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How to Deal or Spread Tarot Cards

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I'm a professional tarot reader with 21 years of experience. For me, tarot is a fascinating system that reflects all human life.

Tarot spread (The Gilded Tarot)

Tarot spread (The Gilded Tarot)

Tarot Basics

One of the most important aspects of a tarot reading is the laying down of the cards. Most readers will use a certain pattern or spread. Each position in the spread has its own meaning which modifies the interpretation of the card—it adds another layer of information to help answer the question. This article offers guidance on preparing to read, choosing which spread to use and how to use it to deepen your readings.

It is important to remember that there is no one 'right way' to perform a tarot reading. Your own style will develop with time and practice.

How to Formulate a Question in Tarot

Before you start, you and your client or 'querent' should discuss the question they wish to ask. You need to be sure that you understand what they are asking. The best kind of questions to ask the tarot are open-ended ones, in other words, questions that cannot be answered by a simple 'yes' or 'no'. An example might be that your client has asked if her former lover will return. That could be answered with a yes or no, so think about what would be most useful to her. How about “What does xxx need to know about her relationship with yyy?”. That covers everything, including whether or not he wants to resume their courtship.

Three-Card Spread

Three-Card Spread

What to Do Before Laying Out the Tarot Cards

  • Set up the space for the reading. Many readers light a candle and lay out a silk or woolen cloth. Others dispense with accoutrements and simply ensure the surface of the table or desk is clean. It is always worth making a quick mental blessing requesting insights and clarity.
  • If you are reading for another person, have them sit next to you, rather than opposite. This is so you can both see the cards from the same direction. Crucial if you are using reversed (upside-down) cards.
  • Quieten your mind and begin shuffling the cards. Focus on the person you are reading for. Visualize making a mental connection with them. I always use the image of a web of blue lightning connecting me to my client. Very useful if they are elsewhere in the world.
  • Your method of shuffling is completely up to you. If the deck is large and your hands are small, just make piles of cards and pick them up in random order. Turn the piles or portions of the deck now and then if using reversals. If you are a complete beginner, try to ensure all the cards are upright—leave the reversals until later.

Shuffling, Cutting and Dealing the Tarot Cards by Popa Don

How to Ask the Tarot a Question

When you are done with the shuffling, hold the cards between both hands, thinking about the question; feel the transference of energy.

Ask the querent to cut the cards with their left hand, take the bottom pile and place on the top. Look at the card at the bottom of the deck and make a mental note of it. I find that this card can be enlightening as to the motives of the questioner. You don't have to show them or discuss it—this is information for you. If it is particularly relevant to the question, then I might point it out to them at the end of the reading.

Start turning the cards from the top, placing them on the table in the spread you have decided on.

How to Choose a Spread

It is a good idea to have a small collection of spreads to choose from. The one you choose depends on how long the reading is to be, the question and your personal preference.

For quick readings, you can use a single card. Very valuable if you are reading for many people or offering free tarot readings from a website. This single card, by its nature, does not have an allocated position—use it to answer the question in a straightforward manner.

Two card readings are extremely useful and you can allocate positions. Card one might be 'atmosphere surrounding xxx', while card two could be 'help or hindrances'. Or how about any of the following combinations?

  • Him/her
  • Situation/solution
  • If I take this path/if I take this other path
  • Why did that happen?/What can I learn from it?

You get the idea. Just be sure you are clear in your mind before you begin shuffling.

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Read More From Exemplore

There are any number of predefined spreads available. One of my well-thumbed resources is Power Tarot by Trish MacGregor and Phyllis Vega. It contains 100 spreads as well as a large section on tarot interpretations when applied to different aspects of life. I highly recommend it.

Large Spreads

Using a greater number of cards can give a very in-depth reading. However, I would caution the absolute beginner, as a big spread can be overwhelming, and it is tempting to over-simplify. All the cards in a spread influence each other and this should be taken into account. A small spread is like a tinkling melody, whereas a large one is like a full orchestral symphony.

