Welcome to the Jumble*

(* With apologies to Guns N’ Roses for pinching their song title “Welcome to the Jungle”)

As I mentioned in a previous post, every spread of ten cards that uses all 78 cards in the deck as its starting point offers over 4 quintillion (in the US that’s 4 followed by 18 zeros; 4 trillion in Great Britain) unique 10-card combinations – or “permutations” – drawn from the total population. The consequence is that every large spread is a pastiche of potentially mismatched meanings (for that matter, so is every small spread, but that’s another essay), a dense tangle of often conflicting testimony. Anyone who has worked with the artistic technique of photo-collage has an inkling of what I’m talking about. Throw in the intricacies introduced by the three layers of the tarot hierarchy (trumps, courts and minors), with its 22 archetypal images, four ranks of court cards (Kings, Queens, Knights and Pages) and four suits with ten minor cards each (Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles), and the result poses a monumental deciphering challenge for the reader. The currents and cross-currents of possible interpretation are nearly innumerable, and the fact that every card has more than one meaning complicates the picture even further. Nobody in their right mind would ever attempt to memorize every single nuance of such a sprawling symbolic system.

Intuitive readers back away from trying to precisely blend the “hard-coded” meanings of the cards into a coherent narrative, instead taking a soft-focus approach that invites inspiration, imagination and ingenuity to sort out the gold from the dross. Like Irving Stone’s characterization of Michelangelo’s marble-carving technique in The Agony and the Ecstasy, they discard everything that doesn’t contribute to the emerging form of the “word-sculpture,” and what is left becomes the reading. The analytical reader, on the other hand, treats each card as a link in a chain leading from the beginning of the story to the end; some links are more robust than others, but all play a part in delivering the message. One is deductive, inferring particulars from salient “big-picture” landmarks, and the other is inductive, fashioning the whole from the sum of its parts.

As an analytical observer with a storyteller’s flair for invention, I straddle the line between literal and visionary exploration of the potential in a series of cards. I’m constantly looking for ways to impose rational order on what can be an unwieldy aggregation of impressions. The most obvious way is through spread construction. For example, the Celtic Cross spread devolves easily into two main sections: the “cross” formed by the first six cards (although I see it as more of a “wheel”) and the vertical “staff” involving the last four cards. One of my favorite old-time conventions is to treat the “cross” as describing the circumstances of the matter itself, including a timeline for its development, and the “staff” as being about the querent’s reactions to those developments that lead to and condition the outcome. When I create spreads, I try to impose a logical organization on the flow of the interpretation so there is a clear beginning, middle and end to the narrative; I’m not really interested in treating any single position outside of the closing statement (aka “outcome”) as the linchpin to the whole compilation.

Another method involves what is termed “dignity,” specifically an abundance or absence – by suit/element, rank or number – of any particular emphasis in a reading: all Wands or no Wands; all court cards or no court card; a decisive majority of trump cards or few trumps; all four suit cards of the same rank or number, or conversely, none. This imparts a sense of intelligent structure to the random miscellany of cards that often turns up in the draw. In practice, any convenient technique that  provides traction in moving the reading forward in a reasonable manner toward a sensible conclusion should be considered fair game.

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