By Joshua Dolphin
The Celtic Cross is one of the most popular tarot spreads today. At ten cards, it’s not the easiest spread to read, but its utility and nuance make it effective for a wide range of questions.
A.E. Waite, creator of the Rider Waite Smith Tarot, calls this spread “The Ancient Celtic Method” in his book, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Whether it’s actually ancient or just a spread Waite created is up for debate, but it’s been over a century since it appeared in his book, making it “pretty old” at the very least.
In the time since then, tarot readers have developed many variations of the Celtic Cross. In this article I’ll include a breakdown of the positions in the spread according to Waite, plus my personal interpretation of each position. Then next month I’ll provide an example of how to actually put it all together to read a full spread.
The significator is a card chosen by the reader before the reading. Waite says this card “represents the person or matter about which inquiry is made.”
If the querent (person who asks the question for the reading) asks about him or herself, then a court card (Knight, King, Queen, or Page) should be chosen.
If the question is more about a “matter” than the subject, then a corresponding card should be chosen from the trumps (Major Arcana) or small cards (Minor Arcana).
Once chosen, place this card in the center of the table, face up.
Note: Many descriptions of the Celtic Cross leave this position out, and personally I consider it optional. Since it’s chosen by the reader instead of pulled randomly, I think it serves more as a focus for the question than as an actual part of the reading. Use it if you feel like it would be helpful, but feel free to skip it.
Section Title Phrases
In the Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Waite tells the reader to say a phrase as they lay each of the first six cards which comprise the cross. I’ve taken these phrases and made them the title of each section of this article. For example, as you lay the first card, say “This covers it,” then say “This crosses it” as you lay the second, and so on.
Note: I’ve changed the pronouns in these phrases from Waite’s “him” to a gender neutral “it.” Adjust this depending on the gender of the significator.
① This Covers It
This card gives the influence which is affecting the person or matter of inquiry generally, the atmosphere of it in which the other currents work.Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
This card is placed directly on top of the significator (if a significator is used), covering it. I think of it as the primary energy in the matter at hand.
② This Crosses It
[This card] shows the nature of the obstacles in the matter. If it is a favourable card, the opposing forces will not be serious, or it may indicate that something good in itself will not be productive of good in the particular connexion.A.E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
Place this card horizontally across the center of ① to form a cross. Waite says this card represents obstacles in the matter, which I don’t necessarily disagree with, but I think of it more like a secondary energy which comes up against the first.
① & ② The Heart of the Matter
⓵ and ⓶ combine to create the nucleus of the whole reading. Their combination is sometimes called “the inner cross.” Together, these cards indicate the heart of the matter, to which every other card in the reading is related.
⓵ comes first; it is the default energy, the status quo. On its own, it doesn’t represent the issue at hand. Only when ⓶ is added to the equation does the nature of the issue become clear.
⓶ runs cross-ways to ⓵, ⓶ being a newer energy which must be integrated with the old. As the primary energy, ⓵ is the most fundamental influence in the matter, while secondary ⓶ is a dynamic, contrary, or incongruous element that needs to be integrated. Depending on the cards, the Querent may be more strongly aligned with ⓵, while ⓶ represents a conflicting influence.
For these reasons, reversing the cards can change the meaning completely. Let’s look at an example.
⓵: The Fool
In this case, The Fool is primary. We have the energy of the wanderer, new beginnings, ignorance, etc. Then we add Justice, the energy of the law, balance, adjustment, and so on. The querent’s issue becomes clear: they are learning how to comport themselves in regards to laws or social structures with which they are unfamiliar.
Examples of this situation:
- Querent starts a new job
- Querent enters a new relationship
- Querent moves to a new town
- Querent learns a new language and culture
Now let’s reverse the cards:
⓶: The Fool
The same influences are relevant, but now Justice is primary and The Fool is secondary. The querent’s issue changes accordingly: now they must discover how to teach, enforce, or adjust the rules, laws, or social structure of their situation in order to accommodate or integrate a new factor.
Examples of this situation:
- Querent trains a new employee at work
- Querent teaches their child how to read
- Querent introduces their significant other to their family
Consider the relationship between these first two cards, taking into account which is primary and which is secondary. Try to get a handle on of how the tarot is characterizing the situation before you move on. Every card from here on out exists in relationship to this pair, so take your time.
③ This Crowns It.
[This card] represents (a) the Querent’s aim or ideal in the matter; (b) the best that can be achieved under the circumstances, but that which has not yet been made actual.A.E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
What is Known
This card is placed above the inner cross formed by ⓵ and ⓶. Waite uses the position to characterize the Querent’s ideal, unrealized outcome in the matter.
My way of reading the position differs somewhat. For me, ⓷ indicates the Querent’s conscious understanding of the situation, what they think is important or needs to be done.
This is something they already know, but the position is useful as a way to identify the kind of thinking that dominates the querent’s mind. That is, this thought or focus may loom large enough to exclude other thoughts and possibilities.
Giving character to the querent’s thoughts in this way can also make it easier to understand their current perspective. If the card is at odds with ⓵ and ⓶, the querent may need a strong shift in thinking, while a harmonious relationship to the inner cross can reassure the querent in the validity of their current mindset.
