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 I’ve heard people describe the Celtic Cross as “outdated”, as “unnecessary”, and (my personal favorite) as “basic”.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.
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.