Here’s a little anecdote about synchronicity, if you’re interested.
Above is a photo of the Sentinel reading I performed on my birthday last week. Notice the Death candle between my rune-bowl and the tree-lantern. I’ve taken to calling it “Candle XIII.”
Candle XIII was a gift from a close friend of mine, received towards the end of the summer. I did not light it; Death is associated with Scorpio, my sign, and I resolved to burn it for the first time on Halloween, my birthday, as I laid down a personal year-end spread. I liked it as a symbol of clearing the old to make way for the new, and as a memento mori on my celebration day – a reminder of the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Not to mention, it has a certain aesthetic as a Halloween decoration.
When the time came, and the sun had set, and I had a proper birthday-buzz going, I prepared my reading table, selected my significator (the Prince of Cups, again based on zodiacal attribution), and shuffled my cards. I lit the tree-lantern,* Candle XIII, and a third stumpy little candle stub, and turned off all other lights, opting to read only by the eerie glow. I counted out twenty cards and set the rest of the pack to the side. I turned over and placed the cards according to the design of the spread, down to the last one, which was to be the conclusion.
As I was about to turn that card, I was seized by an inexplicable hesitation – something told me this card wasn’t right. I gazed into the flame of Candle XIII, scrying for a pointer.
I don’t normally scry, although I have done it a few times before (usually to natural phenomena rather than a crystal ball or something like that). Scrying is a different class of divination than cartomancy or sortilege, and I tend towards the latter. The same instinct that told me not to turn the card led my eyes to the Death candle’s flame, and I couldn’t have planned or explained it. The air was very still in my darkened room, and the flame was tall and motionless. As I watched, the tip of the flame appeared to fork, like a snake’s tongue, without inducing so much as the slightest flutter. In a motion, I cut the deck and removed a new card for my conclusion.
I guess that’s just the Universe’s way of saying,
*The tree-lantern is my usual card-reading lamp, which I always burn during my ritual weekly readings to help set the mood. I consider it a symbol of my patron, the Hermit, and the tree represents the World Tree at the heart of the cosmos.
A little while ago, I shared my revised version of the Sentinel’s Spread. What I’d wanted to do with that post was to begin a series, in which I’d examine the constituent parts of the spread through a sample reading. I ran out of steam after a few installments, for a couple reasons. For one, life simply got in the way, and for a time I just didn’t write very often, and so I lost the drive to finish what I’d started.
I realized that my purely hypothetical sample had no relevance, and the further I progressed with it, the farther I had to stretch to reach any sort of meaning or coherence, and I gave up on it, feeling as though I was only succeeding in beating a horse that was already dead.
But when I lay down the Sentinel’s Spread, I always walk away with such profound insights from the cards; and even if I can’t adequately express these sorts of things with sample readings, I don’t want to leave an incomplete, forced and lifeless example as the last word on my blog.
I think the Sentinel’s Spread works because of its combination of shapes, allowing for multiple significant patterns to emerge from the reading.
While the final layout is meant to be read as a unit, there are five distinct components, each of which is made of a significant number and shape itself. If the process of laying the cards is reduced to an equation, it would be this:
with 21 being the total number of cards in the layout. In terms of shapes, it begins with a single point, followed by the line, then the cross or square, then the circle or dodecagon, and brought to completion with a return to the point. The five parts are summarized as follows:
1. The Sentinel (significator): The first card is selected to represent the reader at the time of the reading (or querent, if reading for someone else). I normally select the sentinel and set it aside prior to shuffling and laying out the rest of the cards.
2. The Watchtower (cards 2 – 4): The next three cards are positioned from bottom to top to create a vertical line, meant to evoke a tower. I think of them as three parts of a watchtower: the foundation, in which everything else is grounded; the body of the tower, built upon the foundation and which comprises most of the tower’s actual height; and the top, upon which the Sentinel is posted, which provides the point of perspective. These are metaphors for various inward aspects of the reader at the time of the reading (think body, mind, spirit or subconscious, conscious, super-conscious). The significator is then placed on top, putting the reader in the frame of mind to continue.
3. The Cardinal Directions (cards 5 – 8): These four cards are placed around the watchtower after the pattern of the compass, beginning with the East and the rising sun and concluding with the North. They are also associated with the four elements and the suits of the Tarot: East is Fire and Wands (passion or drive); South is Air and Swords (intellect); West is Water and Cups (emotion); and North is Earth and Coins (the material realm). The elements are arranged so that Air is opposite Earth, and Fire is opposite Water, and they descend from energy (Fire) into solid matter (Earth) when read clockwise. I view these cards as immediately relevant to the reader, connecting the inward-being of the watchtower with the external world of the following cards. For this reason, I often consider these cards to be akin to walls or gates of a fortification built around the watchtower, or roads leading out from the center.
