Nearly all tarot readers use particular layouts or ‘spreads’. A spread is a pattern, similar to the way that playing cards are laid out in, say, a game of solitaire. Without the layout, the game wouldn’t work very well. Of course we don’t have to have a spread; the cards can be just turned over one by one and read right off the cuff. Many readers do that and wouldn’t be comfortable any other way. However, using spreads can add several extra dimensions to the reading.
Using a spread geared to the seeker’s question adds focus. The way the cards are placed form part of the tarot reading ritual. It gives extra weight to the process and brings in a little mystery. Most clients enjoy the mystery aspect – it’s what makes it special for them. It also helps the reader to concentrate fully on what he or she is doing.
A spread will provide a useful framework because it is visual. It can help draw your eye to combinations of cards such as pairings or a time line. Think of the Celtic Cross with its horizontal time line across cards three, one, two, and six – past (three), present (one and two) and future (six). In a love reading you might have two columns of paired cards showing each partner’s point of view. A year ahead spread might be laid out in a circle to indicate the turning of the seasons.
Picking up the thread of events and feelings in a reading is helped by using a spread that supports the question. Once you can identify the story, the reading becomes so much more interesting, accurate and ultimately useful to the client. There is flow from one card to the next as each modifies the other. A spread helps with this tremendously. An example of a supporting spread is the problem, cause solution spread which can advise the client about a straightforward situation. In this case a complicated spread would be overkill.
Levels of Meaning
The placement of the card also modifies its meaning. Therefore, having clear defined positions in the spread – again, a simple one would be the three-card time line: past, present and future – gives an extra dimension. The Four of Cups in the past means something different to it appearing in a future position. A card that represents another person, would mean something else if it appeared in the outcome position. Thus it is important to assign your positions and keep them in mind while you are performing the reading.
The major benefit of using a tarot card spread is that the reading will be more accurate than if you hadn’t used one. Some might consider using a spread to be restrictive – it might cause a psychic reader to limit their interpretations – but for most of us, the added discipline of the spread helps to hone in on the most accurate meaning. There are times when it becomes obvious that the spread position is less important than the cards themselves; for example when a succession of Major Arcana turn up or a bunch of the same numbered cards. This is where common sense will determine the message, rather than the formation of the cards. Even in such cases, the position will still have some relevance.
Traditional Tarot Spreads
There are several well-used traditional tarot spreads. The most popular is the Celtic Cross developed by A.E. Waite back at the beginning of the 20th century. He tells us in his book, “Key to the Tarot” that it is based on “An ancient Celtic method of divination”, but doesn’t go into any more detail than that. It is likely that he observed gypsy fortune-tellers using a similar spread.
A.E Waite also offers another way of laying out the cards in ‘packets of seven’, after shuffling and using the first 42 cards. He then advises reading these groups of seven as individual horizontal spreads. (Source)
Other popular spreads are:
- The evergreen three-card past, present and future
- Wheel of the year spread, where 12 cards are laid down in a circle, each representing a month of the year
- Yes/No spread using a single card
- Problem/cause/solution three-card spread
- Astrological spread for those with skills in that area. Again laid out in a circle with each card representing the houses.
Custom DIY tarot spreads are those which you develop for your own use. They might be variants of a traditional spread, for instance you could add another card to each position of past, present future to give more depth and insights. Some people prefer to design a spread for each individual client and question – you would need to write down the positions allocated so you wouldn’t forget them – well I would anyway!
It’s best not to design anything too complicated to begin with. Good, personalized spreads develop with experience, so start off with no more than three cards. Later, you will find yourself needing more information so build on the spreads you use the most to include pairs of cards, or a time line pathway. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Using initials is a good way to invent layouts. A love question could laid out in the form of a letter L. The lower cards may represent the basis of the relationship, while the verticals might show in what way it will develop. Perhaps a question about travel could be a letter T, with the vertical being where the seeker is now and the two arms representing possible directions.
Finally, keeping track of your spreads is important, so draw diagrams in your tarot journal, note which cards appeared and the gist of your interpretation. If you keep an electronic journal, you can use your smart phone to keep a visual reminder of each spread. In this way, you can build up a personal library of tarot card spreads that you can refer to any time.
Waite, Aaron E. Celtic Cross: “The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Part III: The Outer Method of the Oracles: Section 7: An Ancient Celtic Method of Divination.” The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Part III: The Outer Method of the Oracles: Section 7: An Ancient Celtic Method of Divination.
and ‘alternative method‘ The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Part III: The Outer Method of the Oracles: Section 7: An Ancient Celtic Method of Divination.” The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Part III: The Outer Method of the Oracles: Section 7: An Ancient Celtic Method of Divination.