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A Few Thoughts on Tarot Spreads

This article was written by Barbara Moore
posted under Tarot

The Beginning
Fairly early on in my journey with tarot, I had a private reading with Rachel Pollack, the author of some of the best-loved books on tarot (like Tarot Wisdom). She is something of a legend in most tarot circles, and is one of the people who modernized tarot. She was, and still is, a hero to me. I approached this first opportunity to meet with her with stars in my eyes. We sat down and she told me to talk about the situation that I wanted the reading about. Not, "What is your question?" but, "Talk about the situation." As I talked, she jotted notes on a scrap of paper. When I stopped talking, she continued making curious marks on that scrap of paper. After she was satisfied, she showed me the paper saying, "This is the spread I’m going to use for your reading." Rachel proceeded to explain the spread and asked me if it seemed fine to me.

I don’t think she knew that while my voice calmly and quietly said, "Sure, that looks great," that my mind was exploding in three different ways. "Hey, she can’t just make up a spread!" "Hey, she made up a special spread just for me!" "Holy crap! I’m getting a reading from Rachel Pollack!" And as quick as three thoughts, my world changed. Without knowing it, Rachel opened a door to a world that I never knew existed—the universe where spreads are created. My heart pounded as promises of freedom, structure, creativity, patterns, and possibilities ran through my soul like blood through my veins. "Yep," I thought. "This is where I belong."

Something is Missing
When I first began studying tarot, there weren’t many books of spreads, and the ones that were available were mostly collections of spreads with no explanations or directions. I had so many questions: Why are they laid out like that? What does it mean when the cards are in a vertical line? Why would we cross the cards, which makes it hard to see them clearly? Why aren’t they all just straight lines; why do they have to be in shapes? Is that just for fun or is there a reason? I believed spreads were special, even sacred in some way, and I wanted to understand them as thoroughly as I understood the cards. Back in 1990, the Internet wasn’t what it is now, so online communities, blogs, or websites weren’t options for learning or bouncing around ideas. All I had were books and a need to understand. My experience with Rachel opened up so many possibilities and gave me the gentle push I needed to start exploring spreads and spread design on my own.

Consequently, my tarot journey included working with spreads, experimenting, and reading. After about ten years of gathering raw material, I spent about three years teaching classes and workshops testing out my theories and getting the input of other readers and students. The results of all this studying, thinking, trying, and talking turned into my newest book, Tarot Spreads: Layouts & Techniques to Empower Your Readings.

Tarot Spreads is really different from many other books on the subject, which usually are collections of spreads. My book analyzes the components of a spread and pays particular attention to the layout and how it visually and subconsciously affects our interpretations.

Another difference is that it not only provides over seventy unique spreads, but it explains how to use them so that you can get more out of your readings. There is also a section on modifying spreads and creating your own.

A Favorite Part
One of my favorite parts, though, is the readings tips section. This is a collection of ideas that you can add to any spread.

Techniques are not spreads; they are more like options or accessories that you can incorporate into any spread or reading. In my opinion, there are no rules with tarot, except one: let whatever you do reflect what you believe. So think creatively! Play with your cards. Experiment. See what interesting possibilities you discover.

Although often fun and creative, techniques can really super-charge a reading. During readings the energy can become stagnant. It feels like nothing is flowing well, the connection between you and the querent or you and the Divine seems blocked, and you’re just not in the zone. When this happens in our lives, sometimes making just one small change helps the energy move and flow. My psychology professor said that you could add new passion and excitement to a, shall we say, settled (or even stagnant) relationship by simply interrupting one routine. When a reading is faltering, pull one of these techniques out of your toolbox and see what happens. If your tarot practice in general needs a boost, playing with your cards in a new way is a sure way to get your tarot mojo shining bright again.

Here’s an example of one of the techniques in the book:

Many spreads have a position that represents the querent’s ideal, main focus, attitude, or goal. For example, in the Celtic Cross Spread, I see this as the "crowning" card. In most spreads, you can identify the card that represents the energy that the querent is expressing or the direction in which they are moving. In spreads, this position is the easiest to change, for it is the one the querent has complete control over. It is, after all, their attitude and their decision.

