Tarot Unzipped: Fixing the Unfixable

We have all had the experience: something we take for granted that is commonplace but also absolutely essential to the performance of some action no longer works as it should. Think of a broken zipper on a jacket or pair of pants. Replacing a zipper – unless you’re a talented seamstress or accept the expense of a professional repair – can be a case of the cure being worse than the disease, so the garment is usually discarded in frustration. The tarot equivalent is the card that makes no sense at all in its position in a spread. It might be a confounding outcome card that seems to completely miss the point of the question, and thus defies satisfying closure of the reading. Another classic case is the “good” card in a “bad” position, such as the “obstacle” or “fears” position in the Celtic Cross spread. (Its counterpart – a negative card in a positive place – is somehow less daunting, probably because human nature leans toward the pessimistic.) This a a particularly vexing bugbear for the new tarot reader.

Some of the best advice I’ve come across for handling this situation, wise words that mirror the way I’ve always read the cards, comes from James Ricklef’s book, Tarot Reading Explained. He recommends letting the interpretation of a puzzling card “simmer in your consciousness.” He adds the correct (but not especially helpful to the novice) assumption: “Eventually it will make sense; they always do.” Unfortunately, other equally respected tarot writers suggest simply pulling more cards (up to a point) in the hope that something will eventually “click.”

One of the hazards of doing something the same way for decades is that one becomes immune to “new and improved” methods, especially those that look like unnecessary shortcuts. When I began reading tarot in the 1970s, you read the cards as they lay; there was no thought of piling on more cards to try boosting yourself over an interpretive roadblock. “Letting it simmer” was exactly how it was done; you approached the problem card from different angles, perhaps shifting from a practical to a psychological perspective or seeking inspiration from adjacent or related cards in the spread, and above all you asked the sitter (at that time literally “sitting” across the table from you) what he or she made of your various offerings. In other words, you had a dialogue.

Presently, there is a tendency to seek instant gratification by creating potentially confusing layers of meaning through the expedients of either drawing more cards (so-called “clarifiers”) or looking for help from other cards not actually drawn for the reading (“jumpers” and “base” or “shadow” cards). Rather than clarifying things, this approach can muddy the waters even more and create the urge to pull even more cards for consideration. It can quickly become a downward spiral into total bewilderment.

There are occasional instances in the tarot literature where this kind of “side trip” has been advocated with reasonable justification. In The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Arthur Edward Waite proposes that, upon drawing a court card as the outcome card in the Celtic Cross spread and assuming it to represent another person, one way to examine the circumstances of that person in relation to the matter is to perform another complete reading using that card as the Significator. Paul Fenton-Smith, in his book Tarot Masterclass, advises pulling two extra cards to place on either side of any “Two” card in the spread to show what the implied decision may be about. A third approach (and one I find most appealing) is to insert more cards into the structure of the spread itself, for example fashioning a three-card series from the outcome position to show possibilities farther into the future.

I’ve decided to “make war” on the use of supplemental clarifying cards in most normal reading situations. One method that already exists is calculation of a “quintessence” card that summarizes the numerical essence of all of the cards in the spread, using numerological summing and reduction, to arrive at a single Major Arcanum card representative of the overarching theme of the reading.

There are a number of ways to do this, but a full explanation is beyond the scope of this article and has been covered in another paper. Readers who hold intuitive interpretation to be the sole valid way to read the cards tend to decry this innovation as being too mechanistic. (As near as I can tell, the quintessence – or “quint” – first appeared in English with the works of German tarot writer Hajo Banzhaf, and prior to that in the French cartomantic tradition known as tirage en croix) . As I see it, the tarot deck has a numerical underpinning that makes it perfectly suited to the application of esoteric number theory.

More to the point, I’ve begun building additional cards – I think of them as “wild cards” – into my spreads. I pull these cards as part of the random draw, setting them to the side and face-down until I decide which card in the layout needs a more detailed explanation; once I’ve “targeted” them, I turn them over for reading in combination with the problem card. Another technique that speaks directly to the occasion of the unreadable outcome card is to apply a follow-up “mini-spread” with the outcome card as the Significator to show where the unresolved situation may end up down the road. A third way is to create spreads with multiple outcome positions – also left face down until the end – suggestive of the Frank Stockton short story “The Lady or the Tiger” – that lets you decide (using certain rules) which one holds the answer. The advantage of all of these methods is that the cards are selected as part of the standard deal and aren’t pulled as an afterthought.

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