At the intermediate level, every tarot practitioner should have a repertoire of at least 7 spreads. Now note that as an advanced reader, you will have fully developed your personal practice approach and may have only one spread that you always use, no matter the inquiry or situation, or a repertoire of spreads that are very different from the ones mentioned here, or an altogether different intuitive approach to readings. All that is developed with time, however, so at the intermediate level, expose yourself to as much as possible and master a minimum of 7 spreads to empower yourself as the most adaptable and efficient reader you can be.
In my own practice I customize and design new spreads on a case by case basis. I also employ a variety of techniques to answer questions–operations from various Golden Dawn methodology (or my adaptation of it), card counting, etc. However, I do insist tarot students who have gained a proficient understanding of the card meanings and who know the basics of tarot interpretation to begin building their repertoire. There are 7 spreads you should know by heart at any given time:
- A 3 card reading spread
- A 4 card reading spread (or a 5 card reading spread)
- The Celtic Cross
- A yes/no spread
- A spread for a 2-party reading
- Specialty multi-card spread #1
- Specialty multi-card spread #2
Spread #1: A Basic 3 Card Reading Spread
I use signifiers to anchor every reading, so please excuse the King of Cups hiding behind the Two of Swords in the above photo.
You need to know a 3-card spread for the 10-15 minute readings that you’re bound to have to do. I read the center card not so much as merely “present,” but as “oncoming.” The left card represents the past influences that inform us where the seeker (some say querent, I prefer seeker) is headed and the right card shows where it is the seeker is most likely headed. You should practice giving 3-card readings in under 13 (thirteen) minutes. If you go professional one day, you’ll understand perfectly why I say that– you may want to leave 2 minutes for the inevitable Q&A, and if by plum luck there is no Q&A, then you can use the remaining 2 minutes to sum up and leave the seeker with an empowering message.
Even if you don’t go professional, as a tarot enthusiast, your friends are bound to find out about your new hobby and if (A) you have a deck of tarot cards on you and (B) you are in a large group setting and should (A) and (B) ever happen contemporaneously, you will be doing readings for everybody in the room. You are going to kill yourself if you try to do a Celtic Cross for every one of them. So please learn a basic 3-card spread.
Spread #2: A 4 Card or 5 Card Reading Spread
I happen to like the above-pictured layout, but any 4-card or 5-card spread will suffice here. They provide a more in-depth and detailed reading than the more linear 3-card layout and give you more to build a narrative with. The card crossing the two cards in the center shows what is immediately ahead of the seeker. While it most often denotes a blockage that is causing stagnation in the seeker’s life, it essentially gives insight to that next flagpost up ahead on the seeker’s life path that needs attention. It also bridges the two left and right cards, with which a reader can link together and tell a cohesive story. It turns the two side cards into cause and effect, not just the past-present-future thread, though it remains that, too. The two crossed cards at the center are great for getting to the crux of the seeker’s situation.
There are many variations of 4-card and 5-card reading spreads to choose from for your repertoire. In the above two photos, the left shows a simple cross layout with the signifier (King of Wands) at the center. To the left and right sides of the signifier tell the chronology of what’s going on–the past, present, future line (and whether that is read right to left or left to right is per your own reading style). Above is the speculative card, what could potentially manifest. Below reveals insight into the seeker’s subconscious. The spread to the right show two forks branching out of the signifier and offer insight into the oncoming fork in the seeker’s path and how he or she might best navigate that fork.
The above show 5-card spreads. I can do a reading with the 5-card spread on the right in about 15 minutes and it offers a great deal of information in that short amount of time to the seeker. The pair of crossed cards off to the side is the signifier with one card over him, showing what is oncoming on his path or what may be crossing him. The row of three cards is a 3-card reading. Then a fifth card at the end of the reading is drawn to offer some final thoughts or projections on the matter.
Spread #3: The Celtic Cross
The only reason I say to add the Celtic Cross to your repertoire is so you won’t look like an idiot if and when another fellow tarot practitioner starts to talk about it. For me, it was a spread I used religiously as a beginner but later moved on to use spreads that were better tailored to my personal reading style. Every once in a while I’ll read for someone who already knows a thing or two about tarot and will request the Celtic Cross spread by name. So I’ll nod, smile, and begin setting out the cards in the below formation. It’s a spread worth committing to heart.
