No other tarot spread is more well-known or widely-used than the Celtic Cross. In this post, I’ll tell you how it works, when to use it, and when not to.
What is the origin of the Celtic Cross tarot spread?
In 1909, British poet and occultist Arthur Edward Waite published what would become the most popular tarot deck of all time. Illustrated by the artist Pamela Coleman Smith, the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Deck came bundled with a thin book written by Waite himself. Called The Key to the Tarot, this book discussed the meanings of each card, and described how to use them for divination. He revised and re-released this book a year later as The Pictorial Key to the Tarot.
Near the back of this book, we get a description of the Celtic Cross spread. Waite refers to it as “An Ancient Celtic Method of Divination.” If you know your tarot history, this claim is a bit far-fetched to say the least.
In truth, Waite appears to be the first person to describe this spread. There are no printed references to it prior to 1909, at least that I can find anyway. It’s unclear whether the Celtic Cross was Waite’s own invention, or if he learned of it from someone else. Either way, since instructions for its use have come bundled with nearly every tarot deck sold over the last century, it’s almost certainly the most-used tarot spread today.
How do you use the Celtic Cross?
Waite’s instructions for using the Celtic Cross spread are fairly straight-forward. The instructions below are mostly his, although I’ve added my own thoughts based on thirty years of working with it.
Waite begins by telling the tarot reader to select a card to be the “significator,” which symbolizes either the person asking the question, or the subject being asked about. Here’s a quote:
“The Diviner first selects a card to represent the person or, matter about which inquiry is made. This card is called the Significator. Should he wish to ascertain something in connexion with himself he takes the one which corresponds to his personal description. A Knight should be chosen as the Significator if the subject of inquiry is a man of forty years old and upward; a King should be chosen for any male who is under that age a Queen for a woman who is over forty years and a Page for any female of less age.”The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
We’re then told to put this card face up on the table before proceeding.
Personally? I don’t do this. And that’s for a couple of reasons.
First, I don’t find the Court Cards connect with people in the way Waite describes. I wrote an article about this, titled Understanding the Court Cards, if you’re interested.
Second, I think it’s better to leave all of the cards in the deck until we start dealing them out. If a so-called “significator” card is actually relevant to the situation, I trust that it’ll show up without my having to pull it out in advance.
Anyway, at this point, we (or the querent) shuffles the cards while thinking of the question. Then we (or, again, the querent) cuts the deck, and the tarot reader lays out the cards in the following pattern…
What are the meanings of the card positions?
As with most tarot spreads, each card position in the Celtic Cross has a certain meaning. When we interpret the cards, we take this positional meaning into account. I’ve provided a keyword or title for each position in the diagram above for easy reference. In this section, you’ll find the full explanation for each position.
This card represents the major influence or situation which the question refers to. It’s the “nutshell” version of the matter at hand, or the central theme of the situation.
This card usually represents the main or central obstacle which is blocking or opposing the Subject. I say “usually,” because if this card is very good, or its nature is very harmonious with the Subject, it may not represent an obstacle at all. It could be a “stepping stone” which can actually be a source of help or assistance. This is especially likely to be the case if it’s also of a similar nature to either the Self or Environment card.
This card is sometimes called the “Foundation.” It represents something which has not only already happened, but is likely the main reason for asking the question in the first place.
When I conduct a tarot reading for someone using the Celtic Cross, these three cards almost always relate to the question or circumstance in a very obvious way. For example, in a question about a troubled love affair, I’d expect to see the Two of Cups, the Lovers, or the Three of Swords in some or all of these positions.
When I don’t see any connection between these three cards and the question, I proceed with considerable caution. I also explain to the client that I may not be getting an accurate read on the matter. Fortunately, at least in my experience, this is rarely the case.
This card represents something in the past which relates to the matter at hand, sometimes in an unexpected way. Many of the situations we find ourselves in today are connected to older events or patterns we’ve experienced before. This card usually shows us the most pertinent bit of history which has led to the current situation.
This is one of the two “outcome” cards in the Celtic Cross spread (the other being outright titled “The Outcome”). It typically shows us the “best case scenario,” or else what the client can hope for if they put their energy and focus toward achieving it.
I wrote “typically” above, because we need to compare and contrast this card with the Outcome card in order to be sure of its role. This is particularly true when the Possibility card appears to be much more negative than the Outcome. I’ll write a bit more about this later on when I discuss the final card in the spread.
This is an event or influence which will come into play in the immediate or very near future. In many cases, it gives us a good indication of the client’s next, best opportunity to alter the outcome of events. It’s something to keep an eye out for, and to either avoid or take advantage of. Which route we should take depends on the context, and the rest of the spread.
I also call this card the “Toolbox.” It tells us what the querent themselves is bringing to the situation. Often, this card represents a strength, or a source of aid. Other times, though, it represents an obstacle, or “baggage” the client is carrying with them. Just like the Future card, we need to look at the Big Picture to decide whether the Self is helping or hindering the client.
This card is much like the Self, only instead of showing us what the querent is bringing to the party, it shows us outside influences. Again, these may be constructive or destructive to the querent’s objectives or goals. Only careful thought and experience will tell us which.
The Hopes or Fears
The second-to-last card in the spread tells us something about what the client wants to happen, or what they’re afraid might happen.
To be perfectly blunt, I hardly ever find this card useful. Like the first three cards, it can serve as a kind of “check” to make sure we’re getting an accurate read on the matter. Otherwise? The client probably knows what their hopes or fears are, so this card doesn’t give us much in the way of practical aid.
Like the Possibility card, this one shows us one way the situation can turn out. In general, the Outcome is what will come to pass if the situation is allowed to proceed without further interference. Contrast this with the Possibility–that which will come to pass if the querent puts in the effort and work.
When the Outcome card looks much more favorable than the Possibility, it’s a sign that the client should let things unfold naturally. When the Possibility looks better? That’s when it’s time for the client to push for what they want.
When should you use this spread?
Given the Celtic Cross is the most popular spread in the world, you might think it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. Me? I disagree. I think there are times when it’s a good one to use, but there are other times when it’s…less so.
It’s excellent when you want to get a detailed look at a situation, including all of the most important surrounding context. For example, it’s my go-to spread when I’m about to do some serious magic to influence a situation.
I wrote an article awhile ago about how I think it’s extremely important to divine before you enchant. My thoughts on the matter haven’t changed one wink, and the Celtic Cross is usually the spread I use before dusting off my altar and getting down to business.
It’s also a good spread to use when you’re faced with situations or circumstances which seem particularly chaotic or confusing. If you’re job hunting, and can’t seem to get your foot in the door anywhere, throw the cards and ask: “What’s up with my job search?” You’ll usually see multiple factors at work, and get a good idea of how to proceed.
When should you not to use this spread?
The biggest advantage to the Celtic Cross is that it uses ten cards, and you get a lot of context. This is also its biggest disadvantage.
Ten cards is a lot of cards. And, in my personal opinion, ten cards is too many for most questions and situations. With so many cards on the table, we can get overwhelmed with information, and that might actually prevent us from getting a useful answer.
I maybe use the Celtic Cross for one out of fifteen or twenty readings. Let’s face it, most questions people ask the tarot are actually quite simple. “Will I get the job?” “Will Sophie go out with me?” “Should I take a gap year or stay in school until I finish my degree?”
For questions like these, simpler spreads with fewer cards work just fine, and usually provide much clearer answers than the Celtic Cross.
Then again, that’s just my opinion. If you have a different one, I’d love to hear it.
Have a blessed day!
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