A guide on how to read the Celtic Cross spread in tarot.
It’s one of the most famous tarot spreads, but for many, the Celtic Cross is the most difficult to grasp. With ten cards, and a layout comprising of two sections, mastering the Celtic Cross can take time, but once you’ve got to grips with it, it’s a spread which will take your readings to the next level.
A Smidgen of Celtic Cross History
With tarot lore and teaching originally spread by oral means, it’s tricky to pinpoint the origins of the Celtic Cross. The first published reference to the spread appears in the 1910 ‘A Pictorial Guide to the Tarot’ by A.E. Waite. The co-creator of the Rider Smith Waite tarot stated; “I offer in the first place a short process which has been used privately for many years past in England, Scotland and Ireland. I do not think that it has been published — certainly not in connexion with Tarot cards; I believe that it will serve all purposes.”
General consensus agrees the Celtic Cross had been in use for some time by then, and as its title suggests, the spread originated in the British Isles. Waite’s comment ‘not in connexsion with Tarot cards’ also suggests the spread may have been used outside of tarot, so possibly with conventional playing cards or perhaps even Lenormand. With this in mind, it’s fair to say the Celtic Cross originated sometime during the 19th Century, but it could date back farther.
Adding to the mystery surrounding this spread is the theory it was first created by Florence Farr, a feminist and occultist. There’s no written proof of her authoring the spread, but as Farr was a member of Waite’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and was known for practising a ‘cross shaped’ tarot reading, it’s not unreasonable to connect her with its inception. The scant records that do exist indicate she used a slightly different layout than the Celtic Cross we know today, but it’s likely her version formed the basis of the modern Celtic Cross.
With that little bit of history delivered, we can now move on to the spread itself.
One important fact about the Celtic Cross, is that it’s not a spread that lends itself to a specific question, so coming at it with a narrow query isn’t best practice. Instead, it’s a spread which provides a broader perspective on the situation, and typically expands the clients’ awareness beyond their expectation.
For example, a narrow query which frames the answer with a yes or no would restrict the querent; Will I get the promotion I’ve been working towards? Will I meet a romantic partner soon?
In contrast, a query such as; ‘What do I need to know about my career/job? Or, ‘How can I best work towards finding a loving relationship?’ gives the ten cards within the spread the opportunity to tell their story at a much deeper level. When clients come to me asking for a general reading, stating they would just like to see ‘what’s in the cards’, I always opt for the Celtic Cross. Within moments of the first few cards being laid out, the real heart of the matter is always exposed, and the general reading suddenly shifts to a deeper exploration.
Before I move ahead, I want to point out that the Celtic Cross used in this article of one of a few variations. The spreads vary between the order the cards are placed, and the definitions of the positions. For example, the Above and Below cards can be laid out both before or after the Past and Near Future cards. In some other versions, there are definitions including ‘key concerns’ and ‘factors influencing the situation’. If you’re unsure of which version to use, experiment! The Celtic Cross discussed here is the one I use, but you might like to give all the variations a go, and see what intuitively resonates with you the most.
The Structure of the Celtic Cross
There are two main parts; cards 1 to 6 on the left which form the Cross (or Circle), and then the Staff section on the right which holds cards 7 to 10.
The Cross indicates what’s happening in the querent’s life at the present time.
It’s comprised of two crosses; the first being the small cross with cards 1 and 2, and around it, a larger cross with cards 3 to 6. The smaller cross is a reflection of the heart of the matter; what concerns the querent most.
The larger cross (which consists of two lines overlaying the smaller cross) forms a horizontal line holding cards 1, 3 and 4. This is a representation of time moving from the past (on the left) into the future (on the right.)
The vertical portion of the cross; cards 1, 5 and 6, reflects the querent’s consciousness shifting from unconscious (Below) to conscious (Above). This group of six cards indicate the querent’s inner and outer world at the time of the reading.
Next, we have the Staff section composed of cards 7 to 10. This represents how the querent reacts with the environment in which they operate. The information here delivers a more expansive view of what’s taking place.
Card 1: The present
What is happening to the querent at the present time. It also reflects their state of mind and how they perceive the situation.
Card 2: The challenge
This card indicates the most pressing challenge or problem facing the querent. This card represents an issue that, once resolved, can bring ease to the querent’s life. Regardless of whether the card here is upright or reversed, it will still reflect a challenge so consider it with care.
Card 3: The past
The events that have lead up to the present situation. This card sometimes indicates the person/event that instigated the Challenge.
Card 4: The future
What is likely to happen within the next few weeks or perhaps months. As the ‘next step’ on the querent’s journey, I call this the ‘bridge’ card, advising the client that once they’ve worked with or moved through the energy, they’ll progress towards the Staff.
