A tarot spread (also referred to as a layout) is a pre-selected pattern that the cards are placed on the surface in front of the reader. The placement of the cards is part of the interpretation for the card reading and can also include proximity from one card to another, types of cards that seem to dominate the spread like a majority of Major or Minor Arcana, a predominance of a suit or numbers, and general impressions that arise in the reader’s mind.
I’ve said before that the cards are like the pages in a storybook and the layout is what puts those pages in order so that you can understand the story. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t intuitive readers who don’t rely on or use layouts. At the very least, practicing a “Card a Day” reading is not using a layout. I think at the least, two cards are needed to qualify as a layout or a spread, because each card will be read in conjunction with the other. Our intuition searches for patterns and connections, so laying out more than one card gives us something to connect together and look for relationships between one card and another, like telling the parts of a story. If you prefer to just pull cards without a structured layout, and that’s what works for you, go for it. I will caution that it takes more skill, familiarity with the deck, and deep self-awareness and restraint to do this, because without the structure of a layout, you’re relying entirely on your own impressions of the cards to tell you what they mean in whatever order they end up. It’s just way too easy to fall into making them tell you what you want to hear if you don’t have a clear path to using them. So, be aware and be honest with yourself if you pursue this technique.
Spreads I use
One of the most popular layouts is the Celtic Cross. Generally, whenever tarot is shown in movies or television, this is the spread that’s used. It’s one of the spreads provided in most booklets and guidebooks that come with new decks. It’s a pretty solid way to read the cards, but it’s not perfect and there are plenty of situations where it’s not the best choice for a layout. I prefer to use layouts that I either created myself, or layouts that were inspired by or are variations on others I’ve seen. I’m not a fan of the Celtic Cross — I find it simplistic and repetitive without providing much clarity or insight. I’ve also seen different adaptations to its basic structure, and felt confident creating my own.
My version of the Celtic Cross spread is:
1 – Self. This is where you are at the present time. Major influences and your mental, emotional, spiritual, or physical being — depending on suit. If a Trump card, shows major life event or biggest influence.
2 – Cover. This is the outward display you are showing regarding your situation. If it is in tune with card 1, this shows what is protecting you in this situation; it is your covering or shield. If it is not aligned with card 1, it shows the challenge or obstacle you face in this situation; it is your mask.
3 – Underlying energy in the background. This represents the internal circumstances, thought patterns, or your own beliefs that brought about the situation you find youself in. What influence did you have on the situation you now find yourself in? What was your contribution to how things are now?
4 – Overarching energy in the background. This represents the external circumstances that brought about this situation. This is what you were not in control of, but must react to or prepare for in order to navigate the circumstances. Outside influences, other people or situations that affect this situation.
5 – Past. This is what led you to this point and has the most indication on how to move forward. These are events that show how you got here, directly, and provides insight for moving forward. Issues to address and correct; events to utilize and continue.
6 – Upcoming future. This is where things are headed based on the way things are moving. If things are heading on a desired path, this shows how to keep it going. If things are not desired, suggests what to prepare for in order to avert disaster or alter the outcome.
7 – Your strengths and power. This position is the point of how you will push forward. What can you rely on within yourself to make this happen? What is distracting you?
8 – Others involved in the situation. Friends and allies; enemies and rivals. Are others’ impact on this going to help or hinder reaching your goal? Who can you trust and rely on? Who must you cut out of this circumstance?
9 – Advice/Guidance. What do you need to know? What is the warning/blessing? What does the Higher Power say about all of this?
10 – Final Outcome. If you overcome everything, this is the best end result. If you do not succeed, this is your conclusion. This is how things will turn out. Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.
I tend to caution against asking simple “Yes or No” questions. Tarot is a tool for getting into the hows and whys of a situation, understanding from the deepest level and learning as much about it as you can in order to judge how to act or react. But, sometimes, you just want to know if you should or shouldn’t do something.
For a very basic Yes/No, I shuffle the cards and then deal them out face up into three piles. Ask the question while shuffling, or have your client ask while they shuffle before handing the cards back to you.
The way this reading works is how you stop dealing into a pile. You will deal out the first pile, one card at a time, until you reach an Ace of a suit or the 13th card. Then repeat it with the second pile, stopping at either an Ace or the 13th card. Do this again for the third pile. No pile should have more than 13 cards total in it. You will then count the number of Aces.
