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Tarot of the Magicians coverHere’s a classic “reclaimed spread” in the form of a five-card-cross that is most often found in French and continental Tarot books. The version I offer here is from Oswald Wirth’s Tarot of the Magicians, with an introduction by me (originally published as Le Tarot, des imagiers du moyen-age, 1926).  Wirth claims to have learned it from his teachers, Stanislas de Guaita and Joséphin Péladan (famous 19th century French occultists). It uses only the Major Arcana. Note that the card layout itself will probably be familiar as it has been adapted to many different kinds of readings, some of them focusing on the four elements or directions with the fifth-essence/situation/resolution in the center. The original spread is quite different. Note: This new edition of the book includes a reproduction of Wirth’s original 1889 Major Arcana!

What’s great about the Oswald Wirth version is that it’s based on the premise that your case is being considered in a court of law with the result being advice or direction for achieving success. The Major Arcana cards that turn up are characters in the resulting courtroom drama and should be seen as acting in a manner aligned with the card and presenting its unique attitudes and perspectives. Ham it up; imagine a scene from your favorite legal-eagle TV show.

Ask a specific question, and using only the Major Arcana, shuffle and cut. Then, taking cards from the top of the deck (*see alternate technique below), place them in the positions indicated.

The first two cards are the lawyers and the evidence presented by the two sides.

THE CARD ON THE LEFT is affirmative, showing what is in favor of (“for”) the situation. It points to what it is wise to do and those people or qualities on which one can depend.

THE CARD ON THE RIGHT is negative (the opposing counsel) and represents what is “against” it. It points to hostilities that should be avoided or feared: the fault, enemy, danger or the “pernicious temptation.”

THE CARD ABOVE is the judge who discusses the evidence, weighs the pros and cons, and may arbitrate between the for and against. The judge helps clarify the decision to be made and gives advice as to what’s required.

IN THE CARD BELOW the “sentence,” result or solution is pronounced. Taking into account the synthesis of the fifth card, this “voice” of the oracle offers a look into what comes from the decision. It may contain a “teaching” about what style, attitude or demeanor is ultimately to be aimed for.

THE CENTER CARD is determined by adding the numbers of the first four cards and reducing to 22 or less.** It is a synthesis of what has gone before, and points out what is of prime importance on which everything else depends. Although placed last, Wirth reads it first, since the situation or topic depends on it.

The Fool is considered 0 when adding or 22 when it is the result of the addition. The fifth/center card may be the same as one of the other four.

* Wirth suggests a special way of selecting the first four cards that you can use if you like. Shuffle the Major Arcana and then ask the querent for the first number between 1 and 22 that comes into her head. Count down that many cards and place the final card of the count in position one. Shuffle again and repeat for each of the next three positions.

** A much superior way of obtaining a reduced synthesis, numerologically speaking, is to add all the cards and then subtract 22 from any sum over that. This is the only way to get a true range of card possibilities as your synthesis. (Thanks to Steve Mangan, aka Kwaw, who did the math!)

In a sample interpretation Wirth asks “How should one advise a would-be diviner?” (That is, What advice should be given to a person who wants to become the best tarot reader possible?)

The cards received give an answer that you might find surprising. Please tell us your interpretation in the comments section, but here’s some direction from Wirth. He begins with the center card, stating that it shows what the divination depends on. He then contrasts the “for” (on the left) with the “against” (on the right): “the Emperor puts himself at the service of Strength to whom the Moon is detrimental, being against.” That is, the Emperor opposes (or reigns in) the Moon. Cards in positions three and four offer instruction. The Judge (above) shows what we must do and the Solution (below) shows what will come from doing that. What do you make of these cards?

This is the Radical Wirth Tarot painted by Carol Herzer, a beautiful, 22-card deck currently available in a limited edition, although perhaps not for much longer.

