I refer to the following tarot reading technique as The Eta Method. It’s not a spread exactly, but rather a process, a method for divinatory reading. “Eta” refers to revelation. It is believed that the decoded esoteric meaning of the Greek letter H (Eta) is that of revelation. Read more here. It fits with my understanding, my intentions, and the purpose of this reading procedure. Hence, The Eta Method.
In a nutshell, The Eta Method is this:
(1) selecting a signifier,
(2) performing a modern (and my personal) adaptation of the First Operation,
(3) reading and interpreting cards in certain positions in the First Operation,
(4) considering the degrees and thus numerology, and
(5) considering the elements.
The following explanation of the method may imply that it’s exhaustive, but I swear to you it is not. Granted, while it is not impossible to do it in 15 minutes, it will come across as rushed and I wouldn’t recommend it. However, it is absolutely doable within 30, so long as the practitioner limits the seeker’s questions and personal stories to the very end of the reading (because you know how that goes). The best practice for The Eta Method is for 1 hour sessions, but again, suitable for 20-30 minutes. It’s most definitely not like The Opening of the Key.
Selecting the Signifier
Start by selecting a signifier (traditionally called the significator) for the seeker. This specific technique requires the use of signifiers. You can use the seeker’s age, gender, and astrological sun sign to select a court card (Ex. A 45-year-old Aries woman would correspond with the Queen of Wands.), but of course, any method for selecting signifiers will do. Some opt for the ascending or rising sign instead of the sun sign.
The traditional method is The Magician for male seekers and The High Priestess for female seekers. Some seekers who are familiar with the tarot may self-identify already with a particular signifier card. I know a tarot reader who always uses The Fool as his signifier. Another always uses The Star. Regardless of gender or astrological sign, if someone identifies very intimately with the King of Swords, then use the King of Swords.
The signifier represents the seeker’s personal energy within the spiritual unity and full compendium of the universe, which is expressed by the 78 cards of the tarot deck. Thus, per my theoretical approach, using 1 card out of the 78 doesn’t take away from a reading. The deck isn’t suddenly “missing 1 card” because that 1 card represents the Self within the universe. The remaining 77 cards express the most prevalent energies of the universe that affect the Self
In the above example, a reading for a man we will call Abe. Abe is an actual querent and this is an actual reading, though his name isn’t really Abe. Nonetheless, the man we will call Abe has agreed to let us study his reading so that I might illustrate the Eta Method. Abe is a sun sign Capricorn, 40-ish years old, and male. Capricorn is an Earth sign, so we went with the King of Pentacles, a grounded, stable, reliable man who is financially savvy, typically more conservative leaning, and more reserved. After I described the King of Pentacles to Abe, he really felt it represented him and resonated with the way he self-identified. People normally do. It’s very weird how these signifiers work out.
Also, the tarot deck used here is the Golden Universal, though you’ll see that I’ve used a Sharpie to draw the astrological correspondences for each card in the deck. The Majors also have elemental correspondences (Fire, Water, Air, Earth) because for the Majors, I don’t always remember what is what.
Since the term “First Operation” calls to mind (at least for me) the specific step in the Golden Dawn methodology, and my method isn’t that, I opt for the term “Preliminary Operation.” It’s a bootleg off the First Operation. There’s a great explanation of the First Operation in Paul Foster Case’s Oracle of the Tarot. You can download a PDF of the book here or read more about it via one of my old blog posts here. And here is a more concise and direct explanation of the First Operation.
Here’s how I do it, the so-called Preliminary Operation, that is. After shuffling the deck with the signifier, focusing on Abe’s personal energies, I set the card down, as shown above.
Then I cut the deck in half and move over half the pile, right to left, as shown above. Whenever I cut a tarot deck, I only use my left hand. It’s just a thing. I could get into why, but that’s its own post altogether.
Returning to the first left-most pile, I cut that half in half (so a quarter) and move it between the first two piles.
From the third pile, as shown above, I cut it half (another quarter) to form the last left-most pile. Now we have four piles. I go through each pile, beginning with the right-most pile, in search of Abe’s signifier.