Under the Tarot Worksheet Downloads tab on my site, you’ll find a PDF reference file with a whole bunch of reading spreads, including info on the 3 main variations of the Celtic Cross (the Gray, which is the one I use; the Waite; and the Thoth).
Spread #4: A Yes-No Spread
A significant number of questions will come to you as yes-no inquiries and while I typically urge the seeker to rephrase it into an open-ended question so that I might use one of the other spreads for a detailed reading, if a seeker insists on a yes-no answer and I’m amenable to give it that day, I’ll use a yes-no spread. And just in case you are ever in that same position, you should know one by heart, too. I use Eden Gray’s Yes-No Spread, which I’ve given info on before here. Again you see the lingering King of Cups off to one side because I really like my signifiers (most of you may refer to these cards as significators).
There are many yes-no spreads to choose from. I go with Gray’s, but I’m not above simply pulling a single card and using that one card to answer yay or nay. I’d still count that as a spread here for the purposes of your repertoire.
Spread #5: A Spread for a Two-Party Reading
Get really good at using the cards to answer questions about love, because every tarot practitioner knows a substantial portion of the work involves romantic inquiries, which generally involves two parties and understanding how two life paths have intersected and what that means to your client. While you can’t read for third parties (basic tarot ethics), you can certainly read about how that other person is affecting your client, and that involves understanding the intersection of their two life paths. Sometimes, though, two people will come to you requesting a reading and it may or may not be specifically about love. It could just be how their two lives intersect, which is why I don’t refer to this 5th spread in your repertoire as a “love spread” but rather, a “two-party reading” spread.
The above pictured layout is the foundation of a spread I use frequently. I select a signifier for the seeker and another for the other person, who can also be a co-seeker or it can be the love interest. The pair of crossed cards in between the two signifiers show me how their life paths cross. The cards to each signifier’s side shows me what each brings to this intersection, where each is coming from, and how that may affect my client. This spread tells me exactly what the seeker needs to know about the two-party interaction. And it’s a very, very simple spread, though it can certainly get more complicated should the occasion call for a detailed, in-depth reading. See below.
That is the same spread as the first 2-party reading spread pictured, but I continue to build on the foundation of the reading to understand where each party is coming from. This development works particularly well when there are co-seekers, two people coming to you for the same reading. Off to the sides next to each signifier show what each person brings to the relationship. Down the center show what they share, the commingled facts of the situation. Typically after the basic layout for the 2-party reading is given, the two seekers will have additional questions. That’s when I start laying down more cards into the developed spread above.
Spreads #6 and #7: Two Specialty Spreads
Finally, consider having a minimum of 2 specialty spreads committed to memory. Specialty spreads can be founded on the particular interpretive tradition you subscribe to. It can be based on a philosophy or area of metaphysical study that resonates with you. For many, it could be the Tree of Life spread. I like the Ba Gua spread based on the eight trigrams of the I Ching, pictured above to the right. There are spreads based on the 7 chakras, 12 astrological houses, other spreads based on the Qabalah, spreads from the Hermetic tradition, or just become proficient at any 2 complex spreads you’ve developed and that work effectively and consistently for you.
You’ll want to make sure that these spreads are versatile. If someone sits down with no question at all and wants you to lay out a bunch of cards and give a general yet in-depth projection, then you can use one of these specialty spreads. By the way the Celtic Cross also works incredibly well for such a scenario. If a seeker has a very specific question about a creative project, a relationship issue (where the two-party spread doesn’t feel quite right), a business, or career prospects, one of these two specialty spreads should work perfectly for the occasion.
Knowing your seven spreads by heart as well as you know the essential card meanings will mean you look like a tarot pro anytime, anywhere, for any question, for anyone.
Again, I stress that this is addressed to intermediate tarot practitioners. For a beginner, master just one first, and your focus should be on getting to know the cards themselves, not spreads. For the advanced practitioner, you’ll have figured out what works best for you and while you will quite naturally have a repertoire already, you might opt to use the same trusty spread every time so knowing 7 spreads isn’t all that practical for you, or you might opt to custom-design spreads client to client. If, however, you know what the Seven of Swords indicates when it appears, you know how to interpret the Death card in a reading, and you know the Celtic Cross and a 3-card spread already, and you’ve been wondering what to do next to progress in your studies, then working on your 7-spread repertoire might just be it.