4. The Horizons (cards 9- 20): The twelve cards of the horizons encircle the eight cards already laid down, equaling the watchtower (3 cards) multiplied by the compass points (4 cards). Once placed, they can be read in any number of ways. This is the point when I start to really see patterns, both among the horizon cards themselves, or in relation to any of the cards already out. The significator represents the center, the point of origin or perspective – the “You Are Here” on the map, and the rest of the reading is the map, if you will, sprawling outward from the center, with the horizon cards showing the farthest reaches visible from the watchtower.
There is no singular way to read all of these cards, and I often find multiple layers of meaning as I approach the spread from different angles. Usually, though, I do like to look at each horizon card in relation to the cards on either side of it. The 12 cards divide nicely into four groups of three cards each, with each of the four cards from the previous section allotted a group. I look at each trio as a beginning-middle-end or past-present-future (or any other of the numerous three-card patterns out there) related to its respective element card, and this helps me process the cards in digestible segments while I wait for any larger patterns to coalesce in my mind.
5. “Sound the Alarm!” (conclusion): One final card is pulled to tie the entire reading together. I usually spend a few minutes with the spread before I pull this card, allowing for a dramatic moment of complete surprise at the end as a counterpoint to the moment of complete control that comes with the conscious selection of the sentinel at the start; but I always pull it before I put the cards away and extinguish any “reading time” candles. I call it the bell or horn or alarm, there for the sentinel to sound if anything urgent is revealed during his watch. It serves as a sort of fail-safe, a general conclusion, or something to ponder, an important detail not to be overlooked, or a final piece of closing advice.
So that’s it. I think I did a pretty good job of summing up the essence of the spread this time, and I’ll probably leave it alone now, except for the occasional possible reading or anecdote in the future. I welcome the questions or input of anyone who decides to give it a try.
The watchtower has been built, and the sentinel has ascended to his (or her) post at the summit. It is now time to get your bearings.
The title of this portion of the spread should make it pretty obvious what the next four cards represent. More than just the cardinal directions, though, these cards are supposed to be resources (in a metaphorical sense) that you have at your disposal. Because of this combination of meanings, I generally tend to think of these cards in terms of walls: there is one facing each direction, and they serve to “defend” the tower in the center from potential dangers on the horizons. Right now, all you will see is what you have to use. It won’t become clear how you might use them until later on.
The walls are the intermediary cards between those of introspection we drew in the previous post and those of external influences we’ll draw in the following one. They stand in the middle, delineating the inside from the out. They are yours to use, but they are not you in the sense that the tower is, nor are they fully separate from you in the sense that the cards in the next post will be.
Each direction is associated with an element and its corresponding Tarot suit. Everybody has his or her own way of matching directions and elements and suits, so by all means, if you have a favorite method, use it. For me, I tend to associate East with Air and Swords, South with Fire and Wands, West with Water and Cups, and North with Earth and Coins.* I always begin laying cards with the East because that is the direction of the sunrise.
For the current exercise, I drew the following cards as the walls for my sentinel outpost:
East / Air – My Eastern wall is constructed of Four Swords. Air is the element of the mind, and swords in this quadrant are generally (but not necessarily) a good sign, because it is their natural habitat. Numbering four, these swords are balanced and stable, too, so all in all, I think we can conclude that, at least for the issue at hand,** I’m possessed of a strong mental capacity that doesn’t unnecessarily overexert itself. I should be adequately equipped do deal with any intellectual obstacles ahead.
Basically, I know what I’m talking about here, and while putting words to the cards isn’t always easy, particularly when trying to explain a reading such as this one (by which I mean it’s a sample reading that seems to have turned out with some degree of self-awareness), I ought to be more than capable of getting my point across. I want to make sure that I don’t try too hard, though. I do have a tendency to ramble.
South / Fire – The South is the realm of passions, spirit, creativity, or whatever you wish to call the driving force in your life. The southern wall is the Six of Coins. The coins are the suit of tangible things, and this card in particular is sometimes associated with giving and receiving. Six is another balanced number, but one with a bit more abundance than the four.
What’s driving me at this moment is a desire to make the abstract in my head a little more concrete, and what better way to do that than write it out and share it with others?
