Instructions for the Celtic Cross Tarot Reading
by Glenn F. Wright
2015 Preface: This article constitutes a complete revision of my old notes, first published on the web in 1996, explaining the Celtic Cross Tarot reading. The layout itself was first published in 1910,* by the occultist, A. E. Waite, in his highly popular and influential book, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Waite's own instructions suffer from being both too detailed (and about things that are, to say the least, pretty dubious), and at the same time too spare. People, especially beginners, almost always have more questions when they read Waite's instructions, and he is no longer with us to provide more explanations. That is why I first wrote this guide, almost twenty years ago. This new edition should address most people's questions about the Celtic Cross reading. You will hear and read a lot of people who tell you "there are no rules" and "go with your feelings". There is good advice in that, up to a point. Certainly, as you will see below, no one wants to be obliged to follow somebody else's bad ideas. But Tarot, like any other practice, has certain basic methods and principles that are not valueless just because somebody other than you thought of them a long time ago. So, read, learn, consider, utilize.—June 20, 2015
*Technically, and this information comes from R. A. Gilbert's bibliography of Waite's works, the first publication was in December, 1909 in a smaller version of the book, called The Key to the Tarot. An expanded Pictorial Key was published in 1910, and this is the one reprinted over the decades, so it is the one people are familiar with. There is a question about these dates because both books apparently had post-dated copyright marks, the first Key showing "1910" and the Pictorial Key showing "1911".
I have based this on the version given by A. E. Waite in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1910). However, I added a number of observations when I first wrote this in 1996, and I have updated it again for this version. I have attempted to answer a lot of the questions people have when they’re trying to do this reading, especially when they are beginning.
For example, you will see reference to a term, “querent”, which, along with a lot of other recondite lexicon, often puts people off because they have no idea what anybody is talking about. But “querent” just means the person asking the question, so the person you’re reading for. This problem of obscure vocabulary is not such a problem any longer, because obviously you can “Google it” if you don’t know a word. While there were some, generally poor-quality, search engines, there was no Google in 1996. Imagine!
The Celtic Cross is the most popular layout or spread for doing card readings, especially with Tarot cards. A layout of cards is simply the formation or arrangement of the cards, with each position having some meaning of its own in addition to the meaning of the card that occupies that position. There are many kinds of layouts, and it seems the root of many of them comes from the use of similarly arranged cards to play “Patience” or “Solitaire” games, back in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In Pictorial Key, Waite never calls this layout a “Celtic Cross”. Instead, he calls it “An Ancient Celtic Method of Divination”.
After you have obtained the question, or determined the reading should begin (sometimes there is no specific question), take the Tarot pack and shuffle it three times. Why three? Because Waite said so. Seriously. You can shuffle it as many times as you want, but if you shuffle as a nervous habit, like a lot of people do, you’ll wear out your cards faster. If you are trying to randomize your deck, then you’ll need to shuffle at least seven times—and I mean good shuffles, like they allegedly do in Las Vegas. If you don’t care about the deck being perfectly randomized, or you actually think that might get in the way—of whatever—then shuffle as many times as you like. Three seems a nice compromise. And it reminds us of the Trinity, if you need that sort of thing.
Now, the above description of shuffling (three times and cut) is pretty much what all people do some form of, but here’s the thing—Waite actually said the following in Pictorial Key:
“[S]huffle and cut…the pack three times.”
OK, that’s different, huh? According to Waite, you shuffle one time, then cut the pack, putting the portion above the cut under the portion beneath it. Then you shuffle this pack again. You cut again. You shuffle a third time. And you cut one last time.
Alternatively, as most people do it, you can shuffle three times, and cut one time, after the shuffling. I was taught long ago to avoid all thinking about the question during the shuffling, so as to help the deck come through the shuffling process untainted by question-tinged thought-tones. And only at the cut should one then concentrate on finding the answer to the question. In any case, you make a final cut, and get to dealing the layout.
Follow the layout illustration (above), putting card position "0" down first, then card position "1", and so on. Deal all cards face down (no, you don't have to do this, but it's more fun to turn them up one at a time). Card "2" is placed horizontally over card "1" (so it makes a cross over it). Card "3" is placed directly above the cross. Card "4" is placed directly below the cross.
OK, at this point, we need to decide where we will put the Past and Future influences cards. According to Waite, if you are using a court or “picture” card (King, Queen, Knight, Page) to represent the querent in the Significator position, then deal the “Past” card to the side away from that which the Significator is facing (i.e., if the Significator appears to be looking to the left, deal the Past to the right). Then deal the Future influences card toward the direction the Significator is facing, or if the Significator is face down initially, because you dealt it randomly instead of consciously choosing it, you would make this determination after you turn over the Significator. In Knight cards this directionality stuff is pretty easy. If you cannot tell what the proper direction should be, or if you think this level of detail is really pushing the envelope and your buttons on obsessiveness, then simply deal the Past-Future cards in the same places every time. Just remember which is which. I use Left=Past, Right=Future.
