Updated: Jul 22, 2019
There is a seemingly endless amount of spreads these days for the discerning Tarot reader to gleefully dive into and shuffle about with. It seems that pretty much anything can be adapted and integrated into a Tarot spread – the principle seems to be ‘if it moves, base a Tarot spread on it and if it doesn’t move, do one anyway in case it does’!
Whilst I should perhaps make it clear that I am not in any way against the use of spreads in Tarot readings, there is another way. In the 30 plus years I have been giving readings for others, I have found that reading without spreads has distinct advantages over the prescriptive method that spreads naturally engender.
Looking back over those years now, this process began in the early days of my fledging Tarot career. I began, as many do, giving readings for my friends and looking up card meanings in books and pretty much re-iterating what was said. However in many cases I could not equate what I was reading with what was written in the book. It was only when I found the bravery to say what I was seeing in the cards that my friends began to make the ‘wow’ and ‘oh my god, how did you know that’ exclamations that could be seen as the hallmark of a good psychic reading.
Similarly, as I progressed I found that the structure of the majority of spreads I was using seemed to have a restrictive effect on what I wanted to say. I could not equate what I was seeing in the cards with where the card was placed in a spread. By way of example, I along with a great many of my peers I know, based my readings on the ubiquitous Celtic Cross spread, in one of its many varieties. If I saw for instance a Pentacles card in the place for ‘Querent’s attitude’, let’s say the Five in this case, I could see a need for healing and recovery and something of a humble acceptance of their situation to lead to this healing. The great Rachel Pollack tells us that Pentacles 5 relates to ‘material troubles, poverty and loss’ (Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Published Aquarian Press 1983)
Whilst I have since learned that what I have come to call my ‘Tarot Therapy’ © approach naturally points more to the underlying ‘causal’ energy of the cards rather than their outer ‘meaning’ or interpretation, (I now hold the view that cards do not have meanings as such, they are energy and energy only, but that’s another article!) this did place me in a difficult position when it came to the spreads I was using in my readings. I found that I could not say what I wanted to say because the interpretation of the card I was receiving did not fit where it was supposed to relate to in that spread.
So I experimented. As time progressed I came up with spreads of my own that attempted to suit the methods I was now working with, yet still I found that I was limited by the spreads and their placings. Eventually I tried simply dealing a number of cards out for the client and reading them in turn. Finally I was able to unlock what I had been trying to get at – what I now term the energy of the cards, as opposed to their ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’. To do this I have found that giving readings without a spread is the most effective method.
I begin the process, following the obligatory and necessary good shuffle of the deck, by fanning them out before the client. I then invite them to pick however many cards they feel is right. Many will ask how many they are supposed to or should take and some prompting may be necessary to tell them that are no rules and they should just choose the number they like. All good Tarot readers will be aware of the significance of numbers and so we can apply the numerological influence here, based on the number of cards a client chooses. This will give us the overall, general energy they are working with at the time of the reading.
Attention should also be given to the manner in which a client chooses their cards. An interesting and usually unconscious process takes place that allows us to gain further clues and insight as to their client and their situation. Some clients will arrange the cards in a pattern or spread as they pull them out of the deck and by all means this should be used – I always find this of relevance when it comes to working with the individual cards chosen. Clients may for instance place one or two cards apart for some reason and this always becomes significant.
Equally, other clients may just push a few cards out from the deck in a somewhat haphazard, uncaring manner, indicative of their attitude to their life or situation at the time of the reading. Some may pile their chosen cards on top of each other in a random way that may show how things are piling on top of one another. Some may be indecisive and unsure of what cards to pick, which can also indicate that same indecision with regard to their situation. Others continually seek confirmation they are doing it right, or check if they should do something different, which tells us of their particular need. Whilst it could be said that this is merely some kind of amateur psychology, I have found that the observations I give one clients have chosen their cards is always met with agreement.
Next comes an exercise that I call the ‘Balance of Cards’. We already know the general situation from the number of cards chosen along with their attitude or approach to it, from the manner in which they were chosen. Given that we have the complete deck at our disposal rather than a limited, specific number of say 9, 15 or 21 cards to suit our chosen spread, we can gain much knowledge from the cards that do appear – where in the pack they come from and their distribution.
As with the majority of matters relating to the Tarot, there are very few hard and fast rules that we can apply here, since the dynamics will depend greatly on the number of cards chosen. That said I have found that most clients will choose somewhere between 5 and 15 cards, which allows for a good analysis in the manner that follows.