Most of you have seen or used a spread with four positions based on the four suits of the Minor Arcana. Usually it describes what is going on at four levels: body, mind, emotions and spirit, or some similar quaternity. I sometimes lay out four aces from one deck as position holders and then lay cards from a second shuffled deck on top of each ace. Sometimes a fifth card/position integrates the whole or offers advice.

But, there’s a much more interesting way of using the four aces that also offers far more information.

Four Aces Spread Instructions

• Determine the Spread Intent before you begin (see chart below).

Shuffle your deck thoroughly, cut, restack and then turn cards over one at a time.

When you get to the first ace, take the ace and the three cards that follow and place them on the table in a row (left to right). Continue turning over cards until you get to the next ace and the three cards following it. Place them on the table below the first set. Continue with the next two aces until you have four rows of cards on the table.

Exception: if one ace follows another without three cards in between, then the first ace will have less than three cards in its row. The meaning of the short row will depend on what you intuit it to mean in the circumstances. Sometimes it strengthens the card(s) that did turn up. If there are no cards it could indicate that area is not involved in the situation being discussed (consider whether it should be).

Spread Intent: The overall meaning of each row is determined by the ace that leads it. Decide on one of the following sets of meanings (or your own) before you begin:

Four Aces2

The Order: The order in which each ace turns up is very important:

  1. 1st Ace: The Main Character. The primary focus of your attention and energies right now.
  2. 2nd Ace: The Complication. An area you have not been paying as much attention to but can interfere with what’s going on in the first row.
  3. 3rd Ace: The Sidekick/Guide. A secondary focus or emphasis. It may help you resolve tensions between 1 and 2, or suggest helpful actions.
  4. 4th Ace: The Upstart. Something new or “renewed” that will be assuming more importance, possibly as a result of your interactions in the other three areas.

Begin by considering just the four aces in terms of their order in the spread. For instance,

How are Love/Relationships the primary focus of your energies? How are issues around Money and Security interfering? How might focusing on Work and Creativity help? Will you soon need to think about Problem-solving to overcome a difficulty?

Then, read each row of three cards as a unit that describes what’s going on in that position. Ignore the Ace except as it sets that row’s meaning.

Special Cards: The Fool appearing in any row indicates that things are not like they seem; a trickster element is present. The highest Major Arcana in the spread trumps all. You can triumph best by paying special attention to the qualities and lessons of this card and its position.

Sample Reading

The sample reading I did was quite extraordinary. My intent was a “Life Sphere” reading. The deck is Kat Black’s gorgeous Touchstone Tarot (catch Kat Black’s interview about this deck on Tarot Connection). Notice that an angel designates each ace.

The Aces were, in order: Wands, Coins, Swords, Cups. The order tells me: Work & Creativity is the primary focus. I’m not paying attention to money (darn it!). I have some Problem-solving to do. Love & Relationships are upcoming—maybe (see comments below). Here’s the spread with a very brief commentary:


Row 1: I am feeling challenged and hemmed in (9 of Wands) by decisions I need to make (Queen of Swords) about the work I love (Knight of Cups).

Row 2: No cards! (The Ace of Swords followed immediately after the Ace of Coins.)

Row 3: I can successfully triumph (World) over the most extreme difficulties (10 of Swords) by calmly applying my wisdom and experience (Hermit) and by letting go of something that is not going anywhere (10 of Swords again).

Row 4: No cards! (The Ace of Cups was the last card in the deck.)

Summary: My overall feeling is that, in order to focus on the work that is most fulfilling to me I need to defend my choices of creative work (despite their not bringing in money) and weed out whatever I can from my list of obligations. If it’s a problem that can’t be solved then I shouldn’t continue trying to do so. While relationships are not at the forefront right now, they will eventually become important again. With the Queen of Swords as my standard Significator and the Hermit as my Soul Card, I’ve got two indications that this is more important than it may seem and the whole issue rests on my own decisions and clarity of purpose. The World as the highest Major Arcana suggests that I can triumph by eliminating what is not part of my Hermit path. Now’s not the time to worry about money or love—although I should be aware that what I’m doing is not helping either.

