The Celtic Cross Spread — Part I: An introduction

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Editor’s Note: If you want to experiment with tarot cards and don’t have any, we provide a free tarot spread generator using the Celtic Wings spread, which is based on the traditional Celtic Cross spread. This article explains how to use the spread. You can visit Sarah’s website here. –efc

By Sarah Taylor

With the exception of the Kings, each of the cards in the major and the minor arcana have received a look in this article series. The Kings will be coming up within the next couple of weeks, and I will be revisiting each card in different ways as we continue our exploration into the tarot — but I feel we have a solid enough foundation to start focusing on one of the more complex readings that tarot has to offer us: the Celtic Cross.

Ace of Coins from the Camoin-Jodorowsky Tarot, a restored version of the Marseille Tarot.

The Celtic Cross layout (the link goes to a picture of the Celtic Cross layout that I use) has become somewhat of a cliché in tarot circles. I have heard it said that it is hackneyed, dated, limiting. My feeling is that you could say the same thing about a jazz standard, but that wouldn’t convey the sense of history and richness that envelopes it, and the sense of possibility that comes with it. Yes, the Celtic Cross can be seen as being much- (if not over-) used, a layout that we might settle for in the absence of applying our own imagination, something that binds us to the strictures of its format. But going back to the analogy of the jazz standard, it can also be seen as classic, widely recognised, dependable, and a template from which you can choose to depart and create variations of your own. (For example, Eric has devised his own tarot spread — called the Celtic Wings — which is drawn from the Celtic Cross.)

The Celtic Cross as a tool for focusing

My relationship with the Celtic Cross goes back to the first days when I started working with the cards. I was drawn to its format immediately. There was something about the discipline of working with a highly ordered layout, and a relatively large number of cards, that appealed to me. In this way, the Celtic Cross has the effect of focusing what you bring to it in terms of the question you use to frame your reading.

Many clients who come to me for a reading cannot grasp fully, or are not able to convey, what it is that they want to know. (I have written about this in a previous article.) That is the nature of where we tend to be when we petition the tarot. Often, we are in a place of uncertainty, or paradox — and this is reflected in the thoughts that we have, our feelings and behaviours, and our language.

However, I would argue that we cannot work with the Celtic Cross if we lose our grounding in the paradox: its cards are so specific that it demands we align with them — either verbally or energetically — as much as we can. If we feel vague, if we act vaguely, then the Celtic Cross’s response will only make our predicament seem more vague. There has to be clarity in some form or other. This can come from the querent — some are very clear about what it is that they want to know. It can come from the reader, whose own insight can hone the reading to a fine point. It can also come from a collaboration between reader and client to frame a question that works in co-operation with the layout.

I find myself using this third approach frequently. It can take time (sometimes over half of the session) to frame an appropriate question or intent — but it can be very rewarding in terms of helping a client to recover and understand what it is that they want. The Celtic Cross is a great partner in this process of recovery and understanding because it brooks no dithering.

Communing with the ancestors

The other thing I love about the Celtic Cross is it brings with it a quality I find hard to describe. Heritage, perhaps? History? I feel like I am working in concert with an energy that stretches back in time, and offers a far greater repository of knowledge and experience than I could ever bring by myself. If my client, the cards and I are the structure, then this is the foundation that lies beneath the surface and supports whatever it is that we are building together.

But here’s the strange thing: I cannot find any definite reference to the origins of the Celtic Cross. Most forums refer to it as “classic” or “one of the oldest” — but my research seems to stop there. All I know is that I have a felt sense of working with the tarot ancestors when I use the Celtic Cross. (If anyone reading this can shed more light on its origins, I’d love to know.)

A word about card order

Another criticism leveled at the Celtic Cross is that it varies in terms of the meanings attributed to each card position, and card order. Not everyone lays them out in the same way; not everyone feels that the third card, for example, is attributed to our Higher Power. My gut reaction: So what? If there is clarity on the part of the reader — if the reader is aligning with the energy of the cards — then little else matters. It is only when there is internal division that we add a layer of ambiguity. The cards don’t do that: we as readers do. The cards will simply magnify it; there will be another layer of separation between question and response.