Card 5: Above
This card reflects the querent’s aspirations. This is what they’re consciously striving for as they attempt to resolve the issue of the Challenge. Above can also reflect the most positive outcome of the situation.
Card 6: Below
Now we’re in the subconscious realm of the querent. This is where information gets a lot deeper as we examine the fundamental issue of the situation. It indicates the querent’s underlying feelings—even if they’re not aware—and can reflect what’s truly driving the querent at that time. Sometimes, the message of this card can come as a surprise to the querent, suggesting they’re not attuned to their inner self. Reversed cards in this position can indicate the querent is genuinely unaware of the situation or influence.
Card 7: Advice
The advice card offers a recommendation of what action the querent can take to address their challenges.
Card 8: External influences
What happens here is out of the querent’s control. This card represents the energies, people, or even events that will have an impact on the challenge. The querent is called to surf with these energies, as opposed to confronting them.
Card 9: Hopes and/or Fears
A fine line trails between our hopes and fears, as what we hope for can often be what we fear, so may therefore fail to happen. This can be one of the trickiest positions within the spread, so it may assist to pull a second card for further clarity. (But only once the entire spread has been laid.)
Card 10: Potential Outcome
Where the current situation is headed and if or how the issue will be resolved. The ‘outcome’ here is based on the querent continuing along their current path. So, if the querent makes abrupt changes, the outcome too, shall change. Remember, the cards are not in control. What they say isn’t set in stone. We are the captains of our own ships, so if the outcome card isn’t a desirable one, the querent has the power to of free will to make the necessary course adjustments.
Comparing the Cards
Now that we have the ten card definitions, it’s time to get to the juicy part, and for me, this is where the reading really takes off. To dive even deeper, the next step is to compare cards in select positions to see how they interact with each.
Begin with the cards in the Above (5) and Below (6) positions. Is there a flow between the conscious and subconscious? Does the goal the querent aspires to align with what’s driving them? If the answer is yes, it’s a positive sign indicating the querent is aligned with their conscious and subconscious. If they don’t align, guide the querent into a conversation about what’s happening at their Below level, and how it may be affecting their reaction to the Challenge.
Next, compare the Above (5) and Outcome (10) cards. Again, look for alignment. Does what the querent wants match with what will happen? How might the querent be working with or against themselves? If the Outcome is at odds with the Above, the querent will need to reframe how they want to proceed in order to gain their desired outcome. Use the Advice (7) card for further guidance.
Compare the Future (4) and Outcome (10) cards. How might the Future message impact or influence the Outcome? What action might the querent need to take to create the outcome they want? How might following the Advice (7) card influence the situation?
Compare the Below (6) and Hopes/Fears (9) cards. Do they share similar themes? Is the querent’s subconscious nurturing fear or hope? Remember, reversed cards here suggest the querent may not be aware of what’s driving their subconscious. Consider also what effects subconscious beliefs or fears may have on the querent’s conscious world and how they navigate it.
Compare the Advice (7) and Outcome (10) cards. What must the querent do to reach their desired outcome? If the Outcome (10) card isn’t favourable, remind the querent they are in control, so they hold the key to creating a more positive outcome. Check in on the Future (4) card here, too, as this energy is something the querent may need to tackle before they can reach their goal.
(This may all seem highly complicated, especially if you're reading it without a spread of cards before you, but I promise, if you lay out your cards and take your time studying the comparisons, it'll quickly make sense.)
Give yourself and the querent time to reflect on how the cards align and interact with each other. Look for other alignments; repeated colours, symbols, poses, numbers, suits, etc. You may even chose to step away from traditional card meanings and read the spread as a story.
Another useful practice is for the querent themselves to describe what they see. Perhaps a particular card, figure, or action stands out to them. Do any of the cards remind them of an individual they know, or reflect a situation in their life? It can also be helpful to ask the querent to describe aloud what they see happening in a card. This often opens conversation about something they may be unconsciously avoiding.
While it can first appear as a daunting spread, once you get to grips with the Celtic Cross, it truly is one of the most insightful ways to read tarot. Practice with yourself (pretending you have a querent sitting opposite you) or ask willing friends/family members to take part. Try out the other versions, too. You never know what inspiration awaits. And as always, lean into your intuition! Work with what feels good.
What’s your take on the Celtic Cross? Do you embrace or avoid it? I love chatting about tarot, so drop me a mail! You can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Would you like to feature as a guest on the blog? Perhaps you have a topic you’d like to see featured? If so, reach out to me at email@example.com Whether it’s a question, an idea, or a wish to share your creative path, let me know! I love to hear from creatives and am always open to sharing within our amazing community!