Alejandro Jodorowsky presents a variation on the Three Card Spread that I’ve found very powerful. I call it “Jodorowsky’s Three Card Theosophic Sum Spread” because you begin with three cards that expand into seven (Major Arcana only). Jodorowky calls it, “Reading three cards according to their number value.” A “theosophic sum” results from adding a set of numbers and then reducing them, usually to a single digit or “root” number but, in the case of tarot, to a number that is 22 or below. By adding all the variations of the numbers in the three card spread you end up with four additional cards (see instructions below).

jodorowskyJodorowsky was the writer/director of the late ’60s controversial cult films, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, re-released in 2007. The Holy Mountain contains Tarot content, a bit of which can be seen in this video tarot lecture by him (with English subtitles). I encourage you to look at his The Way of Tarot: The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards (co-written with Marianne Costa and formerly available only in French and Spanish). It will be available in English this December—get your pre-order in now. I highly recommend this book (which I’ve been slowly making my way through in Spanish) as an excellent way of understanding Marseille-style decks and especially for in-depth methods of reading the Major Arcana (he also discusses the Minors). Read the rest of this entry »

Charles San introduced the 1973 Causeway Books edition of Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot with an  essay, “How to Read the Cards,” in which he recommended this Major Arcana-only spread. It features an interesting way of selecting the cards and, when I first tried it, the cards themselves suggested a way to give the reading additional definition and depth. Here is the spread with my own modifications. (San did not state where to place each card except that they circle around the Significator.)

  1. Shuffle the Major Arcana and deal out six cards face down on top of each other. Turn the seventh card face up and place it in the middle of the reading area. This is the Significator and represents a starting point for the reading. Return the other six to the bottom of the deck.
  2. Deal two cards face down and turn one card up, placing this third card at the 10 o’clock position (relative to the Significator). Do this seven times placing every third card in a counterclockwise circle around the Significator [this order is added by me as a result of the example spread that follows]. You will end up with seven cards circling the card drawn in step 1.
  3. Optional: if unsatisfied that these cards suffice, deal three more cards from the remaining thirteen, taking the third, tenth and thirteen cards, and place them above the circle.

San says you are to build a vision of the “present place in the ebb and flow of one’s life,” as “the individual cards and the combining of them provides one with the reading.” You can read this spread for yourself or one friend, but if three people are present then “the reading that results concerns all three as part of the society in which they live and work.”

Here is my spread using the Golden Dawn / Whare Ra Majors: Read the rest of this entry »

T-L Info CardIn 1935 the British magazine and book publisher Tomson-Leng produced a set of “Tarot Fortune Cards” that were given away to the readers of “My Weekly”—a women’s magazine. This unusual set of 79 cards (including this verse) is partly based on the Rider-Waite-Smith deck but with some significant differences, especially in the suit of Rods [Wands], which owe some of their symbolism to designs published by Eudes Picard in Manuel Synthétique & Pratique du Tarot (1909). The suits are Rods, Cups, Swords and Pence, which, according to Picard, correspond to Fire, Air, Water and Earth‚ respectively, which is why so many Swords cards have water and Cups cards have a butterfly as an air symbol. The Fool is numbered 21 and comes before The World.

This deck is also notable for being chaste and family-friendly with no nudity. The The LWB [little white booklet] is one of the most interesting and original works from this period, having spreads that I’ve never seen elsewhere. None of the spreads list individual position meanings. There are card interpretations for both upright and reversed orientations and often special meanings when the card appears near one or two other cards.

Here is a “reclaimed spread” from the 1935 booklet: Read the rest of this entry »


Do you want a quick ‘yes, no, or maybe’ answer to your advice questions? I’m very excited that is featuring the classic Yes/No Advice Oracle in a much beefed-up version created by me. You will find it featured here for Valentine’s Day. It now has commentaries based on the number of cards you receive in several groupings plus for each Ace and the Major Arcana. It’s designed to provide succinct and to the point advice and direction. Be aware this is a commercial site.