West / Water – To the West lies the realm of emotions, and facing this direction is the Three of Coins. This is usually considered a card of work, particularly the beginning stages of an endeavor. It is a number of initial results, the first time in the numerical sequence that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
This card poses a slight difficulty, because the subject of this reading is one that is more or less devoid of emotional attachment. Perhaps this is why we see the cold solid coins, rather than the cups that would be typically associated with this quadrant. Perhaps it’s referring to the simple emotion of contentment that comes with working on something that I’ve created. This spread isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s something I’ve orchestrated all the same, and I enjoy working with it.
North / Earth – Earth is the element associated with the physical realm, and so the Northern wall tends to represent the closest thing to an actual “material” resource. Here we have the Two of Wands, however, and wands are arguably the least material of the suits.
The Two of Wands usually evokes potential in my mind, perhaps representing a spectrum of possibilities that would have stemmed from an initial idea (the Ace). In the quadrant of earth, this suggests to me an ability to bring these ideas into reality. Notice that the northern and southern walls relay similar messages about making the abstract concrete, but while the south shows a drive to do so, the north shows a capacity to make productive use of that drive.
I’d like to take a moment now to make a point about this reading: as I’ve mentioned, the issue in question is the spread itself. It’s an instructional reading, broken down to explain how the spread works, but it is a real reading. I’ve drawn all of these cards at random (except the sentinel, of course), and done my best to make sense of them. I did not, however, dream up a hypothetical scenario upon which to base my interpretations, and as a result, the cards reflect only what I brought to the table – that is, an intent to explain the structure of the spread.
This is therefore an intellectual exercise more than anything else, and that’s clearly expressed by these walls I’ve placed around the sentinel.*** The eastern wall is the one with the card that makes the most sense – the suit of the mind in the quadrant of the mind, and a particularly stable and balanced card at that. After that is the southern wall. This card isn’t as straightforward as the eastern one, but it still makes plenty of sense to me.
On the other side of the coin we have the western and northern walls, which I’ve had a little more difficulty deciphering. This is because this hypothetical reading does not center around an emotional issue, nor is it grounded in any physical matter. I can still make sense of these cards, but it’s apparent to me that they do not have much to contribute to the overall point of the reading, at least so far.
The reason I approached this spread sans-question is because it is specifically designed to give an overview of your life, taking into account many levels, regardless of which of those levels have directly to do with what’s on your mind. I rarely use this spread with a particular question in mind, and when the entire spectrum of my life is taken into account, all four quadrants will normally have a message for me. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that, while this reading is intended as an instructive sample, it is by no means representative of the depth that this spread can sometimes reveal. It’s the sort of thing that’s difficult to express through a generic example, and yet a generic example is the best way I know to really explain how all the parts work together.
Now we have a watchtower and a perimeter; the outpost is complete. At this stage, I like to arrange the cards to align with the actual points of a compass, like so:
The numbers three and four are integral to the structure of this spread. Considering the sentinel as separate, the outpost so far is constructed of three (the tower) plus four (the walls) cards, totaling seven. In numerology, three is sometimes considered the number of spirit, and four the number of earth (precisely because it’s the number of classical elements and cardinal directions). Seven is traditionally considered a holy number because it combines the spiritual and the mundane, simultaneously grounding the lofty spirit and raising up the lowly material. Even though the individual cards of the tower generally represent body, mind, and spirit, they can be taken as a whole to represent your non-corporeal self, which in turn is brought down to earth with the addition of these four walls, which represent how you connect with the world around you. Thus the seven cards of the outpost combined represent your entire self at the time of the reading.****
Three and four multiplied equals twelve, which just so happens to be the number of cards required for the next part of this spread.
*This is how I usually lay out the spread, but sometimes I wonder if the South shouldn’t be Air, and East Fire, so that the elemental opposites (that is, Earth and Air, Fire and Water) actually sit opposite each other on the compass. It ultimately doesn’t matter, though, so long as I’m clear with myself about what’s what before I actually start laying down any cards.
**I did not approach this exercise with a specific question in mind, which means I’m leaving it up to the cards to illustrate the main issue of their own accord. If you will recall, I interpreted the three cards in the previous post (linked above) as representing my purpose here, namely to share my spread and my methods of reading with it. Having established that as the subject of this reading, I will continue to interpret the cards in this vein unless something comes up that makes me seriously reconsider it.
***Or rather, it’s been pretty clearly expressed to me. Whether or not I’m expressing it clearly in my turn is up for debate.