EXPLANATION OF THE CARD POSITIONS
To do the reading, you combine the card meaning (which if you are a beginner you will most likely have to look up in a book—that’s OK), with the meaning of the card position. Example, Six of Cups occurs in the Covering card position might indicate the question has an atmosphere surrounding it of positive memories of the querent’s youth.
As you turn over the cards, one position at a time, you will see and you should be telling a story that develops, each card acting something like the next chapter in a book, or scene in a movie. Perhaps you can see that it is much more engaging to only turn the cards over one at a time, discussing that “new” position, and how it relates to what has been revealed so far, but keeping the remaining cards face down until you get to them. In this way, dramatic tension is maintained as you approach the Future card.
0. Significator—The card representing the querent or person asking the question. Traditionally, one chooses an appropriate card* from the pack before shuffling and dealing the other cards. However, a new tradition has begun of “allowing” the deck to reveal the proper card by dealing this position “blind” (i.e., as just another card dealt randomly) along with the other cards of the layout. In a question where there isn’t a specific querent—say in a question about the future of a group or a national entity for example, the Significator represents either the central human figure or collective in the question. It can also represent a topic—for example “love” in general instead of a specific person in a love affair. If you allow the deck to choose this card for you, especially if you then compare this card to the Personal Position card (described below), it should be enlightening. The name “Significator” comes from astrology, where it is similarly employed in readings to point to the subject or the protagonist of the operation. The Significator is the one or the thing (planet or card) that signifies the querent. Waite did not explicitly number this position. Since I am recommending you deal this card as another randomly-selected card, like the others, and in order to maintain the numbering Waite used in describing the other positions, I am starting the reading at card position Zero (0).
*—Note that what “appropriate card” meant for people in 1910, when Waite first described this reading, might be quite shocking to people in 2015. But we shall forgo that discussion right now, so you can get on with things. Let us just say that the traditional assumptions about skin color and character that go into these Victorian considerations are yet another reason to let the deck make the choice of Significator.
1. Covering card—The card representing “general” influences or the “atmosphere” affecting this question—note: lots of Tarot-speak is vague. But, for example, if a person is asking about their financial wellbeing, and they are nigh to being homeless, then “poverty” (e.g., “Five of Pentacles”) would be an appropriate card to describe the general atmosphere. Part of what a beginner should try to do is to understand the way in which certain combinations of cards in this layout combine together to give you “statements” about the situation and the flux of things. So, for example, this position can be read together with position 8—the Environment, to get a sense of how the external features and players impact the querent and their prospects.
2. Crossing card or the Cross—The card representing obstacles or problems affecting this question. If the card is “positive”, then the problem may not be that great or perhaps any apparent problem will work out to the querent's benefit OR, maybe the usually good indications won't be so beneficial in this situation. If the card is "negative", then paying attention to the quality of the negative aspect, is going to be central to devising what a proper response will be, or to suggesting that no proper response exists for this obstacle. Again, the Cross should be compared to other card positions in the reading, looking for other cards that seem to enable its indications (for good or ill).
3. Crowning card or the Crown—If you think of how people, when they are in the act of hoping things work out well, tend to look up to the sky—where the birds fly free—you will get this idea. This is the position where the querent can find the highest form of their prospects, meaning either: (a.) an indication of what one really wants to happen, or (b.) an indication of the best outcome one can get—but not a guarantee it will turn out that way. To get the most use of this position, you have to combine it with the next position, the Grave (as I have called it). Always in our struggles with achievement and discerning meaning and purpose in our lives, our ideals and intentions are opposed by something we might call subconscious or subterranean—in the core of our cthonic psyches. The Celtic Cross is based on Christian symbolism depicting the crucifixion of Jesus on the Cross. The “Crown” therefore Is problematic in that sense. One has to ask, and read for whether this is a Crown of gold or a Crown of thorns.
4. Foundation card or the Grave—The card indicating the “foundation” or you might say the “root” of the matter. Why the foundation? Because here is the birth-point of the question and so the aspects or events that have come into definite being and which, as Waite says, the querent has made “his own”. In practice, the card often represents the true point of the question, and the querent may not have consciously or comfortably “owned up” to it yet. Compare this then to the Crown card, which represents a point of fulfillment in the circle, and so, according to Waite, is not something that has been made “actual”. As noted above, the symbolism we are using here is superficially based on Christian depictions of the Crucifixion, so here we find Christ in the ground or the grave. This is an indication of how every matter (or question) is rooted in a spirit trying to free itself from the dark confines of the unknown (ignorance), but also how the promise of the Resurrection (of our ideal answer to the question) is indicated by the nature of the desire that rooted us in a particular way in the first place. As we would look up in hope and desire, so we look down to view things seriously, gravely, realistically (which may sound strange to say in a card reading—but “reality” is still a player).