3 Aces = Your answer is “Yes”
2 Aces = Your answer is “Probably yes”
1 Ace = Your answer is “Probably no”
0 Aces = Your answer is “No”
Below is a Yes/No spread that provides more detailed information.
My favorite spread
When a client would like an expansive overview of where their life is headed, this is usually my first choice. I didn’t realize it was already a pretty popular spread among tarot readers. You don’t necessarily need to be an expert astrologer to use it, but the more you do understand about the zodiac, the more you’ll get from this spread. It’s an adaptation of the twelve houses of a zodiac chart and covers many aspects. Based on intuitive interpretation, it can be read to answer a question, detail a situation from different angles and perspectives, and predict future outcomes and events. It does what the Celtic Cross is supposed to do.
Just as in astrology, the angular houses (1, 4, 7, 10) are the strongest and their influence pushes and leads the energy of the reading. Pay special attention to these four house cards in the overall reading.
1 – House of The Self. This includes self-awareness, the physical body, personality, appearance, personal views on life, self-identity, self-image, early environment, and beginnings; how we initiate, how we’re impulsive. Any card in this position shows your personality and how others perceive you.
2 – House of Money & Possessions. This includes what you value, your hidden talents, sense of self-worth, self-esteem. It’s how you value yourself, instead of describing your personality as in the 1st House. Possessions include anything a person owns (except the house/home which is ruled by the 4th House): cars, furniture, clothing, moveable property, investments and securities, etc. The 2nd house specifies how you gain and spend your own money (as opposed to other’s money in the 8th house), your attitude towards wealth and material possessions, and your potential for accumulating it/them.
3 – House of Communication & People in the Immediate Environment/Surroundings. Includes siblings, neighbors, short journeys, and all forms of transportation. The 3rd house also includes the intellect, the lower mind (details and small bits of information as opposed to the higher mind in 9th house), thinking patterns, and early education (before college). Communication includes messages, deliveries, gossip, phone calls, visits, reading and writing.
4 – House of The Home Environment. Includes everything associated with it (both the childhood home & the current home): family, land, personal foundations (inner emotional security), your roots. It may include the more nurturing of your parents and your relationship with this person, whether mother or father or a maternal/paternal figure. What is clear is that a person’s upbringing is associated with this House.
On a deeper level, the 4th house is the base of consciousness or the center of our concrete existence. See how the 4th house is the Immum Coeli, the lowest point on the chart, representative of things below the surface of Earth. Due to that, the 4th house was believed to rule the conditions at the end of life, and graves. As the root or base of your real self, the 4th house rules where you go when you “die” but also where you came from. For those who believe in reincarnation, the 4th house would give clues to your karmic lesson for this lifetime. It shows what karmic baggage you brought with you into this life. Even if you don’t believe in reincarnation, you’re likely to be surprised by what you find in your 4th house for it may move your soul.
Any card in the 4th house reveals your home life, your emotions, your subconscious, and possibly your relationship with your parents.
5 – House of Creativity & Pleasurable Pursuits. Including personal interests, love affairs, sports, hobbies, speculation, risk-taking, teaching, drama, creative self-expression, love given, gambling. The 5th house is all about you being yourself and enjoying it. Children may also appear in this house.
Romance, dating, love affairs, and sexual relationships are ruled by this 5th house, yet marriage is assigned to the 7th. This is because, until very recently, marriage was not entered into for pleasure, for love, nor for personal fulfillment. Marriage was hardly even entered into by choice, but rather for the purpose of raising kids to preserve the values of a particular culture or religion. And these marriages were most often arranged according to class and financial status, a partnership befitting the 7th house.
Nowadays, it’s common to marry for love. To avoid confusion, remember: affairs of the heart are in the 5th house, but cooperative partnerships are in the domain of the 7th house.
6 – House of Service & Health. It refers to daily work, service, diet, health and physical sickness, physical ability to work, employees. This includes volunteer labor, civil service work, caretaking, and mundane daily tasks. The 6th house really involves the quality of your work, the quality of the jobs you perform, as opposed to an actual career (career is represented by the 10th house). Daily mundane tasks include personal hygiene and our method of responding to everyday crises.
7 – House of Partnerships. Encompasses all one-to-one relationships: marriage, business partnerships, contracts, cooperative relationships, and also divorce, separation, quarrels, open enemies, and law suits.
