A Tarot-Reading “Mandorla”

A mandorla is an almond-shaped aureola, i.e. a frame that — unlike a halo — completely encloses devotional figures such as Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary in Christian iconography. It is usually synonymous with vesica, a lens shape, and is often used to depict sacred moments that transcend time and space. The example with which most tarot enthusiasts are familiar is the oval surrounding the central figure on Arcanum XXI, the World. In casting about for a new paradigm upon which to base spread designs, I decided to lay out the trump cards in a mandorla configuration with two separate hemispheres. The left side contains Trumps I through IX while the right side includes Trumps XII through XX, two chains of nine cards that both culminate at the top of the pattern.

The hub of the array — which I think of as the “engine” and the “moral compass” or “gyroscope” — is comprised of the “Alpha and Omega” of the tarot, the Fool as 0 and the World as XXI, and the two cards that define the “cusp of change” in the middle of the 22-card numerical sequence — The Wheel of Fortune as X (10, the end of the first hemi-cycle) and Strength as XI (11, the beginning of the second hemi-cycle). I view the left hemisphere as showing the environment of personal cognizance and responsibility (the Self) and the right one as reflecting the parameters of social interaction and intervention (the Other). The four inner cards portray the motivational forces that drive and steer the entire pattern, and also form the “eye of the needle” through which one ideally passes from a private, self-absorbed singularity to a more inclusive and objective plurality, with the attendant tests and trials.

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Copyright US Games Systems, Stamford, CT

The number 21 looms large in this figure. The nucleus contains two sets of cards that add to 21: the Fool and the World (the “Universe” in the Thoth deck), and the Wheel of Fortune and Strength (the Thoth’s “Lust”). In addition, each of the nine diagonally opposed pairs in the outer ring sum to 21, making the whole a convincing representation of the tarot cosmos with a remarkable internal consistency as demonstrated by those balanced pairs and numerous geometric quadratures that add to 42 — twice 21 — while further reduction gives us 3 and 6, together with 9 yielding the “three perfections” of Greek philosophy. (As an aside, those familiar with Douglas Adams will surely recall that he satirically proposed “42” as “The Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.”) In the practice of divination, I intend to apply the trump-card backdrop as the “situational wallpaper” upon which to hang additional cards that are germane to the context of the reading, using a unique method of selection.

In crafting my first spread around this model, I used nine dominoes numbered 1 through 9 in two separate “blind” pulls of one tile each, drawing once to select a trump card from the I-to-IX series, and again to choose a trump from the XII-to-XX subset. These cards are placed, respectively, at the left and right ends of a three-card line. (It would also be reasonable to create longer lines by pulling additional dominoes as long as care is taken not to build an “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” reading in which all possibilities are on the table in one form or another; I think four cards [plus a middle “focus” card as described below] would be workable but six or more would be a stretch since too many competing archetypes can become unwieldy.)

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Copyright US Games Systems, Stamford, CT

Next, shuffle the four central cards face-down and pull one to place mid-way between the others as a kind of pivotal “turning-point” showing the scope and nature of the inner work — the biblical “narrow way” or “strait gate” — by which the concerns of the first trump can be evolved or transmuted into those of the second, also incidentally symbolizing “where and how” the Self confronts the Other within the course of the reading. The Fool confers initiative and Strength imparts boldness as the defining principles in this encounter, while the Wheel of Fortune grants concentration (a steady hand on the tiller) and the World bestows patience; in the analogy of engine dynamics, one pair would signify the “inlet port” admitting creative stimulus and the other the “exhaust” port emitting explicit consequences. The upshot is a matter of favoring process over product (or vice-versa) as the deciding factor depending on which of the four cards comes up. The test case delivered the Priestess and the Star as the “premise and conclusion” trumps with the World as the transitional emphasis. (I’m not using reversals in this example but they could certainly be applied.)

Finally, shuffle the remaining 56 cards and lay three of them (or more as needed) from left-to-right under the trump cards to describe: 1) the mundane playing-field (and perhaps the sociological and psychological landscape) upon which the archetypal triptych will play out; and 2) the circumstantial conditions and events that advancement of this scenario will most likely entail. The major and minor cards can also be read as functional pairs revealing the inner and outer dimensions of each aspect of the situation.

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Copyright US Games Systems, Stamford, CT

In the example reading, the interpretation I get from the trump cards is “the ends justify the means.” The minor cards imply that the innocence of a promising liaison (2 of Cups) could be soured (5 of Cups) by one party trying too hard to impress the other (6 of Wands). The World and the 6 of Wands in combination give the sense that money and power are being offered (or sought) by one person as enticements in a relationship that starts out with the noblest of expectations (the Priestess and the Star) on the part of the second individual but goes downhill from there. The Priestess and the 2 of Cups are perfectly attuned but the Star and the 5 of Cups appear to be irretrievably sundered; one aspires upward and the other settles into the murk.

In real-world terms we might say that a wealthy man who is used to getting his way (the World) is fishing (2 of Cups + 6 of Wands) for a “trophy wife” (the Priestess) but the object of his affections craves a more idyllic romance (the Star). Unless she can shed her idealistic predilections in favor of a more opportunistic and cynical stance, she would be wise to walk away from the “bait.” Alternatively, we could surmise from these cards that a shrewd woman (the Priestess) has “gold-digging” intentions (the World) but her flattering advances (2 of Cups + 6 of Wands) fail to sway her target (the indifferent and incorruptible Star), who is above temptation, and she winds up bitterly disappointed (5 of Cups).

Another approach to spread creation with the mandorla would be to use dice or other “lots” instead of dominoes for the initial trump-card pull. However, there is so much potential overlap with this method when trying to cover the entire range that it would be a clumsy alternative (especially with dice, unless a 20-sided “D&D” die could be located). Because the structure of the mandorla is visually linear, I don’t see that random, intuitive selection of the two trumps would work unless the pattern is laid out face-down in a scrambled order, disrupting the elegant symmetry of the whole operation. I may try using a game-board spinner for card selection, while recognizing that redundant “hits” in the same hemisphere would have to be discounted unless I use “mirroring” and default to the card diametrically opposite.

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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