If you try it, let me know what you think, including editorial comments. Some of my text has been changed (understandably to fit their clientele), so I’d like to know what works and what doesn’t work for you.

UPDATE 5/23/2011: There is now a Yes/No Tarot app for the iPad. Unfortunately, they eliminated most of the interpretation data and simplified it down to practically nothing. Still, the opening art sequence is one of the best I’ve seen.

Rachel Mann of Washington D.C. has given me permission to post her “Practical Tree of Life Spread” that she first presented on Aeclectic Tarot’s tarotforum. She found most versions to be too abstract or attempting to cover too much, so she simplified it, resulting in a easy, accessible bare bones approach. Having tried dozens of Tree of Life spreads in the past, this one has quickly become my favorite.

Like the Celtic Cross you say the card position keywords as you lay cards down using the words in the illustration. The numbers represent the order in which you lay out the cards and read them. (They are not the numbers associated with the sephiroth.)tol-spread2

Here’s more about the positions:

Positions 1 & 2 – Force and Form represent “The Issue.” You can see Force as a generative, active energy behind the issue and Form as the form or structure the issue takes. (They can also represent two alternatives or choices.)

Positions 3 & 4 – People or things going for or against you. (They can also express what’s expanding and contracting, or what’s coming in and going out.)

Positions 5 & 6 – Your feelings and thoughts.

Position 7 – World. Your body, possessions, physical manifestations.

Position 8 – Persona. Your everyday self and how you present yourself.

Position 9 – Advice. Your heart’s advice. The best you can do.

Position 10 – Spirit. Morality or personal growth related to the issue.

Da’at (optional card) – If you choose you can also lay out an additional card between cards 9 and 10. The Da’at (meaning ‘Knowledge’) Position can represent a shadow or hidden knowledge: something unknown or a possible future. It can bring insight, especially as to how to integrate the cards on the right and left pillars.

You work your way down the tree with cards in positions 1 through 6 on the left and right pillars. Then, work your way up the middle pillar from position 7 at the bottom to 10 at the top. Rachel adds: “I really feel the grouping and order are important to get the right flow for the reading, especially ending by going up the middle pillar. A good way to sum up a reading is to consider how the middle pillar cards (7 and 8 ) align with the upper ones (9 and 10).”

I experienced a breakthrough regarding tarot when I realized that all the Major Arcana cards are operating somewhere within me at all times. I discovered this from doing a variety of twenty-two card spreads that show where each energy or archetype is operating at the moment. Of course some cards are emphasized or highlighted around particular issues. These are the ones that show up in smaller spreads saying: “Look at me. I’m what’s most important right now regarding your question.” It’s kind of like they’re doing a jig or vibrating more than the others, and thrusting themselves to the front to get your attention. Meanwhile, the others are in the background, quietly doing their own thing or maintaining the status quo.

Sometimes it’s worth seeing the whole picture to understand how each energy or archetype plays its role in relation to the others. There are several ways to do this. Read the rest of this entry »

The three-card spread is one of the most basic formats for quick-and-easy tarot readings. Yet, it can be surprisingly deep and insightful. It is perfect for a daily journal or when friends or people at parties want you to demonstrate what you do. Furthermore, the three-card spread is amazingly flexible as I hope to demonstrate. Most of these spreads are laid out in a row, left to right, although any pattern is fine.
Updated!! Check out some new spreads at the end.

Probably everyone is familiar with the basic timeline spread:

  • PAST

Most of you will have used the following inner trinity for a quick diagnostic as it shows what’s going on at  three levels of experience:

  • BODY
  • MIND

An interesting variation on this is:

  • HEAD – What does my Head want?
  • HEART – What does my Heart want?
  • SOUL – What does my Soul want?

