Briefly, here’s a page with the story of how I got started reading Tarot, the spreads I’ve invented, and other random thoughts I’ve been collecting about divination and archetypes and so on. I’ll add more as there becomes more to add…
The Tarot Card images that appear on this page are from the Vertigo Tarot, art by Dave McKean, Copyright 1995 DC Comics

How I Got Started In Tarot

The Five of Cups
I only started reading Tarot in 1995 or so, when a friend gave me a deck for my birthday. I had always been intrigued by the idea of the Tarot, and as a writer have always been interested in archetypal characters and the way plot and story arises from the interactions of archetypes. But most Tarot decks I looked at throughout my life did not “grab” me. It was one of those things I just “didn’t get.” The cards looked pretty, but not like a tool I could use.

I don’t have a good way of describing why other decks seemed so lifeless to me, so impossible to connect with real life, other than to say they didn’t look like my worldview. I don’t mean the books I looked in didn’t match my philosophy–it was that the pictures didn’t look like they represented anything that I could connect with my experience or the way I saw the human condition. Since I only saw them as pretty art, I didn’t even really think of them as something that *could* help a writer (or any person) to access their subconscious. And yet, I did see descriptions by other people that seemed to say that the cards could be used that way. I thought it would be neat if that worked, like a Rorschach blot, maybe? But I was a skeptic, because the pictures could have been a pile of Hallmark greeting cards for all I knew.
But then I saw the Vertigo deck, and I suddenly “got it.” Without getting too too philosophical, I would say that it was crucial to me that aesthetically the cards match the way I see the world–because after all, even the most hardened skeptic can agree that aesthetics is something beyond quantitative measure, something that exists in a part of human perception beyond mere practical, rational thought. And for me, that’s what I’d hoped the Tarot could be: a tool to access that level of perception. Other decks wouldn’t work for me because they didn’t fit my aesthetic sense, and my aesthetic sense is necessary for that perception and, not coincidentally, necessary for the act of writing or storytelling.

I knew when I was a very young girl that I was put on Earth to be a writer, and I’ve spent my life developing that craft. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that it was about the time I began to feel some mastery for fiction writing that I got interested in Tarot again. The deck I received as a gift was The Vertigo Tarot, with art by Dave McKean (who is known for doing the Sandman comic covers, among many other things), and an accompanying book by sf/f and comics writer Rachel Pollock, who also has written a bunch of other books on Tarot. (My copy of the book is even signed by Neil Gaiman, who wrote the introduction. Though I have many books by him, it’s the only book of Neil’s I have bothered to get signed.) The Vertigo cards are very dark, but very voluptuous, like images out of a dream. The Cups flow with ripples of water, the Wands flicker with flames. I had at last found a deck that aesthetically matched me. Not only that, but as I read the book, I found it a very good fit for my experience, my views on sexuality, life, relationships, creativity, etc. (I’ve since read some other books on Tarot whose interpretations just don’t work for me at all–the Vertigo deck agrees with me and my intuitions about people and events better.)

The King of Wands I began doing three card readings since the book suggested them as a starting place. Past, Present, Future. Problem, Self, Solution. Situation, Choice 1, Choice 2. Him, Me, Us. I got very comfortable with these. Three points is the minimum needed in geometry to determine a plane. Three legs to make a table stand. Three parts is what it takes to make a story, too: beginning, middle, end. Or, Precipitating Act, Conflict/Struggle, Resolution. I have written stories now by drawing three cards and seeing what they suggest. (See the story “Three of Cups,” which appeared in 1998 in The Mammoth Book of New Erotica, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, and also appeared in my own collection of erotic fiction, Black Feathers.) After all, if writing is uncovering what is in my subconscious, Tarot is an excellent tool for probing there.

