AUTHOR’S NOTE: This essay first appeared in Reflections, the American Tarot Association’s quarterly journal.
Those who delve even casually into divination with the tarot realize early on that, while the cards often excel at answering questions involving “What? Why? How?” and perhaps even “Who?” (if only in terms of gender and approximate age), they are markedly less effective in addressing “Where?” and “When?” We are concerned here with the last of these considerations.
A number of attempts have been made to attribute time spans to the cards of the tarot. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn used the corresponding astrological signs to peg the twelve zodiacal trump cards to the months of the year, and others have since attempted to bring the seven planetary trumps into this arrangement by applying the essential dignity of the seven traditional planets in their associated signs of rulership. (For example, in this model the Aries period corresponds to both the Emperor and the Mars-linked Tower.) Similarly, the system of 36 Chaldean decanates or “decans” was employed to assign three of the 36 non-Ace minor cards to each of the twelve months of the natural zodiac, beginning with the 2, 3 and 4 of Wands in Aries (March-April), the 5, 6 and 7 of Pentacles in Taurus (April-May) and the 8, 9 and 10 of Swords in Gemini (May-June), with revolving Cups, Swords and Pentacles-led sequences arising at each cardinal point around the rest of the wheel*.
Three of the four court cards of each suit were overlaid upon the signs in a slightly skewed fashion, starting with the Queens around the cardinal points and continuing with the fixed Knights and mutable Kings of the succeeding elements. The Aces and Pages of the suit were given an entire seasonal quarter
of the heavens, elementally keyed to the middle fixed sign of their quadrant (Ace and Page of Pentacles reside in the Spring quadrant, Wands in Summer and so forth)**. This looks very impressive in theory but, as a practical means of pinning the likely outcome of a reading to a specific point in time, the results are often sabotaged by the contextual limitations of the question. Even though an outcome card (or other chosen significator) may well zero in on a specific target period for final closure of the matter, that span of time may not be even remotely plausible within the known or reliably assumed scope of the situation.
The same is true of the practice of relating Wands to the shortest elapsed time (days or less), while Pentacles can stretch into years; Cups and Swords are sometimes exchanged, with one or the other expressing weeks or months. The numerical value on a card is taken to identify the number of temporal units within the range, from 1 to 10 hours, days, weeks, months, quarters or years. The court cards don’t partake of this system, except to the extent that the standing Pages and mounted Knights may be construed as generally more rapid in their action, while the seated Queens and Kings are more deliberate***. Similarly, the lower-numbered minor cards can be equated to a near-term result and the higher-numbered cards to a more distant one.
There is another cartomantic convention, running slightly counter to the above, which holds that Fire cards (usually the suit of Wands) are fast-acting and of long duration; Air (Swords) cards are fast-acting and of short duration; Water (Cups) cards are slow-acting and of short duration; and Earth entacles) cards are slow-acting and of long duration. These concepts can also be brought to bear on the elemental partitioning of time as described above.
The problem with all of this fine-tuning is that, for an event that is anticipated to come to a head within a period of days or weeks (such as hearing back on a job application), it would be completely irrational to project an outcome years into the future based solely on the testimony of the cards, unless the most
reliable prediction is actually “Never!” The only recourse a reader has is to introduce a “fudge” factor: “Well, the cards say ten years, but we both know that isn’t realistic, so I’m going to assume that it really means ten weeks.” This, of course, blows the whole carefully constructed rationale out of the water.
One fall-back solution is to assume that the effective duration of a reading will cover a limited period of time, and that the outcome will manifest within that range of dates. (For example, one could postulate that the unfolding of a Celtic Cross prediction will normally occur within three months, but might take up to six months in exceptional cases.) However, here’s a simple substitute that will get you “into the ballpark” without relying on single-card interpretations or broad generalities.
Segregate the 40 minor cards — Ace through 10 of each suit — from the deck. Thoroughly shuffle and cut this sub-pack in your usual manner, then deal a line of four cards face-up (sequence doesn’t matter). If all of the cards are Wands, expect resolution of the issue within hours. If there are two or three Wands cards, the event should occur within a few days; if there are two or more Swords, it will transpire within a period of weeks; if there are two or more Cups, expect it to happen within months; if there are two or three Pentacles, the time-frame will be one or more quarters; and if all four cards are Pentacles, the outcome will most likely be years away. If you get two pairs or no pairs, reshuffle and pull again; if this happens twice, go to the next paragraph.
The numbers on the cards aren’t figured in unless there are multiples of a single number across the set, in which case that number of units should be considered the likely target period within the established range (e.g. two or more “3's” in a sequence dominated by Swords cards would be interpreted as “3 weeks”). If the date range derived in this manner is inappropriate for the context of the question, go to the next paragraph. Alternately, judge according to your own experience (and your querent’s intuitive grasp of the situation)
which time-frame will provide the most reasonable outlook for advancement of the matter to its conclusion: hours, days, weeks, months, quarters or years. If unsure, use a “best estimate” or perform several spreads to cross-check each option. For example, the answer to a question about when the hiring decision will be made for a previously-submitted job application would not reasonably fall within a window of “hours” or “years,” and “months” or “quarters” could also be a stretch. “Days” or “weeks” are obviously better choices.
The most valuable take-away from this discussion is that the reader will benefit from cultivating a certain amount of flexibility and ingenuity in bringing the card-based timing scenario into line with any overriding situational constraints, to the point that a rational forecast can be delivered.
* The accompanying graphic renders the Chaldean zodiacal wheel into a spreadsheet that relates the minor cards to the corresponding court and trump cards by sign and quadrant.
** For those who would like a thorough explanation of the Golden Dawn decan system, Corrine Kenner’s Tarot and Astrology is a good place to start.
*** This is not the place to discuss the distinction between the enthroned Kings of the Waite-Smith deck and the horse-mounted Kings (also called “Knights”) of the Golden Dawn and Thoth systems.