****Alternatively, you could consider each of the walls to be one of the classical elements, with the central cards collectively representing Aether or Quintessence. This means that there are five “points” here, analogous to the five points of the pentagram. As I briefly mentioned in another post, the pentagram is a symbol of the microcosm, and the six-pointed star is correspondingly a symbol of the macrocosm. Therefore, the cards that make up the outpost reflect the querent; the next twelve cards (keeping in mind that twelve reduces to six) reflect the querent’s world.
Now that the Sentinel has been selected, it is time to begin the spread proper. I like to call this portion of the spread the Watchtower. In addition to the Sentinel, which signifies the querent him or herself, the Watchtower describes the present perspective and mindset of the querent.
This part of the spread is about the self, and will require looking inward to fully understand. There will come a point in the divination where we’ll turn up cards that should describe the world around us, external circumstances and how we react to them, but for now we are focusing only on the first-person.
Having consciously selected the Knight of Coins as my sentinel, I will now draw the remainder of the spread at random, as if I were performing an actual reading for someone.
Foundation. The first card is analogous to the foundations of a tower. It is firmly planted in the earth, and should provide stable ground for the bulk of the tower. It generally represents the querent’s body or material existence. For this exercise, I drew the Hierophant for the foundation. This card in the position of my physical situation reflects my purpose here, which is to instruct or educate. The attendant acolytes might even be an audience – is anyone out there reading this?
Tower. The second card builds upon the first and is the main body of the watchtower. It provides the height necessary for a clear view of the horizons. It can be interpreted as the querent’s mind or abstract awareness. And what am I teaching? I’m trying to break down my spread into its constituent parts so others can try it, and the Emperor here stands for rules or guidelines to be followed.
Crenelations. The third card crowns the watchtower and is the actual viewing platform for the sentinel (I chose the word crenelations for this position because it evokes medieval stone fortifications in my mind, which is how I personally like to envision my sentinel’s keep). Continuing the pattern of the first two cards, this one represents the querent’s spirit or ability to transcend worldly concerns.* I’ve completed my watchtower with Strength. I suppose the act of explaining my process is a good way of strengthening my own understanding of it, and that’s what I’m really doing here. The Hierophant should benefit from his teachings as much as the acolytes.
If there is a preponderance of a particular suit or number at this point, that can be an indication of the nature of the issue at hand. A watchtower constructed from Cups, for example, would suggest that the querent is feeling very emotional; multiple sixes might suggest balance, etc. In this part of the spread, it is much more likely for court cards to represent an aspect of the querent, rather than someone else.
It is interesting to note that my watchtower is constructed entirely from the Major Arcana (and this actually happens for me more often than you might think). To me, this seems to underscore that this particular reading is, well, meta. I mean, the issue for this spread is the spread itself; I’m doing a reading with the Sentinel Spread about doing readings with the Sentinel Spread. What other suit but the Major Arcana could relay that? In general, though, I usually take something like this to mean spiritual matters, or matters for which I must tap into the collective unconscious to really grasp, or something which is altogether above my daily, worldly existence. The specifics are always colored by the particular cards which show up, of course – I remember one time for my tower I pulled the Seer (High Priestess), the Mirror (Hanged Man), and the Wheel (Wheel of Fortune) from the Wildwood Tarot, all of which are heavily associated with inward reflection. I would not have interpreted, say, the Archer (Chariot), the Wanderer (Fool), and the Sun of Life (Sun) in the same way, despite also being of the Major Arcana.
Before I continue with the next part of the spread, I like to spend some time and reflect on what the Watchtower is telling me about my current perspectives. I don’t get too hung up if it doesn’t immediately make sense, though, and oftentimes I find that things start really coming together once the rest of the cards are drawn. But I like to at least take a moment to think anyway, because these cards are meant to check myself before I ascend the tower, so to speak, and gaze out at the world that surrounds me.
This is the time to take the significator and place it on top of the watchtower. Once up there, the sentinel must take stock of the immediate environment, to make sure the perimeter of his outpost is secure. This step will be the subject of the next post.
*In Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom Rachel Pollack uses the terms subconscious, conscious, and super-conscious to refer to the three respective septenaries of the Major Arcana. I think these words can also describe the first three positions of this spread, as an alternative to the body, mind, and spirit interpretation presented above.
I think the possibilities for different methods of interpreting Tarot readings are virtually endless; as I contemplate the decks in my collection, I sometimes consider the method the creator of each would have had in mind for using his or her deck, or the method that elicits the best results from each.
While I marvel at all of the potential, I’ve given it some thought and I believe I’ve managed to narrow down the vast amount of possible methods to three distinct categories of interpretation.
