Among the curiosities that Waite-Smith tarot neophytes will discover upon their first encounter with Arthur Edward Waite’s “Ancient Celtic Method” (aka Celtic Cross or “CC”) are the rather quaint subtitles he gave to most of the positions in the spread. I thought I would take some time to weigh in on my own experience with them. My observations are predicated upon extensive use of Eden Gray’s much later version of the CC with its clockwise “cross” flow and its renamed “staff” positions. (See her book The Tarot Revealed for details.)
First a few general comments. In The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Waite specified use of a court-card “Significator” to identify the Querent in a reading, and then included a seventh position to further describe the Querent as “Himself.” Why in the name of sanity was this necessary? I’ve followed the practice of many modern readers by dismissing the Significator card entirely as an avatar for the client since I already have a “talking Significator” sitting across the table from me (and the card adds very little to the narrative anyway); I certainly don’t need two of them. As we shall see, Eden Gray took this obvious redundancy in her capable hands and reconfigured the seventh position for another purpose.
Now to one of my favorite “whipping boys” in this argument: the conflation of “Hopes” and “Fears” into a single position. I’ve just been reading about Mohist philosophy and the “Dichotomy Paradox” (or “Paradox of Cutting in Two”), which postulates that, regardless of the resource, if you continuously halve your consumption of it you will never run out (although the cynic might protest that you will have poor eating by the time you nibble it down to the last crumbs); my own view of the downside to this premise is that you may never fully comprehend the totality of what you’re dealing with if you don’t ultimately see the other end of it (although I realize it’s the “process of becoming” and not the destination that counts in this philosophical model). So it is with the “Hopes and Fears” situation: when they are mingled it may be difficult to tell where one leaves off and the other begins, so a lot of time is wasted trying to sift and weigh the particulars with nothing more to go on than supposition (something best left to the trained psychologist). Eden Gray did the tarot community a tremendous favor by splitting the ninth position in two, retaining “Hopes” and relegating “Fears” to the vacated seventh spot at the bottom of the “staff” (with all of its implications of “bottoming out”). I’ve fully embraced (even championed) her foresight in this because it has really sharpened my ability to distinguish between “motivators” and “de-motivators” in my use of the CC.
Waite placed the “Recent Past” and “Near Future” cards alternately to the right and left of the central pair depending on which way the Significator was facing (e.g. always turning its back to the past and confronting the future), and then read the temporal flow accordingly. Keeping with Gray’s model (which emulates the diurnal path of the Sun in its clockwise travel), and with no Significator facing to worry about, I always place the “Recent Past” card on the left (which also follows the modern convention of treating cards to the left as reflecting the “past” and those to right as indicating the “future”).
On to the first card of the spread (after the largely useless Significator, that is), the vertical one at the center of the “cross” that Waite dubbed “What covers him.” In my own practice, I see this as showing “The situation as it stands; the heart of the matter; and the Querent’s initial place in it.” Because of how I’ve come to treat the next card, I’ve subtitled the position “This anchors him.” With no preceding card to “cover,” the old subtitle became meaningless.
The horizontal card laid on top of that one (“What crosses him”) is another that I’ve found to be too narrow in scope since it only describes obstacles to success in the matter. Anything that “triggers” a response should be acknowledged here since it upends the status quo “for good or ill,” so I’ve decided to expand this position into consideration of all “Major Motivators” (both challenges and opportunities), and have subtitled it “This motivates him.”
The bottom card was referred to as “What is beneath him” and it was equated with the “Distant Past” as showing “actualized” circumstances that the Querent has previously “owned up to” and that are no longer going to change. (If they remain unresolved in the Querent’s mind, however, this settled status doesn’t degrade the importance of such archaic conditions to present circumstances, it just places identification of their source farther out of reach). I have no quarrel with this as long as I stay clear of more recent assumptions that it represents the “Unconscious Mind;” I consider all indications of the Querent’s psychological state to belong in the “staff” section of the layout.
The “Recent Past” card as “What is behind him” is another one I don’t disagree with (subject to my preliminary observation regarding its relative placement). However, I’m not entirely sure why two “Past” cards are necessary since any unanswered issues old or new can be brought to bear on the “Present” and “Near Future” regardless of how deeply or shallowly they are buried in the Querent’s history as long as they can be dredged up. About the only justification I can see for it is that the Querent could still be actively wrestling with the fallout from recently concluded matters, while truly old affairs may be of largely academic interest, as in “Oh, yeah, that’s where that came from.”
The topmost card of the “cross” as “What crowns him” doesn’t move me either way, but the position description of “the Querent’s aim, ideal or best that can be achieved under the circumstances” I find to be devoid of practical value and another waste of a position (to be honest the modern notion of “What may happen” is even worse); this distinction is really part of the “Near Future” deliberation, which must contemplate various hypothetical scenarios and do the necessary hair-splitting between the “ideal” and the “real” to decide which one “may” come to pass and which one “most likely will.” I’m much more comfortable with viewing this position as “the Present,” or the “realm of infinite possibility” in which several options may be on the table and a range of potential paths is often presented for future development. This is the most fluid position in the spread and often encompasses elements of the “Recent Past” and the “Near Future” in its span of influence. Once again, I don’t accept the modern opinion that this card represents the “Conscious Mind;” the “cross” section is about early progress in the matter itself, not about the Querent’s mental make-up.
“This is before him” as the “Near Future” card is fine with me, subject to my previous comment. I’ve conferred various “precursor” roles upon it that lead up to the final outcome, but I mostly read it in its traditional sense as a short-range situational forecast.
Now things start to get interesting. As noted, Eden Gray voided the initial concept of “Himself” for the seventh position and installed the “Fears” determination there instead. However, I think even that insightful change is too restricted in its purview, so I renamed this card “The Root of Self-limitation” and changed the subtitle to “This holds him back; “ I now treat it as revealing all manner of self-defeating attitudes and behaviors, as well as instigating push-back against impingement of any changes wrought by the “Near Future” card upon the Querent’s life (e.g. foot-dragging, avoidance of commitment, denial of reality). Here the “Unconscious Mind” comes into its own as the Querent’s “psychic basement.”
Waite called the eighth position “His house,” which he then elaborated into the Querent’s “environment . . . position in life, influence of immediate friends, and so forth.” I’m basically in agreement with the expanded version, but I take it a step further and consider how the Querent’s progress toward the outcome will be affected by interaction with these inputs. Consequently, I’ve renamed this position “Clarifying Factors (Situational and Interpersonal)” with a subtitle of “This redefines him;” this conveys the idea that any personal retrenching driven by environmental forces will compel him or her to continue moving forward and not get stuck in the “comfort zone” of familiarity and complacency that a “home base” implies.
I have renamed Position #9 (Waite’s “Hopes and Fears” position discussed earlier) as “The Root of Self-Motivation” with the subtitle “This inspires him.” I’ve brought in the concept of “aspiration,” or “that which the Querent is willing to work for” beyond simply hoping for it to come true. That takes it out of the zone of idle “wishful thinking” and places the responsibility squarely on the Querent to “make it happen.” As a leading driver for awakening the Querent’s sense of ownership in getting the most out of the forthcoming outcome, this position also signifies the function of the “Conscious Mind.” Ideally, the card here will suggest an eye-opening and motivating epiphany.
The “What will come” subtitle for the “End of the Matter” card needs no discussion or revision.
I have incorporated these tweaks into my own personal adaptation of the Celtic Cross and have been using them to good effect since to mid-80s. I found out in the last couple of years that Anthony Louis suggested similar adjustments in his 2014 book Tarot Beyond the Basics which I would not be surprised came from Eden Gray’s ideas as well.