Three-card readings are also great for evaluating potential actions. To compare options lay out a three-card spread for each possibility: The Pro-or-Con Spread:

  • The PRO or BENEFIT of a particular choice or action.
  • The CON or LIABILITY in that choice or action.
  • SOMETHING ELSE you need to take into account.

This can also help you deal with problems via the dialectic imperative: The Thesis Spread:

  • THESIS, idea or issue
  • ANTITHESIS, obstacle or problem
  • SYNTHESIS, integration or solution

Zoe Matoff came up with a more prescriptive version of this that is brilliant when you want to cut through all the nuances and get a (relatively) straight answer with “Zoe’s Do/Don’t Do Spread” (a favorite of both Rachel Pollack and myself):

  • Card 2: DON’T DO THIS
  • Card 1: The ISSUE or SITUATION
  • Card 3: DO DO THIS

Zoe wrote me this explanation of her spread: “Often cards two and three will describe such disparate courses of action as to make it very clear what course of action needs to be taken or what decision is to be made. And, of course, card #1 can turn out to be a total surprise, delineating the situation as it really is, or in a light in which the questioner has not yet seen it, or a totally different situation that requires attention but has been overlooked. Last, but not least, all the cards need to be seen together to make clear the urgency or nature of the issue.”

Three-card readings form the basis of all the more complicated relationship readings: The Relationship Spread:

  • PERSON A  (is, wants, needs, gives, receives, etc.)
  • THEIR RELATIONSHIP  (as if it were it’s own entity)
  • PERSON B  (is, wants, needs, gives, receives, etc.)

And, as I was reminded by James Ricklef in the Comments, they are the core of choice spreads: The Choice Spread:

  • OTHER considerations

Three-card spreads are also great for simple Yes/No questions: The Yes/No Spread:

Upright cards are yes.
Reversed cards are no. 
The center card counts twice.
Thus, there can be a tie, which indicates that the answer is not yet determined, or it’s better not to know, or __?__.  You can interpret the individual cards or not. (Any odd number of cards can be used.)

Inspired by John Gilbert, James Ricklef used this smart variation on the Yes/No Spread in his excellent book Tarot Reading Explained (originally Tarot Tells the Tale). (By the way, this is one of the best books available for learning how to read the cards. The “Yes, If” Spread features practical advice and entertaining examples that demonstrate the techniques.)

  • YES, IF . . .
  • NO, IF . . .
  • MAYBE, IF . . .

James adds: The cards indicate the conditions under which the answer would be Yes, No, or Maybe. Thus the “Maybe” card can indicate a deciding factor or a decision or action that the querent has to make in order to arrive at the outcome s/he wants.”

You can find many more examples of three-card spreads in James Ricklef’s book and in my own Tarot for Your Self, where the three-card spread is recommended for daily readings and developing a tarot journal.

Added: The Subject-Verb-Object Spread is good practice for integrating three cards into one statement: Jacob (subject) goes (verb) to the store (object). Alison loves Max.  Day turns into night.  Note: Your sentence may be much longer and more complex.

  • SUBJECT: person, place or thing
  • VERB: action or state of being, try an active verb here
  • OBJECT or PREDICATE: goal, what’s affected or changed, recipient

Also, brought up from the comments: The Bridge Spread offered by Kyle McKenzie:

  • Where I am
  • Where I want to be
  • How I can get there (placed horizontally between the first two cards)

Feeling overwhelmed with too much to do and not enough time? Thanks to Beth Maiden of Little Red Tarot for permission to share her handy Do One Thing Well Spread (click on the link for an example reading), which was new to me. 

  • Do this!
  • Ditch this!
  • Yeah, okay, but not until tomorrow

What’s your favorite Three-Card Spread? You’ll find several more Three-Card Spreads contributed by readers in the Comments section. Be sure to check these out, too, and add your own. Please remember to give credit where credit is due if you pass on any of these.

