Waite’s Celtic Cross: A Critical Analysis

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Imagine that you’re an experienced diviner at the beginning of the 20th Century when you first encounter Arthur Edward Waite’s “Ancient Celtic Method of Divination” in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. What would a critical assessment of its advantages and shortcomings suggest to you? (The obviously hand-drawn image below is from the 2005 Dover Books “unabridged republication” of the 1911 edition by William Ryder & Son Limited, London; no copyright statement is given.)

“The Significator: The person or matter about which inquiry is made.”
1. “What Covers Him: General influence or atmosphere affecting the situation.”
2. “What Crosses Him: The nature of obstacles in the matter.”
3. “What Crowns Him: The querent’s aim or ideal; the best that can be achieved under the circumstances.”
4. “What Is Beneath Him: Foundation or basis of the matter.”
5. “What Is Behind Him: Influence that is just passed away or is passing away.”
6. “What Is Before Him: The influence that is coming into action and will operate in the near future.”
7. “Himself: Position or attitude (of the Significator, whether person or thing) in the circumstances.”
8. “His House: The environment (of the Significator) and the tendencies at work therein.”
9. “His Hopes or Fears:” (Self-explanatory; no additional text is provided by Waite).
10. “What Will Come: The final result, the culmination (of contributing influences).”


The first thing of note is the structure of the six-card “cross” section. Waite was a Christian so it’s not surprising that the sequential flow of his design emulates the Catholic “Sign of the Cross.” (Anthony Louis notes the same thing in his book, Tarot Beyond the Basics). In her seminal 1960 volume, The Tarot Revealed, Eden Gray dismantled this structure and replaced it with one that (at least in my estimation) mimics the diurnal path of the Sun through the heavens: midnight (her Card #3) at the bottom; dawn (Card #4) at the left; noon (Card #5) at the top; and sunset (Card #6) at the right. Note that, although Waite swapped his Cards #5 and #6 according to the direction in which the Significator (usually a court card) was facing, Gray maintained a clockwise rotation throughout. As a non-Christian astrologer I can only applaud her ingenuity.

The “covering” card is non-controversial and needs no further discussion as it merely shows the situation as it stands at the time of the reading. Together with the Significator and the “crossing” card, it forms the “heart of the matter” before it begins to unfold.

The “crossing” card seems much too narrow in identifying only “obstacles” to progress. It works well enough for its intended purpose, and Waite even added commentary explaining how to handle a “good” card in this “bad” position, but it’s apparent that more mileage could be gained from the interpretation if we see this card as reflecting both “challenges” and “opportunities,” or “major motivators” rather than just impediments to positive change. Thus, a “good” card could be applied to the “opportunity” consideration without any further mental gymnastics.

Waite places his third card at the top of the “cross” and his fourth card at the bottom in keeping with the aforementioned structural model, whereas Gray shifts her third card to the “Foundation” spot and her fourth card to the “Near Future” position. If we agree with her clockwise rotation, this makes the most sense in describing any residual influences arising from the “distant” (as in fixed and unchanging) past that have most likely been buried in the querent’s memory (Card #3) and that have only recently resurfaced (Card #4).

Regarding his fifth and sixth cards (Recent Past and Near Future), Waite switched their positions depending on whether the Significator card was facing to the left or to the right. That card would therefore always have the “Recent Past” at its back and the “Near Future” in front of it. But modern practice often ignores use of the Significator card so, unless we decide to consistently apply one orientation or the other regardless of facing, Gray’s location of the “Recent Past” (her Card #4) to the left and the “Near Future” (her Card #6) to the right seems rational. The only decision of any consequence regarding the Recent Past is what time-span to give it; in fact, it may not reflect a discrete “capsule” of time at all but an evolving precursor to the Present that can be difficult to cordon off from the immediacy of ongoing developments. For that reason I tend to see the pair as a continuum with its roots in the historical “foundation” and its inspiration in the underlying “heart of the matter.”

