The Art of Spread Creation

In the last six years I’ve created over sixty complex tarot spreads and a few for the Lenormand system that I posted for community use on the Aeclectic Tarot forum (and over a dozen since). What set my spreads apart from the usual forum contribution were the full-color graphics for each layout (rather than the standard “numbers-and-X’s” format), the abundance of well-tuned detail – both practical and psychological – and the fact that each spread had comprehensive developer’s notes and guidance for use. These factors alone made for a user-friendly and hopefully more enlightening experience.

Crafting a compelling spread owes as much to the story-teller’s art as it does to the creator’s divinatory purpose. In most cases it requires a beginning, a middle and an end that first lays the groundwork for the situation as it stands, then reveals emerging developments (as well as obstacles) and how to handle them, and finally provides for meaningful closure. While there are effective “no fixed position” spreads in use, the framework offered by a coherent series of discrete positional elements and associated meanings gives a reading structure, depth and direction, arguably the most important features for a successful result.

I find myself moved to create a new spread whenever I see the same type of question being asked repeatedly, while at the same time being poorly served by the more generic tools of the reader’s art (three-card line, five-card line, etc.) The first step is to select a subject area to target: romantic anticipation is probably the biggest one, followed by career and business opportunities, family relations and sought-after lifestyle improvements like relocation or behavioral change, then supplemented more generally by decision-making, problem-solving, personal health and happiness and non-specific “life-reading” scenarios. The next step is to ask the obvious: “What do I want to know?” and “How much and what kind of detail do I want in my answer?” The final step is to design the layout and test the process flow to make sure it delivers useful observations.

I’ve created a few very short spreads of three or four cards, but most of my output is substantially larger, varying from seven to twenty-five cards. Dual or multiple-train spreads tend to be larger because two or more options must be explored, each with an equal shot at success; this often involves the use of more than one deck. Typically, though, a more straightforward spread will “begin at the beginning,” explaining why the seeker has come for the reading, will then explore various factors that are working for or against that individual’s objectives, may show other people who have an interest in the matter, and will ultimately offer hints for dealing with the projected outcome. The model I’ve been working with for over four decades, and which I’ve tweaked to my own satisfaction, is the Celtic Cross, a venerable arrangement possibly developed by Florence Farr of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (according to Marcus Katz) but most certainly popularized by Arthur Edward Waite as ”An Ancient Celtic Method of Divination” in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. This spread offers a potent situational focus that I try to emulate in my own larger layouts.

I rarely pursue psychological profiling with my spreads, preferring to capture situational awareness and developmental insights that have a more “action-and-event-oriented” slant. None of my spreads are aimed at describing how an absent third-party individual “thinks or feels” about the querent, which I see as both ineffective and a misuse of the reader’s talent that serves only to sate idle curiosity. I would be more prone to consider what that person is liable to “do” about the situation than attempt to penetrate his or her unknown mental state using the cards as a psychic “can-opener.” I approach tarot in a more utilitarian way that yields pragmatic clues about the path the querent’s circumstances are likely to follow if no action is taken to either encourage or discourage them. I have no use for “psychic fishing expeditions.”

One popular way to partition a linear spread is to set it up in a past-present-future sequence, with the past usually to the reader’s left and the future to the right. The spread is read as a time-line, with the middle card as a “turning point” in the present that the querent can actively influence. A less common approach is to treat the central card as the main focus of the reading, with those on either side as modifiers. A slightly different angle is to determine which card in the line is dominant (for example, a trump card) and award that one increased significance. “No position” reading is also practiced with this type of spread.

Another popular and effective way to particularize the various segments of a spread is by elemental jurisdiction. One of the earliest examples of this is the initial phase of the First Operation of the Golden Dawn’s “Opening of the Key” method, in which the deck is split into four sub-packs after the shuffle: one for Fire (Wands), referring to enterprise and initiative frequently expressed as work, business, etc; one for Water (Cups), showing emotional “affairs of the heart” related to love, marriage or pleasure; one for Air (Swords), having to do with state of mind and often involving disharmony of some kind: disputes, loss, scandal or legal trouble; and one for Earth (Pentacles), addressing – according to Aleister Crowley – “money, goods and such purely material matters.” The pack holding the pre-chosen Significator card is expected to reveal the nature of the question the seeker had in mind when requesting the reading. There are many ways to work these factors into a spread.

A third less popular but even more persuasive technique is to assign an astrological correspondence to each of a spread’s positions. The way in which the resident zodiacal or planetary signature interacts with the element, sign or planet of any card landing in a given position adds either a reinforcing or debilitating emphasis to the reading of that position. The inspiration for spreads of this type is the original “astrological” layout, in which the twelve houses of the natural (Aries-rising) horoscope are viewed as situational “theaters of operation” for the energy of the cards dealt into those houses.

One final point about spread design. Traditional spreads like the Celtic Cross often used a Significator card – usually a court card – to identify the querent within the reading. The rules for assigning them were almost entirely appearance-based, with no attempt to relate them to the querent’s observable character traits. In most cases, I find these cards to be of little use and actually superfluous to the person sitting across the table from me. I occasionally produce a spread that requires one, but it’s always integrated into the flow of the reading via constructive combinations with each of the positional cards. They can be profitably omitted in most cases.

The most important thing to keep in mind when developing a spread is the context in which you expect it to be used. A layout that works exceptionally well for examining a business opportunity may be useless for exploring relationship potential. I have my inventory of spreads segregated into the following categories: Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, Relationships, Work & Business, General Life-Reading, Health & Happiness and Miscellaneous. The spreads in each group have topic-sensitive position meanings that build an accurate profile of the situation as it unfolds.

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