An “Ancient” Mode of Tarot Reading by MacGregor Mathers

Skill LevelGeneral (All)

Together, let’s walk through a tarot reading method instructed by S. L. MacGregor Mathers in The Tarot, Its Occult Signification, Use in Fortune-Telling, and Method of Play (1888). He describes this reading technique as “a very ancient mode of reading the tarot” that “will be found reliable.”

Shall we try it out for ourselves?

TdM Card Meanings Reference

The Tarot (1888)

In the above handout, I’ve rearranged the ordering of the card meanings. For the original order Mathers put the cards in, check out the subsequent download of The Tarot (1888). In the above PDF, I arranged it in the order that the majority of modern tarot readers are going to be used to seeing the cards. In a few places, I’ve also edited the text when the original phrasing by Mathers has become obsolete, so I included modern equivalents.

First, download the Reading Notes worksheet. You’ll be logging your card results on these pages (or copy the format into your tarot journal). I urge you to either use the worksheet or take really organized and structured notes on your reading here, because there are a lot of card pairs to unpack. =)

Reading Notes Worksheet

PDF Download

The Worksheet includes a final Review section for you to return to the reading later in time and give yourself feedback on whether your predictions came true or whether you may have misinterpreted some of the cards and how they actually came to fruition.

Alternative Reading Approach

In the video tutorial, we are reading the First Horseshoe as the Past, Second Horseshoe as the Present, and Third Horseshoe as the Future.

However, there is an alternative way to read these the three sets, and that’s noted in the above-linked Worksheet.

You can also opt to read the First Horseshoe as revealing of the Self, of the personality or character in question.

The Second Horseshoe reveals the environment, the plot points and situation the querent is in.

The Third Horseshoe can be read as the path forward, i.e., the future, or one’s spiritual path, or some combination of the two indications.

Inferences Made

In the selected passages of Mathers’ instruction on the reading method, he doesn’t get into any details about what each of the three Horseshoes indicate. However, I inferred the trinity and Septenary correspondences contextually, based on the preceding content in his book.

Experiment: Read Exactly the Way Mathers Would Instruct

A fun way to take this reading method out on a test drive is with a Tarot de Marseille deck and, following the instructions in The Tarot, read with reversals.

If you’re not familiar with the Marseille system at all, that’s even better, because the most entertaining way to do this is to force yourself to work off the card meanings given in the Mathers text, which you can download as a supplemental handout.

The reading method we’ll be trying out today is identified as the “First Method” in The Tarot (1888).  Below are the complete written instructions by Mathers for his “First Method.”

This shuffling and cutting should be thrice repeated.

The full pack of seventy-eight cards having been first duly shuffled and cut, deal the top card on a part of the table which we will call B, the second card on another place which we will call A. (These will form the commencement of two heaps, A and B, into which the whole pack is to be dealt.)

Then deal the third and fourth cards on B, and the fifth on A; the sixth and seventh on B, and the eighth on A; the ninth and tenth on B, and the eleventh on A. Continue this operation of dealing two cards on B, and one on A, till you come to the end of the pack. A will then consist of twenty-six cards, and B of fifty-two.

Now take up the B heap of fifty-two cards. Deal the top card on a fresh place which we will call D, and the second card on another place C. (This will form the beginning of two fresh heaps, C and D.) Then deal the third and fourth cards on D, and the fifth on C; the sixth and seventh on D, and the eighth on C, and so on as before through these fifty-two cards. There will now be three heaps: A = 26 cards, C = 17 cards, and D = 35 cards.

Again take up the heap D of 35 cards, and deal the top card on a fresh spot F, and the second card on another place E (so as to make two fresh heaps E and F). Now deal the third and fourth cards on F and the fifth on E, and so on as before, through these 35 cards.

There will now be four heaps altogether. A = 26 cards, C= 17 cards, E = 11, and F = 24. Put F aside altogether, as these cards are not to be used in the reading, and are Supposed to have no bearing on the question. There will now remain A, C, and E.

Take A and arrange the 26 cards face upwards from right to left (being careful not to alter the order), so that they are in the form of a horseshoe, the top card being at the lowest right-hand corner, and the 26th at the lowest left-hand corner. Read their meanings from right to left as before explained. When this is done so as to make a Connected answer, take the 1st and 26th and read their combined meaning, then that of the 2nd and 25thand so on till you come to the last pair, which will be the 13th and 14th. Put A aside, and take C and read it in exactly the same way, then E last.

This is a very ancient mode of reading the Tarot, and will be found reliable.

If you don’t want to try to process all that on your own, then just follow the guided video. We’ll go through it step by step together.

Note that I did take a few licenses with interpreting those passages to present a reading method that’s more usable.

I’ve also formatted the complete text of The Tarot (1888) into a downloadable handout. This version includes additional footnotes and explanatory information in brackets to explain some of the passages that may be obscure to the modern reader. The PDF file comes with a hyperlinked table of contents so you can skip from chapter to chapter with a click. I’m also providing the DOCX file in case you want to edit it to conform to your personal note-taking or record-keeping system.

The Tarot (1888)

PDF Download

The Tarot (1888)

DOCX Download

Skill Level Indicator for this Episode

I categorized this episode as “General (All)” for skill level because if you’re a tarot beginner, you can in theory work entirely off the closed universe of card meanings provided from Mathers (the hyperlinked download above) or, if you’re using the Spirit Keeper’s Tarot deck, get your card meanings from the Medium White Book and piecemeal the reading pair by pair.

My only reservation is if you’re a total tarot beginner, then do bear in mind that the card meanings provided in the download are for the Tarot de Marseille system of reading tarot, and are not going to feel compatible with the Rider-Waite-Smith system of reading.

Next week we’re back in contemporary times with Jaymi Elford’s Tarot Inspired Life (January, 2019). In the meantime, you can read my book review of it here.

Sightsee the Tarot: Series Page

Click on the Series Page for a List of All Episodes

7 thoughts on “An “Ancient” Mode of Tarot Reading by MacGregor Mathers

  1. Pingback: Sightsee the Tarot: Video Series – benebell wen

  2. Anonymous

    Loving the horseshoe idea!
    Thank you Benebell for all your work and teaching here- much appreciated.
    This one will take a lot longer to set up and work through, which is good news for me :}


    1. Anonymous

      This was the first time I’ve used a TdM deck – never felt inspired to do so until now.

      Great to have easy clear meanings to use. I chose one word from the list that resonated – there was always one.

      I’ve done past present future – now going to try the other way although that looks more complicated but could have interesting revelations :}


  3. Lola

    Very excited about this spread!

    If you don’t have a TdM, can you still use a RWS version and assign the TdM meanings to the minor arcana cards??



  4. Pingback: Tarot and Geopolitical Divination (Antoine Court de Gébelin, 1781) – benebell wen

  5. Pingback: Court de Gébelin’s Tarot Reading Method (1781) – benebell wen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s