Firstly, we need to see how many and indeed if any Major Arcana cards have been chosen. For me these tell us what is happening at what I call the soul level of the client, their connection to their intended path, whether they are learning the lessons on offer for them at this time and whether they are absorbing the energy from those cards. We want neither too few nor too many Major cards. None at all suggests they are not connecting to their soul at this time and so missing the point in some way and shows a need to look within more deeply. Too many and this can show a time of great significance, deep meaning and often challenging situations. Great progress can be made but there is often great pressure to accompany it. The 22 Major cards equate to just under 30% of the 78 cards in the traditional Tarot deck so we would hope for something akin to this ratio, or about 1/3 to be Major cards to show the requisite balance in the client.
Next we need to see if there is a card from each of the four Minor Arcana suits. This will show us the energies active within the client and their situation at each of the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels that the Pentacles, Cups, Swords and Rods represent through their elemental association of Earth, Water, Air and Fire. If we have 5 cards or more then we would hope to see at least one card from each suit, to show the clients connection at that level. An absence of any one suit then indicates a need to engage with that energy within themselves, since all human beings exist and depend on all four Elements for our survival and health.
Any predominance of any one suit will also indicate too much energy being focussed on and so guidance may need to be given on this. Equally we may expect and indeed will usually find that if the client is, for example, asking about a relationship issue, Cups will dominate. Should there be no Swords in such a reading it can indicate a need for communication, or that communication has broken down.
We can then look for the numerological influence of the cards chosen. Firstly it is good to see if there are any numbers duplicated in the selection of cards. The significance of this is not hard for the accomplished Tarot reader – more than one of any number simply increase its power, significance or energy. So should there be two Aces for instance, new aspects to their situation are required, needed and likely and so on.
We can also then look for progressions of numbers indicated in the cards. It is surprising how often these things do occur across the cards. This can show something of the rate at which the client might or could progress in their situation, self and life. Should there be only odd numbers this can tell us that different events are likely to occur prior to any final outcome or if it is just even numbers then things may be moving more slowly, steadily and less disruptively for them. One powerfully creative progression to look out for is the 3,6,9 sequence which indicates a great opportunity to make rapid and significant progress if they apply themselves wholeheartedly to it.
We can then look to see the spread of Court cards in the selection. Whilst we know that these do not always necessarily represent people in a reading we can tell something of the shift the client may be going through, or need to, within themselves if, as can quite commonly be the case, there are court cards spread throughout their cards. It may be a particular approach or attitude to their situation or problem is called for, indicated by the court card on display. A King of Swords might then tell us that there is a need to listen to and observe the situation and weigh up all pros and cons before making a judgement. The Queen of Cups might tell us there is a need for empathy, understanding, forgiveness and an open heart in their approach – or indeed towards them from another, depending on how the cards are aspected.
Once we have then completed the ‘Balance of Cards’ process in this way we have gained a good deal of knowledge at a non-specific but still direct level of the client and their situation, issue or problem at the time of the reading. This is all prior to actually reading the cards themselves and will have the beneficial effect of instilling a good confidence in the client of your ability and knowledge since you have outlined much that they will identify with before you have begun!
What remains then is to ‘read’ the cards in a more traditional way, one by one, beginning with the first card chosen and continuing on until the last has been reached. In my view this is where the real ‘art’ of reading the Tarot lies, in the intuitive ability to link cards together and relate one to the other. What emerges then is rather like the process of storytelling - it all unfolds as we go and each card is another page, or perhaps chapter, of the book.
Reading without Spreads is a little like working without a safety net and throwing oneself at the mercy of the cards! To use the Tarot in this unrestricted way is for me rather like asking the Tarot what it wants to say, rather than giving it a specific question it must respond to. I have found that the wisdom or Spirit of the Tarot is so vast, expansive and all-compassing that it never lets us down.
Copyright © Steve Hounsome 2013
Steve Hounsome has worked for over 30 years as a professional Tarot reader and given thousands of readings over that time. He is the author of 6 books, including his three volume ‘Tarot Therapy’ series. He has also produced a range of 15 highly-acclaimed spoken-word Meditation and Development CD’s, including three Tarot Meditations, as well as a deck of ‘Tarot Therapy Affirmation Cards’. He has appeared on TV and Radio and has taught the Tarot and related subjects internationally for many years. He is currently creating his own ‘Tarot Therapy’ deck which he hopes to release in 2014.
You can contact Steve at the following media –
LANDLINE: +44(0)1202 740019
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