Two Paths In a Wood

(to paraphrase Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”)

I came up with this spread, which I’ve also called The Storyteller Spread, as a way of expanding the three card story into a choice. I had been using the Celtic Cross and the Seven Card Horseshoe Spread and had found them, well, wishy washy. Rather than going to the cards to see what the situation is, which those spreads seem good for, I usually go to the cards to ask a question and have already boiled my situation down to a choice of some kind. Such as, should I get into a relationship with this person, or not? Should I get a new job, or try to change the old one?
The Two of Swords
Much of the advice I had received up to that point about doing readings had warned me that what my cards told me might seem a bit ambiguous at times, so I was somewhat shocked to find that every time I did a reading the answer seemed very clear, focused, and unequivocal. (In fact, it was a bit scary at first.) With the Celtic Cross and Seven Card Horseshoe spreads, and I felt like the cards were saying “Well, duh,” every time, pointing out the obvious. That is, these spreads seemed good for describing my situation very well, but they did not necessarily help me choose what to do next. I tend to know exactly what kind of trouble I am in when I am in it, so those spreads were not generally that revelatory.

What if, I thought, I could design a spread that was made for making choices? Remove ambiguity to some degree by spelling out the two main options, and then look at what they are and how they turn out. If life is a story, can we not see how the draft of the next chapter might go if we chose A rather than B? Oh my, life as a choose your own adventure novel. But well, I think in a fulfilled life, one does choose one’s own adventure.

Of course, the amusing thing is that the Storyteller’s Spread, taking on the shape of the horns of a dilemma, actually is the biggest “Well Duh!” of all, because it is so, well, pointed. (Pun intended.)
diagram here Looking at the diagram you’ll see there is a central card, with two paths leading off from it.
The spread then starts with that central card (1), which represents the Querent in most cases. Other times, since this is a story we’re telling, card 1 can be the precipitating event, the “opening scene.” Say, for example, I drew the Tower for this card, I would be starting from a point of smashing my previous assumptions. From there, the two paths would be either to try to re-establish those same assumptions, perhaps in modified form, or to have them thrown completely out the window and replaced with new ones.

I then deal three cards in succession, diagonally, (2), (3), and (4), to the Right side. This I call The Right Hand Path, and it represents the direction things are generally going, if no drastic changes are made. Then I deal three cards off to the left, (5), (6), (7), the Left Hand Path, the path of change. Then right in the middle I put (8)–the Third Option, because it is part of my worldview also that if you split everything into two opposites you’ll miss a lot of the richness and opportunity of life. Not everything divides neatly into man/woman, black/white, good/evil, etc… and sometimes a solution eludes us exactly because we forget there may be a completely different dimension to take or alternative choice.

The Ace Of Pentacles Then I look at the cards. The groups of three, (2-3-4) and (5-6-7) can be interpreted in different ways depending on what the cards are that came up. Each trio is a story, and it is up to the reader to decipher what. The three cards are usually some sort of a progression, either of events, obstacles to overcome, or of states of being. If we had, say, three person cards, Trumps and/or court cards, it could represent who we are, and who we must become. Sometimes a person is part of the choice, e.g. should I begin a relationship with this person? That person, then, may appear in the spread. I don’t try to force the cards–I look at them and then see what they suggest. The third card in each group, (numbers 4 and 7), generally represent the outcome or ending of each story, either who we have become or the result of the action.

Also, I should clarify that if you are getting ready to make a big change–you are psyched to quit your job, say, then the Right Hand Path would represent that change which you are headed for. The Left Hand Path, normally called the Path of Change, might then call for a reversal of course, in order to stay with the job. The change there would be in your attitude and expectations, not in the job itself.

For this spread to work well, you need a well-formed question, with an either/or kind of answer, or two well-defined choices. Should I go to visit my parents now, or should I wait until Thanksgiving? (The third option might be to do both, or neither, or to get them to come visit you… see what the cards say.)
The Ten of Pentacles
I’ve also used this once or twice in hindsight, and used the Right Hand Path to represent the way things went, and the Left to be What Could Have Been. I haven’t done this often–maybe because I’ve had little to regret in my life thus far–but I think I could learn some things about myself and mistakes I have made in the past.
The only time this spread has failed me was when I tried to do a reading for my cat. I think that maybe cats cannot be Querents. Cats exist in a different plane of spacetime than we do and the cards don’t apply to them, maybe. Or maybe the cards were trying to tell me that using Tarot to decide whether to keep a stray cat or pass her on to someone else was not a good use of the cards. (We kept the cat and she has become very lovely. As of this writing she is 15 years old in the year 2010.)

