In Defense of the Celtic Cross

Confession time: I don’t actually hate the Celtic Cross. In fact, I kind of like it.

This spread gets a lot of hate. It’s one of the most common spreads included in LWBs, but it’s bulky, complicated, and incredibly difficult for neophyte readers to master. It has a lot of moving parts, and that can be tough to keep track of when you’re still referring to the book to check whether the Three of Cups is the card that talks about celebration or the card that talks about family.

So it’s not really a surprise that most Tarot readers develop a distaste for the Celtic Cross early on in their careers. What is perhaps more surprising is that advanced readers maintain this distaste. I’ve heard people describe the Celtic Cross as “outdated”, as “unnecessary”, and (my personal favorite) as “basic”. Of course, this is usually coming from the same people who sneer at the RWS because it’s a “beginner’s” deck, so take these derisive comments with a pinch or two of salt.

Granted, some Tarot readers are just too cool to use spreads.* For those people, there’s nothing exceptionally onerous about the Celtic Cross; it’s just no more useful than any other arbitrary spread of the cards. Fine. I can accept that. Even though I’m a hard-core spread-based reader (and that will come as no surprise to followers of this blog), I grudgingly acknowledge that people have myriad reading styles and that some readers can produce wonderful results without determining in advance which card represents which aspect of a situation.

But there are other readers who do use spreads and who object specifically to the use of the Celtic Cross. And I don’t entirely understand why.

Celtic Cross
A Celtic Cross reading I did for myself today with the Ostara Tarot (deck review forthcoming). This is the reading that inspired this post.

Don’t get me wrong. The Celtic Cross is not the most elegant spread in the world. It has a couple of redundancies, for one thing; the distinction between “near future” and “distant future” is sometimes helpful but often unwieldy, and many a reader has head-desked in frustration when trying to understand the nuances in meaning between the “crowning” card and the cards at the bottom of the staff on the right-hand side of the spread.**

But there are also a lot of good things about this spread. It has a lot of the key elements that make up just about any good Tarot spread. There’s a card to represent the querent and a card to represent the problem. There are three cards in horizontal succession, making up a past-present-future mini-reading. There are three cards in vertical succession, exploring the problem on three psychological levels (subconscious-conscious-superconscious). There’s a compelling geometric shape, which affords the reader the opportunity to explore visual cues in how the figures in the cards interact with each other. (“The Knight of Wands, here, is facing the High Priestess, over here…”)

And I would argue (although there are certainly people who will disagree with me on this point) that the Celtic Cross has a good number of cards to it. Ten is a nice, round number. It’s enough cards for meaningful patterns to emerge (“You have five Wands cards, so I’m seeing a lot of…”) without becoming too overwrought. As a Tarot reader who relies heavily on finding patterns in a spread, I tend to gravitate towards spreads of ten to twelve cards, although I will lay out fewer cards in a situation where I think a querent’s question is unusually straightforward.

I think the Celtic Cross actually has a lot going for it. In fact, it’s my go-to spread for situations where a querent sits down with me and just wants a reading, without offering a specific problem of question. I find that this spread has a lot of material that allows me, as a reader, to start with a general theme (“This card is the Star, and it represents the issue at hand”) and work my way inwards towards an analysis of a specific problem in the querent’s life. It allows me to situate that problem with a boatload of contextual information. And as readers of this blog will know, as far as my reading style is concerned, context is king.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s something to be said for simplicity. I used to read for the Free Tarot Network and the Free Reading Network, which only offer one-card and three-card readings, respectively. And frankly, with most of the questions I received, more than one card wasn’t necessary.*** Nevertheless, there’s a lot to work with in the Celtic Cross. In situations where you have a complicated issue and want to look at it from all sides–or where you don’t really know what you want to talk about, and you need the deck to guide you towards a topic–this spread can be incredibly useful.


*”Oh, I just draw three cards and let my intuition tell me which position means what.” Well, isn’t that just peachy for you, Madame Monika Von Mystika.