Is prediction what tarot reading is all about? What if it is not to learn that a particular thing is going to happen but, rather, to explore later what those cards can teach us about what does happen? What if the reading is simply to make us spiritually or psychologically aware of what’s really important and significant in life events—to wake us up to how the outer and the inner reflect each other in a meaningful way?

As an example, I’ll describe a very powerful experience a group of us had in one of my classes (permission granted to tell this story). I had proposed an experiment in prediction. Each member of the class was to draw a Major Arcana card to signify the most significant archetype that would be functioning over the following week. They were then to draw two Minor Arcana cards that would describe the situation that archetype would function within—giving us the particular circumstances and literal details. As a group we made predictions that would be evaluated the following week. (Without reading any further you may want to look at the three cards below and think what prediction you would make.)

The cards Heidi drew from the RWS deck were Judgment, Three of Swords, and Knight of Pentacles. Knowing that Heidi’s father had recently died, we predicted that her feelings of grief for her father would be strongly triggered but would result in some kind of awakening or acceptance of her loss. She told us she would be going to his home three hours away to tie up his financial affairs and we warned that going through his papers would probably be very difficult.

When we gathered the following week Heidi told us that the reading had referred to a very specific dangerous and traumatic event. Given that the assignment was prediction, she wondered (as did we all) why no one had been able to warn her so she could have avoided it.

She had gone to the bank to close her father’s accounts when a man with a gun came in to rob the bank. As the robber waved his gun around, Heidi dropped to the floor in fear for her life. The robber even stepped on her shoulder when he took money from that cashier’s window. To add to it all, he had taken a bank deposit box withdrawal slip containing the address of her father’s house.

When a customer stupidly ran after the robber, Heidi had held and comforted his young daughter, assuring her that her father would be all right (although she couldn’t know that) and that the robber wouldn’t return.

She felt that Judgment referred to her fear for her life. Heidi had faced the thought that she might be meeting her maker. The Three of Swords was her terror and anguish, and the Knight of Pentacles was the robber (jumping in a getaway car with the money), as well as herself (traveling to the bank to deal with money issues). He might even have been the “hero” who tried to stop the robber from getting away. And, of course, it was her father leaving her.

The archetypal images in the Judgment card include a guardian angel, a “wake up call,” emergence from some kind of “boxed” thinking, and a child and parents. Something about being a child to a parent appeared to be breaking into consciousness. Having just lost her father, plenty of early childhood issues were being triggered in Heidi. She was able to be both guardian angel to a terrified child and the child herself.

Heidi also noted that, like in the movie Roshamon, everyone’s judgment varied. Each person at the scene described the robber differently (the three swords crossing each other). And, while most people turned in only a few lines of written description to the police, she had written at least a page and a half, even while realizing that her own judgments might be coloring what she said. Judgment would never mean the same thing to her again!

The strangest thing Heidi found was that she was left with a tremendous fear of revolving glass doors leading outside, and she remembers having had this fear when she was younger—although we didn’t have time in class to explore that. The revolving metal holding the glass was like the metal of the three crossed swords. Of course, death itself is a painful doorway—especially to those left behind on the other side. In essence, Heidi had been robbed of her father, but she ended up assuring a little girl (as well as the child within herself) that both her father and she would be all right. Would it have served her as well to have avoided the situation all together?

Everyone in class agreed that they could never have predicted a bank robbery from the cards Heidi had drawn. However, looking back on the incident, we saw how perfectly they describe the robbery. Much more importantly, they indicate how Heidi was affected and point to unconscious complexes that were triggered by the events. An experience she’ll never forget also became a rich vein of personal alchemical gold that Heidi will be able to mine for years, using the cards in the reading as guides to layers of healing.

So, is tarot best at prediction (since it is too often a hit-or-miss proposition), or is it more ideal for reliably exploring the deeper significance of whatever does happen?


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Mary K. Greer has made tarot her life work. Check here for reports of goings-on in the world of tarot and cartomancy, articles on the history and practice of tarot, and materials on other cartomancy decks. Sorry, I no longer write reviews. Contact me HERE.

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