The Art of Tarot Spread Creation
Over the last nine years I’ve created well over 200 tarot spreads of varying complexity (and a few for the Lenormand system) that I posted for community use on the now-defunct Aeclectic Tarot forum and more recently on my divination blog. What set my spreads apart from the usual forum contribution were the full-color graphics for each layout (rather than the standard “numbers-and-X’s” format), the abundance of well-tuned detail — both practical and psychological — and the fact that each spread had comprehensive developer’s notes and guidance for use. These factors alone made for a user-friendly and hopefully more enlightening experience.
Having passed that milestone and currently working on my tertiary hundred, I’ve been thinking of what it takes to develop a truly informative and compelling layout that avoids being tiresomely trite. The most common formula in use today is to take five card positions, which seems to be the minimum number to escape the overdone three-card “action/reaction/resolution” model (Hegel’s thesis/antithesis/synthesis), give a slightly novel spin to the position meanings, arrange them in an atypical sequence (left-to-right is so passé), and call it original. When I took up the practice back in 2011 after using the Celtic Cross exclusively since 1972, I quickly became bored with the limited interpretive palette offered by this approach and began experimenting in earnest with notions like two-deck (and sometimes three or four-deck) spreads, dual-path (and even multi-path) layouts, hidden cards, alternative outcomes, very large (and also very small with a unique twist) spread designs, and an arsenal of practical, psychological and spiritual arrows in my analytical quiver.
None of this apparent madness happened by accident. I began life with a strong desire to be an artist and even went to art school in New York City in the ’60s, but eventually realized that, without becoming a wage slave in the advertising machine, it’s as hard to make a steady living doing that as it is to become a successful musician. So I acquired a business management degree and went to work in a field that took advantage of my equally powerful urge to write. Along that road I bootstrapped my way into ad-hoc mechanical engineering and picked up a smattering of electrical engineering as well, while honing my technical and legal writing chops in a professional setting. All the while I continued exploring esoteric subjects and working with astrology and tarot, and when I retired in 2010 I began blending the organizational and analytical skills I had picked up with the more imaginative demands of tarot spread design. Recently I realized just how well the two apparently incompatible sides of my life experience complement one another and often converge in a unique way.
In a nutshell, it seems to me (at least in my own rather uncommon case) that the following attributes are essential to effective spread design:
- an engineer’s (or at least a savvy technician’s) sensibilities to get the structure and flow just right for the spread’s purpose;
- a graphic designer’s eye for creating layouts that are both pleasingly arranged and accessible;
- a storyteller’s ear for perfectly-phrased position meanings;
- a philosopher’s omnivorous appetite for syncretism; and
- a mystic’s finely-tuned discrimination to keep the focus from becoming too rigidly prescriptive or, conversely, wandering too far into “woo-woo” limbo
One might suppose that this thorough-going mindset will produce a rather mechanical and even sterile reading environment, but the one quality that rises above all the others in keeping things lively is to possess a true “storyteller’s heart.” A pitch-perfect grasp of what makes for compelling narrative is vital to success; everything else is just stage-craft. Devising the ideal spread for any topic owes as much to the raconteur’s art as it does to the creator’s divinatory purpose. In most cases it requires a beginning, a middle and an end that first lays the groundwork for the situation as it stands, then reveals emerging developments (as well as obstacles) and how to handle them, and finally provides for meaningful closure. While there are effective “no position” spreads in use, the framework offered by a coherent series of discrete positional elements and associated meanings gives a reading structure, depth and direction, arguably the most important features for a successful result.
I find myself moved to create a new spread whenever I see the same type of question being asked repeatedly, while at the same time being poorly served by the more generic tools of the reader’s art (three-card line, five-card line, etc.) The first step is to select a subject area to target: romantic anticipation is probably the biggest one, followed by career and business opportunities, family relations and sought-after lifestyle improvements like relocation or behavioral change, then supplemented more generally by decision-making, problem-solving, personal health and happiness and non-specific “life-reading” scenarios. The next step is to ask the obvious: “What do I want to know?” and “How much and what kind of detail do I want in my answer?” The final step is to design the layout and test the process flow to make sure it delivers useful observations.
