Dissecting the Celtic Cross

I’ve used the venerable Celtic Cross spread during most of my long involvement with the tarot, having first encountered it in Eden Gray’s book The Tarot Revealed in 1972. At the time I didn’t realize that Gray had taken a few liberties with A.E. Waite’s original, and I found her version to be remarkably effective. When I finally discovered Waite’s layout a few years later in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, it seemed less logical and more contrived so I avoided it. As time went on, I made a few innovations of my own to bring Gray’s spread structure into line with my personal vision. Here is the full documentation from which the following essay was extracted.


The first issue I had with the “cross” section of Waite’s CC was that it was transparently intended to emulate the Catholic “sign of the cross,” while Gray’s design employed a clockwise past-present-future rotation, beginning with the distant past position (or “foundation of the matter”) and unrolling into a short-range projection of coming events and circumstances. So I stayed with Gray’s more sensible approach but I eventually decided not to preserve all of her ideas.

I have no quarrel with the third card (“This is beneath him”) as showing something in the querent’s past that has been accepted as final and no longer subject to change, nor with the fourth card (“This is behind him”) as describing something that has just recently happened, that is still fresh in the querent’s mind and that he or she may still be struggling to absorb.

The fifth card (“This crowns him”) never made sense as something that “may come to pass,” since in my opinion it represents a wasted position that seems entirely too passive and causes an unnecessary interruption of the linear timeline. Back in the ’80s, I changed it to the “present,” which bestows a chance to seize the initiative and frequently offers multiple ways to access the “realm of possibilities and opportunities.” (Theoretically, although I’ve never done so, it might be useful to place two or more cards here as a way to examine alternative trends, but that’s a subject for another post.) It’s where intimations of the “near future” first take shape and come to a head as the underlying premise foreshadowing the coming reality.  Momentum builds toward resolution, bringing the impetus to whittle down the range of probabilities to that which offers the most traction for advancement. It’s not a hypothetical scenario, it’s a dawning realization that is right on the doorstep and about to enter the situation. Generally, if this card is complementary in nature to the sixth card, it increases the likelihood of the near future manifesting as shown. The main point is that it exhibits a fluid trajectory that will respond to the querent’s active steering once its thrust is apprehended. I find it interesting that Anthony Louis more recently assigned the “present” to this position in Tarot Beyond the Basics.

The sixth card as the “near future” (“This is before him” ) also causes me no difficulty. I tend to read it as a continuum along with the recent-past and present cards, in which the temporal transitions can become a little blurred. The “present” may still have one foot in the “recent past” and it is now poised to stick a toe hesitantly into prospects for the “near future.” I read it as a precursor to the tenth card (“Outcome”) which serves as a springboard for the querent’s response to the situation described in the “cross” section of the spread (now more like a “wheel”). I should probably mention here that I consider the first six cards to be about the development of the matter itself, and the last four to show how the querent deals with the “fallout.” I view it as a point-of-departure for the next leg of the journey, in which the following three cards serve as signposts or way-stations along the road, offering the chance for a mid-course correction at each juncture.

But before I dive into the second phase of the CC, I want to backtrack briefly into the three-card “stage-setting” prologue of the spread. One of my more recent deviations from tradition, for which I have my forum-mates at Aeclectic Tarot to thank, is elimination of the significator card. I came to the conclusion that it really serves no useful purpose in the reading beyond making the sitter feel like part of the process by having an “avatar” in the layout. That said, there are still rare instances where I will use one, particularly when the purpose of the query is to seek an impersonal perspective (in which case I choose a “topic card” as significator) rather than a subjective outlook.

With the first card (“This covers him”), I stick with Gray’s assumption that it shows the “environment of the question” (in her words, “the general atmosphere that surrounds the question asked; the influences at work around it”). I like the word “environment” because it stands in contrast to the eighth card (the “subject’s environment”) and emphasizes the division between the gradual evolution of the matter to its first payoff and what the querent is able to accomplish going forward from that turning point.

The second card (“This crosses him”) always seemed to me to present only half the picture. Gray termed it “what the opposing forces may be, for good or ill,” but I prefer to see every challenge as a growth opportunity and not simply as a roadblock . (It reminds me of the Mountain card in the Lenormand deck: it may be too high to climb but there is always a way around.) Consequently, I treat this card as a “major motivator” that can stimulate escaping the status quo shown in the preceding card and thereby jump-start the “timeline” segment of the reading.

To resume the original discussion, the seventh card (which Waite called “Himself” and Gray retitled “What he fears”) marks Gray’s next significant departure from Waite’s model; honestly, did he really need two cards to represent the querent? Instead of keeping “hopes and fears” conjoined in the ninth position (something that always begs the question “Which is it?”), she split them and relocated “fears” to sit immediately after the “near future” card. I’ve always liked this move because the first reaction upon stepping off into an uncertain future is often second-guessing about the wisdom of that foray, and this uneasy state of doubt may degenerate into serious misgivings that can produce remorse, foot-dragging and even push-back. You will have noticed that I don’t include any psychological implications in the “cross” array (no conscious and unconscious “above-and-below” positions), reserving those for the “staff” since it is mainly about the querent’s status and doesn’t share the objective focus of the “cross” until the “Outcome” card is reached. In that sense, the “fears” position at the bottom of the staff suggests the psychic basement where all manner of stressful mental-emotional “baggage” accumulates, potentially driving self-limiting attitudes and behaviors. Think of it as a hotbed of negative reinforcement. I changed the brief descriptor for this position to “This holds him back,” and also “The Root of Self-limitation.”

The eighth card is one of the most important intersections in the querent’s voyage of self-actualization toward the forthcoming denouement. Gray describes it as “the subject’s environment, the opinions and influences of family and friends.” I choose to read it as situational and interpersonal “clarifying factors,” constructive assimilation of which can propel recovery from the existential funk implied by the seventh card. I sometimes think of it as the need for a “coping strategy” centered on the querent’s “home base” and personal support system (or lack thereof). The advice is to gravitate toward stabilizing influences (and affirmative contacts) and try to steer clear whenever possible of those that work to undermine one’s position.  My brief descriptor for this position is “This redefines him,” a process that may serve to calm the waters ahead but could also generate a few destabilizing cross-currents of its own in hostile circumstances.

The ninth card was reconfigured by Gray to convey “the subject’s own hopes and ideals in the matter.” I like to think of it more as “aspirations” aimed at those gratifying results that the querent not only wishes for but is willing and able to work toward actually deserving. I’ve retitled it “This inspires him” and also consider it “The Root of Self-motivation,” showing those choices and actions that are in the querent’s best interests. It represents the “last chance to shape the outcome closer to the heart’s desire.”

At least in theory, the tenth card (“Outcome” or “End of the Matter”) should pose little in the way of an interpretive “black hole;” to borrow a popular aphorism, “It is what it is” whether we like it or not. But – and it can be a momentous “but” – it is frequently less conclusive in its verdict than we would like, giving rise to the urge to pull additional “clarifier” cards. Personally, I suppress that impulse and follow James Ricklef’s suggestion to “let it simmer in my consciousness” until I can squeeze sense from it. If that process of percolation is too slow for my purpose, I have a spread that attempts to tell “the rest of the story” using the previous outcome card as the significator.


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