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 use the Tarot in a myriad of ways. It has proven to be a very versatile tool for the development of my metaphysical awareness. Of course, one of the most popular ways to use the cards is to lay them out in a spread for reading, and indeed this is something I do more or less regularly myself.
I’ve experimented with many spreads since I began using the cards. I even keep a notebook reserved just for copying spreads which I find in books and online for my own personal use. It serves as a handy index for me to leaf through when I’m considering how to interact with the cards on any given day.
Several months ago, however, I felt compelled to design my own Tarot spread. And so, taking my position as the Sentinel as inspiration, I began to experiment. Eventually, I came up with a rough version of the Sentinel’s Spread. You can read about my original design here, but I must admit that I have since gone back and re-read that post, and am not completely satisfied with it. In any case, the spread has evolved since then, and I’m here today to break it down for anyone who may wish to try it for themselves. The more I use it, the more I like it, so much so that it has become my default method for personal reading, and I would like to share.
As the name suggests, this spread is designed around the metaphor of a sentinel atop a watchtower. It is a fairly complex spread, requiring a minimum of 21 cards, and the entire process of laying it out can be broken down into five parts:
A summary of these parts can be found here; I’d originally intended to link each part above to its own post, and I started that project fairly strong, but quickly sputtered out, as you can see by the lack of links from parts 4 and 5.
The querent may bring specific questions to the spread – in fact, they are encouraged to do so – but the spread itself is not intended to give only one specific answer. It is rather more of a general stock-taking type of thing, to be applied to many aspects of one’s life. To use the aforementioned metaphor, you may ask the sentinel to pay special attention to the north-west, because that is where the advancing enemy is rumored to be camped. However, the sentinel would be remiss in his duties if he did not also look to the other directions and report what he sees, whether to the north-west or to the south-east or anywhere else. In this way, the Sentinel’s Spread is a comprehensive look at the querent’s current state of being, and can offer suggestions on how to best proceed in whatever the matter is in question, but may also bring hitherto unknown circumstances to light. It can sometimes surprise with what it shows.
My own experience playing with this spread leads me to recommend setting aside a bit of time to fully interpret it, and also to record the reading in a journal or notebook so it can be revisited in the future. I’ve often found the experience of re-reading this spread with the benefit of hindsight to be enlightening. I also generally don’t lay down this spread for myself more often than once a month.
*One of these represented me, and the other represented the friend with whom I was reading at the time.