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Excerpt: Tarot: Get the Whole Story: Use, Create & Interpret Tarot Spreads

How to
Create Spreads
There are hundreds of spreads documented in the body of Tarot literature from which we may choose to do a reading, but sometimes we may want to create one of our own, either for one particular reading or to be used repeatedly for a general type of reading. In either case, there are various reasons for creating a Tarot spread. Perhaps the querent, topic, or question for a reading has specific needs that call for an individualized spread. Maybe we want a spread that suits our own distinctive style of reading Tarot cards or one that satisfies our individual philosophical outlook. Of course, there is also great personal value in using a spread whose meaning springs from our own mind and soul and in which we have invested our own energy.
In any case, if we want to create a spread, there are many different ways to do so. Indeed, this is a topic that could fill a book, but it is beyond the scope of this one to provide such an extensive coverage of it. What follows, though, is an introduction to some of the easier and more common techniques for creating Tarot spreads, along with some illustrative examples of them.
Problem Solving

Sometimes a specific problem calls for a specially designed spread. An effective way to create such a spread is to begin by discussing the problem with the querent in order to discern the issues that underlie, comprise, or border upon the stated problem. Next, define card positions for the spread based on the issues or questions that result from that discussion. Flexibility in doing so is advisable, since some of the issues may overlap enough that they can be combined into one spread position, or one issue may be extensive enough that it should be broken down into two or more positions. This is, of course, an intuitive process, and if the querent is amenable to participating in it, then a reading with the resulting spread will have all the more relevance to him or her.
Once the list of card positions is finalized, a meaningful pattern for the cards must be determined. This step is a very personal one, since it depends to a great extent upon the individualized concepts and meanings that you associate with various shapes, patterns, and directions. For example, you may associate a straight line with progression or the flow of time, a triangle with divinity, a square with stability and order, a circle with cycles, and a star with spiritual aspirations. You might want to put guidance cards above other cards, cards dealing with the past on the left, and future cards on the right. It may seem most reasonable to place cards about unconscious or underlying issues below other cards, and ones about the basic or central issue in the middle of the spread.
While associations such as the ones noted above may be suggested or recommended by some external authority such as a teacher or a text, you are the final arbiter of what works for you. You may have entirely different concepts about such associations, so use whatever makes sense to you. Throughout this chapter and the next one I have illustrated many of my own techniques for designing card layouts, but my ideas should be taken as suggestions, not mandates.
As an example of creating a spread to solve a specific problem, let's look at the process by which I designed one to help a querent find success in an endeavor he was about to undertake. As the querent and I discussed his proposed enterprise, a few points came up that we thought the reading should address. For one thing, he wished that he knew more about what he was getting into. We broke this issue down into two positions: The main thing you need to know and Underlying factors. In addition, he wondered what obstacles he should prepare for, and I suggested that he also might want to know what assistance may be available to him. Finally, we decided that it would be helpful to know what he could do to improve his chances of success.
This discussion led us to create five positions for the reading, which we decided to arrange in the pattern of a four-pointed diamond with one card in the center. There were other shapes that suggested themselves as well, such as a five-pointed star and a square with one card inside it, but we thought a diamond represented material success, which was what the querent sought. Thus, we arrived at the layout shown in Figure 1.
The following describes the resulting position definitions and the rationale behind their arrangement:

1. What is the main thing you need to know about the endeavor you are facing?
(I put this card in the middle since it is the central issue.)
2. What is working against you as you enter into this endeavor?
(I put this card behind card 1 because it is what pulls you back.)
3. What can help you?
(Since this card represents assistance, I placed it above card 1.)
4. What can you do to improve your chances of success?
(I put this card in front of card 1 because it is what pulls you forward.)
5. What underlying factors about this endeavor should you be aware of?
(This card represents hidden factors that are coming in under the radar or that are the foundation underlying the central issue so I put it under card 1.)

Note that while this spread was created for one particular reading, it may be suitable for any reading that calls for advice on how to succeed at something. In fact, it is often the case that a spread created for one particular reading turns out to have general applicability, which is something that should be kept in mind while using any of the techniques presented in this chapter.
Inspiration from a Shape

Instead of creating the shape of a layout based on the intent of the spread (as seen in the previous section), a spread may be created by first considering an interesting shape and then defining card positions based on the theme suggested by that shape. Abstract shapes such as a triangle, a square, a star, or a cross can be used for this purpose, but I have had better results using more concrete shapes, such as the human body or a tree.3 Of course, in that case, the layout pattern will be a stylized representation of the shape.
In the following example, I began by thinking of a tree and several of its main components, such as roots, trunk, bark, branches, and leaves. The card layout that I designed based on these considerations is illustrated in Figure 2.
With this layout in mind, I then created the following positional meanings based on concepts that I associated with the five components that I chose to use.

1. What keeps you grounded?
2. What supports you?
3. What protects you?
4. What are you reaching out for?
5. What nourishes you?