Some other notes: I had considered placing card 8 under card 1, to show it as a third path leading away from the starting point, but then it looked like a wishbone. And although a Wishbone Spread would have been a nice name, the wishbone itself already has other strong connotations for luck and divination, and I didn’t want to mess with that.

Some issues don’t feel as though they need so many cards, but they do need more than just the three card Situation/Choice 1, Choice 2, in which case I would make each path only two cards, dealing 1 to the center, then 2 and 3 up the right, and 4 and 5 on the left. Or maybe this is an epic chapter of your life. You could deal four card branches instead of three. Or you could even have another pair of branches from the end of each, a Tarot Decision Tree.
It may be as I use this spread more, I’ll come to recognize more patterns as to what things the cards 2, 3, 5, and 6 should stand for, but right now I don’t feel the need to define them further. The beauty of this spread is that although the two-path structure seems unambiguous and the picture of simplicity, these not-strictly defined cards lend a lot of flexibility and richness of interpretation to it.

FYI, the poem that has always stuck with me since reading a bunch of Robert Frost as a youngster, now in the public domain:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
— Robert Frost

Alex Kimble’s Finder’s Spread

In 2010 I wrote the third installment in my Magic University series of urban fantasy books. The premise is a college freshman named Kyle Wadsworth (distantly related to the poet Longfellow) arrives at Harvard only to discover he is magical and actually attending the hidden magical university inside Harvard.

In book three, while trying to find an answer to his woes, his friend Alex does a reading for him. Kyle in particular is trying to find a missing person (who doesn’t want to be found). Alex claims to make up a spread on the spot. In fact, I made up this spread while writing the scene, including laying out the cards and writing out what I drew for the characters. It came out uncannily accurate to the situation in the book, so I kept it as is for the scene.

Here’s the part of the scene that describes the spread:

“Let’s just do a Finder’s Spread and see what comes up,” Alex said.
“What’s a Finder’s Spread? I haven’t heard of that one.”
“Shush. I just made it up. Move over.” Alex sat cross-legged on one end of the bed and Kyle faced him. The gray and white striped mattress was discolored in spots.
Kyle cut the cards one last time. “Okay, now what?”
“Put one card in the middle. That’s what you’re looking for.”
“But I know what I’m looking for…”
“Just do it.”
“Okay.” Kyle placed a card face down.
“Now, the four points of the compass around it. One on top of it. Slip one under it. And then set one aside.”
“And these stand for what?”
“The one on top of it is what’s hiding it most, and the thing under it is what you’re really going to find under it all, obviously. And the four points are just clues, directions, possibly people who are helping him to hide. And the card off to the side is always the reminder. What are we forgetting? So, okay, turn the main card over.”

What was interesting is that the four points of the compass didn’t end up being “direction” in a geographic sense, but instead in telling a story in the order they were placed down, but I think it would depend on the situation what they stood for.

Divination In General

I studied some Chinese history in college and one of the few things that stuck with me from the massive textbook on the history of China’s civilization was a bit about the way the ancient emperors did their divination, and where the I Ching came from. The earliest known examples we have of Chinese writing are inscribed on tortoise shells, which did not deteriorate over the thousands of years since they were made to survive today. The emperors and their wise men went about their divination in a very scientific and methodical way. If, they presumed, all things in life and on Earth were connected together and made of essentially the same stuff (atoms, I suppose we’d say today…), then it was reasonable to assume that one could learn something about one part of the universe by studying a different part of it. All things happen because of the way things are, to some extent, all things are part of a great pattern.

Somehow they decided that they could augur the future by cracking the tortoise shells by pressing hot rocks against them, and reading the cracks. They would inscribe the question on the shell, crack it, then make their prediction based on the look of the cracks. Then–and this is the scientific part–they would wait and see the outcome of the question (e.g. are we favored to win the battle tomorrow?) and record that also onto the tortoise shell to see if their prediction was accurate. In this way they hoped to get better at interpreting the cracks over time.

