Almost as important as – or some would argue more important than – interpreting the tarot cards as they are laid out before you is the process of actually laying out that spread. This process varies wildly depending on the reader, so it is impossible to create a “universal” process (indeed, for any esoteric art, it is impossible to create a “universal” anything). So, in this post, I will describe what I personally do, the steps of which include many items common to many readers.
I believe that there are six important steps to throwing a Tarot spread: Formulating the Topic, Choosing the Spread, Writing the Question, Choosing the Deck, Invoking the Guide, and Laying out the Cards.
Formulating the Topic
The first step for me, Formulating the Topic is when you come up with the idea for a reading. This is, perhaps, the simplest step for me. The Topic does not refer to the specific question being asked (I cover this later), but instead the general area that I will explore in the reading. Usually, the Topic comes to me in a flash of inspiration: “I wonder what the state of the world is now,” “I wonder what I should do about X,” “I wonder what might happen if,” and other similar statements. Note how these all started with “I wonder;” if you can turn a topic into an “I wonder” statement, then chances are it can later make a good question and an interesting reading. Of course, some of the time I am not in charge of the topic. When I am doing readings for others, usually they are the ones choosing the topic. However you arrive at your topic – whether by thinking about what you want to do your daily reading on, in a flash of inspiration, or as ordered to by others – Formulating the Topic is the Spark/Origin (Ace of Wands, anyone?) that initiates everything that follows.
Writing the Question
The next few steps can really be done in any order, but the order I listed them here is the order I feel it works best in. The next thing that I do is operationalize the topic by turning it into a question that the tarot cards can help me answer. This is one of the most important steps of the whole process; by doing this you turn the Origin of the Topic into something that can be worked with and used, giving the topic the potential to become an interesting reading (the Ace of Cups, anyone? The Potential?).
In order to write a good question, you must think of your words very specifically. Your question will reflect how you interpret the spread, and writing a good one is essential to being in the right state of mind. If you are just coming out of a traumatic or depressing event and immediately want to throw a spread on it, by all means do so, but make sure that you are able to, at least for this step, detach yourself from the events. This can be difficult, but a biased question will result in a biased answer. If you ask “What should I do about stinking Uncle Larry’s thieving ways?,” you are assuming that Uncle Larry’s motives for thieving are not particularly important, that he is a bad man, and the answer you get will be straight advice, nothing more. This is not, in my beliefs, because the cards themselves will hear you and change to reflect the question, but because you are already in a mindset, when interpreting the cards, that will lead you to interpret them to give you the answer you want. The tarot is all about seeing situations in new lights, and if you are going to them for divination or straight “what should I do, tell me” advice, you are, I would argue, doing them wrong.
Your question should be unbiased and use neutral language, so as to get your mind thinking neutrally and to distance yourself from the situation. Your question should also be simple, so that it is easy to directly relate each card to the question. Your question should never be a yes or no question; if it is, just flip a coin and be done with it. It will waste less of your time. Asking advice in a question is perfectly fine, but “What should I do about’s,” while they can work, generally don’t. The cards are not there to think for you; they are to help you think be letting you reinterpret the situation. Instead, maybe ask “What factors should I consider when deciding what to do about…” Yes, this question is longer and not quite as simple (and both use “I should’s – but in different ways), but it more accurately captures what would be more useful information. Instead of just asking the cards what actions you should take, this question asks if there are any things about the situation that you should take into account when deciding what to do. The images and meanings of the cards will then lead your mind to think about things you may have missed, and help point you to where you want to go.
The cards are not diviners. They are mental aids. Treat them as such. Generally, I find merely putting the words “What factors should I consider when…” can make most statements into a workable question.
The last important thing about your question is its scope. Many readers will tell you to be specific. That is all well and good, but I think that broad readings also serve a purpose – like survey courses at a university. If you are tackling a large problem with many interconnecting parts, it can be helpful to first ask a broad question – for example, “What factors should I consider when trying to improve my company’s performance?” That reading will probably lead you to think of a few key areas you could improve. Then, you can get more specific as you think – “What factors should I consider when trying to fix workgroup R’s productivity problems?” This can lead you on to ask “What factors should I consider when dealing with the tense relationship between James and Ginny?,” and maybe after you come to a conclusion on that, everything will work out fine. Broad questions can also serve as interesting philosophical exercises. Just keep in mind that your answer’s scope will generally be the same as your question’s.
So, the most important parts of a question, I believe, are:
-Nuance (i.e., not Yes/No)
-Asking After Influencing Factors Rather than Straight-up Advice (long part, this one)
-Scope (choose one for each reading and go with it!)