I’ve created a few very short spreads of three or four cards, but most of my output is substantially larger, varying from seven to twenty-five cards. Dual or multiple-train spreads tend to be larger because two or more options must be explored, each with an equal shot at success; this often involves the use of more than one deck. Typically, though, a more straightforward spread will “begin at the beginning,” explaining why the seeker has come for the reading, will then explore various factors that are working for or against that individual’s objectives, may show other people who have an interest in the matter, and will ultimately offer hints for dealing with the projected outcome. The model I’ve been working with for over four decades, and which I’ve tweaked to my own satisfaction, is the Celtic Cross, a venerable arrangement possibly developed by Florence Farr or Frederick Leigh Gardner of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn but most certainly popularized by Arthur Edward Waite as ”An Ancient Celtic Method of Divination” in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. This spread offers a potent situational focus that I try to emulate in my own larger layouts.
I rarely pursue psychological profiling with my spreads, preferring to capture situational awareness and developmental insights that have a more “action-and-event-oriented” slant. None of my spreads are aimed at describing how an absent third-party individual “thinks or feels” about the querent, which I see as both ineffective and a misuse of the reader’s talent that serves only to sate idle curiosity. I would be more prone to consider what that person is liable to “do” about the situation than attempt to penetrate his or her unknown mental state using the cards as a psychic “can-opener.” I approach tarot in a more utilitarian way that yields pragmatic clues about the path the querent’s circumstances are likely to follow if no action is taken to either encourage or discourage them. I have no use for “psychic fishing expeditions.”
One popular way to partition a linear spread is to set it up in a past-present-future sequence, with the past usually to the reader’s left and the future to the right. The spread is read as a time-line, with the middle card as a “turning point” in the present that the querent can actively influence. A less common approach is to treat the central card as the main focus of the reading, with those on either side as modifiers. A slightly different angle is to determine which card in the line is dominant (for example, a trump card) and award that one increased significance. “No position” reading is also practiced with this type of spread.
Another effective way to particularize the various segments of a spread is by elemental jurisdiction. One of the earliest examples of this is the initial phase of the First Operation of the Golden Dawn’s “Opening of the Key” method, in which the deck is split into four sub-packs after the shuffle: one for Fire (Wands), referring to enterprise and initiative frequently expressed as work, business, etc; one for Water (Cups), showing emotional “affairs of the heart” related to love, marriage or pleasure; one for Air (Swords), having to do with state of mind and often involving disharmony of some kind: disputes, loss, scandal or legal trouble; and one for Earth (Pentacles/Disks/Coins), addressing — according to Aleister Crowley — “money, goods and such purely material matters.” The pack holding the pre-chosen Significator card is expected to reveal the nature of the question the seeker had in mind when requesting the reading. There are many ways to work these factors into a spread.
A third less common but even more persuasive technique is to assign an astrological correspondence to each of a spread’s positions. The way in which the resident zodiacal or planetary signature interacts with the element, sign or planet of any card landing in a given position adds either a reinforcing or debilitating emphasis to the reading of that position. The inspiration for spreads of this type is the original “astrological” layout, in which the twelve houses of the natural (Aries-rising) horoscope are viewed as situational “theaters of operation” for the energy of the cards dealt into those houses.
One final point about spread design. Traditional spreads like the Celtic Cross often used a Significator card — usually a court card — to identify the querent within the reading. The rules for assigning them were almost entirely appearance-based, with no attempt to relate them to the querent’s observable character traits. In most cases, I find these cards to be of little use and actually superfluous to the person sitting across the table from me. I occasionally produce a spread that requires one, but it’s always integrated into the flow of the reading via constructive combinations with each of the positional cards. They can be profitably omitted in most cases.
