I asked a group of tarot readers on Facebook to give their top advice for how to combine and integrate card meanings in a spread. It’s one of the things that beginners find most bewildering, but we can all learn more about. Forty-nine people responded (see list of contributors at the end). I combined, edited and grouped the advice to form sets of approaches, moving roughly from the most intuitive to the most analytical. Share this material freely but please include the list of contributors and a link back to this post.
There are no rules to interpretation.
- Be intuitive.
- Look at the cards from an internal perspective.
- TRUST in your intuitive awareness and reactions to the cards.
- Go with the flow!
- Be guided by the HOLY Spirit (The Whole (holy) Picture).
Combine right brain/left brain work: analysis and imagination/story.
- Both the universal and the personal must be understood. Use both the Intellect and Intuition.
- Use analysis to “check” the intuition which can sometimes get clogged or confused.
Look at the big picture (Option 1).
- Step back and look at the spread from a larger perspective, not simply focusing on individual cards and their individual meanings.
- Become unfocused and blurry eyed (take off your glasses) and feel the energy flows as an energy picture: wands are direct and immediate, swords reflexive, turning, twisting, cups are energy accuminlations and coins ground or build up energy, etc.
- Look at the whole picture of the layout and then tune into a “knowing” of the entire spread before anything else. See it as a snapshot of the unconscious mind made manifest. After the initial “feeling the meaning,” look at the individual cards and symbols.
- Sense the *vibration* of the *whole* spread.
- Pay attention to any movement you can actually feel or see.
- Quickly glance over all of the cards at once and jot down the immediate thoughts that come to mind – words, images, feelings, messages, etc. that jump out. How do the cards feel together? What kind of feeling do they invoke in you?
One card at a time (Option 2).
- Turn each card one at a time and watch how each builds on the last in terms of a pattern.
- Build the relationship between cards and positions as you move through the spread, one card at a time, until all is revealed.
- Turn the cards over one at a time, gaining a tiny ‘clue’ from each, so the story builds and changes, letting the cards talk to each other as the “new kid on the block” gets turned over.
Look at how the images and figures interrelate with each other.
- Determine the direction the figures on the cards are looking or moving; their body-language.
- Are they back to back, or facing each other?
- Is the Knight of Wands galloping towards the Queen of Swords or galloping away? Is he riding towards a tomb entrance? Or a family gathering? Is the Emperor turning his back on the World, or facing it?
- Look at the direction symbols are pointing.
- Does each card point to another card in a sequence?
- Are they actively engaging in something or inert?
- Does a card at the bottom seem to carry all the others? Or a card at the top lead the way?
- Several cards can mean “new” or “let go.” Such ‘blended’ meanings are very potent, sort of like the overlapping gray area between black and white.
- Look for combinations. Find the patterns and connections among cards and positions, then mush it all into a composite idea (position + card is too limiting).
Where to Start
- Build off of what is obvious first.
- Start by talking through the stuff you do understand and it’ll come to you or not; usually it’ll come to you.
- Read the cards/positions that stand out to you; the rest of the cards in the spread are filler. If you can understand the noun and the verb of a sentence you can deduct the rest.
- Reversed means one might not be perfectly comfortable with the situation, something needs to be adjusted.
Find the story within the cards. “Every Picture tells a story.” –Rod Stewart
- The cards always tell a story.
- Let a story flow from your interpretation of the cards.
- Sometimes the message is clear and will form a ‘seamless sentence’, but, at other times, only one card may stand out.
- Let that story flow from picture to picture. The cards will show you the weavings and patterns. The numbers, the titles are road maps or signs along the road.
- Read the cards in the order you laid them out in the spread and create the tale of what they are all doing, interacting with one another, and how that relates to you.
- Let the story, the narrative of the reading, jump out at you. “Make up” the story as you go along. If you can’t “see” it, check a few cards with the querent for verification.
- Look for a card that you intuitively feel is driving the reading, i.e., the one that seems to be directing events a little more than others. Ask what the character in that card is saying to the characters in the others.
- The story is the intuitive weaving of the nature of the cards. Alfred Woolard once said in his poem, “My life is but a weaving … when I reach the other side can I truly see the whole design” (paraphrased).