So, going back to my first sample question, “What should I do about stinking Uncle Larry’s thieving ways?,” I would recommend rewriting it as “What factors should I consider when trying to understand and handle Larry’s frequent thefts?” The words in this question are less loaded than the original, and the question is more nuanced and open-minded. Also, though the question got longer, it is still just as simple; the wording just changes your state of mind and distances yourself from it (note the removal of the word “uncle”). The scope of the question is also still the same.
So, now that you’ve got yourself a question, how do you answer it?
Choosing the Spread
So, how are you going to think about the answer? Perhaps by invoking the energies of the Ace of Swords (the Thought), which allows you to translate your question into something that your mind can answer with the cards. There are two steps to this process, the first of which is choosing the spread. The spread is the pattern in which you will lay out the cards. There are far too many spreads to list here, but your spread should provide a format for the cards to answer the question.
The most common spread is the Celtic Cross spread, and generally I use it to serve as an overview of a situation, or as a go-to spread. The Yin-Yang spread is helpful when dealing with relationships between two people (and, in theory, could be expanded into large, more complex relationships). My own Personality Spread is useful when trying to understand someone or something thoroughly. The World Tree spread (as seen in the Wildwood Tarot: Wherein Wisdom Resides) is useful for examining the state of the world around you. The Astrological or Celestial Spread (twelve cards in a circle) can give you results similar to an astrological chart reading (though generally much less complex).
So, once you have your question, pick the format of your answer. There is no real tried-and-true way to do this; just follow your inner guide and your own logical thoughts to choose what pattern best answers your question.
Choosing Your Deck
The second half of the Ace of Swords bit! Choosing the deck you use is choosing the images you interpret, and can drastically flavor the tone of a reading. Generally, my go-to/neutral deck is the Thoth Tarot, which I use when I either really want to get a reading done accurately or have no other preferences. If I want to see the negative side of a situation (because I have been seeing the positive), I might use the Necronomicon or Dark Grimoire Tarot because of their darker images. If I am asking a question that reads like a narrative, I might use the Dark Grimoire Tarot because of its structure. If I want to see the positive side of something, I might use something like the Rider-Waite (which I find cheerful, for whatever reason) or the Gummy Bear Tarot (which I desperately wished I owned). If I am asking a question about the natural world, I will use the Wildwood Tarot. If I am asking a deeper, spiritual question, I will either use the Thoth Tarot (especially if I can relate the question to Kabbalah; hand-down the Thoth is the best deck for Kabbalistic readings) or the Celestial Tarot.
Decks can also match up well to the spreads you choose, and often go hand-in-hand (for example, the Tree of Life spread [which is literally the Kabbalistic Tree of Life in Spread form] goes well with the Thoth Tarot, the World Tree spread goes well with the Wildwood Tarot, and the Astrological/Celestial Spread goes well the the Celestial Tarot.
Choose the deck that calls to you and the situation. Again, there is no one way to do this; just follow your heart.
Invoking the Guide
This is a little ritual that any readers do before actually throwing the spread. There are no two ways of doing this. What I do, personally, is hold the cards cupped between my hands, and then shuffle the cards while asking my inner guide and intuition for guidance, and then asking the question I wrote earlier (it is often helpful to write this question down). This step, while it may seem small and trivial, helps get you into the right state of mind, and well make the reading go more smoothly.
Treating your cards with reverence also helps the reading go more smoothly, I have noticed, but do not ask the cards themselves for guidance (on occasion, when exhausted and in a state in which I shouldn’t be doing a spread anyway, I make this mistake. Kids, just say no!). The cards are not doing anything but exist and be used by you. It is you and your unconscious mind doing the work. By performing a little ritual and then asking yourself for guidance, it helps bring out your subconscious thoughts and allows you to see things you wouldn’t see otherwise. This step does not really fall into the Aces thing I have been hinting at; it belongs to the realm of spirit, of Daath, or perhaps even of EinSof.
Laying Out the Cards
This is simple. After shuffling the cards (very important), you lay them out in the pattern of the spread. Always lay the cards out in the same order (for each spread) every time. This removes the temptation to mix around the order to get cards you want. If you change the cards around, you are not helping yourself see things differently; you are merely using the cards to confirm what you think you already know. This is not helpful, and often misleading.
On the same note, never move the cards around or throw a new spread because you didn’t like the last one. It doesn’t matter how scary the cards before you are; if you open the door to moving around your spreads once, you may never stop, and the entire process will be invalidated.
This step coincides with the Ace of Disks – the Manifestation. Now you have actually begun the work of interpreting the cards!
And that is a post in and of itself, coming in the future! Stay tuned!