The Binary Dilemma

As much as we encourage them to frame their questions in a flexible manner that invites meaningful commentary from the cards rather than an open-and-shut, “yes-or-no” verdict, I would venture to say that the majority of people who request a reading from us aren’t seeking a panoramic view of their future circumstances. They want a straightforward “yes” or “no” about the likelihood of some occurrence and could not care less about all the fancy word-play. The main challenge in delivering this message is that there are 78 different “flavors” of probability, and the more flavors we bring into the recipe the more likely we are to wind up serving our sitters a mud-pie. Reducing our readings to a single card doesn’t help the situation much because we still have to attach a qualitative value to any card that comes up. If we subscribe to the theory that “there are no bad cards, only necessary ones,” it can be difficult to tamp down our urge to over-explain and embellish, which may only confuse the issue.

I’ve made a couple of efforts to simplify my approach to fielding “yes-or-no” questions, but none of them has completely satisfied my own criteria for economy and clarity, for the simple reason that the cards have too many layers of meaning to pin them down to one unconditional answer. Granted, some are easy to apply in a narrow event-oriented way (Sun means “yes,” Death means “no,” etc), but most aren’t if we’re trying to be as precise as possible because they just have too much to say. Much of this has to do with the visual complexity of the cards and our tendency to free-associate in imaginative ways from the imagery. I decided to have another go at creating a definitive single-card model.

Short of defaulting to Lenormand cards and their more explicit positive and negative properties, my first move away from the usual method of delineation was to choose a tarot deck such as the Tarot de Marseille that doesn’t lend itself to “scripted” interpretation. The next step was to strip the deck of any cards that are too emphatically verbose. That meant removing all of the trump cards, and I also dumped the court cards because they embody an amalgam of characteristics that can yield shades of gray rather than a clear black-or-white judgment; in other words, they aren’t sufficiently binary for my purpose. That leaves the 40 minor cards, Ace through Ten. I shuffle and cut the reduced deck  in my normal way and then pull one card from the pack to serve as my answer. From there, I work with number theory first, and then shade my determination with suit qualities.

My objective was to produce a single-pointed outcome from a sliding scale of possibilities. In the elemental scheme of things the Aces are clear-eyed and fresh, making them my choice for an unequivocal “yes,” while the weary Tens, being nearly depleted of the original motive force, occupy the opposite pole, a categorical “no.” (Another pertinent analogy would be that when you “ace” something you nail it perfectly.) The Fives and Sixes represent a “bridge” or tipping point between the extremes, meaning that the situation could go either way according to where they sit; Fives partake slightly more of “yes” than of “no,” and vice-versa with the Six, but I wouldn’t take either one to the bank. Similarly, depending on which end of the spectrum they favor, the transitional cards (Two through Four and Seven through Nine) represent a gamble, the advice being to hedge one’s bet in one direction or the other, with Two through Four moving between a probable “yes” and “maybe” and Seven through Nine shifting between “maybe” and a likely “no.” The answer will be more definitive the closer it comes to either end of the series.

Another factor that could be examined is the odd or even quality of the number. Odd numbers are regarded as active and even numbers as passive; the former push to achieve the equilibrium they lack and the latter strive to maintain their present state of balance. If the question is about whether things will stay the same, an even-numbered card would lean toward “yes,” while asking if they will change would elicit a “yes” from an odd-numbered card. Regarding suit influence, the positive, active suits of Wands and Swords reinforce whatever verdict the numerical value generates, while the negative, passive suits of Water and Earth erode the firmness of the judgment. In all cases, though, the nature of the number will anchor the conclusion and any other considerations will offer only minor adjustments.

Only after a bare-bones statement is obtained as above would I entertain trying to flesh out the reading with other cards, and only if the sitter desires more information. This could be done by shuffling the trump cards separately and drawing one of them to aid in explaining “why” the answer came out the way it did and how one might cope with it. Alternatively or in parallel, the court cards could be brought to bear to show whether another person will have a say in the outcome; according to their suit, Kings and Queens could be more supportive and trustworthy while Knights and Pages come across as more stimulating but less reliable. In either case, I pair the supplemental card with the “answer” card to see how cooperative they appear to be.

3 thoughts on “The Binary Dilemma

    • There is no agreed-upon tally of “yes” cards and “no” cards, since most people believe that all of the cards embody both potentials, and the context of the reading determines which one suits the occasion. But some cards are obviously interpreted in a more positive way while others are decidedly negative in their general meaning. The latter include Death, the Devil, the Tower, the Hanged Man and the Moon among the trump cards, and cards like the 3, 5, 8, 9 and 10 of Swords, the 5 and 8 of Cups and the 5 of Pentacles among the small cards. Trumps like the Sun, the Empress, the Chariot, the Wheel of Fortune, the Star and the World are predominantly positive while others like the Fool, the Hierophant, Temperance, Justice and Judgement are more neutral. I made my own cut at in a previous post:


  1. Pingback: A Best-Case/Worst-Case “Offset” Spread | Parsifal's Wheel Tarot & Astrology

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