The “Better Mousetrap” Disorder

Human beings (and to some extent their simian cousins) are afflicted with a malady that is unique in the animal kingdom: intellectual curiosity. Most creatures operate at the level of survival instinct, with “fight-or-flight” the main theme of their decision-making and mating, eating or self-defense their chief preoccupation at various times. (Come to think of it, humans share that last one, but in certain cultures – principally those that have the wealth [if not the accompanying wisdom] to indulge in mass consumerism – it’s become more recreational than hard-coded into their DNA.) While it is commonly said that cats are curious, I believe their inquisitive nature is due more to finding out whether something is good to eat, a characteristic also witnessed in human infants who put everything into their mouths. Learned behavior has been demonstrated in lower animals through the experiments of Pavlov and scientific work with apes, but only human beings have the temerity (and the poor judgment) to say, when confronted with an unfamiliar apparatus, “Hmm, I wonder what will happen if I push that button or pull that lever?” In some situations, this amounts to “famous last words.”

This idle curiosity is seldom more apparent than when otherwise intelligent people are confronted with the work of their often more-accomplished predecessors. Especially today, in societies that revere the young and the new, it’s almost a given that something old is viewed as inferior to the latest wrinkle, or at least suspect until proven effective. There are few things that remain in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” bucket when the human imagination goes into overdrive, and those are usually the most basic of considerations: think hammer-and-nail; even the humble screwdriver has been the target of “retooling” (I know, “ouch”). There is a phrase that neatly describes this kind of knee-jerk revisionism: “reinventing the wheel,” and it is often abetted by the slogan from the old Geico commercials: “It’s so easy a caveman could do it.”

Now on to the real subject of this post: tarot spreads, and particularly those that have come down to us from our learned forebears. The creation of serviceable card layouts, like the practice of reading the cards, is one where everyone sooner or later fancies themselves an “expert,” and tinkering with our heritage is almost a right of passage on the road to mastery. Some – like the 21-card “gypsy spread” or, in the world of Lenormand, the Grand Tableau – are relatively immune to the intemperate make-over, but others have been found wanting and ripe for rehabilitation. I’m thinking here of the venerable Celtic Cross spread popularized by Arthur Edward Waite in his 1909 work, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, and perpetuated with few changes by others up to the middle of the 20th century. It’s a spread many of us “love to hate,” and I’m not sure we know exactly why we hate it other than the fact that it’s complex (which may be reason enough for the beginner). Refining it without corrupting its essence has been a passion of mine for the last 45+ years, and I still consider it one of the most useful general-purpose spreads, although I now have many others of my own design that I prefer for that application.

To be honest, I have never been enamored of Waite’s presentation of what – according to Marcus Katz – was most likely not his own work, and have tweaked it to my own liking over the decades since I first encountered it in 1972. My personal adaptations have  mostly been centered on substituting Eden Gray’s ordering of the card positions and on rethinking some of Waite’s more curious definitions, as described in this August, 2017 post and the attached documents:

But I was mildly astonished to find upon returning to active practice in 2011 that deconstructing the Celtic Cross and putting it back together in what is, at least in my opinion, a dubious “Frankensteinian” pastiche has become something of a “cause celebre” among modern tarot writers. For example, as I learned it, the “cross” section of the spread was focused on evolution of the matter over time (distant past to near future), while the “staff” section captured the querent’s environmental and mental/emotional responses to those developments. Suddenly, examination of the querent’s conscious and unconscious motives via the “above” and “below” positions is in vogue, and the need to have a specific “advice” card has crept into many redesigns. (As I see it, the entire four-card staff provides advice, with the outcome card as the last word in that department, so why waste a position on it.) Granted, Waite’s rather puzzling description of the seventh position as “Himself” needed reworking when there is already a “Significator” card in his version, and the whole “hopes and fears” model for the ninth position was a clumsy compromise, but what has replaced them in many recreations is really no better, just different. I still think Eden Gray had the best solution for these anomalies in her 1960 book The Tarot Revealed, and consider her “mousetrap” to be superior to any I’ve encountered since.

2 thoughts on “The “Better Mousetrap” Disorder

  1. Of all the versions of the Celtic Cross I’ve read, I thought Rachel Pollack’s in 78 Degrees of Wisdom was the best explained. I can’t remember of the top of my head how she dealt with the “himself” card, but I do remember that she put an emphasis on the “and” in “hopes and fears,” rather than change it to an “or” or something like that. According to her reasoning, the greatest hopes often coincide with the greatest fears (for example, one whose greatest hope is to travel the world probably hasn’t because he fears leaving his home behind). They are two sides of the same coin, if you will. That point was very thought-provoking for me, and it changed the way I interpret that particular position in the spread, causing me to rethink my hopes and fears in general, and forcing me to think about how the card in that position reflects both, not one or the other.

    I don’t think she “Frankenstein-ed” the spread, but I have to be honest and admit that it’s been some time since I’ve read either her or Waite’s method. I seem to remember it being pretty faithful, albeit better explained, but I could be wrong about that.

    Liked by 2 people

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