Cheap Shots #30: The Shadow Knows

Shadow Trumps.jpg

Time – and, it seems, conventional wisdom – flies (maybe out the window?) when you’re having fun, which in my case involved pursuing a career and helping raise a family while tarot languished for a few years. When I found my way back, the landscape had changed. I discussed this in detail in a previous post, but I wanted to revisit one innovation that in particular made me scratch my head. Laying out a tarot spread was once a straightforward affair: after the shuffle and cut, the cards were dealt from the top of the deck. The results were read as they lay, and if they didn’t make sense you simply dug a little deeper into your knowledge base and your intuition, inspiration, imagination and ingenuity, and focused a bit more attentively until they did. There were no short-cuts to revelation.

I was surprised to discover that modern readers finding themselves in this situation were simply drawing more cards until they (or their sitters) got something they could relate to; this struck me as defeating the purpose of the shuffle and cut in organizing the cards just so for the reader’s narrative. It seemed to risk sapping the vigor of the original message and creating more confusion than it resolved. In this scenario, every card can have a post-script or two and nothing is really final. Back when effective writing was still taught in American schools, it would have been likened to a “run-on sentence.” But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Along with a number of my forum mates who have also been at this stuff for decades, I believe that if particular cards have something to say in a reading, they will appear when the spread is first dealt. If I’m using a Celtic Cross (unless I build extra outcome cards into the design), it will be ten cards, no more nor less. Somewhere along the line, the practice of treating the card on the bottom of the deck after it is restored from the cut as something special – the so-called “base” or “shadow” card – came into fashion. The idea is that it can show something hidden about the situation that the main spread is ostensibly unable to unearth. I found this to be more than a little fanciful; after all, there is already plenty of “shadow” in the cards themselves (and in the reversed-meaning option) just waiting to be tapped by the savvy reader. Adding an arbitrary extra element of complexity to drive the point home seems rather anal to me.

Not that I’m completely immune to the potential in such an approach. When I create a spread that has both a “light” side and a “dark” side, with one showing an increasing likelihood of success and the other declining prospects, I often call for the latter cards to be drawn in series from the bottom of the deck. Here are two examples from earlier posts:

In the first example, the spread of interest is the “Barometer of Fate Pros-and-Cons Spread,” which directly applies this concept to a “rising expectations” and “falling expectations” design feature. In the second case, drawing cards alternately from the top and bottom of the deck for the “good” (balanced, even-numbered) and “evil” (unbalanced, odd-numbered) perspectives is suggested. In both of these layouts, the “shadow” is an integral part of the structure and not a tacked-on consideration. I consider this a more systematic way to incorporate the “dark side” into my readings when I want a more explicit indication of difficult circumstances. Much like “jumpers” that fall out of the deck during the shuffle, one card that is to be checked in an off-hand, “oh, by the way”manner strikes me as more a footnote to the story than an essential plot element.

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