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).
Jodorowsky 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).
• Ask a question (to my mind this is optional—see below*), shuffle and lay out the three cards left to right (A B C). I find it visually helpful to lay out the rest of the cards differently from Jodorowsky’s layout—(I’ve used my layout but mention his below). Interpret these cards in relation to your question or life situation.
• Add the numbers of these three cards as indicated to get four more cards for this spread. Reduce any sum over 23. 22=the Fool. For instance: 6 + 17 +10 = 33 = 3 + 3 = 6—The Lovers (this card is read in both positions in which it appears); or 2 + 15 + 4 = 21—The World (don’t reduce further). Regarding 8 & 11, I follow the system of whatever deck I’m using.
- A + B + C = Underlying aspects of the question. Place the resulting card under B.
- A + C = Exterior aspects of the question. Place this card at the top leaving space below for the next two cards.
- A + B = Receptive or maternal influences (what you are receptive to). Place this card directly above A/B.
- B + C = Active or paternal influences (likely actions). Place this card directly above B/C.
The layout should look like a Christmas tree or arrow (see sample spread illustration). One or more cards may appear twice.
*Personally, I find that the three cards (A B C) reframe the situation from the tarot’s point of view. If you haven’t asked a specific question, they reveal the issue. I like to understand these three first before moving on to the sums.
Visually, Jodorowsky lays the first three cards out from left to right (A B C) and then a column of four cards (descending) to the right of them. In the two examples in his book, Jodorowsky doesn’t read the initial three cards at all but only the four cards that result from their sums.
Optional: Sometimes I add one more card that results from adding all seven cards: A+B+C+1+2+3+4 (count any card twice that appears twice). This final, eighth card is only to be read, if desired, after all the other cards are thoroughly understood. I see it as a long term result or psychologically deeper understanding of all that’s come before.
This is a brief summary of a spread for my friend Joan. She had no specific question. Joan recognized the first three cards immediately: “For several years I have been running a balancing act (Justice) between my Emperor, business manager self, and the Bateleur, my creative self.” [Note: Jodorowsky advocates paying attention to the direction each figure is facing: the Emperor is looking away into the past while the Bateleur seems particularly concerned with what Justice thinks.]
The overall issue involved legal situations and financial considerations that Joan had to coordinate to the detriment of her creative work involving various forms of media.
When the Death card appeared underlying the situation she said, “Maybe both modes of being are outdated or in need of an overhaul. It could mean the end of both roles.” This is appropriate, although frightening, as Joan’s former way of life had just gone through massive changes at every level including the near death of someone close to her. The reading allowed her to talk about everything that was happening and the impact it was having on her.
She saw the Hanged Man, representing the “receptive (or inner/feminine) influences,” as mirroring a kind of disoriented, helpless state of suffering (that few people see). The Hermit as the “active (outer/animus) influences” shows her looking for a way to turn this whole situation around. She currently has the opportunity to be away from the turmoil at home and is doing a lot of soul-searching. Joan can’t help feeling that the breakdown in her former life, while currently disorienting, is headed somewhere useful. It’s the Emperor side of her life that is currently most handicapped (Hanged Man), so that the Bateleur side can undertake the search for new meaning (Hermit).
This ties in with the final card of “exterior aspects,” which position Joan also saw as an external manifestation or result of what she’s been going through: “The Pope seems to be pointing to a need for more knowledge, research or wisdom, in my case. Perhaps he is the high priest who orchestrates the journey to self-realization and discovery.” She is not involved in organized religion, but it could represent a higher purpose that both parts of herself could respond to. In fact, she’s been thinking of professionally organizing spiritual/adventure trips to sacred sites.
When I added up all seven cards the result was 7—The Chariot, which seems to affirm that direction. For the time being travel is going to be a way of life for her anyway, and she hopes it will help her master a new direction and mode of being that integrates the Emperor and Magician into one.
An Addendum: While psychologically this could be seen as an “animus-driven” reading for a female, and we might assume that Death could refer to the demise of the inner patriarchy, the final card of the Chariot suggests that true balance (Justice) will come from integrating and utilizing those masculine/yang forces (which suit her) in a more spiritually directed way (Pope).
(The deck is the A. Camoin reproduction of the Tarot de Marseille de 1760. Thanks to Casia at Aeclectic Tarot for bringing this spread to my attention. The Spreads section of the Tarot Forum is a treasure chest full of insightful layouts while the Tarot Spreads Ebook collects some of the best of the best.)