Cartomancy. This is the most traditional way to read the Tarot, or indeed, any pack of playing cards. I am not particularly well-versed in these methods (yet), but my understanding is that cartomancy involves attaching a number of keywords to the upright and reversed positions of each card, and then laying the cards out to be read as if it were a sentence written on a page. This method of reading requires great skill to master, because the reader must be able to draw from an extensive store of keywords and string together a coherent sentence from those most appropriate to the situation on a moment’s notice. This seems to me to be the method most often associated with actual “fortune-telling”.
Because this method relies largely on rote memorization, it is most suitable for Tarots with unillustrated pip cards. These sorts of decks include Marseille packs especially, but also Etteilla decks and various historic decks, as well as normal packs of 52 or 32 playing cards. Etteilla in particular is responsible for the basic standardization of cartomantic definitions for the Tarot cards, and in fact his system is so well-ingrained that many other, non-cartomantic decks still draw from his meanings for inspiration for their own.
Etteilla’s isn’t the only version of this method, just probably the most prevalent in Tarot divination. Other methods may incorporate numerology or elemental dignities, but if they rely too heavily on these sorts of things, they begin to slide into the territory of the next method.
Occult. This relies on the correlation of Tarot cards with various occult theories and doctrines, most notably Astrology, Kabbalah, and Alchemy. Whereas cartomancy is essentially a self-contained system, occult methods require knowledge of esoteric subjects outside of the Tarot, and therefore usually can only be used with success after much study. Some degree of memorization is still necessary, although rather than keywords, readers must remember the significance of occult symbolism as it appears on the cards.
With the occult, as with cartomancy, there are several variable methods. Occult Tarots include any decks steeped in Astrology or Kabbalah or any number of other esoteric systems. Particularly relevant are packs such as the Thoth or any Golden Dawn-based decks. Oswald Wirth also created a pack of Major Arcana chock full of occultism, but neglected to provide the Minor Arcana. All the same, his influence is still widely felt in many subsequent occult decks, and he offers an alternative to the very popular and heavily influential methods of the Golden Dawn.
The small cards in occult decks are often reminiscent of regular pips, but will typically include occult symbols and glyphs, as well as intentionally symbolic color and geometric schemes. Illustrated small cards are not out of the question, though.
Intuitive. The widest range of possible reading methods falls within the intuitive category. All that is required for intuitive readings is that the reader trusts the images on the cards to stir the subconscious in order to relay the divinatory message. An understanding of the occult is unnecessary, as is a list of cartomantic definitions, although both can be incorporated into this sort of reading. Other ideas outside of the Tarot can have an influence, too, such as psychology or mythology (my personal favorite). Intuitive readings can be as self-contained within the cards or as all-inclusive of other ideas as the reader likes. The only requirement is that it is all inspired in the moment of reading by the images on the cards, and is not confined to a previously ordained system of correspondences. Really, this method is not a method in the same sense as cartomancy or the occult; rather, it’s almost like a lack of a method.
What does this picture remind you of? How do you react to seeing this one? Etc.
It is very difficult not to oversimplify this one (well, I’ve run that risk with all three of these methods, but I think it’s the worst here). There is an entire spectrum of possibilities, ranging from total formlessness (this is the type of reader who may be struck one day by the importance a certain flower or leaf, for example, and totally ignore it the next day – there is no consistency), to an almost cartomantic approach, by which I mean that a reader probably has a good idea formed in his or her mind ahead of time of the general meaning of each card, but will ultimately decide in the moment of the reading which aspect is important. The difference between this and cartomancy is that the meaning in this case is based on personal ideas and experience rather than an established tradition. Of course, more often than not, personal interpretations are at least partially influenced by cartomantic, or sometimes even occult, traditions.
Because of the role intuition plays in this method of reading, decks with illustrated small cards are the most effective, although it is not unheard of to use decks with Marseille pips or occult symbolism intuitively. The majority of these illustrated decks are based on the Rider-Waite Tarot.
The Rider Tarot itself, in my mind, works best as an intuitive deck, although I seriously doubt it was created for that purpose (was intuitive reading even a thing back then?), and the argument for its uses as an occult deck (because of veiled references to the teachings of the Golden Dawn in the Major Arcana) or a cartomantic deck (because of the inherent influence of Etteilla’s definitions in the design of the Minor Arcana illustrations) are strong. The pictures on the cards are vague enough on these points, however, and are evocative enough in general to be very conducive to intuitive readings.