5. Past Influence—The card showing the influence (events and people) affecting the question that the querent will know, i.e., the past. As you may notice, there are a lot of “influence” cards in this layout. You have a Covering card of influences, and you have Past and Future influences, and the whole thing can just seem pretty confusing to someone trying to recall card meanings or trying to figure out exactly what the Past Influences card really refers to. Waite says the card signifies “the influence that is just passed, or is now passing away.” If that influence is “now passing away” but not completely passed into the past, while the Future influence (next card position) is “coming into action”, what if you get them confused? But consider that the evolution of influences is always going on. Life isn’t really a bunch of card positions. A Tarot layout like the Celtic Cross is really a series of snapshots, which it is up to you to turn into a moving narrative for your querent. So the Past Influence is something affecting the question that has happened, or mostly happened. Now, I say above the querent will know about this—usually yes, this is true, but the person might not know what it means or how it links up with what’s coming (that’s where you come in). And, it is possible that this influence has been in stealth mode, and its “work” on the situation is utterly unknown to your querent. In this case, your explanation of the “facts” of what has happened might sound strange to your subject. Keep that in mind.
6. Future Influence—The card showing the influence (events and people) affecting the question that the querent will not know, i.e., the future—but NOT the final outcome. Sometimes the Past Influence card will provide a hint or a guide explaining the nature of the Future Influence. In other words, it will make sense. Sometimes, the two cards will seem to have little to do with one another. So, in life, events can flow in a kind of predictable way, and alternatively they can divert in completely unexpected and sometimes quite disturbing ways. Remember, your job as the reader is to read the cards, not to pass judgments, either on the querent, nor especially on the cards. Let them speak their nature and stories. Don’t try to gild the lilly or the sow’s ear. In my experience, if you look a little deeper into “doesn’t make sense”, you’ll see the sense being made. The Future Influence card sets the stage for what will come in the reading.
Now you have the basic Celtic Cross—a circle around a cross. As Waite notes, the Significator, usually the querent, is at the center of the cross. And this suggests that a function of this symbolism is to show a kind of crucifixion of the querent, at least in the sense that he is held by this question or problem to a particular psychic and material ground. One of the dynamic aspects of this reading is to determine if there is going to be a resurrection in the Future, or a permanent residence in the graveyard of this situation. Depending on the nature of the question, the latter could be a concerning thing, to say the least.
The last four cards of the layout are dealt in a vertical line from—7 (on bottom) to 10 (on top). These cards are dealt to the right of the Celtic Cross, and they represent the shaft of the monument, on top of which would be the headpiece of the circle and the cross. The shafts of Celtic Crosses are often decorated with illustrations of Bible stories, carved into panels—similar to cards. In many respects, the Celtic Cross headpiece portion of the layout represents what is going on inside the head of the querent, or that which is being processed psychologically or internally. The shaft or tower cards show the materialization or actualization of the internal processes. These lead toward a culmination or Future.
7. Personal—The card representing the Significator in action, for good or ill, in the question. Obviously, this card, being distinct from the Significator card (Position 0), should be compared to that card. If you see a great difference between the two, especially if the Personal card seems “bad” compared to the Significator, then you know there is a tension between the internal nature and external behavior or effect of the querent. This could mean the circumstances of the question limit the Significator’s ability to helpfully affect the question. Or it could suggest a basic inconsistency or inability to come to grips with their own impact on events. Perhaps as well, the Significator is being dishonest, with others and with themselves. If, on the other hand, the Personal card seems consistent (same suit, same quality) in meaning with the Significator, then at least they are, and they behave in accord with, what they appear. Often in Tarot readings, we see inconsistencies—as one does in life. A very strong Significator or Personal card and other seemingly good cards can still result in a bad outcome. Why? Because nothing is guaranteed, and much in life is complicated. After all, people are involved, so you are asking and often getting plenty of trouble. Of course, the opposite is true too. Many times, bad cards* end well. Though I would say this is not so common. No matter what, it is better to hold four Aces than a pair of Twos (true in poker and in life).
