By Sarah Taylor
This week, I wanted to write a bit about tarot layouts — the card configurations that form the basis of a tarot reading. It is a vast area to cover; there are shelves full of books devoted to the subject. So I thought that I would approach it from a personal perspective and take a look at the four layouts that I use the most, both on myself and with clients (some more client-centric than others).
Essentially, a tarot layout is a map — of what, exactly, I do not fully know, but I have come to understand that it reflects back to us both our inner and outer experiences, as well as experiences from the past, present and future. (I write that I don’t fully know because I have questions that remain unanswered. For example, does a layout reflect the experience of the reader as well as the querent in different, but parallel, ways? Are they always correct? How objective are they? What is ‘objective’ anyway? All questions I’d like to address and which feel like they deserve a whole article dedicated to them.)
The way that a layout reflects this experience can be open-ended, or it can be prescriptive. Think of it in terms of, say, the difference between a visit to a psychotherapist or a life coach. A therapist tends to intervene very little, and with non-directive cues; a coach, on the other hand, can be quite instructive, suggesting a particular course of action or steering a client away from an unhelpful behaviour pattern. Both offer different ways to get to the same destination: identifying inner truth and aligning with it.
The first pair of the four layouts is non-directive, the second pair is directive. Which one I use in a reading depends on what question or situation I’m addressing. A general rule of thumb is that non-directive works for longer time frames; directive for narrower ones, and where some decision is requiring our attention — though that isn’t always the case. It usually becomes clear quite quickly, and I’ll know I’m on the right track when there is an intuitive engagement with the layout I’ve selected — the felt sense of a ‘click’ that indicates it’s okay to proceed.
The Celtic Cross
I covered the Celtic Cross in detail last year, so I will keep this to a brief minimum. (You can read parts one, two, three and four here.) I use the Celtic Cross as a doorway to insight — that moment where the unconscious becomes conscious. It’s ideally suited to this because it works on the vertical as well as the horizontal: the ‘cross’ section of the reading is concerned with the un/preconscious, conscious and super-conscious (the vertical axis) as well as the world of past, present and future (the horizontal axis). Therefore the reading asks us to look both inside and outside ourselves, and if we do, we will often see a correlation between the two.
The Celtic Cross is both broad and deep, and I have found that it covers a larger time frame than other readings — though, again, not always. If the querent is pondering over something medium- to longer-term, then this is the reading I would use, if only as a way of nudging them back on course if the outcome is one they’d prefer to avoid. (Whether there is a fool-proof way to avoid it is another matter entirely.)
I have referred to the three-card reading as the tarot equivalent of a ‘short story’ (“Tarot — Working with a three-card reading”). It might be seven cards short of the Celtic Cross, but this in no way implies a lack anywhere else. It offers a reading that is detailed and rich, working especially well for a narrow subject or moment in time. Using the Celtic Cross for a weekly reading like The Weekend Tarot Reading, for example, is surplus to requirements, and can serve to create confusion where there needs to be none. There is too much overlap, too much slack — too many places where the cards will take the opportunity to point out the vanity involved in asking for too much.
A three-card reading can be intimidating for an inexperienced reader. It certainly was for me. How would I start to make sense of something that wasn’t as clearly labelled as the Celtic Cross? It was like looking at three blank doors and asking me to put them in order. Would there be enough to say? I found that, indeed, there was.
I feel that a three-card reading can ask that we engage with intuition more immediately and with more depth. In fact, it is great practice at trusting and building intuitive capabilities. And when you are working with intuition productively, you can tap into something that might be relatively concise, but which gets to the heart of the matter.
I use this when a querent is facing two — less frequently, three — different courses of action. (If there were more than three choices, I would discard this layout in favour of a reading that explored why the querent had found themselves in such a quandary in the first place!)
Here, I do a three-card-reading-lite for each option — staying with surface detail, avoiding deep psychological enquiry — which I lay out in separate rows, one on top of the other, so that I can see them in parallel. I then compare and contrast the rows, looking at what they have in common, what they do not, and whether there is one choice that seems to stand out.
Sometimes it’s a no-brainer — which doesn’t mean that one choice is ‘right’ and the other one is ‘wrong’: who knows what experience will suit or affect a querent more? At other times, the cards seem to be non-committal — indicating that there would simply be different, rather than polarised, experiences. At still other times, it will become clear that both paths can be taken, and I will draw a card that lies between both rows to identify the point and nature of synthesis.
The “Do Not Do / Do” layout
Finally, the most prescriptive of the four readings: the “Do Not Do / Do” layout, which was taught to us by Rachel Pollack at this year’s UK Tarot Conference.
It is an elegant, useful layout that also provokes somewhat of a frisson in me, because it is narrowed to a single point on a fulcrum — which is the card at centre. There are no degrees of anything on a toggle switch — just on/off, yes/no. It asks for faith, and if I’m not prepared to give that, then I am admitting that I don’t believe in the very art that I serve.
Then again, it doesn’t have to be that deep. Just do it! Draw three cards. The first one you place in the centre. This is the ‘situation’ card. This can either clarify the matter at hand, or draw your attention to something that is yet unknown. (Rachel told us that she does a reading like this every day, trusting that she will know what it applies to when the occasion arises — in which case she can exercise the advice she is given.)
The second card you place to the left of the first card. This is the “Do Not Do” card. The third, to the right of the first, is the “Do” card.
As with the Parallel layout, the meaning might be immediately clear. If it isn’t, or it is counter-intuitive, try to move past any resistance you have and approach the reading in a state of open enquiry. Did you have any immediate intuitions about the cards? Explore those further and you might find something falls into place. Are you attached to a specific outcome? Try loosening your grip on it and see what comes through. Are you resisting what is, in truth, the glaringly obvious?
And if it continues not to be obvious, try looking up the meanings in a book and see if there is something that jumps out at you. (Use the book for both cards so that they are speaking in the ‘same language’.) There is a part of you, as reader, that knows — even if that comes in retrospect, or just in time for it to be helpful. Yet again, it comes down to self-belief — a key ingredient in any tarot reading.
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.