Having said that, the 10-card Celtic Cross is everything you need for a full, comprehensive reading. I think most readers adapt it slightly to their own style, and generally, it is the most used, after the ubiquitous three-card 'past, present and future'.

There are many books and websites which explain and discuss the Celtic Cross spread. I will list one or two in the resources section at the end.

Three of Swords, The Emperor and Nine of Swords

Three of Swords, The Emperor and Nine of Swords

Tarot Spread Q&A

What are important aspects to focus on when asking a question of the tarot?

Reasons, timing, outcome, decision, clarity . . . no point having past, present and future, if the question is about deciding where to go on vacation.

Why should the questioner cut the deck with their left hand?

The left hand is connected with intuition and the subconscious. It is also, in right-handed, people, governed by the right hemisphere of the brain which is considered to be the intuitive, spatial, artistic side. At this point in the reading, it is good to lay logic aside for the moment.

Which way should I lay tarot cards?

It's up to you. I prefer to turn the cards from the top of the deck using a sideways flip so that the card faces upwards. I like to see the big picture, as it were. Other readers prefer to place the cards face down and turn them over one by one as they progress through the reading.

What is a spread?

A layout, a pattern in which the position affects the interpretation of the card placed there.

What spreads are best?

Any that work for you. One card may well give you a complete answer to the question. 10 or more cards can give a reading that will be reflected in events occurring over the next 12 months or more.

Can I make up my own spreads?

Yes, yes and thrice yes! Devise your own spread to reflect the question.

Can I use no spread at all?

Yes, again. Lay out the cards in a row with no assigned position and see how they dictate your answer. You may immediately recognize that they are showing the unfolding of a situation over time. Or it will be obvious that they are reflecting the personality traits of the subject/s of the reading. All this will come with experience.

What if the person I'm reading for isn't with me?

Not a problem. Tarot works very well for distant readings.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: When laying out a spread of tarot cards, does the querent draw from the top of the deck, or can they pick any card from anywhere in the deck?

Answer: It's your choice completely. I shuffle and cut, then turn from the top. If you prefer, you can fan the cards onto a table and ask your client to pull them. There are not hard and fast rules. It's whatever is most comfortable to you. The right cards will turn up.

Question: If I am doing a spread for a querent and they already cut the deck, do I just lay down the cards accordingly? Or do I have to shuffle the cards and ask the querent to cut the deck for each question asked?

Answer: You do it in whatever way works best for you. Personally, I shuffle the cards thoroughly for each new question/spread, let them cut the deck, place bottom pile on top one and then deal from there.

Question: For questions that have to do with another person, would you need to only use the court cards solely for that question?

Answer: It depends entirely on the question. If you are asking 'who?' then , using only the court cards may be useful. However, I would be wary about narrowing it down too much.

You could choose a court card to represent that person (called a significator). You also choose one to represent yourself. Then use the whole deck.

It definitely all depends on the question and situation.

Question: What do three Jacks in a seven card spread mean?

Answer: It means that the energy of the Jack/Knight/Knave is very intense in the situation. Jacks are extremely action orientated. I'm unable to be more precise because I don't know what your question or situation is.

Question: Can I take cards out of the deck?

Answer: When you deal the cards, you are taking them out of the deck. It's up to you whether you shuffle and deal them off the top, the bottom, or from within.

Question: What is the name of a tarot spread using six rows of six cards?

Answer: I'd call it complicated. I've checked my tarot books and am unable to find such a spread. You could create your own and then it would depend on why you wanted to do a 36 card tarot reading. It might be astrological, a year-long reading - with three cards for each month, a three-year reading - with one card for each month. Or you might want some kind of inner journey reading.

Question: When there is a side facing card in a spread, the Druid's Cross for example, which direction would be reversed?

Answer: It is the reader's individual choice. Once you have decided, be consistent. For me, reversed is when the head of the figure/top of the card is pointing to my right.

Question: When doing a reading for someone else, how do you place/form the deck for the person who chooses their card? Do you just lay all the cards out or do you put them in groups?