How the cards in a spread relate to one another.
- How are two or more cards like the relationships that we have with others or how the characters relate in a story?
- Think of the reading as a conversation. Let the cards “talk” to you, and talk back to and through them. Imagining that the cards are “talking” to you opens your mind to “hear” the message. PAY ATTENTION to it.
- View the cards as a council circle: lay them in a circle and let them interact with each other and advise you in a sacred space-circle kind of way!
- Think of two cards interrelating from their respective positions, much like having a conversation or discussion, until there is greater understanding.
- Ask what each card (or figure in a card) thinks about the other(s)—what’s the attitude of each to the other and to what they’re thinking and doing?
- A reversed card can mean it is not ‘playing well’ with others.
Look at what’s there and what isn’t.
- Look indeed for what is not there as much as what is.
- Notice what’s NOT in the spread.
- Which cards didn’t come up can tell you as much as the cards that did. For instance, if The Lovers, 2 of Cups, King/Queen of Cups are absent from a love reading, that’s telling you there is no love relationship over the time period specified by the reading.
Look for repetitions of numbers, images, suits/elements, colours, symbols, themes, etc. (Correspondences).
- Use the correspondences as a base and go from there.
- Start with the foundations: suits, numbers, Majors, Minors, Courts.
- Look at the suits/elements to know what world you are dealing with: work, money, practical stuff, or something emotional or mental?
- Notice things like Gate cards, or which suit is prevailing or dominant.
- Check for a progression among the numbers as a sequence of development.
- What colors dominate? What color stands out as different than the others?
- With the elements, if there are two fire and one water, for instance, the fire cancels out that watery influence. [referred to as Elemental Dignities.]
- Look for a predominance of Major or Minor cards to get a feeling if the reading is depicting a key event/change/issue for the querent (majors) or a more minor everyday event (minors).
- Trumps [Major Arcana] can be an over arching theme or a life passage and the rest are everyday life stuff.
- See if Minor Arcana cards repeat a Major Arcana card in the spread by number or other similarity.
Compare and contrast, looking for both how cards are alike and how they are different.
- Are there similar scenes in two or more cards? What are the interactions among these factors.
- Place cards next to each other (not necessarily in a straight line) to see how they relate.
- See how, in the example to the right, the churning waters of the Moon become a cloak that is almost too heavy to wear. [Trimmed decks work best.] The deck is the Revelations Tarot by Zach Wong.
Find two to three keywords for each card and put them into a sentence. First reactions are best; you don’t have to go to the core of the cards existence.
- Read them as a sentence. For example: First card—Hermit and the flicker of his lamp catches my attention, so I think, “ah, a new idea.” Next card—Chariot, and the black horse going the other way catches my attention. Linking the two cards to form a sentence, it becomes “ah, a new direction going against the norm.”
- The position is the “noun” and the card is the “verb”. Tense (past present future) is supplied by the positions relative to the Querent (now).
- View the positions in a spread as the framework of a sentence. Insert keywords or phrases for each card into the basic sentence format and then embellish it based on symbols and correspondences. “While I am conscious of ____, I unconsciously need ____, in order to achieve ____ and meet the challenges of ____.”
Use Occult Systems.
- Figure out where cards are on the Tree of Life and what paths or sephiroth are involved.
- For instance, the Ace, 6, and 9 of Cups are on the middle pillar and not yet grounded in Malkuth, but they are an indication that energy is flowing. Or most of the cards are on one pillar making the situation out of balance.
Look for astrological relationships.
- For instance, the Empress and Hierophant are Venus and Taurus and Venus rules Taurus. Or, the 5 of Swords and The Fool are both Air.
- If you are doing a horoscope spread you can combine the meanings of the cards that fall in the opposite houses or that are trine or square using the meaning of that astrological aspect.
- Determine the speed of the cards to determine how much light they shed on your reading of the images. This way, even a shadowy situation can emerge as crystal clear.
- Switch decks periodically as a conduit to “open” your attention.
- A few cards in key positions can determine how you read the rest of the spread. If they don’t tell the story right away, then use all the other techniques.