If your experience is similar to mine, you’ve most likely encountered reading situations where the cards drawn are so wildly at variance with the context of the question that you’re hard-pressed to meet your professional obligation of giving your sitters something meaningful with which to work. As you strive to salvage your credibility, it can seem entirely too glib to advise them “The cards are telling you something other than what you asked about,” and then force the spread to make some kind of sense by steering the narrative down a murky and convoluted path while perhaps trying to “turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.” This can be an exercise in futility for both you and your querent since the latter may have no clue what you’re talking about and can’t see the point in any of it. This can be especially true in “majors-only” readings where every one of the 22 trump cards may offer “too much information” when the question was specific in the extreme. You might be asked “Will my package arrive today?” and you get the Devil, the Tower and Death. What do you say? “Porch pirates will steal it but have a serious accident that will kill them and also destroy your package. Hmm, I think that’s a ‘No’.” Yikes!
A classic conundrum is the “good” card in a “bad” position, and vice-versa. Anyone who delves into the Golden Dawn’s Liber T tarot study material will soon encounter a phrase that places the outcome of a reading squarely on the seeker’s shoulders. Samuel Liddell “MacGregor” Mathers, its principle author, frequently stated that the influence of a card would be experienced “for good or ill” by the querent. The idea is that the forces at work are “blind,” and how they play out in a subjective sense dependents entirely upon the subject’s handling of them. Aleister Crowley said it well in his commentary on the Fool (although he wasn’t intentionally applying the modern mantra “It’s all good”):
“All such impulses are right, if rightly received; and the good or ill interpretation of the card depends entirely on the right attitude of the Querent.”
Someone who is willfully avoiding acknowledgement of a troubling situation would not be well-served (at least in a personal way) by a “positive” card that shows it being brought to the forefront in no uncertain terms. The Sun shines its light mercilessly in every shadowy corner regardless of the wishes of the luckless victim caught in its glare, and having one’s “nose rubbed in” a buried matter that really can’t stand the light of day would be a likely result.
A good example is the “yes-or-no” question. The phrasing of the inquiry is critical to obtaining a useful answer; there are situations where a “yes” would be the worst possible scenario and a “no” would be much more palatable. (For instance, “Will my infidelity be discovered?” Or how about “Is George still cheating on me?” In the second case, either answer would be an indictment of George’s faithfulness.) Tip-toeing around the dilemma by rephrasing the question in non-binary language is often a better way to approach it; with a little imagination, a “yes” or “no” outcome can still be inferred from the anecdotal testimony in the cards. This typically requires many more words of explanation than would otherwise be the case but, if carefully and sensitively explored, the verdict is usually defensible.
There are many cards in which it is almost impossible to detect a silver lining. And yet, taking a deep breath and backing off two steps from “ground zero” often enables a more reasoned perspective on their seemingly dire outlook. I’m not a believer in the platitude that there are no “good” or “bad” cards in the tarot, but I do subscribe to Paul Fenton-Smith’s observation that all of them are “necessary” according to the querent’s position at the time, and Rachel Pollack’s quip that “the good cards are the one’s that tell the truth.” The Rolling Stones summed it up neatly: “You can’t always get what you want/But you might find, sometime/You get what you need.” Paul Huson, in his Mystical Origins of the Tarot, came up with what for me was the clinching argument: we don’t want to leave any loose ends in our narratives.
A common debate on the tarot forums is whether the cards are “always right,” even when the evidence seems to indicate otherwise. The conventional wisdom is that, at some level of interpretation, the cards are never wrong but the reader’s skill in correctly appraising their significance in the matter at hand may be lacking. I have seen this happen when practical assumptions about a card’s meaning are way off the mark, but the psychological import is perfectly aligned with the querent’s present state of awareness. It can take some creative rethinking by the reader, but shifting the angle of attack can often produce the “Aha!” moment that would otherwise remain elusive.
There are several ways to deal with this. One is to pull an additional “clarifier” card for every one that doesn’t fit the individual’s circumstances, a time-honored technique that many tarot writers recommend. I used to find this solution entirely too “pat” because it’s taking the easy way out. You can wind up with an ungainly monster of a layout that rebuffs your prowess at wiggling out of interpretive jams. Plus, it just feels dishonest to me and an admission of failure. However, in the last few months I’ve read three tarot books that have caused me to move beyond my aversion to drawing “clarifiers,” although in a very specific and limited way. This situation arises due to the facing (also known as “gaze,” “regard,” “gesture” or “posture”) of the figures on the cards in any of their formulations — primarily in the court cards but also in the trumps and the scenic pips if human (or humanoid) figures are present. (See my previous essay on the subject: https://dubyah48.medium.com/a-study-in-facing-directionality-in-the-cards-of-the-tarot-c93465c1fa00.)