④ This is Beneath It
[This card] shows the foundation or basis of the matter, that which has already passed into actuality and which the Significator has made his own.A.E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
What is Unknown
Placed beneath the inner cross, Waite contrasts this position with ⓷ by saying it stands for what the Querent has already accomplished, what already exists in reality, upon which the reading stands.
I also think of this position in contrast with ⓷, but I think of it as the unconscious understanding or the hidden foundation of the matter. This is the unrecognized factor underlying the querent’s perspective, something they haven’t realized or given proper significance. This is the missing element, essential to achieve a complete view of the situation, but invisible to the querent prior to the reading.
One way of uniting my definition of this position with Waite’s is to think of how what we have already accomplished is often taken for granted. We are prone to focus on our goals and shortcomings, always looking to the future and forgetting to recognize the significance of “that which has already passed into actuality.” In this way, what “the Significator has made his own” can be one and the same with the “unconscious foundation.”
⑤ This is Behind It
[This card] gives the influence that is just passed, or is now passing away.A.E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
In The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, Waite says that card ⑤ should be placed “on the side of the Significator from which he is looking.” That is, positions ⑤ and ⓺ may be reversed depending on the significator. The Hermit, for example, looks to the left side of the card, while Death faces right.
Be careful not to confuse the significator with ⓵, which will be covering the significator by the time you lay ⑤.
If the significator faces neither left nor right (as in Justice or The Magician, for example), the reader should choose which side will be “behind” and which will be “before” at the start of the reading. My default in this situation is to put ⑤ on the left, as in the diagram at the start of this article, because I think in terms of left being the past and right being the future, as in reading a book.
As for the meaning of the fifth card, Waite’s description says most of it. “The influence that is just passed, or is now passing away” is often the source of the current situation, and ⑤ can provide useful context.
Try to see how the other cards in the reading could be the result of ⑤, continuously reorienting your thinking as new cards are added.
⑥ This is Before It
[This card] shows the influence that is coming into action and will operate in the near future.A.E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
The Near Future
“Before” here means “in front.” See ⑤ This is Behind It to learn how positions ⑤ and ⓺ may be reversed.
Rather than showing the ultimate outcome of the situation, as in position ⑩, position ⓺ gives a more immediate prognosis. Depending on the card, I consider the “near future” to be anytime within the next week or two, but it could be as early as the next day.
In a way, ⓺ is more definite than ⑩ because of its temporal proximity; not much can be changed in so little time.
⓺ is the immediate outcome of the rest of the cards. Try to think how the cards up to this point could cause ⓺ to occur, and refer back to it (and every other card) as you draw ⑦ through ⑩, asking the same question.
… the SEVENTH CARD of the operation, signifies himself—that is, the Significator—whether person or thing—and shows its position or attitude in the circumstance.A.E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
Waite’s description of the first card of the staff has some overlap with my version of ⓷, which shows the querent’s conscious perspective. I therefore tend to think of ⑦ rather differently; I see it as the querent’s inner condition, their spiritual or emotional state during this period.
In contrast to ⑧, this card can also show how the querent as an individual feels about the matter, how they feel about things at a deeper and more solitary level, divorced from their environment and the people in their life.
The EIGHTH CARD signifies his house, that is, his environment and the tendencies at work therein which have an effect on the matter—for instance, his position in life, the influence of immediate friends, and so forth.A.E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
This card indicates how the querent’s environment relates to the matter. This card sometimes indicates an influence which is stronger than it should be, the attitude of the majority.
Considering any similarities or contrasts between cards ⑦ and ⑧ can give the reader an idea of how the querent’s understanding of the situation jives with that of their community. If the cards are in conflict, the community can be a source of stress for the querent, while harmonious cards indicate a source of support.
⑨ Hopes and Fears
The NINTH CARD gives his hopes or fears in the matter.A.E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
Some readers call this position The Key, the position which ties everything together, providing the method of resolving tensions and achieving fulfilling change.
I think of this position in that way as well, but I combine it with Waite’s label, “hopes and fears.” So much of our understanding of any matter in life depends on whatever hopes and fears we hold in that situation, enough so that I think identifying and considering those hopes and fears can actually provide the key to resolving that matter.
In this way, hopes and fears are the key to the reading. Try to understand how this card represents your hope or fear (or the querent’s) and how those feelings are related to the rest of the spread. Doing so allows you to step outside of yourself and observe the situation more objectively, to see yourself as someone moved by hopes and fears like anyone else, and transcend those feelings.
The TENTH is what will come, the final result, the culmination which is brought about by the influences shown by the other cards that have been turned up in the divination.A.E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
This card gives the outcome of the rest of the influences in the reading if things continue in the same direction they have been.
The tarot never gives a definite reading of the future, only a projected outcome according to the influences at the present. This position is most useful as a way to direct your thinking toward how the rest of the cards will interact as time moves forward, allowing you to identify what needs to be changed and what should be preserved.
This is a two-part article. In order to provide specific examples of each of these positions, I’ll do an actual reading for myself. I’ll update this article with the link here. I recommend having both articles open as you read the example, referring to the position breakdown as a roadmap since I won’t review the positions in depth.