Of course, these associations are my own. Beginning with the same design, you might come up with very different positional meanings.
As an exercise of your own, try creating a spread based on the following components of the human body: head, heart, guts, left arm, right arm, left leg, and right leg. To help you with this process, you might want to consider some common attributes associated with the right and left. Traditionally, the right is associated with things like giving, masculinity, activity, offense, science, conservative views, and approval, while the left traditionally has been associated with receiving, femininity, passivity, defense, magic, liberal views, and condemnation.
Dealing Cards for Questions

Another way that you can create a spread based on a given shape is to deal cards into the chosen pattern and define the positions based on your interpretation of those cards.4 In this case, an abstract shape works well if it implies a meaning that is relevant to the intent of the spread. That intent also sets the tone for the process of defining the positional meanings based on the cards dealt. Once the spread's layout and positional definitions have been set, those cards are shuffled back into the deck and new cards should be dealt in order to do the reading itself.5
To illustrate this technique, I shall describe the process I once used to create a spread to help a querent overcome marital problems. For the shape of the spread, I first considered that an upward-pointing triangle traditionally represents the masculine principle, and a downward-pointing triangle represents the feminine. If we overlay those two symbols (i.e., marry them together), we get the six-pointed Star of David, which yields six positions-one for each point of the star. In addition, though, I felt there also should be one card in the center of the layout to represent the marriage itself as the union of both people, which makes this a seven-card spread. I then dealt seven cards to get the spread illustrated in Figure 3.
The following are the cards that I dealt and the positional meanings I saw in them.

1. Ace of Wands: How can you be more creative with your marriage?
2. Temperance: Where does your relationship need more balance or moderation?
3. Ten of Wands: In what ways do you feel burdened by your marriage?
4. The Hanged Man: What aspect of your marriage do you need to see from a different point of view?
5. Three of Wands: What is your vision for your marriage? In other words, where do you see it going from here?
6. Page of Swords: What new and unexpected things are you just now learning about your spouse and about your marriage itself?
7. Judgement: How can you rejuvenate and revitalize your marriage?

Note that I did not use reversed cards for this technique, although that does not mean they cannot be used. Also, it is important to reiterate here that the cards indicated above were used for defining the layout positions only. New cards were dealt to do the actual reading.
Modification of an Existing Spread

We can create a new spread based upon an old one by modifying it in any of several ways, including expanding it, contracting it, redefining its positions, or merging it with another spread. First, let's see how we can enlarge one spread in order to create a new one.
One way that an existing spread can be expanded is by taking its card positions and breaking some of them into two or more component pieces. For example, in the three-card Past, Present, Future spread, we can convert the first position into two new positions, Distant past and Recent past, while the Future position can be expanded into Near future and Probable final outcome.6 The Present can be broken down into three positions, where the first one deals with the current situation in general, the second one illustrates what the querent thinks is happening, and the third shows what the querent is unaware of in the current situation. With these changes, we have converted the familiar Past, Present, Future spread into the seven-card spread illustrated in Figure 4.
Another technique for expanding a spread is to create new positions that develop it along a logical progression from the original spread or that take it on an interesting tangent. As an example of a logical progression, the three-card Background, Problem, Advice spread may become a four-card spread by adding a card for the probable outcome if the querent follows the offered advice. We may develop it further by adding another card for the probable outcome if the querent ignores this advice, thus yielding the spread illustrated in Figure 5.
As an example of taking a spread on an interesting tangent, consider again the Background, Problem, Advice spread. The first card deals with the background of the querent's problem, but we also might want to explore a similar problem that the querent has faced in the past, how well she or he handled it, and how it could have been resolved more effectively. Adding cards to handle these three points leads us to the spread in Figure 6.
Going in the opposite direction, some large spreads have embedded within them subspreads that can be more effective in some situations, especially when either time or the scope of the reading needs to be limited. For example, if a reading with the ten-card Celtic Cross spread is expected to run longer than time allows, we may prefer to use its first six cards (the cross) but not the final four cards (the staff). In fact, this abbreviated version of the Celtic Cross formed the basis of the spread described in The Modified Celtic Cross Relationship Spread: A Six-Card Spread in chapter 2.
Sometimes the basic layout of a spread is suitable, but the positional definitions are not specific or relevant enough for the situation. In that case, we can redefine the positions. For example, if we are doing a relationship reading in which the querent has had a fight with his or her partner, the Background, Problem, Advice spread may be redefined to be more specifically suited to the situation, as with the following positional definitions:

1. What factors have contributed to the recent conflict in your relationship?
2. What do you need to understand about your role in this conflict?
3. How can you restore peace in your relationship?

Another technique for modifying existing spreads is to combine two or more of them into one larger spread. One way of doing this is to insert the positions of one spread into the layout of another one, especially when the two spreads are somewhat related. An example of this is the spread described in The Expanded Choice Spread: An Eight-Card Spread in chapter 2.
Alternatively, we can blend or merge the positions of two very different spreads in order to create a new spread that is a hybrid of the original ones. As an example of this, consider two three-card spreads: Body, Mind, Emotions and Past, Present, Future. From these two spreads we can create a matrix that defines a nine-card spread as illustrated in Figure 7.
Inspiration from Another Source or System

While existing spreads provide a rich source of inspiration for new ones, almost anything that moves us or has meaning for us can form the basis of a new spread. Some of the most fruitful sources from which new spreads may spring include philosophical systems, religions of the world, or mythic tales. The possibilities here are endless, so the following list of suggestions is only the tip of the iceberg and is merely meant to illustrate the process and provide encouragement for your own exploration.
The number three has special significance in most religions, and three-card spreads may be created based on the significance of many divine triads. For example, Hinduism's Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva might lead to this spread:

1. What kind of life are you creating at this time?
2. What aspect of your life needs protection?
3. What needs to be destroyed or eliminated from your life?