The most important thing to keep in mind when developing a spread is the context in which you expect it to be used. A layout that works exceptionally well for examining a business opportunity may be useless for exploring relationship potential. Apart from the workhorse Celtic Cross, I have my inventory of spreads segregated into the following categories: Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, Relationships, Work & Business, General Life-Reading, Health & Happiness and Miscellaneous. The spreads in each group have topic-sensitive position meanings that build an accurate profile of the situation as it unfolds.
I’m a fan, creator and long-time user of positional tarot spreads, and the subject is near-and-dear to my heart. For the record, I’m more than a little bemused by people who say that using formal tarot spreads “inhibits their intuition.” Seems to me they’re too easily diverted from their goal by undue sensitivity to the mechanics of the art; a spread is nothing more than a convenient template that offers a reasonable place to start, like an empty vessel waiting to be filled. It gives form to its contents but is ideally neutral as far as forcing it into unnatural configurations. A skilled reader uses this tool but isn’t commanded by it any more than by the “book” meaning of the cards. Flexibility of choice should be inherent in any method of interpretation and, when intelligently constructed, spread positions can be considered scoping cues that aid in identifying the “what,” the “why,” the “how” and to a lesser extent the “who, where and when” of a situation without being overly prescriptive. While they don’t exactly liberate to the extent that self-styled “intuitive” readers see as vital, effective spreads also don’t “pinch” like a too-tight pair of shoes, they guide and motivate the imagination. Their perceived rigidity is just that: a false perception that is easily overcome by taking a broad view of their purpose.
I think of positional spreads as roadmaps that offer directional signposts for the journey. There is usually more than one way to get to the destination, and the reader can either choose the shortest distance between two points or take the “scenic route.” They provide definition for one’s observations, keeping them from wandering all over the landscape as stray epiphanies are wont to do. I develop them as “storyboards” on which to hang the cards in a way that creates a strong sense of narrative flow. They provide points of entry and exit for the reading, contributing to the efficiency and economy of the process. When working professionally, this level of organization is essential for keeping the session on track and within the allotted time-frame. In addition, “topical” spreads (those designed to address a specific area of life) furnish a tailored reading experience that can get right to the heart of the matter with a minimum of dithering over the applicability of the cards on the table. Frankly, I don’t like to work that hard, and spreads give me a head start on making sense of the querent’s underlying circumstances.
Personally, I use the modern tarot-reader’s form of intuitive conjecture sparingly in my reading, perhaps employing a little free-association from the images (unless, of course, I’m using the Tarot de Marseille). Instead, I prefer to approach a reading by tapping into the deeply-ingrained knowledge of the cards that I’ve accumulated over the last 48 years, through both study and experience. I see no reason to resort to mystical measures when I have a client sitting across the table who can immediately confirm or refute the observations arising from the spread. I’m not much into random guesswork when I have a knowledge-based library of meanings in my head that can be shaped to fit the context of the reading. This shaping may be informed by the storyteller’s reliable trio of imagination, inspiration and ingenuity, but it isn’t the product of divine, angelic or spiritual insight, it’s entirely pragmatic and grounded in the facts as my querents understand them within the scope of their circumstances at the time of the reading.
I’m perfectly happy saying to my clients “Here is what this card in this position typically means in a situation like yours” and have them tell me how it fits into their private vision of reality, since they know it in their hearts far better than I ever could. I’m not trying to convince anyone of my prescience, and my job isn’t to dazzle them with truths I couldn’t possibly know. The arrangement of the cards in just the right way to reveal the message they need to hear is a result of their tactile handling of the deck during the shuffle. This is why I never shuffle for my clients; it’s their reading and they have an obligation to perform the “rite of subconscious induction” that imparts their subliminal awareness of the likely future into the array of cards. A well-made spread gathers up and brings focus to this sometime vague mass of impressions by “slotting” them into a coherent order of progression that produces a credible story-line. The reader’s skill in clothing this skeletal framework with pertinent details that are both vivid and insightful is what produces a compelling experience for the sitter.