Abe’s signifier, the King of Pentacles, appeared in that very first pile. Applying the First Operation pile correspondences from Case, this pile relates to Abe’s physical plane, or the work/career quadrant of his life. It also relates to the element Fire, and interestingly enough, the top-most card of the pile is from the suit of Wands, for Fire energy (which is actually the “bottom-most” card, since I flip over the entire pile face up to search for the signifier… I hope that isn’t too confusing…).
Abe didn’t have a specific question for the reading. He just wanted a reading and was interested to see what might come up, what the universe felt he most needed to know right now. If, however, Abe did ask a specific question, then his signifier appearing in the first pile would indicate that the solution to the problem is in the physical plane (as opposed to emotional, intellectual, or material; physical relates to the body while material relates to our resources and finances).
Again, links to more comprehensive explanations of the First Operation appear above in an earlier paragraph. Also, note that in the Eta Method, once the signifier is located, the reader will focus entirely on that pile only. The other three piles can be set aside. We won’t be needing them.
Top Most Card: The Thesis
In the preceding photograph you’ll see that the top-most card is the Six of Wands in reverse. I’m reading with reversals here.
The Six of Wands in reverse is really good to see. For starters, it tells me, the reader, that this guy Abe is ambitious, has his shit together, and is on the ascent up in terms of his professional career. However, there could be delays. He’s probably impatient, and wants things to happen quicker than they will. He should hold his horses, if you will. Regardless, it’s a good omen if you ask me. I also see the scope of our reading now. This is going to be about Abe’s career potential, about his professional trajectory. We’re going to be reading about how he can advance on to the next step in terms of his work ambitions. Again, I’d note to Abe possible delays. Things won’t unfold quite as quickly as he’s expecting them to unfold.
Card Behind: The Subconscious
Also examine the card immediately subsequent to the signifier. Here, the card appearing right after the King of Pentacles is the King of Wands. This card position tells me about what is going on in Abe’s subconscious. These are latent energies that are directly relevant to the matter at hand. First, note that it’s another Fire card. In fact, the King of Wands is Fire on Fire. A whole lotta Fire going on up in here, in the Preliminary Operation pile corresponding with Fire, no less. Fire relates to ambitions, but also intuition, and making decisions on a hunch, because your hunch is always right. It’s about creativity and innovation. The prevalence of Fire here might also suggest to me that Abe is in a creative field. And… it turns out he is. Look at that. Abe is a web and graphic designer. He just launched his own design services consulting company.
After locating the signifier in the pile, I count in the number of cards from the top in to the position of the signifier. When you pick up the pile that was face down, you turn it over so that it is now face up to you. That first face-up card is count 1. Once you have reached the signifier, the signifier card itself is the last count and thus the number of degrees. Thus, in the above photograph example, I would say the signifier, the King of Pentacles, is 9 degrees in.
Generally, if the degrees in is over 9, I interpret that as delays, uncertainties in the outcome, or higher chances of wild card variables or force majeure to the matter at hand. If the degrees in is 1 through 9, then I apply basic numerology analysis. If it was the first card, in that it was the top-most card, which happens from time to time, I’d project dominance, great potential for accomplishment, and note that the 1 degree underscores the importance of the matter at hand to the corresponding quadrant of the seeker’s life. At 2 degrees, there are balancing issues, cooperation needed, or interpersonal relationships heavily at play in the matter. At 3 degrees, strong likelihood of fruition here. At 4 degrees, stability or security issues, order, authority themes, and sub-issues related to the material world. 5 degrees, what’s to come will likely result in a significant life transformation to the seeker. And so on. Apply your own numerological correspondences.
Here for Abe, his signifier was 9 degrees in. 9 to me is incredibly optimistic, showing that the seeker is about to peak in the matter at hand, and in terms of the issue presented here, Abe’s business is going to have longevity. Much of what the subsequent reading for Abe and his new business is going to be toward the objective of longevity. He is probably at an important crossroads at the moment, and the cards are signaling to him to make sure he makes all the right decisions going forward to ensure longevity rather than immediate small successes. If you take an advance peak at the photo below, you’ll see the Ace of Wands, which further affirms my foregoing thoughts.