Answer: You do it how it works for you. When I do my readings, I have my client sitting to my left. I shuffle the deck and I let them cut the cards with their left hand. Then I lay out the spread in front of us so we can both see the cards.

Question: When reading the future is it possible for the tarot spread to become obscured the further along you go?

Answer: Yes, because in every moment there are choices, so all the cards can really do is give you an idea of the direction given current circumstances. A psychic reader would be able to be more accurate, but a reader like me, who relies on the meanings of the cards and intuition is unable to be pinpoint accurate.

Question: Can I divide the tarot deck between Major Arcana and Minor depending on the spread I’m using?

Answer: Yes, if you have devised such a spread or are following one that suggests it.

Question: If you have been told that you have natural ability and intuition, how can you find a mentor to expedite abilities? Do you even need a mentor?

Answer: You can look for a mentor in any reputable tarot organization; in the US, it is the ATA (American Tarot Association) in the UK (or anywhere else), it is TABI (Tarot Association of the British Isles).

But, know that any other person, however experienced, has their own way of looking at the world, and consequentially how they read the cards.

Personally speaking, your best mentors are the people you read for. They are the ones who give you practice, challenge your assumptions and question your interpretations. Again, you can do free readings at either of the two organizations mentioned above.

Question: Do left-handed people hold tarot cards in their right hand when attuning to the cards?

Answer: It's down to personal preference. There is no right or wrong way. I'm right-handed, so my connection is made while shuffling with two hands. I cut with the left hand because the left is thought to be the receiving (inward) hand, while the right is the giving (outward) hand.

Question: When shuffling cards for tarot, if any fall out what do I do?

Answer: Make a note of them. Perhaps they answered your question already?

Question: When reading someone's cards is it ok to read the cards for a couple or group of people rather then reading them individually?

Answer: If you want to and are able to, sure. However, the energies are going to be all over the place so it won't be easy.

Question: What does it mean when a tarot card is in a horizontal position above one in a vertical position?

Answer: It depends on the position meaning assigned by the reader. For example, you could lay down a card to represent your current life situation, then you could lay a second card horizontally above to indicate what is opposing or oppressing.

If you are referring to the center two cards in the Celtic Cross spread, it means the same thing. The first card represents the heart of the situation and the crossing card represents what helps or hinders the seeker.

Question: Which carries more weight in a Tarot spread, the sequence number of a card or where the card was placed?

Answer: The card itself carries more weight than its position. So suit and number, modified by position. There may well be no position allocated if it's a one-card reading or a general spread.

Question: What are reversed meanings in tarot, and how are they used?

Answer: Many tarot readers use a mix of upright cards and reversed (upside down as you are looking at them). They deliberately shuffle the cards in order to mix up their orientation. Personally, I think the 78 cards in the upright position give plenty of information so I rarely use reversals. All cards have interpretations that progress on a scale from positive to negative, and a good reader is able to discern which aspect of the card is applicable.

You can find more information on reversed cards and their meanings here:

Question: What does each tarot card represent?

Answer: I have two other articles that list all the meanings for the Rider-Waite Tarot - one covers the upright meanings, while the other gives the reversals:

Question: I had a reading the other night and the reader kept shuffling the cards in her hands. When one fell out she would pick it up and lay it on the table to read. Is this normal?

Answer: Tarot readers have different ways of shuffling and laying out the cards. I wouldn't do it that way but it's best to judge by the quality of the reading, not the method used to select the cards. I do look at the card and make a mental note if one falls out accidentally... just in case it is relevant.

Question: What does it mean when you're doing a reading with playing cards and, as you pick them, one of your cards is completely turned over on the face of the card with the back facing towards you?

Answer: Nothing much. It just got turned in the shuffle. However, it's worth making a note of it and seeing if it is relevant to the question.

Question: When doing a tarot card reading, do you pick the cards for them or should you let them pick the cards out themselves?

Answer: It's your own preference. Some readers don't like other people touching their cards. When I'm reading for other people in person, I usually encourage them to cut the cards and then I deal them. It doesn't matter; it works whichever way you choose.

Question: Do I choose the cards or does the person I am reading for select them?