversals may be used in this spread for both the main array and the sixteen court cards (which can rotate the customary facing).

I’ve been involved in the esoteric arts since 1972, with a primary interest in tarot and astrology. See my previous work at www.parsifalswheeldivination.com.

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