A few other divine triads that might inspire a Tarot spread are:

  • Maiden, Mother, Crone
  • Father, Son, Holy Ghost
  • Isis, Osiris, Horus
  • Zeus, Poseidon, Hades
  • In addition to triple aspects of divinity, the number three often comes up in spiritual teachings, such as the three pillars of the Qabalistic Tree of Life (mercy, balance, and severity). As an example of using a triad from a spiritual teaching, we might use the three Taoist principles of simplicity, patience, and compassion to create the following spread:

    1. What should you simplify in your life?
    2. With whom or what should you have more patience?
    3. Where in your life do you need to exhibit more compassion?

    The number four is often found in classification systems, like the four elements of alchemy (fire, water, air, and earth), the four seasons, and the four directions. Since many esoteric systems assign meanings to such quartets, they form the basis of many four-card spreads. For example, the four classical elements can have the following associations:

  • Fire: spirit, vitality, and inspiration
  • Water: emotions, intuition, and relationships
  • Air: thought, ideas, and beliefs
  • Earth: physical or material manifestations
  • This might lead us to the following spread:

    1. What do you have a passion to do?
    2. How do you feel about that activity?
    3. What are your beliefs concerning it?
    4. What tangible results might it yield?

    Another example of a meaningful quartet can be found in the Buddhist teaching of four practices that are meant to heal us and the world around us:

  • Loving kindness
  • Compassionate understanding
  • Sympathetic joy
  • Equanimity
  • These four practices can be translated into a spread that is useful for meditative self-readings, although it can be used for readings for other people if they are seeking spiritual guidance. The following is a suggested spread using this philosophy:

    1. How can I best express kindness toward others (or myself) in a loving way?
    2. With whom do I need to find more compassion and empathy, and how might I do so?
    3. What joy is someone else in my life experiencing that I can share and support?
    4. How can I find peace and composure within a world of suffering?

    In fact, there are many lists of principles, rules, and guidelines in Buddhism that can provide inspiration for spreads. For example:

  • The Buddha's threefold body: essence, potentiality, and manifestation.
  • The five faculties of power: faith, will, reliable memory, concentration, and wisdom.
  • The six practices for reaching enlightenment: offering, morality, patience, endeavoring, concentration, and right judgment.
  • The noble eightfold path: right view, right thought, right speech, right behavior, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
  • Some other sources of ideas for spreads include the seven planets of classical cosmology, the seven chakras of the human body, the eight trigrams of the I Ching (we could create a spread based on the I Ching's sixty-four hexagrams too, but that might be unwieldy), the ten sephiroth of the Qabalistic Tree of Life (for an example of this process, see The Tree of Life Spread: A Ten-Card Spread in chapter 2), the twelve signs of the zodiac, Odin's eighteen runes, and mythological pantheons such as that of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Celts, or Scandinavians. Inspiration for a spread even may be found in such diverse sources as the identifying characteristics of the knights of King Arthur's Round Table or the Beatitudes from Christ's Sermon on the Mount. In fact, I once helped a Lord of the Rings fan create a spread based on the predominant characteristics of various types of individuals in Tolkien's Middle Earth: hobbits, dwarves, men, elves, and wizards.
    As the above discussion demonstrates, concepts from religious, spiritual, or philosophical systems are a vast source of ideas for a Tarot spread. Similarly, we can adapt ideas from any thought-provoking literary or artistic source, such as a quote, a magazine article, a play, a painting, or a book. Using such sources may take a bit more effort, though, because the philosophical sources noted above are already partitioned conveniently into discrete units, such as four elements, seven planets, or twelve astrological signs. The parsing of a quote into meaningful elements, on the other hand, requires some careful consideration. Yet once we have decided which of the basic concepts of our source to use, we can create a spread with one position per idea. For examples of how to use this technique, see the following sections in chapter 2 wherein spreads are created based on a quote, a picture, and a magazine article, respectively: 

  • The Sorrow's Alchemy Spread: A Four-Card Spread 
  • The Lovers Card Spread: A Nine-Card Spread 
  • The Failure's Alchemy Spread: A Nine-Card Spread
  • While the above techniques can help you create spreads tailored to your own individual requirements, philosophy, and style of reading the cards, they also provide a foundation for understanding the process by which the spreads in the next section were developed. So now let us shift our primary focus from creating spreads to using them as we examine a variety of spreads that are effective in many different situations. Keep in mind, however, that although you certainly can use these spreads as described, you also can modify them to suit your particular needs or just let them inspire you to create your own spreads.

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