The “crowning” card has been the subject of much revisionism over the years. It has been common to treat it as “the best that can be expected” in keeping with Waite’s definition, but it has also been pressed into service as an indication of “conscious” insights as a foil for the “unconscious” awareness of the “foundation” card. It has always struck me that the reading of the “cross” section should be aimed at basic furtherance of the matter itself, entirely independent of the querent’s mental/emotional reaction to its evolution, judgment of which should be reserved for the “staff” section of the spread. In short, it’s nothing more than a timeline of potential developments with no subliminal agenda. As the saying goes, “Shit happens” regardless of whether or not we have any intuitive understanding of its cause at the time; our only option may be to respond instinctively until we can sort it out. Personally, I see this position as showing the emerging “Present” as distinct from the primal “Now” of the “covering” card; in other words it’s a moving target that is influenced by both the Recent Past and the Near Future, whereas the “covering” card depicts a static reality that is more of a stage-setting or backdrop for the coming action.

There is nothing to quarrel with in Waite’s Near Future position if we see it as a logical extension of the Present and the Recent Past (part of the “continuum,” as it were). However, as an interim or short-term conclusion it also represents the “kick-off” for the next leg of the journey. In that sense it must leave some of its past affiliations behind. As with the Recent Past, the only decision is how far down the road it remains intact before rolling over into an “in-process” status for the next phase of growth.

Apart from a couple of exceptions, the four cards of Waite’s “staff” section offer little cause for complaint. The chief objection is that, assuming the Significator was intended to represent the querent, the seventh position as “Himself” seems almost totally redundant. Waite did help matters a little by noting that this card shows the Signifcator’s “position or attitude in the circumstances” while the Significator itself seems to be more about identity, but I would argue that this condition is effectively revealed by all of the cards in the “staff” except Card #10. Eden Gray executed a stroke of genius by decoupling “Fears” from the “Hopes or Fears” position (Card #9) and moving it to the seventh place. There it can act as a vessel for all manner of self-limiting or self-defeating conduct, particularly in the form of unreasoning “push-back” against an emerging future that the seeker had little say in orchestrating because, as the culmination of objective developments in Card #6, it “just sort of happened.” To me, this is where the “psychology” in a Celtic Cross reading makes its first appearance since the querent must now struggle with subjective repercussions and “attitude adjustments.”

The eighth position as the querent’s “home base” or personal environment and social milieu serves to disclose the seeker’s critical orientation toward the matter quite well without requiring the separate commentary of Waite’s Card #7. In a nutshell, it suggests the need to be proactive and coordinated in getting on with the business of bringing the affair to closure, with or without help. Obviously, the card that appears here will reveal how easy or difficult that initiative will be. I see it as a “transitional” stage that offers an opportunity to resolve any lingering loose ends from the “fears” position by figuratively “setting one’s house in order” before attempting to make a strong showing in the pursuit of “hopes.”

The original ninth position of “Hopes or Fears” has caused no end to hairsplitting over which one it is. I realize that most seasoned practitioners of the Celtic Cross have made their peace with this conundrum by just going with the nature of the resident card, but I will always believe that Eden Gray did the world an immense favor by splitting off “hopes” from “fears,” leaving a clear-cut distinction for each that dodges the “multiple choice” dilemma. As it was, it seemed to offer too many conflicting “flavors” to make for sensible interpretation. I’ve since tweaked Gray’s premise by changing it to “Aspirations,” meaning not only what we hope will happen but what we’re willing to work to make happen. Wishing isn’t enough; in the immortal words of George Carlin, “You gotta wanna.”

The tenth, or “end of the matter,” position is also non-controversial in its typical usage as the “final outcome.”

In summary, while it is still a robust example of effective spread design, Waite’s original Celtic Cross has a number of idiosyncrasies that make it less than perfect. There have been numerous attempts to improve upon it over the last hundred years since its publication, but I haven’t seen a single one that I like better than Eden Gray’s version with my own minor tweaks to the position meanings.

Originally published at http://parsifalswheeldivination.wordpress.com on December 1, 2022.



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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Parsifal the Scribe

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.