Somehow–it’s unclear how–the method of augury changed from the cracking of the tortoise shell to the breaking of a bunch of yarrow sticks. This is what was codified into the I Ching, the patterns of broken and unbroken stripes. The wise men determined that rather than looking at the infinite possibilities in the cracked shell, or even in a large bundle of broken sticks, they could codify the possibilities into finite categories, based on their experience with history. These categories were determined by the groupings of the sticks into bundles of three… look, if you want a description of the I Ching, I’m sure there are many more web pages about that. If you look at a Korean flag, you’ll see four combinations of the three broken and whole sticks. All three whole, all three broken, middle stick broken, and middle stick whole are four of the eight possible combinations of three. These recombine into groups of six sticks total, and each of the resulting 128 combinations carries a meaning.

Anyway, what impressed me about this was that, before they had much in the way of technology, the wise men started with a premise and then set about scientifically to prove it.
So, what is divination? If you won’t accept that premise that the wise men had, which is that because all things are connected the sticks won’t actually break randomly but will break in some ordered way that corresponds to the universe we are trying to understand, you can still look at a form of divination like Tarot reading as basically equivalent to the revelations one can get through psychotherapy.

When I was going through a rough period of my life, I was seeing a therapist, and I was realizing all kinds of things about myself, mostly through the act of trying to explain them to someone else–especially someone who didn’t have a vested interest in me or who didn’t know all my friends and family. To say my therapist solved my problems, though, is really not correct. All she did, basically, was sit there and look weepy and stricken. As such, I tried harder and harder to figure out my problems and tell my story to her in the most clear fashion, thereby revealing to myself what my problems were and what I was going to do about them. Once in a while she did offer some advice–at the very end of a session she might say something like “I think you need to think more about yourself and less about others” or “You say you might get involved in that, but it sounds like you are already involved.” One sentence, once in a while, was what she gave me. But it was effective therapy. Having that time with her every two weeks gave me the opportunity to focus my thoughts on my troubles and sort them out. She didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.

Thing is, we often know things that we don’t want to accept, or which we ignore, or which we deny. Therapy is an opportunity to look at those things and realize they can’t be ignored.
The Tarot is a tool for showing ourselves those things, too. We start looking at the cards and fitting the puzzle of the cards into our own situations. Oh, there’s my mother, and here, this is my hangup about food, and if only I could… etc. etc.

Part of the reason the Tarot “works” is because it is about people and the kinds of relationships people form, and the kind of events that tend to come about as a result of people’s actions and emotions. What’s compelling about the Tarot is that for several hundred years, at least, people have been trying to codify those patterns of human behavior and life into the symbolism of the cards. History repeats itself, so even if you don’t believe you’re seeing the future in the cards, if you see the past, what chance is there that it will happen again?

I don’t believe angels shuffle my cards or anything like that. But I do believe in “divination” in the sense that I have outlined here. If my therapist could “cure” me by doing essentially nothing, then surely a bunch of stories about human nature can lend insight to a situation or problem. The cards focus our thoughts on the situation. And beyond that, who knows, maybe everything really is connected and looking at one piece of the world can lead us to answers about another part of it. Until we can explain the mystery that is consciousness adequately (yes, my degree is in cognitive science), modern science clearly has a long ways to go in certain areas, and maybe our understanding of those connections is one of them.


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  2. Dear Cecilia,
    Can you give me more insight as to how you’d use this spread for writing your characters in a fantasy setting?
    Thank you,

    1. Hi John! First, any spread can be used to get to know a fictional person just as easily as a real-life person, and the “path not taken” spread in particular can be used to explore decision-points in a story plot the same way you would with a real-life person trying to make a decision. If the plot has the character trying to decide whether to go through the mines of Moria or climb over the mountains, and you the author haven’t decided, or are now considering whether you should have taken the other way, the spread lets you explore what you might find if you went down the other path.

  3. Just found this as a result of your announcement of the upcoming Kickstarter.
    Your description of meeting the Vertigo Tarot so well describes my relationship to the Tarot I use, that I had to speak up.
    I have collected different Tarot decks for years. The I Ching worked SO WELL for me I wasn’t interested in the Tarot for divination, just for the beauty of the various interpretations within an archetypal template. Still, I did try each new one, at least briefly. Then I found one that spoke to me and it was exactly as you describe above. HOW they look is crucial.
    That’s all, really. Just want to thank you for the unexpected validation of my own experience. I keep looking at every new Tarot I come across. Now I will be seeking out the Vertigo deck actively, just out of curiosity.

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