Which questions work best

Finally, something that has stood me in good stead: try to avoid using a Celtic Cross reading for a question that demands a ‘Yes/No’ answer (‘Am I going to get the job?’, ‘Should I stay/leave?’). First, it’s overkill. If you’re looking for a straight answer, go for a straight reading: one card is all it takes. The Celtic Cross works better as a multi-stranded reading from which you can build up a nuanced picture. (You will start to see this when we work with a sample reading in a few weeks’ time.) Second, sometimes when you ask a Yes/No question, you limit your options. Not all the time, admittedly: I once asked the cards whether I should fix my interest rate on my mortgage. (I got good advice.) But if you are undecided, or experiencing that sense of paradox that I refer to above, and which life tends to bring to us, then Yes/No does not allow for creativity or possibility. It doesn’t make space for something that we are as yet unaware of, but which might suit us better. Therefore, in the absence of any question, the reader needs to be insightful and intuitive enough to discern and interpret what is being conveyed. Or, if there is a question or statement, our responsibility as readers is to frame it as clearly and comprehensively as possible.

Structure and card meanings

As for the structure of the Celtic Cross, the reading that I use comprises ten cards: six form a cross to the left, the remaining four run vertically to its right. Going back to the image of the Celtic Cross that I linked to at the beginning of this article, here are the card positions and the meanings that I attribute to each one:

1. The Current Situation

This is what is going on right here, right now. It lies at the centre of the four cards that surround it (and is overlaid by the crossing card, 2) because all of these feed into it. It is the confluence of past and future, influences external and internal. Not only is this able to give you a good idea of what is going on in the moment: it also helps to contextualise it and to draw your attention to things that you might not be seeing.

2. Influencing Factor

This influence has its origins in the past (5); it continues to affect what is going on now (1); and will continue to play a part in proceedings into the near future (6) — although the extent to which a client actively engages with it and works with it is up to them. You can get a visual idea of the sense of movement through time by looking at the horizontal part of the cross, from card 5 on the left, through to 1, and then to 6. Imagine the second card being coated either in oil, or sand. It can run smoothly over card 1, or it can cause some friction. It explains flow.

3. Higher Power

This is one of my favourite cards because it offers something that so many people come to a reading to find: perspective. We can define ‘Higher Power’ in many ways, but I choose to see it as a part of the client that a) has a view of what is going on that is both wider and deeper than the client’s conscious view, b) connects the client to the collective. This, to me, is intuition. I can’t define it any better than that because, for the most part, it is unknowable and indefinable. Suffice to say that, through this card, we get a glimpse of something bigger than we believe we are.

4. That which is coming up from within

I have seen and used this card position as representing the ‘unconscious,’ but I have changed my mind about this, mainly because if it were unconscious in the literal sense of the word then we would not be aware of it, nor would we be ready or able to work with it. Now, I see it as something that is emerging into consciousness. It will probably have a sense of newness about it — something the client is perhaps trying on for size. As a result, it is fragile, and I feel this fragility needs to be given due consideration in a reading. It might not always feel comfortable; the client might not always feel comfortable in its presence — even when the card is a positive one. Be gentle when you bring it into a reading. It is a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.

5. The Near Past

This is a key event in the near past (usually days, weeks or a couple of months rather than several months or years) that has been one of the triggering factors in what is going on in the present. Card 2 — Influencing Factor — comes into being alongside this event, possibly sparked by it. I look for a direct correlation between cards 1, 2 and 5. This card is valuable in defining the context to the reading that I mention above.

6. The Near Future

Card 6 is what all the previous cards lead towards, and it tends to happen in the same time frame in the future as card 5 happened in the past. For example, if card 5 describes an even that happened three weeks ago, then card 6 is more likely to take place within three weeks, rather than three months. The structural balance of the cross is also reflected chronologically. Seen another way: cards 1, 2 and 5 make up the flow towards the near future; cards 3 and 4 are the oars, so to speak — the tools that the client has at their disposal to help them move with it, or to navigate a different course (and these remain available to a client in a powerful sense long into the future because they are two integrating parts of who this client is).