When the card in that position is not all that it could be or if the querent is not happy with the outcome of a reading, I like to help them change their focus, and potentially their future. This technique requires a querent who is not afraid to play with the cards. Explain the card that currently represents their energy. Hand them the deck and invite them to go through the cards and pick a new attitude. I tell them that they can pick any card they want, even one that is already on the table.

After they have selected their new attitude, ask them to talk about what they find attractive or useful about it. How does it differ from the old card? What plans can they make to move from one card to the other? Take another look at the spread incorporating the new card and see how its presence changes the situation.

Visual & Subconscious Effect of Spread Design
As I mentioned above, one main focus of the book is the idea that layouts both visually and subconsciously influence our interpretations. Our conscious minds are designed to see patterns in the world. When we look at something new, our eyes try to find similarities between it and things we’ve seen in the past so that we can categorize and understand what we are experiencing. That is the first and most basic service that spreads provide: structure. The shape of the spread, the number cards, and the patterns all work together to give our eyes and our minds somewhere to start. From this foundation we build the interpretations and relationships amongst the cards present in the reading so that we can synthesize everything into a coherent message. Without some sort of spread, the table would just be filled with chaos, making it much more difficult to see and communicate the answer.

When speaking of spreads, a layout is exactly what it sounds like: how the cards are laid out on the table. Most spreads are heavily characterized—or should be—by their layout. The layout is usually the most visible aspect of a spread and the pattern does matter. A well designed, effective spread should make use of the layout to create a richer reading experience and to make interpretation easier. An ineffectively designed spread just gets in the way of the reading process.

To understand the importance of layouts in a reading, think about art and graphic design. Both use the principles of design and composition in order to express or communicate their message. These principles are based on how the eye moves and on psychological responses. These, of course, vary from culture to culture. For example, in the United States we read from left to right and usually think of time as moving from left to right, as well. However, that is not every culture’s reality. Moreover, any artist or graphic designer will tell you that there is no one master list of The Principles of Design and Composition. That would be too easy. So don’t get analytical about these concepts.

Design works because it is based on instinctive responses and on what your eye and mind do naturally. Pay enough attention to understand and use these concepts, but don’t let them paralyze you. Most tarot books include correspondences, such as numerology, elemental associations, or astrology. These are meant to enhance your tarot card understanding and interpretation. If explained correctly, they don’t get in the way of your natural interpretation, but rather they support your tarot work. Use the principles of layout and design in the same way. When you see these different layouts in a spread, use some of the ideas here to examine the relationships between the cards and the positions more thoroughly. Let them add depth and ease to your readings.

Try It!
To get an idea of why the way the cards are laid out matters, try this experiment. Look at the spreads below. They have no numbers or positional meanings. Pull three cards from your deck. Lay those three cards out in the various designs and read the story they tell. Pay attention to the way the cards relate to each other in terms of their positions—is one higher than the other? Are they equal? How do those relationships affect the story line? Also, look at the specific card images. When you change them around, does it affect if the characters are looking at each other or away from each other? It is amazing how just changing the way the cards are set down will change the energy of the story and shape the way they are interpreted.

The visual relationship between the cards will affect how they are interpreted because this is the way most of our minds work. Cards laid out in pairs will usually be read in relation to each other. Cards in a row will be read as a linear narrative. Cards on top or separated from a group are viewed as having some significance. From this experiment, you can see that these relationships do happen naturally and unconsciously. Being consciously aware of these concepts helps you use them more purposefully, just as you do associations and correspondences for the card meanings.

Tarot Spreads: Layouts & Techniques to Empower Your Readings is filled with spreads and techniques to use in your practice or to inspire new ideas. It also explores the Principles of Design as they relate to layouts. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Barbara MooreBarbara Moore
The tarot has been a part of Barbara Moore's personal and professional lives for over two decades. In college, the tarot intrigued her with its marvelous blending of mythology, psychology, art, and history. Today she continues her tarot journey, both by...  Read more

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