The difference between the love affairs of the 5th House and love relationships of the 7th is that the 7th House refers to more permanently binding relationships, whereas the 5th House refers to affairs that may be temporary. When the 5th House affair progresses into a serious relationship, we can say that the relationship has “moved into the 7th House.”
7th house relationships are about cooperation and sharing, and they generally serve some functional purpose in the larger social community (i.e. a marriage). This is different from a 5th house love affair, whose only qualification is “butterflies in the stomach.”
The 7th house includes the way you relate to those closest to you. Cards in this house will show your manner of relating. They also give clues to issues that arise in your relationships.
8 – House of Death & Regeneration. The 8th house is the polar opposite of the 2nd house. Whereas the 2nd rules your own individual possessions, the 8th house rules what a relationship owns (joint finances). Includes death, regeneration, taxes, inheritances, wills & legacies, sex (the actual act of sex), latent occult ability, joint resources, your partner’s or spouse’s money and possessions, bankruptcy, losses, personal sacrifices, alimony, clairvoyance.
On a positive note, this House is about transformation and healing. But transformation and healing require some type of death, loss, or injury first. This House rules those processes and things by which we transform and become more powerful. Yes, this includes the act of sex.
9 – House of Philosophy, Travel, and Higher Ideals. Includes philosophy, religion, law, learning, higher education (as opposed to early education by the 3rd House), ethics, morals, long journeys, travel, foreign countries and interests, spiritual urges, dreams, visions, higher mind, ideas, understanding and wisdom, books, publishing, ceremonies, and rituals. This is the House of big thoughts and big ideas.
9th house “understanding” is more complex than 3rd house “knowledge”. The act of “knowing” belongs to the 3rd house because it implies simply the direct contact of a person with something in his environment. Understanding involves the synthesis of known data.
While the 3rd house refers to an individual’s need to understand his close and personal environment, the 9th house is an area in which one seeks to discover the significance of larger fields of social existence which one may not experience directly but which his mind may explore through the use of analogy, generalization and abstraction. The 3rd and 9th houses symbolize the 2 polarities of the human mind, the concrete and the abstract.
In summary, the 9th house includes experiences that we encounter when we search for the meaning of things. Whatever expands your field of activity or the scope of your mind – long journeys, contact with other cultures, great dreams, and even experiences with fortunetellers.
10 – House of Status, Honor, & Prestige. Includes community status, reputation, and professional career. This also includes financial success, but only as it relates to community power and prestige. It’s not about gaining “material stuff” as it is in the 2nd house. The 10th house wants success for the sake of honor and social status.
This house includes social foundations (as opposed to personal home foundations in the 4th), recognition, personal achievements, social responsibilities, sense of duty, authority figures, politicians. This House encompasses the most public areas of one’s life, and the career that you grow into, as opposed to daily work and odd jobs ruled by the 6th House.
The 4th House may also represent a parent/parental figure. 4th House rules the nurturing, home-body parent, while the 10th House rules the public, success-focused parent (the parent who “wears the pants”).
As with the other angular houses, any cards in this house are very important. Cards in the 10th house, the sign on the cusp of the 10th (9th/11th house) will greatly influence your career and your general reputation in public.
11 – House of Community, Large groups, and Friends. It refers to memberships, hopes, goals, ambitions, wishes, social groups, associations, humanitarian interests. It also refers to self-realization, liberty, legislation and regulation.
12 – House of The Subconscious. This is the hidden self that exists apart from our physical everyday reality. Includes the unconscious mind, subconscious memory, subconscious habit patterns from the past, mental illness, karmic debts, self-deception, escapism, spiritual realization, limitations, frustration, and ultimately our self-undoing.
On a physical, material level, the 12th house includes things that take us away from everyday life: institutions (such as hospitals, prisons, government offices), places of confinement, secrets, secret relationships, hidden enemies, and self-sacrifice for others. It also refers to sorrow, tribulations, widowhood, grief, funerals, exile, seclusion, bribery, subversion, murder, suicide, kidnapping, and endings.
There are other spreads
Spreads can be found in books, online, from other card readers, or invented on your own to suit a need. I have my students choose a question or a situation and then design a spread to answer it or clarify it. Creating spreads not only increases your repertoire for reading for yourself and others, but will definitely increase your knowledge, familiarity, and understanding with your deck.