Unlike cartomantic or occult methods of reading, no prior knowledge is needed to read intuitively, and a complete novice can read by this method with as much success as a seasoned Tarot veteran. With that being said, however, the constant addition of new knowledge that comes with time and use makes intuitive reading unique to each person who does it, and can become incredibly complex and insightful in ways that more traditional methods seem unlikely to achieve. On the flip side, though, intuitive readings are far more subjective than other methods, and they are easily prone to the projection of the reader’s biases.
As you can probably see, it is the style of the Minor Arcana of a Tarot that tends to define the method best suited for use, at least as I’ve presented them. I think that is interesting in itself, because we so often find ourselves focusing on the Major Arcana. In most Tarots, though, the Major Arcana is only subtly different from one to the next, while the style of the Minors can change quite drastically. And no matter how much stock we put into the Majors, I think it is the Minors that really add nuance to a reading.
I should probably say for the sake of completeness that I would add a fourth category called “uncategorizable,” which, obviously enough, doesn’t fit into any of the above. The first example that comes to my mind would be a pack like the Wildwood, which has an intended method of use that is fairly unique to it (not that you couldn’t read it intuitively or otherwise).
These are some broad generalizations that I’ve made in this post, and there is certainly plenty of overlap (I think the Medieval Scapini Tarot, for example, is a perfect example of a deck that can easily be used with any of these three methods). It’s just something I’ve been pondering, though, so I thought I’d share.
What methods do you use? Is there anything I’ve left out? Feel free to comment.
Believe it or not, before last night I’d never had my cards read.
But, considering my ongoing interest in the Tarot, I decided a while ago that it’s something I should do, if for no other reason, just to see how it’s done. Last night I decided to actually go for it.
First, I stopped in the shop after work to get a feel for the place and ask a few preliminary questions. I left, promising to come back later, which of course, I did…
Before I begin to spin my yarn, though, I want to make a little side-note:
I recently purchased some runes for myself.* Despite my longtime fascination with Norse mythology, I’ve always been hesitant to actually use the runes for divinatory purposes. Last week, however, my hesitation inexplicably vanished, and I picked up a slim volume of runic definitions and a set of translucent purple stones etched with gilded symbols. They look like they fell right out of Dumbledore’s pocket.
Now, I really want to talk more about runes here, but I will refrain, because this remains a Tarot blog. Suffice it to say, I’ve branched out a bit when it comes to divination.
The runes do figure into my story, though, because I did a precursory reading with them before I left to get my Tarot reading. I wanted to know whether or not it really was a good idea to get the reading at this time. I cast three runes, and got something of a mixed message.
The first two runes suggested a successful endeavor, but the last rune, which was in its reversed position, seemed to tell me that someone who I would otherwise have trusted was going to give me advice rooted in bias, or try to deceive me for personal gain.
Obviously, I took this to mean that the Tarot reader I spoke with earlier might not have my best interests in mind.
I was confused by the juxtaposition of this rune with the two others, and pulled one more for clarification about whether or not I should go. This rune was another positive one, suggesting fertility, and by extension, birth of new ideas (as a novice rune-caster, all of my interpretations for last night’s cast came directly from the little book I bought**). I came to the conclusion that I would take away constructive lessons from the experience, if not the reading itself, so long as I was wary of the source.
Fair enough. As a student of history, I’m no stranger to skeptical analysis of biased sources. So I poured myself a coffee mug of Irish cream as a barrier against the cold (and admittedly for a bit of liquid pseudo-courage – as I said, I’ve never done this kind of thing before, and didn’t know what to expect), drank it down, and set out on my return to the shop. As I walked, I worked on refining a question to ask the reader, something that would be real enough to give her something to work with, and would genuinely help me in the event of a good reading; in the back of my mind, though, I remembered that I was going into this for primarily academic purposes, and I braced myself for the potential drawbacks suggested by my runes.
I settled on asking about an emotional issue I’d approached my own cards with the night prior – a serious blockage that has been affecting my day-to-day mood. I failed to gain any genuine insight from my cards, though, and walked away none the wiser. What better question to pose to this strange third party I was on my way to meet than this?
I was surprised upon entering the shop to be greeted by a different woman than the one I’d consulted earlier. For a split moment, I considered asking for the woman I’d already met, but ultimately did not. I followed this new woman to the reading room, and we began.
The first thing she did (after trying to sell me psychic services that I was not interested in) was ask me if I’d ever had my cards read before. I said I hadn’t, but added that I am familiar with the cards, which was my way of subtly suggesting that I am not to be taken for a dupe. I don’t think she registered my message, though.