In a line of cards, if the figure on either end is gazing away from the rest in apparent disaffection, we can assume that there is more to the story than meets the eye. We want to know what that person is looking at, whether it’s something from the past (typically to the left) that is still weighing heavily on the individual, or something glimpsed in the future (or to the right) that discourages full engagement with the present. In either case the focus seems to be off-stage, where something unseen is “pulling the strings.” When the owner of the gaze lies within the confines of the series and there is a card on both sides, it is a self-contained phenomenon that can be read in a straightforward manner, needing no augmentation. But when the figure is staring into a void, we feel compelled to seek more information, and the only way to obtain it without resorting to purely intuitive guesswork is to add a card at the “open” end (or ends) of the layout.
There is another instance where I’ve found the addition of a card or two to be valuable: when the outcome card in a spread is particularly inconclusive. I recently did a reading for a woman who was agonizing over whether to retreat from unrelenting (and demeaning) domestic strife and isolate herself within her own private sanctuary whenever things become unbearable for her. The situation was one in which she was being intentionally “marginalized” by the adult children of her live-in boyfriend, who resented her presence in their father’s life and made no bones about showing it during visits, although in a maddening, passive-aggressive way (they refused to talk directly to her in her own home, acting like she wasn’t there).
We were using the Celtic Cross spread with the Thoth deck and its non-scenic pip cards. The near-future card was Lust, showing clearly that she needed to do something decisive — and soon — to regain control of her life. But the outcome card was the 7 of Disks reversed, with its title of “Failure” and its dank atmosphere of sheer misery (Crowley called it “Blight”). The reversal seemed to add insult to injury by placing immediate resolution out of reach. The implication was that the situation wouldn’t change on its own, so she would have to adjust her approach to it, but the card offered no hints about how to do that other than by trying harder to ignore it.
I had little encouragement to give her so I decided to pull two more cards to show the “rest of the story.” This produced the Queen of Disks and the Hermit, both upright. The first thing she said was “It looks like I should go into my office and close the door when they come to visit,” which is exactly what she had proposed at the beginning of the reading when the High Priestess showed up. I couldn’t have said it better myself, and had nothing to add to her observation. I showed her the RWS Strength card, which is followed directly by the Hermit, suggesting that she had found her answer and should follow through. It wasn’t an especially empowering one since it involved maneuvering around the dilemma rather than confronting it, but sometimes “discretion is the better part of valor.”
I should add that I have occasionally appended a card to other positions in a Celtic Cross when the testimony is particularly vague, but it’s an uncommon move that I generally try to avoid. It still feels too much like “cheating” to me. Unless I’m doing a very brief reading “on the clock,” my typical reaction to ambiguous cards is to follow Jame’s Ricklef’s advice and let them “simmer in (my) consciousness. They will eventually make sense; they always do.” Lacking the luxury of time, I may drag out the traditional “book” meaning as a touchstone upon which to build with the cooperative input of my client. Ultimately, the querent must decide what the cards represent within the narrative of his or her personal “story;” all the reader can do is offer informed suggestions.
You can also tell your sitter that the cards are offering psychological rather than practical insights about his or her state of mind: “Relax, you’re being overly anxious about this. It’s only a postal delivery.” Once again, this is not very helpful. You might simply admit defeat, scrap the reading and do another one, perhaps with an alternative spread that is more suitable to its scope and/or with a different deck. You could also remove the trump cards from the deck in advance for routine questions, thus affording a less dramatic perspective in such cases. The best remedy of all could lie in even more aggressive “pre-positioning:” ask leading questions that help you avoid these traps before you encounter them. The drawback is that you may learn more about the matter than is seemly when your stated intent is to just let the cards “speak their piece” without undue foreknowledge or prejudgment on your part. I know I want to avoid pushing my assumptions on the sitter in any way.
I have to admit that my tendency is to just tough it out and “read ’em as they lay” (which can often land me in the old card-player’s dilemma: “Read ’em and weep.”) Having a large vocabulary is certainly an advantage in choosing language that lets me finesse my way through overtly negative scenarios without scrubbing them of their cautionary content. However, resorting to equivocation can be all too tempting when the overriding goal is to empower and not frighten the querent. In means walking a fine line between stating the unvarnished truth and offering bland, upbeat assurances intended to soft-peddle an undeniably troubling outlook. You do no favors by being accurate but harsh in your observations, nor by being overly eager to please; either one could wrongly prejudice your sitter in dealing with the situation.