Bottom Most Card: Heart of the Matter
Pull out the card at the very bottom of the pile. I have found this card position to be significant, especially as applied to what’s going on at the heart of the matter. What’s at the bottom of things, so to speak. The Ace of Wands would normally be interpreted positively, and here for Abe, it still is. However, taking into account the whole picture here, within the context of this specific reading, it’s about immediate small victories that are to come, which could potentially have the negative impact of hurting the business long-term if Abe isn’t careful with what he does after those small victories.
I tend to get pretty into elemental dignities, which some of my clients may know. Here I’d talk about the relevance of the Fire card and how it relates to the elemental dignities analysis from the preceding cards we talked about. Fire is all about creativity, innovation, ambition, aspirations, and also intuition, or the creative-intuitive component.
Considering the Elements
Next I’ll start separating the cards to tally up the number of cards per element. Right to left above is Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. If you’re familiar with considering elemental dominance in astrological interpretations, then you’ll get this step right away. It’s pretty much the same thing, only with cards instead of houses, signs, and planets. If you’re kind of still drawing a blank here, okay basically, count up the number of Fire cards, the number of Water cards, etc. and figure out which element is the majority here.
In the present case study with Abe, there is equal dominance between Fire and Earth cards, which makes perfect sense and resonates with the reading so far. He’s just starting a new business and we talked about the coming small victories, so there is that strong Fire component. However, the most important objective should be longevity, and thus stability issues and adequate funding for the long haul remains the most important concern, i.e., the Earth energy.
FYI, since card counting is involved in The Eta Method, I have found that decks with borders is a bit easier, even though normally I prefer the borderless decks. With the borderless decks, card counting gets a bit tough because all the colors of the cards kind of melt into each other. That or I just have really bad eyesight. In any event, I like the cards with borders, because they naturally form solid lines that your eyes can count quickly and efficiently.
Four Card Spread
Once all the previous steps have been completed, I hand the pile of cards to the seeker and have him or her shuffle again (or if that’s impractical, either because you don’t like seekers touching your cards or you’re doing this for an online reading, then just shuffle again here as the reader).
I’ll opt for a four card spread, once that mirrors the four quadrants from the preliminary operation–the right-most card gives me a sense of the issues in the physical plane for the matter at hand, like day-to-day issues or creativity/innovation sub-themes to keep in mind; the next card over indicating interpersonal relationship sub-themes, themes from the emotional plane; the next card over themes from the intellectual plane, potential conflicts, communication issues, etc.; and finally, the left-most pile indicates sub-themes from the material plane, issues related to resources, assets, investments, finances.
Again, in Abe’s reading, there is a great deal of synchronicity and patternicity to the cards drawn in the four card spread and the preceding steps. You are going to find the same thing happening to your readings as a practitioner. The Eta Method is uncannily consistent. Don’t take my word for it. You just have to try it to believe it.
You don’t have to do a four card spread here. Your classic go-to spread is best for this final step. If that’s the Celtic Cross and you’re ambitious, have at it, but I find that to be unnecessarily intense. A three card reading is just perfect. A simple cross method works great. I’d say anything up to 7 cards is manageable, though even at 7, that is pushing it. 10 cards— why? Why? Just…why would you do that to yourself?
If you decide to give The Eta Method a try, let me know how it goes. I strongly encourage learning it and then modifying it to adapt to your personal energies. Per my experience, clients are so much more appreciative of such a procedure than a straightforward flat spread. Such a methodology provides a lot more depth and breadth of insight. Plus the synchronicities that I promise will happen tends to be pretty impressive to the seekers. There is a more dynamic energy to the methodology than a straight, flat spread (not that I’m disparaging the single spread method, since I use single spreads all the time). And as a reader, you’ll see that after you become mildly proficient at this methodology, it isn’t any more exhaustive or energetically draining than the single spread method. The amount of work you put in for both is the same, but the resulting information (in my humble opinion) that you can get out of The Eta Method is incomparably better.