She told me to think of a wish and to keep it to myself. A red flag went up in my mind right there, because it suggested to me that her goal was to dazzle me with how much she could intuit from the cards, rather than actually help me to answer any questions I had brought. She then proceeded to lay out the cards in a variation of the Celtic Cross spread, telling me about myself and my troubles as she did so. She worked incredibly fast, and I could not process what the cards on the table were before she’d covered them up with new ones.
She was clearly very skilled at reading. She only had to glance at the cards to tell me what they meant. But she did not walk me through each card, and because I hardly had the chance to look at them myself, I cannot guess at how she came to these conclusions.
And she was correct about a great many things, in some cases hitting the nail right on the head. But she did not tell me anything about myself that I didn’t already know, and most things she predicted for my future were pretty generic. And because she didn’t show me how she came to these conclusions, I don’t know how much she actually drew from the cards. She claimed to be a psychic, telling me a little about my aura before I even sat down, and she asked for my birth date, so she had the information she needed for a general astrological blueprint. How do I know she wasn’t making generalizations about me from these methods? (assuming of course that these methods are even valid – which I cannot say one way or the other)
Sure, she told me that I struggle with addiction and depression, for example, but did the cards communicate that to her, or did she maybe just smell that whiskey on my breath? I’ve read enough Sherlock Holmes stories to know that you don’t need Tarot cards or supernatural abilities to tell people about themselves if you’re observant enough.
She presented me with so much information so quickly, that I had a hard time retaining it. Even now, as I write this, I’m having difficulty remembering a lot of what she told me.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. I remember quite a few things she said, but my memory of the experience is a jumbled mess overall.*** Sure, I was impressed with how much she could tell me with very little information to go on, but again, she said nothing I couldn’t have just told her myself, and I got very little in the way of advice towards solving my issues.
That is, until she gave me the advice of pissing away more of my money to get more advice.
She told me I had some serious negativity that needed immediate attention, and that the best thing I could do was drop a hundred dollars right then and there so she could meditate for me. Seriously, lady? Thanks, but no thanks. I politely declined, handed her the money I owed her for the reading, thanked her, and moved to leave the shop. Before I was out the door, though, she offered me a small, polished black stone that “absorbs negativity,” free of charge. It was a nice gesture on her part. I pocketed it and left.****
There are three things from this experience that really stuck with me afterwards. The first was what the reader had told me about my aura before she had even laid out the cards: apparently, my aura is a bright, white light, which is a sign of great inner strength and purity. Now, this made me smile, and if she wasn’t just pulling my leg, I take great comfort in it. Of course, I’m not 100% sure she wasn’t pulling my leg to flatter me and suck me in, but either way, those words remained with me.
The second was something she said to me during the reading: having faith is very important, my capacity for faith is very strong, and because of it I am able to build strong connections with other people; but I really need to figure out exactly what it is I put my faith in. I’ve written about this dilemma before; its something that I wonder about fairly often. I was thinking more about this than anything else the reader had said to me afterward (although it certainly wasn’t at the forefront of my mind beforehand – and the issue that was on my mind was left unaddressed save for some vague comments about inner turmoil). If nothing else, this reading confirmed my tentative faith in the runes, and by extension divination in general. I thought to myself, perhaps this is what I have faith in, but I immediately corrected my thoughts – I may have faith in the cards and the runes as tools, but that is all they are. No, there is something on the other side of the spiritual divide with which I am using these tools to communicate – that is what I truly put my faith in, what I allow to guide my spiritual life. So, I go right back to my original question: what is it? Perhaps it really is beyond me to name it, and rather than distracting myself with constrictive definitions, I should just have faith. And if the “other side of the spiritual divide” ends up just being my own subconscious reflected back at me, well, what of it? Am I not also divine, by virtue of my belief in the Paradox of Magic?
The third was a particular card she laid down: the Magician (she used a Rider pack). This was one of the first cards she drew, and it was one of the very few that did not get covered by other cards as the reading progressed, almost as if he was there to watch over the reading. I don’t know what this card contributed to her interpretation – I couldn’t tell based on what she was saying to me. However, as a reader myself, I found great significance in the appearance of this card, and it went both ways. The Magician was warning both myself and the reader about the Trickster sitting directly across the table.
In other words, I saw that this card was telling me about the snake-oil salesman on the other side of the table. I also saw that he was telling the reader, if she would listen, that I wasn’t exactly what I appeared to be, either – that I may have looked like I was two steps behind, when I was actually one step ahead. Why, the Magician represents the very force that put the warning rune in my hands earlier that evening. He is a close ally of mine, my patron, and I think she was too busy trying to butter me up so I’d spend more money that she missed that (not that she should have gotten that from the card, because it was a reading for me, but whatever psychic ability she possessed might have shown her, if only she had looked).
