Reading With Missing Cards

Let’s talk about negative space. In any Tarot reading, the cards provide you with a certain amount of information that enables you, as the reader, to infer a narrative and connect that narrative back to your querent’s situation. Learning how to read Tarot is about being able to maximize that information–to get the most out of a given set of cards. Book-learning keywords, intuitive symbol-reading, astrological correspondences, elemental dignities, numerology, and every other Tarot reading technique are all ways of getting more and more information out of the exact same spread of cards. Learning to read Tarot with multiple techniques allows a reader to piece together a more coherent, more consistent story.

Now, here’s a question for you: What about the information that’s not there? Sometimes, the cards that don’t show up in a spread can tell us just as much as the cards that do.

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The classical example of this is a relationship reading. Monica comes in for a reading and says she’s just met a great guy, she’s totally infatuated with him, and (although she doesn’t want to rush things) she thinks he might be the one. You turn up the cards, and there is not a single Cup in the entire ten-card spread. Statistically, this is not unheard of; there’s about a 12% chance that a given suit of the Minor Arcana will be entirely absent from any ten-card reading. Nevertheless, this absence is noteworthy. It’s especially noteworthy to have a dearth of Cups in a reading about love.

What does our alliterative Cupless Celtic Cross tell us about Monica and her new beau? Well, for one thing, it tells us that all is not as it seems. She may say she’s head-over-heels, but maybe she’s not being entirely honest in representing herself. Maybe she wants to feel like it’s love, but her motivations are more Swordsy (she thinks he’s a good match), Wandsy (the sex is great), or Pentaclish (she wants the stability of a long-term relationship). Or maybe her feelings are what she says they are, but he doesn’t feel the same way about her. Regardless of what it signifies, the lack of Cups can give a reader pause. It’s a reason to push deeper and look for complexity that the reading might not otherwise have had.

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There are other, cooler ways to use missing cards to fill in information in a reading. For example, let’s say that in the same Celtic Cross reading for Monica, you draw the Four, Five, Six, and Eight of Wands. They don’t necessarily have to be grouped all together; maybe the Four is in the “hopes and fears” position, the Five is in the “recent past”, and so on. The point is that all of these cards show up in the same reading.

Now, I ask you: What’s missing?

This is a technique I use quite a lot in my Tarot reading practice. We have a straight of cards from the same suit, but that straight is interrupted by one card: the Seven of Wands. The missing Seven is a glaring absence that breaks up the energy of the other Wands in the spread.

And that tells us something else about Monica’s relationship: there may be a lot of good things going for it, but as it stands right now, it’s unlikely to last. It doesn’t have the perseverance and sticktoitutde of the Seven of Wands. The energy of this particular card is conspicuously lacking from the relationship as a whole, and if she wants her relationship to become the real deal, she needs to invest in building a stronger sense of commitment and a willingness to stay with it even when things get hard.

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One of these things is not like the others…

I’m always so excited to read with the missing card in a run. It gives me an opportunity to see not only what’s there, but also what is lacking. It shows me what a querent needs to work to bring into her situation, and that insight is vital.

Another way to read with negative space: Let’s say that in Monica’s reading, we also draw the Two of Pentacles, Two of Swords, and Two of Wands. I ask you again the question of the day. What’s missing?

(The answer, my dear and clever reader, is, of course, the Two of Cups.*)

Or yet another option. Let’s say you have a run of cards, but they’re all different suits. For example, the Ten of Cups, the Page of Pentacles, and the Queen of Swords. The missing card here would be the Knight of Wands.

And of course, you can do the same thing with the Major Arcana, as well. If you have Justice, the Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, and the Star, but you’re missing the Devil, that can be significant. If you have the Five of Wands, Six of Cups, the Chariot, and the Nine of Pentacles, the Chariot (which, remember, is Key VII of the Majors) acts as a Seven and makes the missing Eight of Swords more significant.

And so on, and so forth. I feel like I’ve bombarded you with examples aplenty, and you understand the idea of what I’m driving at. This is, in my opinion, one of the most important techniques for an experienced Tarot reader to have under her belt, and it’s probably the first “advanced” technique that I learned. It can add such beautiful layers of complexity to any Tarot reading.

Do you use this technique already? Is it a new idea for you? Do you like it, dislike it, or want to try it? As always, I would love to hear what you think.


*Geez. Poor Monica. I know she’s fictional and all, and I’m making up the spread to suit my needs for the purposes of this blog post, but her relationship reading is not encouraging.

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One thought on “Reading With Missing Cards

  1. As a newbie that is unsure of Tarot meanings at times, I don’t usually do large spreads and instead pull 1-3 cards for most of my readings. But I’ll keep this in mind as I get more confident and use more cards and techniques. Thank you for all of the examples of how it works in practice.

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