In most instances, a formal spread will be used. This can be a spread that has been created by the reader themselves, or it may be a spread that has been developed by someone else. Each position within the spread will be defined, as well as the format of the spread itself. Certain spreads will relate better to certain questions. The smaller the spread (the fewer cards that are used), the easier it will be for a beginning reader to interpret.
A one card spread can be used for any question, as can the traditional ten card Celtic Cross spread. (The Celtic Cross spread is also good to use when the question is more general in nature.) A three card spread can be defined in many ways, and can bring out a great deal of information. The format can be linear, or set in a triangle. Some of the ways that it can be read are: Past/Present/Future, Morning/Noon/Night, Opportunity/Challenge/Outcome, and Issue/Challenge/Action. However you want to define this reading, it is great fun, and will bring out a great deal of information.
A simple four card format that looks at the question/issue from the perspective of the four levels of life is the Elemental Spread. I define the positions here as: East/Spiritual, South/Emotional, West/Physical, and North/Mental. A fifth card can be drawn to represent the Seeker, and placed in the middle of the other four cards (which form a diamond pattern).
Tarot spreads can be found in most Tarot books, as well as on the Internet. There are books specifically devoted to Tarot spreads, such as the Complete Book of Tarot Spreads by Evelin Burger and Johannes Fiebig (Sterling Publishing Company, 1995,1997); and, for those who wish to understand how to create their own Tarot spreads, books such as Designing Your Own Tarot Spreads, by Teresa Michelson.
You have focused in on a specific question or issue, the cards have been shuffled, and the manner of reading (using, or not using, a formal spread) decided upon. Now you need to decide, as a reader, whether to lay the cards face up or face down. This is an individual decision – do whatever you are most comfortable with. I have always chosen to read with the cards face up, because I want to see the larger picture before I begin my reading. Other readers prefer to allow the story to unfold as the cards are turned over. It is up to you to determine what works best for you.
Take a deep breath, exhale, and allow the images on the cards to come to you. Now is your time to shine, as you interpret the cards individually, and as a group. The first thing that you want to do is to take a look at the overall pattern of the spread – which symbols are you drawn to, what do the colors tell you, what kind of flow do the cards have? Is there a predominance of Major Arcana cards? If so, the outcome is largely out of the Seeker’s hands, and the reading itself is highly spiritual in nature. What is the balance between the suits? If there is a predominance of one suit, the energy of that suit is predominant in the reading. (In general, the energy of Wands is active, creative, and having to do with personal will power; the energy of Cups is that of the emotional world, the subconscious self, and intuition; the energy of Swords is the energy of intellect and communications; the energy of Pentacles is the energy of finances, work, and the environment around you.) I take this one step farther, in that if a particular suit does not come up in a reading (especially in larger readings), then I feel that the “way out” of the Seeker’s dilemma is to be found in that suit. Wherever Aces appear, you are looking at “potential” – at unmanifested energy. Wherever Court Cards appear, there will be people involved in the issue. If you read with reversals, look at which positions they fall in. Are they in the past? Are they in the present? Are they in the future? If you do not read with reversals (which I do not), work on another method of determining the strength or weakness of a card. Using Elemental Dignities is an excellent choice here.
Where do you begin a reading? At the beginning, of course! Start with the first card. Look at the landscape, the colors, the images, and the symbols. What stands out for you? How does what you see relate to the question the Seeker is asking? If you are reading for someone else, ask them how they feel about the card.
I normally tape readings that I do for others, so that they can take the tape home with them. Readings are ripe with emotion – no one is going to remember everything that was said, no matter how important is was. Having a tape of the reading will help your client work through the information that they were presented with. If you are reading for yourself, you may want to either do a tape for yourself, or make notes as you go along. Some readers will choose to wait until the end of the reading to make notes, if they are reading for themselves.
The story begins with the very first card, and winds through the labyrinth of cards to the last card. If a card seems unclear, draw one card from the deck to act as a clarifier, then move on to the next card. If the end card is a Trump (Major Arcana card), there is little the Seeker can do to change the path of the issue. In this case, they need to work on understanding it. If the end card is a Court Card, then other people are involved with the resolution of the issue. If the end card is a Pip (numbered card), then the Seeker can take actions that will change their path.
Above all, a reading is a snapshot of the Seeker’s life at a specific place in time. It is a reflection of the energies in their life, and it shows where their opportunities and challenges are. This is their story, a story that will unfold as it should from card to card, each card gaining meaning from the others. Each card holds a basic (traditional) meaning, but each card also holds a meaning that it gains from the cards around it.
When you first begin to read the cards, go through a reading intuitively, speaking what comes through to you from the images in the cards. Then, if you wish, go back and check the “traditional” meaning of the cards. Know that as you do more and more readings, you will develop your own sense of what a card means, and where it is taking you. Keeping a journal of your readings will allow you to see your progress on a very real level, as well as allowing you to see how specific issues develop in your life.
There are many helpful resources for doing readings. Two that I would suggest are the excellent book Tarot For Yourself, by Mary K. Greer, and the Internet site by Tarot author Joan Bunning. The Comparative Tarot e-group on Yahoo Groups provides a wonderful atmosphere for asking questions, as does the forum at Aeclectic Tarot.
Happy reading – and remember to have fun!