I didn’t go there to get proof that the cards work – I already know that. If I doubted, I wouldn’t spend my money, and I don’t understand the people who do. Of course, I understand that many Tarot readers have to deal with skeptics, but I don’t think that’s a reason to treat everyone who comes through the door as one. And I suppose I was a skeptic, although certainly not the skeptic she’d apparently assumed I was. I was skeptical about her, not her cards. And I was right to be.
I went there to gain a new perspective on the cards, and hopefully get some questions answered about my emotional troubles in the process, and I learned nothing about either.
In the end, however, I feel like the experience was a positive one, although I will not be going back to that shop to get my cards read again. In fact, because I study the cards myself, I don’t feel much of a desire to have someone else read them for me at all. There is one other shop in my town that does Tarot readings, though, and I think I’ll be paying them a visit in the future, just to see. Hopefully I will be able to actually learn something there.
*At some point, I intend to craft my own set of runes, but I figured I’d learn how to read with these for the time being.
**A Practical Guide to the Runes: Their Uses in Divination and Magick by Lisa Peschel, published in 1989 by Llewellyn Worldwide. That extra “K” in the word “Magick” always makes me cringe, but I let it slide this time.
***And I don’t think this is a result of the Irish cream, because my memory from both before and after the reading is very clear.
****Maybe it’s because I’m an Earth Wizard, but I tend to attract stones like that. I’ve got a small collection of them in my apartment, and I’ve never had to pay for one (not counting my new runes, of course). I call some of these “Sentinel Stones” and use them for a very specific type of magic, but like the runes, I will refrain from really going into that here.
As of this post, I am a Tarot reader who does not use reversals.
I remember the first time I laid out a spread with my brand new Radiant RWS cards. I shuffled them to allow for reversed cards, and laid them out in the Celtic-Cross spread that was included in the LWB.
As soon as I turned up the first reversal, I immediately decided that I would put off reading with them for the time being. It wasn’t that it confused me; at that point, all I was doing was reading the definitions from the LWB, whether the card was right side up or not. No, I just didn’t like the way it looked. So I rearranged my cards so they were all oriented the same way, and ever since have always taken care to keep them like that while shuffling.
As I learn more and more about reading cards, I remain extremely hesitant to incorporate reversals into my spreads. It’s no longer just for aesthetic reasons, although a spread does always looks better when you don’t bother with them.
For one thing, there appears to be no agreed-upon way to do them (although that’s pretty much true of anything Tarot). Some cards come with a LWB that will tell you specific meanings for reversals. In fact, many do. But what about a method, something applicable no matter what deck you’re using? There are several reigning ones that I’ve seen.
One way is to read the reversed card as an inversion of the upright meaning. For example, the Hermit reversed would be an outgoing and social personality. Alternatively, all upright cards could show the positive aspects of those cards, while reversed could be negative. The Emperor upright is a just and stable ruler, but reversed he is an oppressive despot. Rachel Pollack suggests in her book that reversals indicate “blocked energies”. Something about the usual meaning of the card has been suppressed. A reversed Magician means you may be having difficulty expressing yourself. If I were to begin incorporating reversals into my spreads, it would likely be with one of the above three methods.
But reading this way adds an entirely new level of complexity to an already complex practice, and to be honest, I think the Tarot is capable of telling you whatever it needs to with the cards available. Reversals certainly add more nuance, but I do not believe it’s necessary.
For me, though, there is a deeper reason preventing me from using them, if I’m willing to admit it: fear. I am afraid to get reversals in my readings, because I’ve associated them with bad things (I can’t say when or why this developed), and I don’t want that.
Of course, this is extremely foolish, I know. I don’t have to get into why this is foolish, as it should be apparent to anyone. There are bad things even in many upright cards, and preventing them from popping up in a reading doesn’t necessarily prevent them from popping up in real life, anyway. Not to mention the fact that a reversed card doesn’t even have to be considered negative, depending on the card and method of interpretation. But, if I’m being really honest, deep down, this is why I don’t use them.
But who knows. Despite the leaps and bounds I’ve grown in the past year, the Tarot is still a very new addition to my life. I feel no rush to advance the complexities of my readings – this will happen in its own time. Thinking about my future as a card reader, I think it’s pretty likely at some point that I will begin to shuffle my cards to allow for reversals.