The Gestalt Overview and the Hierarchy of Significance

A question came up recently on the r/tarot subreddit regarding the most effective way to build an overarching “big-picture” synopsis from the individual cards in a tarot spread. I prefer to think of the goal as avoiding the “Lego-block” mentality of simply stacking up keywords that often fail to jell into a convincing summary. Once confidence is gained with specific card meanings, the next step is to string them together in meaningful combinations that are complementary rather than disjointed. The path to success in this effort ideally goes beyond lining them up like “boxcars” in our train of thought. There are a couple of creative techniques for doing this in larger spreads: 1) learn how to fashion them into what I think of as “local tableaux” by melding each one with the preceding and following cards in the series, potentially producing wave-like vignettes for interpretation as the scenario unfolds; and 2) merge the nested peaks-and-valleys into a seamless narrative from beginning to end (this flawless integration is the “crown jewel” of the storyteller’s art).

As a natal astrologer before I took up tarot, I was taught how to do this with the planets, signs, houses, aspects, dignities and dispositors of a horoscope (a process known as “chart synthesis”) in ways that are perfectly transferable to a tarot reading. One involves making a high-level or “gestalt” overview of the entire spread and the other looks for areas of high-focus emphasis that will often leap out of the background when it is contemplated as a whole. Ultimately, the overall success of the reading may hinge on understanding their importance.

Every time I lay the cards, I try to remember to pause and ascend briefly to the “40,000-foot” gestalt level. From this vantage point I seek the key to the entire reading, the single card (or small group) that speaks most directly to the gist of the matter. This offers a convenient “window” on the overall tenor of the situation even though the “door” I enter by is usually the first card in the layout. In the interest of setting the stage, I will mention this in passing to my sitter and will in all likelihood refer back to it numerous times during the session as a kind of touchstone for subsequent observations. The querent may still enjoy the ride but what is really anticipated is arrival at the destination, and this sketched-in summary can provide a “postcard” preview of what it may look like.

As a follow-up to the panoramic overview, I will then look for what is known as “preponderance” (and its counterpart, “absence”); this is discernible as an abundance or shortfall of certain qualities that can shape the outlook in compelling ways. The initial focus is typically on the existence of a single dominant theme, which can be predicated on suit, number, element, rank, astrological correspondence, orientation (upright or reversed), “gaze” (looking left or right), or other shared feature. A wealth of any one factor can suggest where and how the querent will be viscerally engaged and must prepare for impact, while a lack of emphasis – taking a cue from horoscopic analysis – can mean one of two things: either the querent must actively pursue ways to “bridge the gap” of unrealized potential, or the undisclosed conditions are well-in-hand and will exhibit no further development within the circumstances. (In my own experience, the first option is the most likely one.)

The application of the these interpretive filters allows me to come up with a “hierarchy of significance” that yields an orderly flow of decreasingly-pertinent detail from the beginning of the reading to the end. Obviously this won’t prevent a totally “off-the-page” revelation from popping up during the session that may defeat the storyboard elegance of the narrative (after all, this should be a creative dialogue and not a monologue, and it may get messy), but it at least provides a coherent framework on which to organize the particulars furnished by the individual cards. One point I want to make before closing is that in the past, when I had yet to change my mind on the subject, I always treated Major Arcana cards as the highest-profile evidence of important doings in the matter. More recently I’ve found that they rarely amount to more than an archetypal or thematic backdrop against which the mundane drama of the Minor Arcana and the court cards plays out. It’s no longer the first place I look for major motivators in a reading; the theory of preponderance seems much more on-point.

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