*—Just for the record, there are no inherently good or bad cards. Certainly, there are cards that come to the table seemingly more challenging and difficult (XVI-Tower) than others. But you must recall that Tarot is a language of symbols, or metaphors, and the meanings of the cards are not usually literal, although they do impart a certain range of meanings to the narrative you are telling. It is quite possible for a seemingly “bad” card to be just what is needed to help the querent move to a better outcome. And “good” cards can be the right thing at the wrong time. The more experience you have with life and its myriad complications, the easier it will be to recognize these and understand them in Tarot readings. That is why if you want to know how to improve at reading Tarot cards—read a lot of cards, but especially live a lot of life.
8. Environmental—Waite calls this the Significator’s “house”, and it is worth noting that some Celtic Crosses have things that look like little houses on top of them. These houses look like reliquaries, or small shrines containing relics (bones) of Saints. What has that got to do with this card position? You could say that the bones of one’s Saint or guardian spirit are like the Environment and its “effect on the matter”, because this card position describes those things distinct from the Significator but still in their regular personal experience—their job or profession, their friends and family—which could impact the question. People (still) pray to and depend upon Saints to assist them. So, we often depend upon those (things or people) closest to us to assist us in some way. Now, we should say that this card position does not always mean “friends and family”—that’s an example of what it could mean. If, for example, you are asking about the outcome of an expedition involving a single mountain explorer, maybe their “house” is just the rocks, the weather, and some furry creatures keeping watch on the weird biped. For each question, you have to think about what makes sense for each card position.
9. Psychological—All Waite tells us about this position is that it is supposed to be the Significator’s “hopes and fears”. If you think about it, this card comes preloaded to be negative. Why? Because you’re usually reading for somebody who is concerned enough about a problem to seek out a Tarot card reader. It would not therefore be much of a surprise to see this card express worry, would it? But at a deeper level, this position is supposed to tell us how the psychological aspect of the Significator aids or obstructs their desired outcome. So, as you may see, comparing this card to the Crown (Position 3) would be a good idea. Is the person too positive or too negative to achieve the ends they seem to want? Will a sluggishness or depression invalidate any positive aspects suggested elsewhere? Will undue blitheness or even happiness defuse their ambition? Again, it is not surprising to see some anxiety expressed here. As in life, the question is how the querent processes it, and this card should give you a clue about that.
10. Future—Now we come to it. This is the scariest card in the most popular Tarot reading. Why is it scary? Well, generally, this is where you the reader are supposed to tell the querent or client something pertinent or even definite about the future—their future. Isn’t that like fortunetelling? Yes, precisely. If you’re reading Tarot cards, and if you’re reading this reading, you’re a fortuneteller. You might be other things as well, but the main reason people go to Tarot card readers is to find out their fortunes, their futures, and how to obtain a better rather than a worse one. Waite of course does not use the word “future”, but instead he tells us this position is where we are told “what will come, the final result”. He sounds rather deterministic about it, since he says this “culmination” is the product of “the influences shewn by the other cards that have been turned up in the divination.” This is where we get the belief so many people have that if only they could “change their cards” so then would their future or their “luck” be changed—presumably for the better. Many people are so afraid to talk about this card position they qualify it almost to death: “Now, if everything goes like these cards say, and nothing changes at all, then maybe this will happen—in some timeline—of course I cannot say for sure if it’s the one you’re in.” But, for those who do intend to forge ahead to a confident, compelling, conclusion to the narrative you have so far constructed, here is where all the aspects and complexities and subtleties come together to provide: THE ANSWER. It may not be the answer the querent is looking for, so you may not wish to speak it. But it is your job to tell your querent what the cards say. If you think your job is to tell the querent what will make them feel better, no matter what the cards say, then you are in another line of work (see “cold reading” for some insights about that).
“The operation is now completed”
So says A. E. Waite in Pictorial Key, but of course that isn’t always or exactly true, as he points out:
“The operation is now completed; but should it happen that the last card is of a dubious nature, from which no final decision can be drawn, or which does not appear to indicate the ultimate conclusion of the affair, it may be well to repeat the operation, taking in this case the Tenth Card as the Significator, instead of the one previously used.”
And with that, Waite enabled what we might call chain-reading, very similar to chain-smoking (both understandable reactions to stress, but not good for your health), where because of the above noted fear of ever concluding a reading with a conclusive statement, the inept or hysterical reader just keeps repeating the operation, over and over again. As you progress in your skills, you will see that this is almost never required. At most, you might employ a repeat of the operation to get some insights concerning a completely different but related question. That is understandable. But if you the reader find yourself saying “Well, that isn’t very clear, is it? Let’s repeat the operation,”—all the time—then it’s time to reconsider what you are doing, and consider you just are not doing it very well.
As Fox Mulder kept saying, “The truth is out there.” And in Tarot reading, the truth is in there, right there in front of you, in the cards. You just have to know how to read it, and not be afraid to say it.