**My own way of reading the spread: the crown is the querent’s analysis of the situation (i.e. of the core issue represented by the central cross). The two cards at the bottom of the staff divide that analysis into two: the bottom-most is inward-looking (i.e. the querent’s relationship to herself), and the one directly above it is outward-looking (i.e. the querent’s relationship to her environment). But the distinction is fine-grained, to the point that many people would justifiably argue that there’s no good reason to have three separate cards.

***Then again, there’s probably a bit of a selection effect at work, because the clients you get for a free reading service are often the ones who don’t take Tarot seriously enough to think it’s worth a paid reading.

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8 thoughts on “In Defense of the Celtic Cross

  1. My biggest criticisms of the Celtic Cross are that I feel like it has some redundant positions, but also that it’s not as specific as I want it to be. Maybe it’s just the clients I attract or the sort of client base that I’ve accumulated, but the bulk of my clients are interested in precise, extended forecasts. Even with the past / present / near future / final outcome positions in the arrangement, I often find myself laying down more detailed forecasts to either replace or supplement the Celtic Cross. And despite my complaints with the Celtic Cross, I’m only about 63% critical of it – the other 37% of me in favor appreciates its quiet elegance and potential for subtlety.

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    1. Those are definitely legitimate issues to have with the Celtic Cross. It’s far from perfect, and I can see why a lot of clients wouldn’t love it–especially repeat clients. Generally speaking, this is a spread I break out for first-timers who don’t know anything about the Tarot and don’t have a specific question in mind. For that, I find it works pretty well.

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  2. I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here, both pros and cons. I also like this spread, and was always confused by the torrents of hatred it seems to garner in online Tarot forums considering just how widespread its use really is. Part of me just thinks it’s the hipster-anti-mainstream attitude that many people cling to in so many aspects of entertainment, and not just Tarot, as if the energy required to vociferously deride something is better spent than if it were geared towards quiet enjoyment of something else.

    I don’t necessarily think the Celtic Cross should be the typical LWB spread that it is, since it clearly isn’t for everyone, least of all the beginner. But I’m in no position to offer an alternative, and a LWB without some sort of spread seems to defeat half the purpose of an LWB.

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  3. I am surprised to hear that this spread gets a lot of detractors (but I am rather out of the loop when it comes to Tarot forums and such, I haven’t been one to frequent them). It was the first spread that I learned to use and, if anything, I think it taught me to appreciate quickly the idea of looking at patterns and correspondences in the spread as a whole, rather than just focusing on each card as an individual unit. The more I’d study a layout, the more I could distinguish the relationships which form a richer tapestry.

    I don’t necessarily think any of the positions in it are entirely redundant; just not always necessary to a given reading. For example, sometimes those cards which relate to the internal aspect might be less useful when reading for another person than they are when I’m using it for something more introspective. On the other hand, if I’m reading for someone “blind” (no idea what their question is), then I’ve found this spread gives me a really nice mixture of telling me what’s going on inside them, either psychologically or with their life in general, which helps give me some context and therefore make better sense of those “fortune telling” cards for the future possibilities.

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  4. I tend to use a mix of larger spreads that I tweak differently each time I sit down with them, smaller spreads that sort of take shape as I’m reading, and freeform reading with no spread (Mssr von Mystika it is), so I haven’t done a reading with the Celtic Cross in a long, long time. This post inspired me to use it again, so I pulled out one of my decks for the month and the spread sang like I don’t remember it ever doing before. I’m glad you wrote it!

    Looking around at a few different sources to refresh myself, I think I prefer Waite’s simple, concise take on the spread the most. I don’t remember how I used to try it (I think I probably didn’t even know there were multiple variants), but maybe that was a factor. That and having more experience – I could never imagine calling the Celtic Cross basic.

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    1. I tip my hat to you, Mssr von Mystika! And I’m glad to hear you found some redemption for the Celtic Cross. I honestly can’t remember whose version I use. Maybe Eden Gray’s? I’d have to double check to be sure.

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