Multi-deck Readings

When I joined the Aeclectic Tarot forum in 2011, I landed in the middle of an ongoing debate about certain practices – both traditional and modern – that didn’t seem to have a reasonable or logical basis. Many questions were cyclical, coming around every few months as new members joined, and none of them were even on the radar screen when I started with the tarot in the early ’70s.  “Do you use clarifiers?”; “Do you use jumpers?”; “Do you use base or shadow cards?”; and, most germane to the topic of this post, “Do you use “Significators?”

As a dedicated practitioner of the Celtic Cross spread for the first four decades of my tarot journey, I took it for granted that a Significator card was an essential part of the process. But arguments were being made that bore careful consideration. I eventually realized on my own that the Significator card is more “window dressing” for the benefit of the sitter than a crucial part of the story, and that Waite had “double-dipped” on the concept by having both a Significator to represent the querent and a spread position titled “Himself” that seemed to cover the same territory. Furthermore, when you only read face-to-face as I do, you have a “live” Significator sitting right across the table from you who doesn’t need an avatar in the reading to tell you (and them) who they are.

However, none of the justifications for dumping the Significator went quite that deeply into the philosophical weeds; a recurring one was that pre-selecting a card to put in the spread as a kind of “baseline” position effectively prevents that card from appearing in the main narrative of the reading. Well, not really, if you consider the Significator to interact with all of the other cards in the layout and not just sit there passively (see my spread posts “The Case for a Traveling Significator,” the “Three-Point Landing Spread,” and others that give the Significator a more active role). But for the sake of discussion, I’ll concede the point.

In mulling over this particular dilemma, I had an epiphany that had consequences for my entire viewpoint on making all of the cards available for all facets of a reading. Why not, I reasoned, just take your Significator card from a second deck? This way, the court card that usually serves as the querent’s “marker” in traditional  practice can play a more meaningful part elsewhere in the drama. Although I’ve stopped using a Significator card in the Celtic Cross based on my own deliberations, I do sometimes build one into my spread designs and almost invariably specify that they be chosen from a second deck.

This realization led me to question other situations where a card might be artificially excluded from full participation in the story-line. A prime example turned out to be those spreads that have two or more “trains” of development, such as relationship, decision-making or conflict-resolution spreads where there is an “Option A” and an “Option B” (and occasionally more). Let’s assume for the last case that both antagonists in a conflict are operating on the Machiavellian version of “good faith;” ideally, we would want the Devil or the 7 of Swords to be in play for both parties, but if using only one deck and that card appears in one participant’s train, it won’t be available to the other; this can unnecessarily hamstring the reading if no other card offers a suitable stand-in for that devious mode of behavior. The obvious solution is to simply use a different deck for each train; I have created spreads that use up to four decks to satisfy this objective.

Another situation that warrants a multi-deck approach is use of the “quintessence” summary card, a trump card that is derived numerologically from all of the cards in a reading as a kind of “big picture” overview of the querent’s circumstances. It frequently happens that the card thus rendered has already appeared somewhere else in the spread; if you aren’t content to just picture it in your mind’s eye and want a visual cue for the quint card, your only choice is to pull it from a second deck. This gets even more involved if you use “sub-quints” for different trains or aspects of a larger layout, sometimes requiring three or more decks. (See my “Salmon of Doubt” Uncertain Future spread for an example.)

In summary, all of these scenarios strongly urge breaking out of the restrictive mindset that a single pack of 78 cards is sufficient to handle all possible iterations within a reading. While I do believe that different cards within the same deck can give the required testimony in a slightly different way (such as the Tower and the 10 of Swords), sometimes there is just no worthy substitute. In such cases, the answer is right at your fingertips, assuming you own more than one deck (and they are symbolically compatible, but that’s another post; see my “Friend or Foe” Two-Deck Cooperation Profile spread).


2 thoughts on “Multi-deck Readings

  1. I don’t use the Celtic Cross spread, nor significators, for that matter, usually criticised as being a waste of a perfectly good card in any of the French Tarot literature that mentions it, Etteilla-derived systems aside – not that I have any feelings about the matter either way – however the point about the quintessence card is spot on:

    Typically, what I’ve read so far in continental material is that if the quintessence card is the same as a previously drawn card, then the mathematical operation must be recalculated, omitting the card in question.

    I’ve never been satisfied with this workaround, since it seems to neglect the rather glaring importance of this repetition in the first place. Instead, I find it much more instructive to leave it “as is”, perhaps taking the card in question from the mini deck I have, or simply visualising it if that’s not to hand. The repetition in my mind reinforces the primary significance of that card in the overall reading.

    For what it’s worth, at one point prior to his own deck and book, Jodorowsky made notable use of multiple decks in his readings. I think there might be footage of this somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had a love/hate relationship with the Celtic Cross for a long time, mainly because Waite’s version I found crude and clumsy (and far too Christian), while Eden Gray’s slightly better one still wasn’t perfect. Over time I tinkered with it so it now seems much more logical to me, and it serves my need for a larger spread quite well. I posted it here some time ago. It’s the one I use “on the fly” when I don’t have my book of topic-specific, self-created spreads with me (I have far too many now to memorize), and works as a kind of “Swiss Army Knife” of spreads.


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