7. You (or the client)

This card describes the qualities that the client brings with them to the reading: what they are, and what they are capable of achieving. This card is the archetype they are embodying at this moment in time, and one which, like the tools above, remains available to them. In this way, card 7 works alongside cards 3 and 4; combined, they offer a more holistic point of view.

8. Your (the client’s) Environment

This is the environment in which the client is operating — the support, or opposition, they can expect to encounter; the resources that are available to them. Therefore, the combination of cards 7 and 8 represents the encounter of the inner with the outer worlds — all the while mediated and informed by the preceding six cards.

9. Hopes and Fears

This is an interesting card because it describes an internal process — that of the client’s emotional state. Having said that, emotions can effect experience, therefore this card is a subtle one. Just how much of the client’s feelings can be brought to bear on the situation they are meeting? I think the impact can be significant even though it isn’t quantifiable. A person’s state of mind can and does determine their actions, and if that state of mind tends to be the client’s ‘default position’, then this card can offer a very useful point of awareness. It is only by first being aware of a behaviour that someone can either change or apply it.

10. The Outcome

The final card represents the outcome if the client were to continue on their present trajectory with no appreciable behaviour changes. Or, at least, that’s what I believe the card offers us. Given that we are dealing with the future, I cannot be certain; but in the moment of a reading this is how I am guided by my intuition, and I trust that more than anything else.

Working with outcomes

What if the outcome card is not one that a client wants to encounter? Then we can a) explore the other cards to identify how a client can become more aware of how events are taking shape around them, their default behaviours, and how to change them, and b) draw qualifying cards to see possible outcomes based on different behaviours. Here, I tend to draw one or two cards — one if the client wants to deflect the trajectory, two if the outcome card is simply a ‘fork in the road’.

This method of drawing an extra card works to clarify or qualify any of the cards in the reading — though it’s productive for a reader to bear in mind that there is a marked difference between clarifying/qualifying, and trying to deny or ignore what is already there. If the need to draw additional cards is fear-based, I would suggest that you try to help a client to look at that fear, unpick it as much as is possible or appropriate (even referring them to more specialised help if need be), and then draw another card if it is still called for. It is a process that asks for sensitivity — there is no one-size-fits-all method — and while there might be a temptation to ‘make things right’, it is best to tread lightly on your client’s reading: to explore rather than to prescribe, to empower rather than to solve. That’s a useful thing to hold in heart and mind no matter which layout you are working with.

In Part II, I will be applying all of this in a reading. In the meantime, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me through my website, or leave a comment below.

Sarah Taylor

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2 Responses to The Celtic Cross Spread — Part I: An introduction

  1. Charles says:

    I wish I had more time to comment, but I’m behind on 3 separate deadlines. So some quick remarks:

    I tried to research the origin of the layout, but came up mostly blank. It appears to have first been recorded by W. W. Wescott, or at least, nobody can find any earlier description, he says it was ancient when he learned it. The Celtic Cross seems to be a reference to the Rosicrucian cross.

    Celtic Cross is a “positional layout,” the meanings derive mostly from the position of the cards, but it still contains elements of a “nonpositional layout,” where the cards relative to each other carry meaning.

    I tend to view the cross by the lines, they form general influences. The cross has a horizontal axis (time) and a vertical axis (events). At the center, the two cards I describe as our inner self and outer being. They are at the intersection of both rows, the place where time and events pivot around our Self.

    The vertical column on the right, I sometimes refer to it as the “Pillar,” it is a stack of blocks that is kind of the “backbone” of our life. I always have the hardest time interpreting the Pillar, some of the positions seem to change meaning (e.g. hopes OR fears) according to the reading.

    Oh well, I’m out of time. I hope we can discuss this more.

  2. awordedgewise awordedgewise says:

    Oh thank you Sarah! This is a wonderful lesson. Within the tiny scope of my tarot experience, this spread has always pulled me in – it’s structure giving frame for the work to be done within it. Like a home with many rooms.

    Very helpful and enjoyable to read you, as always!

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